Review: Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer PresidentAbraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing less than a tour-de-force. I’m tempted to say that only a religious person—particularly a Christian—could understand this almost certainly unbelieving politician and thinker. Guelzo finds a theme in Lincoln’s theology that he, successfully in my opinion, traces throughout his life, namely a predestinarianism shorn of belief in God’s personal goodness to Lincoln himself. This fatalistic theology guided Lincoln into making the most difficult decisions of the war. This is the key insight from the book, in my judgment:

Lincoln’s own peculiar providentialism, his Calvinized deism, in fact played a controlling role in the outcome of the Civil War. In the most general sense, his appeal to the mysteries of providence in the fall of 1862 gave him permission to ignore the manifest signs on all hands that the Union was playing the war to no better than a draw, and that any resort to emancipation was folly. But in the most specific instance, providence was what allowed him to overrule the moral limitations of liberalism. To do liberalism’s greatest deed—the emancipation of the slaves—Lincoln had to step outside liberalism and surrender himself to the direction of an overruling divine providence whose conclusions he had by no means prejudged. (447)

What does Guelzo mean? He explains a little more early on in the book:

[Lincoln] would come at the end … to see that liberalism could never achieve its highest goal of liberation and mobility without appealing to a set of ethical, even theological, principles that seemed wholly beyond the expectations and allowances of liberalism itself. While he would hold organized religion at arm’s length, he would come to see liberalism’s preoccupation with rights needing to be confined within some public framework of virtue, a framework he would find in a mystical rehabilitation of his ancestral Calvinism and an understanding of the operations of divine providence. (20-21)

Liberalism, as Stanley Fish never tires of observing (and I never tire of observing him observe), has no transcendent norms to appeal to. (And here I’m not taking a potshot at Democrats; Guelzo and Fish and I mean here “classical liberalism,” the kind which encompasses nearly all significant American politicians on any side of any aisle.) Liberalism is supposed to maintain procedural neutrality among competing visions of the good. But what that means in the end is that might often makes right. And in 1861, as Lincoln took the helm of a divided nation, mighty interests on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line preferred that the slaves not be freed. Lincoln himself saw clearly that praise and blame could not be apportioned neatly to North and South, respectively. It took an appeal to the Declaration of Independence’s Creator—who created all men equal—to free the slaves. Serious voices in 1860 argued that the Declaration was not law, but thankfully it remained a moral polestar.

I have never dug this deep into Lincoln before, encountering him mainly through his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, both of which Guelzo analyzes with great insight—and in both of which he easily finds Lincoln’s predestinarian deism. One thing that really impressed me was how accidental Lincoln’s role as sage and Great Emancipator really was. I mean that as no slight against him; when the time came, he worked with great skill and dedication. But the time was long in coming. He wasn’t born with a desire to free the slaves. The conviction came on him slowly, and even very close to the last he was considering various political deals which fell short of full, lasting emancipation. If the war hadn’t been so fierce, the slaves may have remained in bondage. But Southern victories forced Lincoln’s hand. It was fascinating to watch what I, too, see as the hand behind that hand in freeing America’s oppressed legions.

I was also surprised to be taught a fact that I should have known: it was not at all obvious to anyone at the close of the Civil War what the future of the nation would be. We view Lincoln’s acts through a prism of national success and even national unity under multiple trials, especially two world wars. But the prospect that legal challenges to emancipation would negate all the blood spilled in the Civil War was all to real as Lincoln lay in a deathbed “fate” chose for him. It speaks to his wisdom that I moved from South Carolina to Washington last year with no trouble.

It was also fascinating to me to hear Guelzo’s expert summations of previous Lincoln biographies, going back to the very first. Americans have long molded their view of Lincoln to their liking. No doubt Guelzo has done this in some way, too. But it does appear to take the passing of many decades before party loyalties and political issues fade enough to give historians a fair crack at someone like Lincoln. I’m late to the praise and should have read this years ago, but Guelzo has written a triumph.

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of WorkShop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was utterly taken with this book, first to last. The philosophical portions were elegantly written, insightful, and persuasive. The anecdotal interludes about car and motorcycle repair gave just enough breathing space (and entertainment) to make for a good reading pace. What a remarkable author; I will be reading anything by him I can get my hands on. On to “The World Outside Your Head.”

A friend commented that he found the philosophical portions difficult, and that his father, with an MA in carpentry and a life as a practitioner, actually found the book off-putting. I don’t think this book was written for most tradesmen; they know intuitively that they engage in their practices for their intrinsic goods. They don’t need a convoluted philosophical justification for what they discovered long ago was in their blood.

But I, the office worker, recognized immediately the truth of Crawford’s comment that

those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame.

