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Proof of what is unseen

Review: The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel

Mark Ward

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? His power is incisive analysis: he cuts to the Augustinian heart of divisive issues using classic philosophical tools. He also explains all this slowly and clearly. He is the single most gifted guide of classroom discussion that I have ever seen (I not only read Justice; I watched the WBUR Boston recordings of his class; they were sterling).

This book wasn’t quite as lean and refined as Justice; it also didn’t deal with quite as important a topic (that would have been a tall order). It was a bit long and a bit repetitive (though because I listened to the audio, read patiently and engagingly by the author, that actually worked out well). And it didn’t seem to me to solve the dilemma it kept tossing from hand to hand for hour after hour: If meritocracy isn’t so great, and aristocracy not so great either, then what?!

But I’m burying a really important lede: What Sandel did do was give me the best answer I’ve yet seen to a question I haven’t been able to answer since 2016—why did so many Americans vote for reality TV star Donald Trump?! This wasn’t the point of the book, more of a very important supporting argument. The main argument was that meritocracy sounds good as a means of allocating certain sought-after goods in a society such as admission to elite colleges and access to high-paying and valorized professions. But—and I’ll never forget this—meritocracy tends to make the “winners” feel arrogantly self-congratulatory, forgetful of how very many aspects of their success had nothing to do with their effort; and it tends to make the “losers” feel, well, like that’s just what they are. They didn’t have the talent or drive to achieve the American Dream, so they’re out. Here’s where Trump comes in: regular people who do work essential to our society but not valorized by it don’t like it when elites look down on them. It’s galling to hear Hillary Clinton call vast numbers of people “a basket of deplorables,” to hear President Obama sneering at those who trust in “God and guns.” It’s offensive to be told that you are racist for complaining about factory jobs being taken by people in other countries. And yet meritocracy has not only produced all this, it has tempted elites to talk as if credentials equal intelligence to boot. (I think of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, an excellent book, which showed the intellectual challenges inherent in much manual work.)

Aristocracy may keep the peasants and serfs down, but at least they can say to themselves, “I have the talent to rise.” They are less likely to conclude, “I am a loser.” And aristocracy can produce a noblesse oblige on the part of the aristocrats: they know they don’t deserve their privilege, so they share their wealth.

This again, is where I say, “Then what?!” Because I just don’t see the West moving back to aristocracy, not on purpose. And if I’m stuck behind Rawls’ pre-birth curtain, I’d still choose the meritocratic society and its opportunity over the aristocratic one and its stratified classes. (Though I admit I was shocked to discover that upward mobility in America is actually noticeably lower than it is in a number of European countries.)

So I appreciated Sandel’s practical suggestions for toning down the worst elements of meritocracy. And there was a huge irony in one of his key suggestions. Follow me… Sandel critiqued Puritanism as if it were straight up Pelagianism. There was one key line that was just so egregiously wrong—and yet, in a way, perfectly right. He said that the Puritan emphasis on God’s grace in election got twisted into self-congratulation for being elected. That is so, so wrong, because Puritans of all people knew that they humbly had no purchase on God’s grace, nothing in them to merit it. And yet they would be the first to point out that the human heart is so fallen that it can turn God’s grace into a badge of pride. Instead of a critique of the Puritans, I heard in Sandel a critique of human nature. Sandel knows from long labor, I will hazard, that secularism and classical liberalism don’t offer serious moral philosophies, so he takes theology seriously, something for which I was grateful. And here I come back to the irony. He proved to me that meritocracy on elite campuses—like the Harvard where he has taught for four decades—is terribly harmful, to the meritocrats and the basket of deplorables alike. He persuaded me that a lottery system would be a much better way for Harvard to select applicants. But by doing this he is, to my mind, implicitly arguing for the grace of God. The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.

Sandel also argued that one way to valorize work rightly would be to legally curtail the money markets, the complex financial instruments that can net millions for the right bettors without actually doing much of anything to invest in business or produce any goods and services of value. This I found persuasive, too.

