Let’s Have an Uneasy Conversation About Immigration

I must confess that I am uneasy. I am uneasy about the stories of immigration in the news lately. I am uneasy with progressive responses to those situations. I am uneasy with Christian responses to those stories. I am uneasy about the trustworthiness of news sources, the spin of commentators, and the histrionics of disputants. But beneath and throughout all of this uneasiness, I’ve felt especially uncomfortable with how Scripture is used when it comes to questions of the “immigrant,” the “stranger,” and the “refugee.” Some serious thinking was required, and the result is something of an uneasy conversation.


This uneasy conversation is rooted in the fact that immigration (both legal and illegal), refugees, and Christian responsibility come together in an awkward discourse, one that stretches the boundaries of any simplistic ethics. At the heart of the conflict are two, oil-and-water realities—the life of the Kingdom of God, and the existence of nation-states. Unclear thinking in both areas, to my mind, has created a great deal of misinformation and confusion. Perhaps one way to summarize the diverse dialogues and talking points is to pose a simple question: what is the Christian responsibility towards the immigrant/refugee?

The most common answers I encounter come from certain interpretations of Scripture. Consider two such interpretations now. In this first image Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are likened to refugees, fleeing Herod to Egypt. The message, implicit, is that the state of the refugee is crucially linked to the story of Christianity itself.

Immigration_Holy Family as Refugees_Kelly Latimore

An Icon of the Holy Family, by Kelly Latimore.

Another image lists a series of scripture texts, but pointedly translates the word “stranger” as “immigrant.”

Immigrant Scriptures_

I won’t take the time to analyze these images in depth, but where I want to focus is on their use of Scripture. Specifically, in both cases Christian Scripture (or an event) is used pointedly to address the current immigration/refugee issue in the US. Each is, in fact, a form of proof texting—here is a situation, here is a Scripture to address said situation, case closed.

Allow me to register a few concerns. First, modern labels such as “immigrant” and “refugee” are heavily freighted with meaning. While the Bible does indeed have things to say about the stranger in the land, they may not be the same kinds of things that modern commentators are making it say. Is the modern refugee really the same as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt? Can these texts really be applied to our modern situation without interpretation or context? For instance, in order to claim that Israel’s stranger laws should directly inform America’s immigration policy we would need to establish that the nation-state of Israel is sufficiently similar to the nation-state of America. This is a deeply tenuous connection, and one that many commentators would not be so happy to make.

In light of this, a second concern. In addition to the quoted stranger laws, the Bible has lots of other things to say about how we treat one another, specifically from the same passages of text! For example, instructions in Leviticus 18, 19, and 20 shift almost breathlessly from laws about clothing of two fabrics, to rules about sex with slave girls, to the breeding of cattle, to forbidding homosexual relations, and to honouring one’s parents. Many of the same people who reject the Bible’s teachings on some of these issues (e.g., homosexuality), are presenting contextually linked scriptures as proof-texts for immigration reform. Furthermore, when they give reasons for why they are not bound by a scripture like Leviticus 18:22, they cite the fact that we do not observing other, contextually linked passages, such as the garment laws. The law of the stranger, then, is binding, but none of the others. I find this, at best, disingenuous.

Levicitus Clobber Text

While these flaws make me uneasy, they are not themselves an argument. They are bad rhetoric, and possibly poor interpretations of Scripture, but we still must examine the Scriptural claims about what, if any, is the proper Christian response to the immigrant/refugee. We’ll need to think about this from two angles—the nation-state, and the immigrant.

The Bible and the State
First, does the Bible speak to the circumstances of the modern nation-state? In a word, not really. The Old Testament offers instruction on the management of theocratic, then monarchic Israel. Many Christians believe that these instructions ought to shape the governance of their nations, but this is by no means a simple open-and-shut Scriptural case. For example, the text points to the role of boundary stones (Proverbs 22:28), of property management (Leviticus 25), of ethnic purity (Deuteronomy 7:3), and of economics (Leviticus 25, 23:22, Deut. 23). These are instructions for Israel specifically. It is worth noting, however, that when other nations stand in violation of certain aspects of God’s law they are judged, and even destroyed, based on those violations (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:9).

And yet, apart from these passages of judgment (for moral reasons) we get no instruction on secular civil governance in the Bible. Paul tells us in Romans 13 to “obey the civil authorities” (and he says this about Nero, mind you). John in Luke 3 tells the tax collector to collect just the right amount, and the soldiers to avoid harassing people and be content with their wages. If we wish to look to the Scriptures for advice on how to govern, manage, and maintain national borders, we are going to get precious little help. Furthermore, the concept of the modern nation-state—as a non-religious, non-ethnic social aggregate of disparate persons—is unheard of in ancient Israel, and certainly insufficiently like the Roman state for easy comparison with America, if only because no ancient person had a vote like modern persons do.