I needed to think through whether what I’m doing is valuable or not, and I needed the philosophical meanderings. After my very intelligent friend said he found difficulty in the philosophy stuff, I realized that it was laboring through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue—an immensely rewarding experience—that made it easy for me to process Crawford. Crawford mentions MacIntyre particularly in the acknowledgments, and MacIntyre’s recovery of the Aristotelian idea of virtue being tided to practices was everywhere in Crawford’s book.

I happen to have a job with most of the ideals Crawford praises: I get to do something I love (writing, and writing about the Bible), to produce something concrete (blog posts) for a specific community (Christians interested in Bible study, mostly evangelicals), with fairly objective measures for success (social shares and comments). My job and my personal life bleed into one another because I have a vocation, a calling. I feel very blessed.

But reading Crawford revealed to me what I sort of felt guilty for acknowledging before, lest it cloud my ideal vision of myself: I enjoy putzing around the garage, doing yard work, and fixing ice makers and other household stuff. My heart slows down; my stress ebbs; my brain is nonetheless challenged; I have the satisfaction of a job begun and finished; my wife gives me an admiring kiss when I’m done. I do believe I will go at this kind of work with more gusto in years to come; I won’t disdain it as I once did—thinking, “I’m a knowledge worker, a creative; I make money to pay other people to do this menial stuff.” (What a foolish vision, and an impracticable one. The money I don’t make is what forces me to fix my own stuff in the first place.)

I was convinced to read this book by Crawford’s presence on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Otherwise I would have guessed it to be sentimentalized pop psychology. But Myers took it seriously, and it became apparent quickly upon reading that I needed to as well. The stamps of Hunter’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture were clear in the book; I need to read more material coming out of that group.

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Review: A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir

A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological MemoirA Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir by Thomas C. Oden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What strongly conservative Christian doesn’t thrill to hear a conversion story from theological liberalism—and from an elite academic within that crowd, no less? Thomas Oden, who studied under H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale, most definitely rejects the liberalism he so ardently pursued during his formative educational years, up till age 40. Oden, a constitutionally nice man, reserves the most (the only?) intense criticisms in his autobiography for theological and other liberals (and, in this case, a few evangelical enablers):

The evangelicals had been promised a seat at the table [at the World Council of Churches meeting] in Canberra, but then were ignored and represented only by the evangelical house pets of Genevan ecumenism.

Ouch. The gentle Oden is not against a tiny bit of name-calling when the situation warrants:

The New Age movement of the late 1960s was for me exhilarating. It came as swiftly as it disappeared. The Green Revolution and the heyday of the Human Potential movement moved at top speed. Everyone was talking about peak experiencing and self-actualization. The air was fueled by the revolutionary passions of the sixties, Vietnam, situational ethics, the new morality, sexual experimentation and anti-parent spleen.

But I’ve begun this little review with two exceptions in order to highlight the rule. Mostly, Oden is straightforward and, I come back to that word, gentle.

His chapter on his move from that liberal world to a theologically conservative one gives honor where it’s due, is appropriately self-deprecating, and it straightforwardly critiques theological liberalism. It was the best part of the book—though the entire thing was surely readable and interesting. The pith of his story is that a Jewish scholar who’d gone through his own liberal, Marxist, Freudian rumpsringa as a youth, challenged 40-year-old Oden around 1970: “You don’t know your own tradition well enough to reject it until you read the fathers.” He did, and the “consensual Christian tradition” he discovered there changed his theology, his life, and his heart. I rejoice.

But I’m puzzled.

Alex Stroshine’s review on Goodreads is quite good, but I want to quote it (and use a portion in a way he likely didn’t intend) to explain my puzzlement:

I see a lot of merit to the classic Christian consensus and Oden has ably demonstrated how the churches emerging out of the Reformation are in line with this consensus despite assertions to the contrary by some. But I wish I could find some greater clarification on theological specifics and Oden’s methodology for dealing with them. Oden is a supporter of women’s ordination (as am I!) and while there is solid evidence that women DID have leadership roles (Phoebe was the first exegete of the Epistle to the Romans and there is evidence of female deacons) how does classic Christianity deal with disputes such as women’s ordination? Also, while the conciliar process seeks orthodoxy through agreement by both laity and clergy, what happens when the LAITY (unlike the liberal clergy that plague the mainline) err, as in the laity’s excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary?

Indeed. It’s a good thing that Oden recovered the fathers, and given the popularity of the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (and its publication by an evangelical house after others passed it up) evangelicals appear to have been as excited than anyone that Oden did the following:

I began searching for a more reliable grounding for the study of sacred texts. That grounding came only when I recognized the reasonableness of the ancient consensual Christian tradition. It had a more reliable critical method based on historic consensus, which implies centuries of human experience. It had remained surprisingly stable while passing through innumerable cultures for two millennia.

This is characteristic Oden. Throughout the book he asserts, with little apparent concern over the Sic et Non among the fathers, that there is a consensual Christian tradition. He reminds me of a Catholic priest I heard many years ago at Furman University. Weaving the fingers of his two hands together over and over, he kept asserting, as if his hand motions could make it so, that “scripture and tradition cohere.”

