Overcoming the Presentism Bias in the Blogosphere

As Maria Popova (creator and curator of the popular Brain Pickings blog) pointed out in a recent interview for Copyblogger, online culture “fetishizes the new(s),” forgetting all the knowledge and wisdom that’s come before us.

Popova calls this “our presentism bias,” which is “anchored in the belief that if it isn’t at the top of Google, it doesn’t matter, and if it isn’t Googleable at all, it doesn’t exist.”

As Popova points out, this “presentism” is often a form of arrogance—one that assumes that “no one has ever grappled with the issues we’re grappling with. Which of course is tragically untrue.”

Lewis argues that Christians need “a standard of plain, central Christianity … which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

In Christian culture, this can translate into thinking that the current “hot-button” theological or Church issues are things Christians have never dealt with before.

Ours is a culture where people rush to tweet articles even before they’ve finished reading them, and in the Christian blog and Twittersphere, many of us find ourselves feeling like Rachel Held Evans, who recently confessed to feeling a bit out of her depth when called upon to comment on theological matters and the current state of the church at Christian colleges and on CNN: “[I’m] upsetting apple carts I didn’t even mean to upset, apparently making theological statements I didn’t even know existed.”

This idea reminds me of an essay of C.S. Lewis’ introducing a very old book by a third century church father, Athanasius of Alexandria. Presciently—almost as if he were aware of all the heated blog-and-Twittersphere battles over women’s roles in the church, modesty, sexuality, sovereignty or the atonement—Lewis argues that Christians need “a standard of plain, central Christianity … which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”

And to put controversies of the moment in their proper perspective, Lewis argues we need to read old books.

We need old books not because they are necessarily better or somehow infallible (“People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we,” Lewis writes, “but not the same mistakes”) but because to read only new books is to join “at 11 o’clock a conversation that began at eight,” and thus to be unable to understand fully all that is going on.

The New Testament itself is in deep conversation with the Old Testament; it’s difficult to understand the former without the latter; Christianity is a conversation that has been going on for two thousand years.

We can’t even hope to wade into deeper waters in thinking about faith if all we’re reading are the writings of the moment.

As someone who’s still trying to wade into deeper waters, I asked a few experienced readers what resources they would recommend to Christians who’d like to avoid “presentism” in their own reading and thinking about faith, and I’d like to share some of their insights for those of you eager to move beyond the shallows.

{continue reading at RELEVANT}

Review And Giveaway of ‘Eat With Joy’

Rachel Held Evans has a review of my book and of Shauna Niequist’s book Bread and Wine at her blog today…and she’s hosting a giveaway in which three winners will receive a copy of each book! So check out her post here and comment by this afternoon (Friday, April 19) at 3pm EST for a chance to win!


Rachel Held Evans and the Hermeneutics of Love

*I apologize in advance for the length of this post. ;)*

“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere   

friend.” ~Abraham Lincoln

In his book A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs points to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as a summary of his main contention: it is possible to interpret texts and events with a hermeneutic of love—or a hermeneutic of hate. In the play, an evil man (Don John) plots to ruin a wedding by creating, well, “much ado about nothing” (many observe that in Shakespearean English, “nothing” sounded like “noting”—meaning ‘noticing’ and is probably an intentional pun) and tearing down a woman’s character. Don John sets up a situation in which one of his cronies (Borachio) appears to be making the beast with two backs with the bride-to-be (named Hero) while her would-be groom (Claudio) overhears. It works: Claudio believes what he thinks he is seeing and hearing, and publicly humiliates her at the altar the next day.

Only Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, believes Hero’s innocence, but it’s not because she knows, without a doubt, that Hero absolutely did not sleep with Borachio. It’s because she knows Hero very well—knows her character and that such infidelity is not in her nature. Therefore, whatever “evidence” Beatrice might encounter will be interpreted with a bias toward charity—or love. And that’s why Much Ado is a comedy, ending not just in one wedding (Hero’s and Claudio’s) but two. Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello involves a similar set up: Iago plants the notion of Desdemona’s infidelity in Othello’s mind, and, suddenly, everything Othello sees and hears—little things, much less than the apparent “evidence” against Hero! —appears to confirm Desdemona’s guilt. In the end, Othello smothers his innocent wife to death.