Emperor Maximiam offering incense to Jupiter.

In view of Romans 13, however, it is worth remembering that Christian obedience to the state clearly had limits. When the New Testament was written, the early Church had an uneasy but largely unchallenged relationship to the Roman government. But in the years following the writing of Paul’s letters this situation changed—the question of obeying Caesar or Christ became pointed, and the resounding witness of the early Church was to honour Christ, even if it meant death. Thus, when a given Christian stood before the altar to Caesar and was pressed to offer incense to him as a deity, that Christian refused to obey the civil authority. Death, by the very sword entrusted to those who govern, was often the consequence.

It follows, then, that because there are no Christian states, properly speaking, but only states with proportions of Christians serving inside them, no civil ethic ever aligns perfectly with a Scriptural model, whether Old or New Testament. The default ethic would appear to be some form of Romans 13:1-7 (to honor civil authorities), combined with some form of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (to lead a quiet life). However, in those situations where the state stands opposed to Christian teaching, then we side with Christ, even if it means our imprisonment or death.

The Bible and the Stranger
Second, does the Bible speak to the situation of the stranger, the immigrant, or the refugee? In a word, yes—quite a lot, actually. While the image macro of Scripture texts above bent matters a little for its own benefit, each of the texts do speak about treatment of the stranger in the land. Exodus 22:21-24 is one of the clearest and most poignant:

21You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

Slaves in Egypt

Israel, as a people who were formerly strangers—immigrants, if you will—in Egypt, are called to remember at all times their former status and to treat others accordingly. Note: the text makes no provision for the ethnic heritage of the stranger, nor for his or her religious background, nor for his or her quality of life, language ability, or socioeconomic status. It does not matter if the stranger is a qualified worker or a slave, he or she is to be treated justly. Leviticus 24:17-22 makes this explicit:

17 ‘If a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death. 18 The one who takes the life of an animal shall make it good, life for life. 19 If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him. 21 Thus the one who kills an animal shall make it good, but the one who kills a man shall be put to death. 22 There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God.’

(Note: similar passages can be found at Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, Deuteronomy 27:19, and Jeremiah 22:3-5.)

In light of these passages, does the situation of the modern immigrant and refugee correlate to the biblical picture? It certainly seems so. Central to the story of the Bible, Jacob and his sons flee economic hardship in order to reside in Egypt, where they are immigrants. In the book of Ruth an Israelite woman (Naomi), on account of famine (a natural disaster) emigrates to Moab. After her sons die, she returns with Ruth (now an immigrant) to Israel, where they live, essentially, as economic refugees. Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus do indeed flee a situation of political hostility (the government, Herod, wants to kill them) and reside as political refugees in Egypt. Central to the story of Christianity is that of displaced people seeking safety and hope in foreign lands, and crucial in God’s ethics towards displaced persons is our responsibility to be hospitable to the stranger in our land.


Van Gogh’s Good Samaritan

At this point someone might object that for those stories, their movements were ordained by God as part of His story and plan. That is true enough, but it was on account of those stories—and especially the original story of Israel in Egypt—that we receive the clear commandments from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to care for the stranger in our land, irrespective of that stranger’s ethico-religious identity. Whatever the origin of the story, now we have inherited an ethic which governs our treatment of the displaced.

An Uneasy Ethical Balance
This, then, is the heart of our uneasy conversation about Christianity and immigration: on the one hand, we have a clear, Scriptural ethic to care for the stranger, and on the other hand, we have no clear Scriptural ethic about how to be a Christian in a secular nation-state. In light of this, I think the following, provisional conclusions are in order:

1) A Christian perspective does indeed carry ethical obligations toward the immigrant/refugee. If we take the Bible seriously, we must care for the stranger and seek justice for him or her.

2) To the degree that America is, in fact, a Christian nation, then it bears a Christian responsibility toward immigrants/refugees. By implication, Christians should be as pro-immigrant as they are pro-life.

3) To the degree that America is a Christian nation, to that same degree it bears economic, religious, and moral responsibilities as well. This will cover homosexuality and poverty, land reform and honouring the Sabbath.

As I close, let’s acknowledge two crucial factors. First, while conclusion #1 is unambiguous, neither #2 or #3 is in any sense ethically simple. Neither of the premises for #2 or #3 are clear (that America is a Christian nation), therefore the implications are necessarily murky.

But second, I’ve left aside one, looming question: what about illegal immigration? To answer that question, we will have to further consider the role of boundaries and self-identity in secular nation-states. For that discussion, we will need to return next week.

Orientalism—A Fourth Set of Thoughts (Othering and Bulverism)

Orientalism_Cover 4I’ve benefited immensely from my read of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism, and lately I’ve been blogging through a few reflections on the implications and impact of that work. Today I want to think about Othering, Bulverism, and the danger of labelling.