Biblical theology teaches from its very first page that work is a God-given good. God told Adam to “work and keep” the garden even before the fall. But by page 3, human work has been deeply frustrated by the fall: we’ve got thorns and thistles everywhere. Sandel’s calls to valorize all good work rang biblically true for me.

So did his critiques of meritocracy. One of the most important parables in my theology is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. It shows that no one will get less good than he deserves for his work, but that the Master is generous and sometimes spills out amazing blessing on some and not others. All good I enjoy is by God’s grace. There’s a reason that conservative evangelical Christians keep saying this to one another. We both believe it and are, by that phrase, asking that Master to help our unbelief. To diminish our pride, our tendency to hoard moral merit in our hearts.

Sandel’s book gives me some intellectual tools, tools of careful moral philosophy and of assiduous and wise observation of our world, to help me trust more to God’s grace and to be humble and grateful.

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Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Mark Ward

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m hoping to publish in a journal a more extensive review of this excellent—though long and at times tedious—book. I’ll say here: Trueman asks an intriguing question that builds a narrative expectation and structure into his book: How is it that so many average people in the West fail to see “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” as a self-evident absurdity?

Trueman sets out to answer this question by following the work of Rieff, MacIntyre, and Taylor—but adding a lot of studious book reports of his own as he guides the (evangelical) reader through Western intellectual history.

I think Trueman delivered. He helped me see how we got here. Evil ideas don’t come from nowhere, or even just “from Satan.” They trace a path; they get introduced; they slowly gain traction after at first seeming ridiculous.

I’m not realistically going to sit down and read all the books Trueman read in order to build his narrative of intellectual history (Freud, Marcuse, Marx, Wordsworth, Rousseau, etc., etc., etc.). I feel, because I’ve followed Trueman for many years, and because he showed so much of his work, that he did all that reading work carefully, charitably, and incisively. I do better understand my world thanks to Trueman.

And I have a keener sense of how many desperate human needs are met by the simplest doctrines of Scripture. The doctrine of creation tells me that my body has a purpose—leading among them, faithfulness to my spouse. The doctrine of the fall explains why my desires don’t always match the purposes for which my body was made. The doctrine of redemption tells me that Christ died for my sexual sins (Matt 5:27–30) and provides healing and power. I’m not at the mercy of my desires; I don’t have to “find out who I truly am and be that person” without reference to any transcendent guidance for who that person is and ought to be. I’m not stuck in any of the social imaginaries that are beholden to an immanent frame.

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From My Correspondence: Is Western Music White Supremacist? A Christian Response

Mark Ward

This video on “white supremacy” in Western music theory recently got some attention from intelligent friends and acquaintances. It claims that Western music theory is racist—white supremacist, to be precise—for teaching only the musical style of 18th century European males. But don’t roll your eyes: the guys making these claims are not hacks; they both know far more about Western music theory than I will ever know. They’re brilliant, and it’s fun to listen to them display their brilliance. They really know Western music.

But I don’t think I have to know music theory as well as they do to argue that they are wrong to call the Western music education system racist merely for perpetuating itself as a tradition.

I think the viewpoint I and the BJU Press team I was part of for our book, Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption, answers the explosive charge of “white supremacy” in Western music theory quite well: different cultures see different elements of—have different angles on—the one beauty of God, a beauty he invested in his creation. It isn’t white supremacy to accept the cultural tradition handed to you, to dig deep into it, and to work to expand and continue and then hand on that tradition. As Stanley Fish says in an essay I reread every few years, every one of us is, in reality, a uniculturalist. All the same, we don’t have to be triumphalistic about the Western classical tradition: we can see Creation, Fall, and Redemption in our own tradition; we can see these forces—more dimly because we don’t know those other traditions as well—in other musics around the world.

