Just to be clear, I am the reader, the book under review is Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, the book was written by Ted Smith, the review was written by William Cavanaugh, and I was alerted to the review because Alan Jacobs pinned an excerpt to his Pinboard, which I follow.
Much of the review itself turns out to be beyond my ability to understand on a casual reading, but I grasped enough of it to consider re-reading the review, reading other reviews of it–the LA Review of Books is using it for a review series—and maybe even the book itself, if I decide I can understand it, since it addresses a topic that has occupied me in recent years, namely a proper Christian stance towards government.
I’ve peppered the preceding text with links in case you’re intrigued enough to start down one or more trails yourself. Meanwhile, I’ll offer some notes on what makes me think reading this book might be good for me.
Jacobs excerpted the second and third paragraphs of Cavanaugh’s review, and the first sentence of the excerpt caught my attention:
Smith picks up and extends Charles Taylor’s criticism of “code fetishism,” the idea that all human action must be made law-like, susceptible to obligatory conformity with an ideal.
I suppose I could just stop at this point, and ponder that idea for the rest of the day! More than twenty years ago I read T.S. Eliot’s long poem Choruses from “The Rock”, and ever since have plagued readers with the poet’s observation that men “constantly try to escape / from the darkness outside and within / by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
Looking at the review itself, Cavanaugh opens with a brief anecdote:
A bishop recently said that 90% of the homilies he has ever heard can be boiled down to two words: “Try harder.”
True enough! I’ve heard these called “bad dog” sermons. M. Craig Barnes writes in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet:
It is striking how much of contemporary preaching reduces to this: ‘You bad, bad dogs! Look at what you did.’ And those in the pews respectfully cower and look like guilty golden retrievers who know they have disappointed the master once again.
Barnes also wrote about this in a recent Christian Century article, but because I don’t have access to that I’ll need to rely on a retelling of his point from another sermon:
[Barnes] writes that he has gotten used to seeing service dogs, or guide dogs, in the seminary chapel. He says he thinks they are the only ones in the chapel who seem to want the sermon to go long, because it gives them a chance to rest. Most of the time these dogs are working pretty hard – they get plenty of affection from their owners, of course, but no one else is supposed to pet them or otherwise distract them from their job. They can’t chase squirrels or play with other dogs or go to sleep when they feel like it; their owners’ safety depends on their being “good dogs” all the time.
Barnes is reminded of these hard-working, well-trained dogs when he thinks about the people who come to church on Sunday. They are conscientious, hard-working and faithful, and they come expecting to be told to keep working, to be obedient and well-trained. The world is broken, they hear from the preacher, and Jesus is expecting us to fix it. If we don’t throw ourselves into that task, we are not being obedient. Whatever good deeds we are currently doing, they are clearly not enough. In other words, we are not “good dogs,” we are “bad dogs,” and we need to be hectored into doing better.
I’d qualify the above characterizations in one way. I think most sermons are actually not all that hectoring or accusing. I think that modern preaching has discovered a technique which achieves the same effect without requiring the preacher to hector or accuse—instead, the preacher simply spells out the amazing quality of life available to each and every convert, leaving an unstated question hanging: why aren’t you this way? The standard is preached, and it’s easy enough for the hearer to see that he just doesn’t measure up.
Contrast that idea about how to employ God’s standards with this one from Cavanaugh’s review [boldface added]:
Opening law to a theological dimension that does not demand earthly conformity invites contemplation and delight. Theology is written in the indicative, not the imperative. Christian theology aspires to delight in what God has done, what the Messiah has already fulfilled, and to rejoice in the presence of God despite the failure of the present to measure up to God’s standard. It invites a free response, and does not command that we “try harder” to align the present with the ideal. Smith beckons us to move beyond the despair hidden behind the notion that “God has no hands but yours.”
“The despair hidden behind …”—exactly! If Smith offers an understanding which would help us to replace this with an ability “to rejoice in the presence of God despite the failure of the present to measure up to God’s standard”, I want to know more.
I’ll spare you most of the rest of the review, which I found difficult to puzzle out because it covers territory unfamiliar to me. But I found enough value on a first reading to want to go back and read it more closely, and maybe even read Smith’s book as well. So I’ll just end with some especially tasty passages. [boldface added]
As Smith brilliantly argues, when we deny any higher purpose to the state, the state is just that order that happens to have prevailed, “the congealed spoils of past violence.” […]
Smith sides with Benjamin, who argues against Schmitt that “the problem of Catholicism” is its identification of divine power with a worldly power. Schmitt argues in Roman Catholicism and Political Form that the Incarnation ensures the Church’s “absolute realization of authority,” which becomes a crucial source of legitimation for the state. Benjamin, in contrast, claims that “in this world nothing constant and no organization can be based on divine power, let alone domination as its supreme principle.” […]
I don’t at all think this is a fatal problem for Smith’s book. I did, however, find myself wishing, if not for a little less Benjamin, then at least for a little more Jesus, who makes only cameo appearances in the text. The book is heavy on appeals to Benjamin, Adorno, Agamben, et al., but fairly light on appeals to theology and Scripture. He discusses typology, but rather than turning to Paul and the patristic writers, for whom typology was second nature, Smith turns to Geuss and Adorno. […]
Smith, with Benjamin, seems so wary of identifying any earthly organization with the Body of Christ that there is no ecclesiology in the book. If there were, it would perhaps help Smith flesh out his insight that “We should not seek to eliminate exceptions to the rule, then, but to cultivate forms of life that can engage in reasoned discourse about exceptions.” […]
It is, of course, unfair to complain about the book that an author did not write. All of the above should be taken as merely a few suggestions for the further theological development of Smith’s argument. I must end on a note of admiration for Smith’s book. It is simply the best thing I have read this year, and it is the one book that I am now insisting that my colleagues read.