‘Othering’ is a formal concept where I employ an identifying metric in my encounters with an ‘other’ in such a way that I both highlight the differences and reinforce my sense of self. In the encounter between my self and an other, the other is used as a foil for my own identity, and in the process I often fail to see him or her as a real person, with real narrative, and with real information to bring to a relational engagement. Today I want to reflect on how defining a process such as ‘othering’ is both helpful and unhelpful at the same time.

First, it is helpful because it does indeed describe many of the historic, and ongoing, interactions between the West and other cultures. One doesn’t have to search far to find evidence of Western reductionism, selfishness, and fetishization of non-Western ‘others.’ Orientalism has allowed the West to compartmentalize, and then no longer see, a group—by rendering them invisible, they can be ignored, reduced in narrative, and made simple. In short, Orientalism has been a disposition that makes discrimination possible. In this, as a label it is helpful as a diagnostic tool to mark, identify, and seek to redress these abuses.

At the same time, I think it can also be unhelpful. One of the hallmarks of modern discourse is labelling—if I can effectively and evocatively label a situation, or a wrong, then I can summarily defeat it. Think of the power of big labels such as “racism,” “abuse,” and “intolerance.” Think also of the power of lesser labels, such as “Becky,” “Wypipo,” “millennial,” or “snowflake.” If I can successfully label you, then I can summarily dismiss you. Partly, this appears to be nothing more than a turning of the tables—where once, the West in power labelled and dismissed non-Western others, now non-Western others are able to label and dismiss the West.

specialsnowflake meme

I was reminded, here, of something C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock (also published as Undeceptions), specifically about just and unjust arguments. His description is worth quoting in full:

Lewis_UndeceptionsIn the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it ‘Bulverism.’ Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In other words, the application of a preconditioned label—racist, liberal, Trump-supporter, snowflake, millennial, Baby Boomer, etc.—is sufficient argument enough. No more needs to be said, and no listening needs to happen. The argument, by virtue of the label, is rendered complete.

Crucial in Said’s account of Orientalism is his appeal to a kind of listening as a tonic for the abuses of the past—toward this goal, he utilizes the label of ‘othering’ as a diagnostic tool, but he does this in order to make an appeal for better communication and understanding between the East and West. In his own words, he argues that “there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge—if that is what it is—that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency and outright war.” (Orientalism, xiv, emphasis added) When labels are simply a power-play, then they can no longer facilitate this process.

In view of this, I am reminded of Jesus’s words from Matthew 5:22,

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell

Note that in this passage Jesus is giving instructions for how we are to behave when our brother has something against us (he says this explicitly in verse 23). We, in other words, are the offender in this passage. But our response is illuminating—first, we become angry with our brother for bringing a charge against us, then we call him a name (“good-for-nothing”), and finally we ascribe to him a label, “fool.” Labelling, in this passage, is the process of hardening our hearts to the claim of our brothers or sisters. It diminishes and reduces the complexity of the person. It is the antithesis of listening, and in Jesus’ instruction it is equated, in the end, to murder.

Sermon on the Mount_

It probably didn’t look like this.

Does that mean that no one is ever a fool? Of course not. There are scads of them. Just as there are scads of genuine snowflakes and racists in the world. But when we misuse those labels in petty power plays and in a context devoid of genuine listening, we put ourselves on what, according to Jesus, is a highly dangerous trajectory.

Don’t Preach Like Andy Stanley

Atlanta preacher Andy Stanley has crossed my news feed several times of late. Most recently, he was publicly criticized for a sermon where he troublingly interpreted Acts 15 by saying that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. Numerous articles emerged (one of the best in First Things) to discuss Andy’s dangerous theological direction.

And yet, not long ago ,Andy was also in the Christian news circuit, listed among a set of the most influential Evangelical preachers. Stanley, the son of megachurch and radio preacher Charles Stanley, has piloted NorthPoint Community Church for years, an Atlanta megachurch with some 39,000 people in attendance weekly at its six campuses. He is an author, a traveling public speaker, and used to publish podcasts on leadership to which I would listen, in another life.


In response to the recent furore over Andy’s April 29th comments about the Old Testament, I watched the YouTube video of the sermon. While indeed it was the case that I found the content of his sermon troubling, even more than that I found the sermon itself—his delivery, style, and manner, to be alarming. Since Stanley is so highly regarded as a preacher, and since I spend a lot of time thinking about preaching, I thought I’d suggest some reasons why we ought not to preach like Andy Stanley. I’ve got three such suggestions today.

#1) Are you Controlling?
Throughout his sermon Stanley repeated two phrases so many times that I lost count. He would assert “Now this is important,” and he would command the audience to “Look up here.” Now, if Stanley had digressed from his main point, and then used phrases like these to gather the congregation back to the main point again, I can see why they might be useful. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, these were deployed in what I can only guess was an attempt to try to keep the congregation’s focus razor sharp on what Stanley was doing at a given moment. They exhibited, to me, what appeared to be a desire for control over the congregation—control over their attention, their minds, their focus for the duration of the service. I think this kind of (attempted) control is really dangerous for preachers.