Where I think I’d like to go that the main presenter doesn’t go in the video is that Bach really is better in some important ways than the primitive tribal chants and dances (of any tribe, no matter their color or locale) that he talks about. Bach has discovered more of the latent power of creation to create musical beauty than these tribal people have. He has lived out the Cultural Mandate by subduing more of the world, by taking more dominion. And the resulting beauty really is “better” than that imagined tribal dance he discusses. The latter may, if given time (and Christian cultural influence?), become something more refined, truly great, amazingly beautiful. But it isn’t there yet. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad, although it may be quite literally used in demon worship and therefore be mostly bad!

Where it gets more difficult to offer assessments is between highly refined music of our culture and highly refined music of another culture, such as those Indian ragas discussed so intelligently in the video. I don’t live in that culture; I don’t understand the meaning of that music either conventionally (within that culture) or intrinsically (according to rules, the created aesthetic structures, apparently built into all humanity). So I can’t compare the two. Ragas feel meandering to me; they don’t have the push and pull of tension and release that I love and know in Western music. Again, I’m mostly ignorant. But this doesn’t make me a white supremacist. It makes me a denizen of my culture and not theirs, just like they’re denizens of theirs, not mine.

If this video taught me something, it’s not about the white supremacy hidden in music theory textbooks; it’s about the amazing creativity and beauty of God, who gave different insights to different cultures. By all means, now that communication and travel technologies have shrunk the world, Western music theory programs ought to offer students the opportunity to study other music theories beyond the Western—while not neglecting to pass on our rich cultural tradition. But we’ve had that field already; it’s called ethnomusicology. If the practical upshot of videos like this is to make more Western music students learn more about other world musics—excellent! If the practical upshot is, as I think it is more likely to be, that they feel embarrassed to love and know and continue their own tradition, this will be bad. We Westerners don’t need to be embarrassed about our artistic progress over the centuries; we need to be grateful to the God who created us to create.

An anonymous friend whose identity you can probably figure out if you know me shared the thoughts below with me in response to the meandering thoughts above; he gave me permission to post his thoughts.

I had the same sinking feeling watching this that I get when someone sends me right wing videos about how our educational system has been overrun by Marxists. I just don’t know (and can’t easily know) how much of what he’s telling me is true. For instance, he features a particular expert who has come under criticism for saying that Western musical education is white supremacist. But was the critique he received really limited to a University of Texas professor who sloppily cited Wikipedia, or is that just his framing? He presents Ben Shapiro as a counterpoint, but that just seems like low-hanging fruit. Is there are more careful argument that he really should have interacted with? More substantially, has he accurately portrayed Schenker’s views, and has he accurately identified an ideological bent to Schenker’s theories?

I have to register my agreement with careful conservative thinkers and centrist liberals who argue that CRT and “ant-racism” is actually racially polarizing and thus counter-productive. White supremacy is our culture’s great sin—and when it gets redefined to include people who are clearly opposed to white supremacy, those people feel like they’re being tricked or trapped. What postmodernism says everyone does with language is actually being done: a power play is being made. We get resentment and polarization as the practical response, which is precisely what our culture doesn’t need right now. That, and the these practical problems arise because the approach is intellectually flawed at its foundation, as Oliver O’Donovan noted back in the 1990s:

Ethics, on the one hand, is deprived of authority when it is made to serve merely a reactive critical function. It degenerates into little more than a rhetoric of scepticism. We can see this from the characteristic dilemma which besets the favourite causes of liberal idealism: how to claim moral licence for themselves without licensing their opposites. Each movement of social criticism draws in its train a counter-movement, and there is no ground in logic for paying more or less respect to the one than to the other. So Black consciousness, for example, requires (logically), invites (historically) and licenses (morally) a movement of White consciousness; feminism entails male chauvinism; homophilia entails homophobia, and so on. Our intuitions tells us that some of these movements are worth more than their shadows, but our intuitions are allowed no way of justifying themselves, and we are compelled, by the logic of historical dialectic, to give away whatever it is we think we may have gained.