A hermeneutic of love is life-giving. A hermeneutic of suspicion is, well, not.

What was different? Not the supposed “evidence” that anyone was interpreting, but their orientation either to love or to suspicion—to interpreting the “facts” in good faith or bad.

The Christian blogosphere is currently buzzing about Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Evans has appeared on the Today show and The View and has been interviewed on NPR, in addition to many speaking engagements in churches and institutions of higher education across the country. There are negative reviews, and positive reviews, and reviews-of-other-reviews. There are long comment sections, “open letters,” tweets, Facebook threads, and YouTube videos. In short, there is “controversy,” and, for selling books and garnering pageviews, there’s nothing like it. Rachel herself has said that dealing in controversies has not been what has built her ‘brand,’ as I think we can call it, but this is a difficult case to make; certainly some of her widest-reaching posts have been among her most ‘controversial,’ and there is a sense in which her brand depends on her identifying as a (controversial) evangelical. If she identified as a mainline Protestant, for example, her calls for women’s equality in every sphere would strike no one as “dangerous”; the Pipers and Mohlers and Driscolls and Kellers would simply pay no attention. But because Rachel pushes on the boundaries of what’s acceptable in evangelicalism, she’s targeted with what amount to cries of “you do not get to call yourself one of us.” At the same time, people for whom the question of women in leadership is comfortably settled on the “pro” side rise to Rachel’s defense. In a real sense, people’s responses to A Year of Biblical Womanhood appear to be at least as much a measure of their feelings about Evans herself as they are a reading of the book, OR, perhaps, as a measure of which ‘side’ of the “womanhood” debate the reader is already on.

Of course, we humans interpret everything contextually; it is impossible not to do so. But it is possible to orient our interpretation charitably—to determine, even (especially?) when reading, to evaluate what we encounter as words from someone we are endeavoring to love as ourselves. When I speak and write—both professionally and personally—I like to be interpreted charitably. If I stake a claim on a slippery slope, or use the wrong word for something, or leave out an important link between two ideas, I am grateful if my hearers and readers gently help me find a way to move what I’m saying onto firmer ground, mentally correct my slip-ups, and help me build a little rickety bridge between one idea and the next. I think we do this all the time for people we love. Think, for example, of how we engage with children or elderly who can’t speak clearly, or even at all. We guess, we assume, we strive to understand, assuming not that they’re trying to “get one over” on us but that their efforts at communicating are in good faith. It is possible to do the reverse, of course, and I suspect that, too often, both child abuse and elder abuse are in no small part the result of a breakdown in this capacity for loving interpretation. A cry or a request is taken in bad faith as manipulation, and anger ensues. Who among us has never been guilty of mistakenly understanding another’s motives or intent? Who among us has never experienced the balm of being understood even when one’s actions and words are less-than-understandable? This is the hermeneutics of love in the everyday.

This, I think, is what Rachel Held Evans means when she says that she “loves the Bible,” as she says repeatedly and without apology, on her blog, in her book, and even on the Today show: that she loves God and God’s word, and that is why she continues to wrestle with the Bible in spite of its difficult and disturbing parts. Is that not, in fact, an exercise in the hermeneutics of love? If one loves God, and believes the Bible to be God’s word, will not one endeavor to understand the Bible in light of that love, to interpret its disturbing bits as charitably as possible? She quotes philosopher Peter Rollins:

“[W]e must attempt to read [the Bible] as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God.”