And I’m puzzled how such a smart man as Oden could perpetuate such a notion. He does, helpfully, point to “Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great” as the fathers “most consensually remembered, who most accurately gave expression to the faith that was already well understood by the apostles and celebrated by the worshiping community under the guidance of the written Word.” But even that phrase—”most accurately gave expression”—begs the question. Who says? Oden does acknowledge that the fathers didn’t always agree:

Whenever I came upon those points where it seemed that the apostolic consensus had lost its way or broken up irretrievably, I discovered that by looking more deeply into the most consensual interpreters of the sacred text, the truth proved itself to be self-correcting under the guidance of the Spirit. That premise, that the Holy Spirit sustained the right memory of the truth revealed in history, was to me counterintuitive at every step. Yet the constant course correction of the community was the most remarkable aspect of the history of ecumenical consent.

Personally, whenever I’ve dipped into the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, I find some stimulating stuff, yes, but also odd stuff. It’s a mix. Some of what I read is unbelievably fresh, and a lot of it causes headscratching. Here’s what I saw on the comments on Genesis 4, for example:

  • Ephrem the Syrian makes up several details that aren’t in the text of Scripture: he says God sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s; he says, too, that Cain didn’t give of the best of his grain and fruit.
  • Origen offers an interpretation people still generally take today, that Cain’s sin began before the offering.
  • Chrysostom makes an insightful point linking God’s curse of the serpent in Genesis 3 and His curse of Cain in Genesis 4.
  • Chrysostom says there was no sexual intercourse before the fall (!).

I just don’t see any good reason to invest special authority in these men. Some of their opinions are well-founded, and surely some of the fathers are astoundingly brilliant. Augustine is a world-historical figure for good reason. I also believe that C.S. Lewis is right when he suggests that modern readers should let the breeze of another century blow through their minds on a regular basis. But that point from Chrysostom is greatly significant: if God didn’t create sex; if even monogamous heterosexual unions are a result of the fall, then we’re in a mess. Where’s our consensus? Is Chrysostom right or wrong, and how do we know?

If Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism are both heirs of a largely healthy Christian tradition, and I think we are, there’s only one way to find out for sure which groups (and which subgroups) are more faithful heirs—go to the Bible. And that’s what this biography lacked. I read it mostly on long flights, so I may have zoned out, but I recall almost no Bible quotations, and certainly no careful discussions of biblical teaching. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and Oden’s partly justified excitement about the tradition manages to obscure rather than cohere with Scripture.

At key points, I was practically begging for Bible:

When some in these groups wanted to leave these [hyper-liberal mainline] denominations, I tried to provide plausible reasons for why they would do better to stay and fight for their reform. To flee a church is not to discipline it. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love and the willingness to live with incremental change insofar as conscience allows. An exit strategy is tempting but self-defeating, since it forgets about the faithful generations who have given sacrificially to build those churches. It would be a dishonor to them to abandon the church to those with aberrant faith.

God has some things to say about this in Scripture. “Strengthen what remains,” yes. But also “Mark them which cause division and strifes among you contrary to the doctrine which we have preached.” The job of a theologian should first be to find a way to faithfully use the Bible to answer our questions. If the tradition helps, that’s wonderful. If it muddies the waters or positively contradicts the Bible, then the Bible must remain our norming norm. That’s what sola scriptura means.

I first heard of Oden in the 1990s when he was a signatory of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents. Oden’s book amply demonstrates that there are things to be learned from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’m with R.C. Sproul and the Reformers in seeing a fundamental disjunction between formal Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Oden does define what a Christian is:

I have discovered that I belong to a vast family of orthodox Christian believers of all times and places, which includes historic Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Christian family is far wider, broader and deeper than most of us have commonly thought of it as being. Those who can recite the Apostles’ Creed with full integrity of conviction and live out Christian moral norms, as well as worship in spirit and truth, are all part of a classic consensual family of faith.

Both belief and practice are included in his definition, and biblically speaking I think that’s good. My own evangelical tradition isn’t free of people whose orthodoxy and orthopraxy are questionable (sometimes my own is!). But after hundreds of conversations with Roman Catholics over the years, some of them in places around the world; and after a number of visits to Catholic churches and Catholic blogs and magazines (the stimulating First Things preeminent among them), I’m puzzled. There’s a lot of disagreement there. No, formal Catholic doctrine does not teach pure Pelagianism, but they do a pretty terrible job of informing the laity of that fact, as I’m sure many Catholics will agree. What does that fact say?

In order for Oden to see evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics as part of a “vast family,” he has to be skilled in (gently) papering over deep differences. My going hypothesis after reading this biography is that this papering has been his modus operandi in his academic work and professional life for decades.