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 10.

So, I think the video would have been more persuasive, and more interesting, if the approach had been: This is what we’ve all been taught in our music theory classes about Western classical music. But there are other forms of music. Ancient Greek, traditional African, classical Indian, etc. Let’s look at those styles of music in a comparative musicology class. (I’d be surprised if such classes didn’t already exist.) This goes along with your final paragraph.

One of the strengths of conservatism (to be distinguished from the current political right wing) is the value it places on cultivating and developing a tradition. So training western musicians in the Western classical tradition isn’t something to be overturned, even if it is something to be expanded. Also, I’d hate to limit classical music to being just a “white” thing. I think of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan.

Related to this, I agree that Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption gives a more nuanced approach to the idea of music as a universal language (which the video denies). The book argues that there are creational norms that underlie all music, but that different cultures will develop these norms in their own distinct ways. So there is something both universal and culturally specific at the same time. What is more, people from different cultures can come to appreciate the contributions of people from various cultures and even allow their insights to enrich their cultural traditions.

I suppose one reason this was getting shared around in our conservative Christian circles is that some would see the argument of the video as ammunition in the worship wars. If your church sticks with Western-based musical styles like hymns and doesn’t allow for things like rap, then you’re supporting structural racism, etc. (Of course, if a largely white church starts to incorporate other ethnic styles, is it then guilty of cultural appropriation?) But even if I granted, as the worldview is happy to do, that there are a variety of creationally good culturally specific musics, that doesn’t mean that all music or musical styles are equally good. We still have to factor in how the Fall has distorted music of all cultures. And we still have different levels of development within different cultures. So while it would be a mistake to equate Western musical theory with creational norms for music (Church musician Peter Davis talk about the different way the ancient music that would have been used by the early church was structured in comparison with our classical tradition), it would also be a mistake to deny that there are creational norms by which music can be evaluated. We just may need to do more work in comparative musicology as we seek to discern those.

I replied to this anonymous friend:

The only thing I might add is an answer to your first question: who is this young guy, anyway? Reality is that in this attention economy, he’s more of a somebody on music theory than many tenured professors out there, because he has put together a large YouTube audience. He really does seem to know what he’s talking about; he’s well educated in the Western tradition. I have watched a few of his other videos, and he gave no evidence of being prone to tossing out simplistic barbs. But I think that is what he’s ultimately done here. =( It’s just so easy—easy culture points—to equate loving and promoting your own cultural traditions with demeaning others’.

I prefer the feisty lesbian feminist Camille Paglia’s pragmatic approach to this question: the reason we give more attention to Bach than to an obscure female African composer whose works have never been performed outside of her own group in Kampala is not necessarily that Bach is any better (although I’d add that we ought to be able to make that determination if we’re not aesthetic relativists) but that Bach has, clearly, been more influential. A tradition is a series of influences. It’s a group of people who have been influenced by prior practitioners in the tradition and who have then become influencers themselves. Someone who doesn’t get noticed or used or cited is a dead end in the tradition.

I’d add, too, that I expect there to be a relationship between quality and influence. Some music lasts and lasts—I think of “Hear My Prayer, O Lord,” a 16th-century composition—because it taps into something God put in us. Deep structures.

Wrap-up for the tiny portion of my blog audience who might have read this far:

Christians are sensitive to charges of racism and cultural imperialism because we’ve been guilty of these sins in the past. Perhaps we are today in various ways we don’t see: depravity is total, it affects every bit of us, and one of its effects is blindness. We’re sensitive because we know we can sin without full awareness; depravity is like that. We’re also sensitive because so much cultural power resides on the side of those who commonly levy charges of racism at their opponents. We feel like—I feel like—we’re constantly having to say, “No, we’re not racist!”