Rachel’s project—which involved a playfully imperfect (she repeatedly admits the imperfection) attempt to take the Bible “literally” in the things it says to women—has been interpreted as a “mockery” of the Bible; an exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion, if you like. But while I have seen critics pick her project apart as everything from unoriginal to straw-woman silliness, I have heard none of them affirm what is her clear aim: to show that the Bible is nowhere applied literally and, moreover, that to apply it literally and rigidly is, more often than not, to miss Scripture’s point in the first place. For a woman to cover her head during worship in St. Paul’s day was to lessen distractions. For a woman to cover her head during worship in (most evangelical churches in) our day is to have the opposite effect. This is a dynamic that appears again and again: Rachel’s attempt to ‘honor’ her husband in the mold of a 1950s housewife (a mold some contend is more ‘Biblical’ than Rachel and Dan’s actual egalitarian marriage) for example, has the effect of making him feel not loved and cherished, but simply uncomfortable. To apply the Bible “literally” as if its ancient context corresponded one-to-one to our own is, quite often, to invert its intent completely. Rachel quotes her etiquette teacher on the essence of good manners, which consist not in following the rules in the latest edition of Emily Post but in putting people at ease, much as Eleanor Roosevelt once did at a state dinner, when a guest mistakenly drank from the fingerbowl, and Mrs. Roosevelt, without blinking, followed suit. Rigid application of the rules can easily undermine their intent.

I find it hard to believe that I have not found one negative review that would at least grant the importance of this point. On the other hand, I have found dozens of reviews that barely concealed their fury at Rachel and her project. Incredibly, more than a few of these openly admitted not (yet) reading the book at all, much less reading it open to the possibility that Rachel might have something to teach them. I have not seen one review that crossed over to imaginatively identify with what Rachel has to say, regardless of their (dis) agreement. This is a hermeneutic of fear, suspicion, and (I don’t think the word is too strong) hate, for what hate depends on is ignorance and an unwillingness to open oneself to the other. Kathy Keller’s review, while seemingly rooted in the text of Rachel’s book, nevertheless, I’m sorry to say, does not appear to be engaged in an effort at sympathetic understanding of what Rachel’s project is trying to do. Rachel is not confused regarding the relationship of the Old Testament to the New; she’s highlighting the parts of the Bible many Christians would rather skip over.

Lest a reader contend that I, an Evil Egalitarian Christian Named Rachel myself, am only affirming all I have read in Rachel’s book, I will not deny that some of her hermeneutical conclusions struck me as a little unsteady: “it is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose.” To me, making sense of the Bible must include an understanding of its ancient context as well as a robust understanding of the Bible as a diverse-yet-unified, divine-yet-human whole, and making sense of the Bible in that way is less a matter of “picking and choosing” but of discerning what, in fact, is God’s preoccupation throughout; of understanding Jesus as the true fulfillment of all of the Scripture. But here’s the thing: I don’t think Rachel would disagree with any of that. I don’t assume that she has nothing to teach me. I read into what she’s saying to build up her argument, not to destroy it. For example, I think what she was getting at was nothing less than the well respected hermeneutic of love as expressed in (that old misogynist) Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine:

“If […] a man draws a meaning from [the Scriptures] that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.” (Book I, chapter 36)

 In other words, the Scriptures are summed up in “love God and love your neighbor,” and if a less-than-perfect interpretive technique gets you there, the telos of Scripture has been arrived at. (Of course Augustine was all for scrupulous Biblical interpretation. Be that as it may, this is what he says.)

 I realize that this does not sit well with everyone, especially with those for whom summing up Scripture as essentially and most importantly about loving God and neighbor is a little too open ended. (Wait? Who said that? Oh, yes. Jesus did.) Many of Rachel’s critics assert that if one does not interpret St. Paul to mean that all women everywhere are, by their very nature, unfit for leadership in the church, one is on a slippery slope that ends with tossing out the Bible completely. It’s highly inconvenient, then, that there are a good many people who neither interpret Paul that way nor abandon orthodoxy altogether. It would be so much easier, for them, I suppose, if Rachel Held Evans would just stop wrestling with the Bible altogether and dismiss it as a misogynistic, irrelevant, Bronze-Age text engaging in various power-plays. I suppose it just feels uncomfortable to take her book on its own terms, charitably interpreting it as words from someone claiming Christian, yea, evangelical, faith; rejecting certain interpretations and remaining within orthodoxy while asserting her love for the Bible. It might be protested that Rachel’s detractors are really just preserving ‘doctrinal purity’ and ‘contending for the faith.’ As a former (and sometimes-still) “contender” for various causes myself, I get that. We are free to engage in such pursuits, but we don’t get to toss out the Greatest Commandment and the one “like unto it” in so doing. To paraphrase Marilynne Robinson, claiming a particular kind of religious identity, and marking out its boundaries, is not more important than abiding in the kind of love that that identity should imply.