It is dangerous, among other things, because it creates a climate of distrust and of performance. When a preacher continuously labours to keep your attention, it is because, at heart, he doesn’t believe you’re really listening, because he doesn’t trust you. This opens the door for phrases like Stanley’s, for gimmicks, and for any number of “creative” means for keeping congregations interested (movie clips, song lyrics, images, etc.). It also creates a culture of performance—after all, the really faithful Christians are the ones who hang on every word, who take extensive notes, and who can repeat the points of the sermon easily at lunch after the service. Those who can’t are, by implication, lesser Christians.

I was once at a Youth event with a guest preacher who was a short, muscular, African-American man. As is often the case at weekend Youth events, the youths stay up late fellowshipping, playing, and eating cup noodles (you can pick your own snack, but I was with Asians and cup noodles after midnight are a must-have). After one (or maybe two) such nights, one of my members fell asleep in the back row of the hall where we were meeting. This was unsurprising—not only had he been up late, but he was a generally tired guy. Well, the speaker noted this from the front, and then suddenly left the front, marched to the back, and sat on my member’s lap! He then whispered in his ear (I found this out later), “Do you think you can stay awake now?” From that point on, everybody stayed awake, but when I asked them about it later they told me it was because they were terrified that the muscular speaker might do something to them! He had won his point, but lost his audience in the process.

Cup Noodles_Kimchi

When I was a beginning preacher I had an idea of the perfect sermon that looked a lot like what I think is going on in Stanley’s sermon. I thought that the ideal message would keep a congregation spellbound for the duration of the sermon—locked in attention, immobile, perfectly hanging on every word. Toward that end, I used to refuse to give out notes for sermons because I felt that if I were doing my job properly, they wouldn’t need any notes. Then, one Sunday morning, a young woman came up to me after the service and told me that she was seeking God, and enjoyed coming to church, but that sometimes she just couldn’t follow along with the sermons. In that moment I heard God speak to me with impressive clarity. He said, “Jeremy, will you keep this young woman from learning about Me because you have some stupid idea of what a sermon should be like?” I was immediately chastised, and from that time on I always printed and handed out notes for sermons. I also changed my philosophy of preaching. Instead of aiming for the pied-piper spellbound model of sermon, I realized that the very best sermons are when people stop listening to you completely because God is doing something in them. You’ve said something, and they begin to think about their lives, about what it means, about how the Word impacts them. I realized that losing people in this way was way more important than keeping them focused on me. And that meant, last of all, that the best sermons are the ones that provide easy ways for people to get back on board. “On ramps,” we used to call them in Seminary—phrases like, “Back to John 14,” or “Returning to our main point, that Jesus heals today…”—these phrases bring a congregation back to the text, and show how a preacher can guide without being controlling.

#2) Are you Angry?
Another thing stood out to me prominently during the 40-odd minutes of Stanley’s sermon—there wasn’t a lot of joy. There was intensity, focus, and drive—there were moments of elevated energy and a few jokes, but on the whole there was something monochromatic. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the emotion which dominated Stanley’s sermon was actually anger. Now, anger is a perfectly suitable emotion for a sermon when it is directed at a just cause, or framed by a situation that calls for anger, but throughout this sermon it felt more like anger was the passive, baseline emotion which drove everything along. Not only did I find this really interesting, I realized that it might explain a common preaching phenomenon.


Are you able to discern the actual line between intensity and anger?

I found this interesting for a number of reasons, not least of them because I’ve been someone who has had to discern and diagnose my own anger, which had become the passive emotional baseline in my own life. When my own anger was undiagnosed, it leaked out through my energy, my creativity, and my relationships. Anger that is unprocessed doesn’t go away—it stays and festers, shaping, distorting, and limiting all other emotions. It took time for me to recognize this pattern and begin to reframe it accordingly.

As I thought about this angry sermon, I had a sudden realization. Preachers often talk about “really feeling it,” or “really preaching.” They may use other words, but it describes the emotional state of being totally engaged in the sermon, of really feeling like you are preaching. Often, preachers will diagnose this experience as a work of the Spirit, moving the preacher to this excited emotional level—furthermore, they often take it as a sign of God’s favour with what they are preaching. But what, I wondered, if many preachers have simply misdiagnosed their anger? What if this heightened emotional state isn’t the rush God’s Spirit, but rather the rush of my own anger? The symptoms would be the same—a sense of energy, of elevation, potentially an adrenaline rush, followed by a subsequent emotional crash. Side effects would be frustration at distractions—a baby crying, a person getting up to use the restroom, or mishaps with sound equipment. Preachers who feel they are “really preaching” are often, to my knowledge, also really keyed up.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think it is true. I’ve listened to some of my friends preach, and their sense of ‘feeling it’ is outwardly indistinguishable from anger. Not long ago I listened to Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture (for First Things). In it he was affable, brilliant, and prophetic. I decided then to listen to his MLK50 sermon, in which he was, well, angry. If the difference between the first talk and the second was that the second was a sermon, then this seems to confirm my thesis even further.