In order to answer subtle challenges like the one in the YouTube video this whole exchange has been about, we have to have some kind of theological understanding of culture. The theological understanding I was handed as a teen in my KJV-Only church was deficient: “the culture” was always something bad—as if we didn’t have a culture at our church, as if we weren’t nostalgic for a very specific past American culture to which we sang hymns of praise every July. No, culture is fundamentally good—and fallen, and capable of being put under Christ’s feet. Culture is a God-given gift. And that means your culture is worth defending and promoting and pruning. If chauvinism and arrogance are part of Western music, then YouTube videos like this one should teach us to prune them off the tradition.

But Christians exult in God’s gifts in creation. We can’t be made to feel guilty for enjoying them. It is not racist for Westerners to maintain and pass on the beautiful, often Christ-inspired tradition of Western music.

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Don’t Tell Young Women in Your Church to Avoid College

Mark Ward

There’s a young man I know from Christian circles somewhere in the U.S.—I’ll call him Kyle or Gerald or Edward, or maybe something a little more derogatory—who posted what I can only call an anti-girls-going-to-college meme on Facebook. It argued that Christian colleges were not teaching biblical womanhood. I wrote this in response, because I have a pastoral concern for the many Christians I know who may be tempted toward this kind of isolationism. I’m tempted toward it, too, at times. But I think my Bible tells me not to be.

Kyle/Gerald/Edward, I really enjoyed meeting some wonderful young people at the two homeschool conventions I attended with you, kids who come from a culture which is generally opposed to college attendance even for young men. They were polite and clean-cut; I liked that. And I will never say that all Christian young men or women must attend college. But my own wife, who has a B.S. and M.S. in Biblical Counseling from a Christian college, was taught nothing if not biblical womanhood—from godly older women whom I respect and admire. One of the main female teachers there has raised three Christian women herself, all of whom have met the biblical ideals. God gave me my wife as my helper, and it has been so massively valuable to me to have a Proverbs 31 wife who not only considers a field and buys it and makes her flowers available to the merchants but who has taken graduate-level systematic theology and Greek courses. She has wisdom and specific abilities that I need and that—what can I say?—she would not have if she had stopped her education at age 18. And she isn’t the exception that proves the rule: I can point you to literally hundreds of women who got similar training and are serving the Lord faithfully as wives, mothers, and singles.

It’s a scary world, and feminism and other brands of anti-biblical egalitarianism are absolutely powerful forces in the West. It’s very tempting to me, too, to isolate myself and my family from influences I don’t fully understand and don’t control. But there are multiple conservative Christian colleges that are pushing back against the tide, and it is a profound act of self-harm for a community to tell its girls that none of them should go to one of these colleges. These are the future homeschool moms in that community: college-level English, history, and countless other courses will be so enriching for their future kids. I’m not insulting homeschool moms who lack college training, not at all—I’m saying that my wife’s extra six years of education beyond high school make her a better teacher than she would be otherwise. Or should she have stopped at eighth grade, perhaps? Why give women any schooling once they can read and write? Where does this thinking stop?

1 Corinthians 7 says that some women (and men) are indeed called to be single—and are therefore free to dedicate themselves body and soul to the Lord. The Bible does not demand that such women stay at home with their parents till they are deceased. The cultural mandate of Genesis 1 does give a childbearing role to women: “Be fruitful and multiply”; but “in view of the present distress,” Paul says, some women are called to be single. Do the other portions of the cultural mandate not apply to them (and do they not apply to married women, a la Prov 31)? Are they not allowed, even required, to subdue the earth and have dominion? They are. The cultural mandate was given to women, too. Without college education for any Christian women, how will women who are called to be single be able to serve the Lord in our culture’s most demanding and prominent roles—journalism, politics, law, higher education? Isolationism and anti-intellectualism aren’t biblical answers to our cultural pressures. We’re supposed to be salt and light—distinctive and influential. We must not hide our lights under baskets.

Kyle/Gerald/Edward, you are a gifted kid. I’ve bitten my lip for years wanting to sit you down and give you the pro-college talk. I know there is so much you could and would learn there. But out of respect for your parents I did not do this. You’re not really so much of a kid anymore, though. And now you’re on Facebook telling other people not to go to college, either. Friend, this is wrong. You are critiquing something you do not understand. You are answering a matter before you hear it. College-educated people need to be humble and acknowledge that God has given gifts independent of degree attainment (I just did it: you’re a gifted person, Kyle, with tons of potential); people without college training need to be humble and acknowledge that while education is no sure sign of intellectual ability and wisdom, neither is lack of it. Proverbs urges all of us to seek wisdom and understanding as we would seek hidden treasure. College has many treasures I wish you would avail yourself of, not least the treasure of profs who are undeniably smarter than you who can put you in your place. I needed that, big time, arrogant kid that I was. Kyle, you need it, too.

Women need college-level and graduate/seminary education precisely because of the challenges of feminism. These challenges can get demanding and subtle: how can sitting in classrooms under wise people who’ve dug deeply into their Bibles over many years, who have often themselves gone through the gauntlet of secular PhD programs and yet come out as conservative Christians, be detrimental? Who will write the books and articles we need, give the conference talks, and host the podcasts if not college-educated men and women?

A Christian woman can go to college and still keep her heart in her home (to be a “keeper at home” as the KJV says), I am married to such a woman. College vs. homemaker—this is a destructive false choice.

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Calvinists and Armenians

Mark Ward

Update (11/17/2020): This post is a joke. I deleted a few comments from people who didn’t catch the two major misspellings—because I didn’t want to embarrass them; I honestly didn’t expect to “fool” people! I forgot that some people are reading this post on other devices, even Kindles, and don’t have the easy ability to follow the links. At the risk of ruining the joke before you even get to see it, I very frequently see people misspell “Arminianism” and “Arminian”—even people who really, really ought to know better. I also see people misspelling “tenet,” as in the “five tenets of Calvinism.”

I am a Calvinist. And almost like that famous, clueless person who said, “I can’t believe Richard Nixon won! I don’t know anyone who voted for him!,” I personally know only one Armenian.

He’s a godly and wise man: I want to be the first to say this. I learned much from him when I took a class he taught in seminary.

But I could never be an Armenian; it’s too late for me. It’s not that I feel any antipathy toward them. I certainly don’t defend the efforts to destroy Armenianism that took place in the earlier part of the 20th century. I’m willing to work together with Armenians despite being an ardent Calvinist.

It’s a rare Armenian who believes even one of the five tenants of Calvinism. It’s unlikely they would even understand them, since, really, each one of those tenants speaks an entirely different language—or, that is, spoke: most of those tenants are dead. I think we’ve got an almost unbridgeable divide.

Yes, there is little hope that Armenians and Calvinists will ever come together in unity. But I invite any Armenians among my readership to reach out to me; we should at least try to converse.

Next post: Violins on TV—When Is Enough Enough?

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New Book—Bibliology for Beginners: What Does the Bible Say about the Bible?

Mark Ward

Bibliology for Beginners: What Does the Bible Say about the Bible? by Mark Ward

I’ve just released a very short book on bibliology that is not intended to break new ground but rather to help beginners step firmly onto biblical ground. I wrote it at the request of a local church—, pastored by my respected friend Tim Richmond—which has diligently produced a series of discipleship books for its urban, multi-ethnic congregation.

In the book I talk about revelation (general, special, and personal—following John Frame); I talk about the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture; I briefly discuss canon (following Michael Kruger closely), and textual transmission. I then camp out a little longer on Bible translation, because I think this is where Christians most often fall into fear and confusion. I argue that the Bible calls for Bible translation, that Bible translation into languages normal people understand is not something to take for granted, that there is no such thing as a perfect or even a “best” translation, and that because there are any number of useful translations in a given language Christians would do well to read several.

Basic bibliology stuff, written briefly and humbly for beginners.

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