Russell Moore

There are lots of reasons for pastors to feel angry—their own personal pain, undiagnosed wounds, a sense of the burden of ministry, frustration at members, and so forth. And the truth of the matter is not that pastors ought never to feel angry, but that we’ve got to examine, diagnose, and process it so that it doesn’t leak out into our ministries. Unless anger is specifically called for, I would suggest that the dominant baseline emotions for a preacher ought to be either peace, joy, or a combination of the two.

#3) Are you Preaching Bad Theology?
I think this final question requires the least amount of reflection. As I said earlier, I’ve listened to Stanley’s sermon in full, and I feel that it is deeply theologically troubling. Even a charitable read, which focuses on Stanley’s intentions, leaves much to be desired with regard to Acts 15, the Gentile inclusion in the Church, and the (ongoing!) role of the Old Testament in the moral lives of God’s Church.

The thing is, good theology isn’t Stanley’s primary goal. His primary goal—which he has executed with great effectiveness—is to build a church “where unchurched people love to attend.” As far as it goes, this is a solid goal, and it’s clear that Stanley has succeeded enormously. It is also clear from the content of his sermon that this goal is operating in the background of his theology—his desire to “unhitch” the Old Testament is rooted in the perception that the Old Testament might keep people from coming to faith. In this, he sees the story of Acts 15 and the Gentile inclusion as a kind of snapshot of his own ministry (where the Jerusalem council is also creating a church where un-churched people will love to attend).

Andy Stanley_Old Testament

A screenshot from the April 29 Sermon.

But note—this seems to suggest that Stanley’s theology is being shaped by his vision, rather than his vision being shaped by theology. And this means we’ve got to have some discernment of values. We’ve got to be careful that our local vision for the church doesn’t war against a) the scriptures, b) the creeds, c) the church global. Theology is that funny chimera born within the midst of those three features, and while it is by no means monolithic, it does have a discernible centre. If my desire to create a church were unchurched people love to attend begins to cause me to edit and reshape some of that theological centre, then I’m stepping into enormously dangerous territory. That’s why there is a discernment of values. The Church is allowed enormous, almost astonishing, freedom of local expression, and yet she must maintain her ties to those centres of focus. When “local expressions” begin to trump the orthodox middle, it is then that we’ve got serious problems.

Andy Stanley has a powerful ministry with enormous impact. But don’t be like him. Be like you, and serve where God has planted you, and try to do it without controlling, without a spirit of anger, and in solid theological company.

Orientalism—A Third Set of Thoughts (Fetishization)

orientalism_cover3I’ve finished reading Said’s Orientalism now, but I’ve still got a small backlog of thoughts to process from the book. Today I’d like to give some attention to the process of fetishization.

Briefly to review, Said’s argument opens with a description of othering, which in Orientalism is a term used to describe the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. When I ‘other’ someone it means that I am perceiving them as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us.’

In the history of Orientalism (as a discipline and mindset) this othering process has resulted in a flattening of “Oriental” culture (a very diverse and large set of data is made to fit within artificial and procrustean structures—I wrote about this last time), and also in a fetishization. Now, there is an obvious sexual component to this term that will factor in shortly, but beneath and behind that I want to highlight something more nuanced. By fetishization, I want to suggest a form of love for the other that is fundamentally self-referential. Fetishized love is a love which is based on what the other is perceived to be able to do for me. With this in mind, it is not hard to see how the Orient has been loved by the West in a way that is self-referential to the West. The Orient is loved on the basis of the West’s idea of the Orient (whether or not the Orient matches that idea), and the Orient is loved for the way that the West’s perception of its differences reinforces Western senses of self, and the Orient is loved because in its plasticity the West can project its desires upon it. Each of these is a fetishizing love. Each of these warps the Orient to Western tastes and perceptions.

Much of this, on the Western side of the scale, can be arguably laid at the feet of what Charles Taylor labelled as the West’s identity crisis. In Sources of the Self he explicitly claims that the West has lost its moorings—a new sense of autonomous self-governed authority dominates the western self and leaves it with few external reference points. Consequently, it is only natural that the West would look outside of itself in the hope of finding out who it really is. One of the richest mines for this outside look has been the Orient, and this connects directly to our fascination with so-called eastern mysticism. Not long ago I re-watched the 1984 film The Karate Kid, and couldn’t help but think about this process. A young, fatherless, displaced boy, finds himself bullied at school (he is a prototype for Taylor’s disorientated Western self). He is taken under wing by an older, Japanese man who coaches him through his bullying problem by providing him with a sense of deeper identity through Karate, bonsai trees, and Japanese culture. And while I loved (and still love!) the movie, I can’t help but reflect on the caricature of the East that it portrays (however lovingly). The east, I am tacitly told, is a place to be consumed, to be borrowed from, to be utilized for my own personal needs. It is a place (extending from this) from which I can collect souvenirs and artefacts, the foreign writing of which I can paint on my body, whose women will provide satisfaction for my carnal desires, and which will ultimately provide me with my much longed-for meaning in life. It is a place I can love selfishly.

Karate Kid_1984_Miyagi and Daniel

Within this dynamic, fetishizing love depends upon a perceived plasticity in the object of love. In other words, it is a suitable object for love precisely because upon it I can project my own desires. It is here that I think the sexualization of Asian women finds its roots. Said, writing about the history of Western pilgrimages to the east, records the following about Flaubert’s experiences with an “Oriental” woman: “…he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (Orientalism, 187, emphasis added). Because she is different, and exotic, and not like Western women, and because she doesn’t speak English, she becomes a vaguely feminine vessel for Flaubert’s sexual desire. That sexual desire, in turn, and under the influence of fetishizing love, can manifest itself imaginatively. The Oriental woman, under the same flattening process of othering, is thus stripped of her individuality, personality, narrative, and will, and serves as an ideal vessel for Western sexual desire. Said writes elsewhere that “women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (207) In this, she has been fetishized. (It is worth considering—does this process of female fetishization partly explain the emasculated characterization of Asian males? Are they diminished because they stand in the way of a Western sexualized power fantasy?)

Asian Eyes_Vanity_Makeup

It is difficult here to separate the immense danger of fetishizing love from the genuine allure of love for the other. There is, of course, a natural fascination with things that are different, the refreshing appeal of a system and world in which a different set of rules operate, the genuine pleasure of standing ‘outside’ one’s own culture and seeing the world in a fresh way. But this is a natural love that must be carefully cultivated and pruned. Love, to be love, must possess a disinterested quality, and however much I may love the other, no other (whether culture or person!) ever exists purely for the sake of my needs and desires.

The dangers of fetishizing love seem strikingly present when we think of the missionary efforts of the church. When a missionary approaches a non-western culture, does he or she love the people as they are, or are they loved for what they might become? Am I loving my Western idea of the foreign convert, or am I loving the foreign other in all his strange, foreign otherness, so that Christ might be formed in him or her? All too often, is it not the case that short-term missions trips are crafted more for the benefit of the sending nationals than for the people whom they are supposed to benefit? Are we there to save the others, or to make ourselves feel better? It’s a challenging prospect, and discerning between a love that is selfish and one that is godly will require careful and constant diagnoses of our loves.

“Super Why” is an Abomination that Causes Desolation

Ask any parent, and he or she will tell you that Children’s television falls into roughly three kinds of categories. In the largest, there is a wide swath of mediocre shows, with flashing lights and simple stories, which capture the attention of your children and allow you to clean your kitchen or take a nap. You don’t love letting your kids watch them, but you estimate the value of living in a clean house to exceed the relative inanity of the show.


No comment.

Then, there is a group of shows which are actually really good television. They tell good stories, or have fun concepts, and they’re so good you find yourself watching those shows with your kids and enjoying them. These are shows (at the moment) like Odd Squad, and Peg+Cat. These shows make you feel better about being a lazy slob and letting your kids rot their brains watching the telly. If you didn’t have anything to do, you’d probably rot your brain alongside them.

Then there’s a set of shows which are so stupid, so canned, so awful, that you suddenly understand why people might go insane. They’ve got flashing lights, and colourful characters, and loud music, and your children (who don’t have a discerning bone in their bodies) love watching them in the same way they’ll eat anything made of sugar, no matter how revolting. They are the nightmare fuel of children’s television.

PBS’s Super Why is such a show. And yet, Super Why is even worse.

Super Why_full cast

Super Why, in its most basic sense, is a storybook show which follows a precise pattern for each episode. A group of super friends encounter a problem in their world. This problem will require them to learn a lesson, and in order to learn their lesson they’ll have to “Look, in a book!” (The comma is there because they pause after saying ‘look’.) The super friends then suit up and dive into a classic fairy tale or storybook—Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or something else. The show progresses while they read through the storybook, reading the pages, looking for secret letter clues, and eventually solving the problem of the day. One character is a pig who digs up letters. One is a fairy who helps you spell. All well and good (apart from being mind-numbingly banal).

However, the critical dénouement of each episode is when the story reaches its crisis point. At that point, the hero (whose name is Whyatt) arrives with his special power, and “saves” the day. (Saves is in scare quotes for reasons which will be explicated shortly.) In the episode my children watched the other day, the real-world problem is that the main character wants to eat the same thing all the time. To solve this problem they look in a book called King Eddie Spaghetti, about a king, named Eddie, who only (as you might well guess) eats spaghetti. In the storybook page, displayed on screen, it read that Eddie only eats “spaghetti, and spaghetti, and spaghetti!”

King Eddie Spaghetti

Enter the hero, suited and ready to save the day. He announces, as a preamble to his actions, “With the power to read I can change the story!” (He says this each episode at this point.) He then proceeds to tap two of the three words, changing one spaghetti for beets, and another spaghetti for meatballs. The new sentence reads that Eddie ate, “spaghetti, beets, and meatballs!” Problem solved. Now we can return to the real world with our new secret word, Variety, and solve our problem. Yay!

Or not. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on what has just happened. We are looking in books to find solutions to our real world problems. When we encounter a possible solution, we don’t actually read, and interpret the book, we’re going to re-write it. What is more, we’re going to sanction this re-writing process by calling it, “The power to read.”

What?! That’s not reading. That’s not what the word means. That’s not how we deal with texts. That’s not how we deal with the world, or people, or problems. That’s not how we manage data, or interpret information. On no account and in none of the possible worlds is that a proper way to deal with a set of data. In fact, it represents the absolute antithesis of what good reading is, and we’ve got a word for it: eisegesis.

Jefferson Bible sources

Thomas Jefferson famously removed sections from his Bible that he didn’t like.


Maybe you don’t know this word. It’s the process of reading what we want into a text, rather than drawing out what a text actually says. It’s the process of projecting our own fancies, desires, and needs onto a body of literature, reforming it into a more convenient package. It’s a bad word. It’s repulsive. You don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Think plague, Ebola, Chicken Pox.

And yet, eisegesis is the kind of reading being taught to children through the monotonous rhetoric of Super Why. Jack and the Beanstalk? Let’s change the words so that the giant is tired and wants a nap, so that we can teach a lesson about using music to relax. Hansel and Gretel? Let’s change the candy house to a house of vegetables so we can teach a lesson about balanced diets. Humpty Dumpty? Let’s “use the power to read” to get him down safely and change it to a story about encouragement. In each case, a perfectly good story is mangled so that it can communicate an inferior message. And this, really, is just salt to the wound, because rather than finding a story and drawing a lesson from that story, however awkwardly, whatever real value these stories have is pressed through the transforming matrix of banal moralization. In addition to not learning how to read, your child is also being fed a diet of thin and watery stupidity.

Super Why_Variety

Your daily indoctrination.

Texts challenge us. Texts expose us to other worlds. Texts give us insight into other mindsets, other human perspectives, other viewpoints. Occasionally those viewpoints are comfortable; occasionally they are not. But in either case, learning to read is the process of learning what it means to wrestle with that discomfort—of taking texts, as best we are able, at face value; of refusing at all points to edit or change them to our liking, to project on them our own desires or fantasies. And in the end, the way we treat texts is a great deal like the way we have to treat people—each with a perspective, a vantage point, a set of understandings that are different from our own. We are no more permitted to project our desires on other people than we are on texts, and yet the people who do so are considered the worst of us. Imagine speaking to someone about lunch plans. “What would you like to eat today?” “I’d like a cheeseburger.” And his response, “Okay, we’ll go for pie, then.” That’s not listening, that’s simple projection. And that’s the kind of person Super Why is training children to be. It’s abominable.

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

Orientalism—Othering and the Kingdom of God

Orientalism_Cover2As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading through (and benefitting from) Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I’m taking advantage of a few blog posts to think through elements of his book. Today I want to think about certain aspects of the concept of “othering.”

Othering is an idea that Said employs to disentangle the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. As far as I understand, othering is a process of perception in which the ‘other’ is conceived as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us,’ I clearly demarcate ‘outsiders’ so that I can feel more secure in my own insider status. The key, it seems to me, is that the other is viewed not for him or herself, but primarily with reference to my own knowledge, and sense of self, and the security of my own identity. History makes it clear that this kind of process has been at work in the West’s treatment of the Orient.

Within this, Said seems to be well aware that some form of othering is a necessary part of cultural engagement. Discovering a boundary between myself, and my self-perception, and another and that other’s self-perception, is always a self-reflexive activity. David Augsburger, commenting on this reality, once wrote that “He who knows one culture knows no culture.” This is true because culture only becomes visible on the boundaries, in comparison and contrast. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing more clearly in the ‘other’ where I differ. As a personal example, I learned more about myself as an American by living in Canada, working with Vietnamese and then Chinese churches, than I would have known otherwise. My experience of the other has generated a marked and beneficial increase in my self-awareness. I would say that I’m a better person because of those experiences.


“He who knows one culture knows no culture.” ~ David Augsburger

However, the Western pattern of othering has, historically speaking, reflected a more insidious flavour. Specifically, it would appear that the power dynamic of the West—including, but not limited to, its sense of superiority, manifest destiny, and self-referentiality—has caused this otherwise natural othering relationship to generate distortions. On my read, I see this taking the form of flattening, and of fetishization. In this post I want to focus on the flattening.

The West flattens the Orient in a variety of ways, not least of which is in the absurdly broad categorization that a concept like the “Orient” requires. Orientalism, Said writes with some understatement, “is a field with considerable geographical ambition.” (50) This results in a collapse in specificity—what qualifies as Oriental is as broad as China, Vietnam, Japan, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan, to name a few. This begs questions—what kind of food are we eating when we eat “Oriental” food? What kind of person are we speaking to when we speak to an “Oriental” person? What kind of subject are we studying when we read an “Oriental” book? The vagueness is problematic in itself, but it extends to individual persons as well. Many are content to collapse the dizzying variety of eastern races into a single class, “Oriental” (Asians are often flattened in this way to a single category) while at the same time privileging what would be the equivalent western disambiguations (Italian, Irish, German, etc.). In continuity with this, is it not possible that the phrase, “all Asians look alike” speaks more of Western self-perception than it does of actual Asian reality?

Oriental Restaurant

What kind of food is actually being served here?

An important counterpoint to this is to remember that there really is no way to escape stereotyping—it’s hard-wired into how our brains take in new information. We filter new data into categories of known data. It’s how we make sense of things. Consequently, our first steps into the world of the other commonly involves our recourse to what is assumed, or known by reputation. Almost all encounters between cultures (where there is at least some knowledge of the other beforehand) involves basic stereotyping. The problem arises—and this is terribly important—when I don’t allow the new data of the real person sitting in front of me to challenge that type. The problem is when I stop listening and project what I think to be true on the person, rejecting him or her in the process. And this, of course, appears to be very often precisely what the West has done in relation to the East. It has clutched its stereotypes, then demanded that those who have been othered conform to the type. This flattens a foreign culture, reducing it so that it will fit within my perceptions.


Photo by Ridwan Adhami

As I thought about these matters, I began to wonder—is there an othering relationship at play between the Kingdom of God and human culture, whether Oriental or Occidental? There is radical, disjunctive difference between the Kingdom and the world. In that relationship the Kingdom possesses immense power to shape, define, and identify. A crucial difference, however, is that the Kingdom has no need of human culture to self-reflexively know itself. It does not depend upon outsiders to be itself, or, rather, to be more itself. All the same, in its power relationship to the world, the Kingdom defines us, orders us, reshapes us, and sets our aspirations. That is to say, despite its perfect self-knowledge the kingdom is still a genuinely imperialistic force. It approaches the world—East and West alike—with the intention of invasion, interpretation, and reformation. Like the Oriental/Occidental dynamic, it is the Kingdom that gets to tell me who and what I am. It holds all the power.

There are further differences, however. The Kingdom holds this power by right—it deserves it. The West utilizes this power by accident of history. Where the Kingdom by right redefines the world, East and West alike, the West does not possess the authority to redefine the other according to its pleasure. In fact, what may make the particular cultural sins of the West more grim is the appropriation of Kingdom power for its own purposes. The West has done things to the world in the name of the Kingdom, and that corrupted, self-referential use of Godly power has not only done damage to the East, it has poisoned the power of the message the West was privileged to inherit. In presuming to speak with the authority of the Kingdom of God toward the rest of the world, the West has ascribed to itself an undue holiness, an improper destiny. Rather than bringing the Kingdom to the East as a subject of it, the West has often enough presumed itself to be the Kingdom. This has created situations where the West falsely legitimizes its oppression by appeal to the Kingdom.

Dutch East India Company Flag

This is the flag of the Dutch East India Company, which famously (or infamously) married its acceptance of Christian missions to its profit margins. Missionaries, often enough, were reduced to advance agents for empire.

Additionally, where in the hands of the West this othering power has flattened other cultures, the Kingdom of God does not flatten. Yes, it is imperialistic. Yes, it redefines and shapes according to its dictates, but fundamentally the Kingdom is about bringing life to the world in all its variety. Under the effects of the othering of the Kingdom of God, we are not less ourselves, but more ourselves than ever we were before. This is a great mystery.

Rowan Williams, writing about St John of the Cross, said the following: “To be absorbed in the sheer otherness of any created order or beauty is to open the door to God, because it involves that basic displacement of the dominating ego without which there can be no spiritual growth.” (The Wound of Knowledge, 176) To step from this language into our discussion suggests—I think rightly—that in the context of all true othering, we lose ego and gain self, while false, distorted othering causes us to clutch ego and lose our selves.