But then, with such charity, where would the controversy be? And without the controversy, where is the Shakespearean drama; the tragedy, the comedy, and the endless fodder for blog posts like this one?

Then again, Jesus didn’t get a favorable reception from the religious hotshots of his day, either. Maybe love is controversial after all.


Realistic Moments (or, the Bible is a dangerous book)

Some weeks ago, Rachel Held Evans posted some of these funny pictures my dad drew over a decade ago, and they elicited all kinds of responses, some angry, some amused, some whaaats?

I wanted to post them again here, mostly to brag on my dad’s awesome artistic skillz, but also to highlight his own perspective on them.

Dad wrote on RHE’s blog:

For the record, so to speak, I did indeed draw these for my own amusement, over a decade ago.  In doing so I was not for one moment trying to make a mockery of the biblical text.  I am an evangelical Christian, and a rather conservative one at that.  What I was mocking was what my generation called the “Jesus junk” that fills so many Christian bookstore. For the Bible is, whether we like it or not, filled with some dark and scary stories that are definitely not safe for the wee ones.

Put another way, the target of my humor is not the Bible; it is those who make a buck turning the sacred text into sappy sentimentalism.  

The Bible is a strange book, an ancient book, a book that has been used to condone evil (like slavery.)

What say you, readers?

Breastfeeding and Justice

Last week, the popular Christian blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans drew her readers’ attention to mothers living in poverty in places like Bolivia. These women, whom Evans met in person, daily face crucial decisions–educate this child or that one? can we afford books or can we afford food? Evans contrasted these decisions with North American “mommy wars”–debates like breast or bottle (feeding), cloth or disposable (diapers), and Sears or Ezzo (gurus). Such choices, in light of the life and death decisions of mothers in the developing world, may seem unimportant. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter–they do, and maybe even on a global scale.

nursing Graeme just after his birth

Of course, our ability to make choices about parenting styles is a direct result of our relative economic security and privilege. But that doesn’t mean that this ability is trivial or unimportant in light of extreme suffering. In fact, I think that how we choose to live–including how we spend our money and our time (and eating’s a big part of that)–is organically connected to suffering and justice both here and elsewhere. It’s also connected to how we view ourselves in relationship to the Creator and the rest of creation.

Graeme, 1 week old, in cloth diapers. (& missing a sock. It's so hard to keep socks on babies.)

I am fully aware that there are many women for whom formula feeding is the right choice. I have had a number of friends who were (for various reasons) unable to breastfeed their children, either wholly or in part. These women bottle-fed, or supplemented with bottles, and they deserved exactly NONE of the criticism and judgment that all of them faced from breastfeeding advocates who made them to feel that they were inferior mothers for using formula.


1. everyone (even the formula companies) know that ‘breast is best.’

This isn’t debated! It’s even on the formula labels! The composition of  breastmilk is incredibly complex; it contains all kinds of things that science can’t even UNDERSTAND, let alone replicate. It is a wonder of God’s creation.

ALSO? It’s kind to creation. There’s no transporting, no trash, no waste. It’s the original ‘local food’ choice. (Not to mention the choice of those too cheap  thrifty to spend $ on formula if they don’t have to…)

2. NEVERTHELESS, formula companies worm their way into women’s minds…

Used to be, in the ‘progress’-loving Eisenhower years, that people thought of breastmilk as “backward and old-fashioned” and formula as “scientific and progressive.” While that’s faded away, the reach of the formula companies’ ads is still long. I have known many women who, thanks to the long reach of formula marketing, seriously doubted their bodies’ ability to produce enough milk for their babies. 

While this is a ‘lifestyle choice’ for most of us in the West, for women in developing nations, “breast or bottle” is a life-or-death choice. Years ago, Nestle (along with other companies) came under fire from breastfeeding advocates for giving free samples of formula to poor women. But formula must be mixed properly WITH CLEAN WATER, and this was not always available to Nestle’s target consumers. Plus, bottle feeding meant that the mothers’ milk would dry up. And THEN what happened, when the money to by formula dried up?

(I can’t seem to find an owner; I discovered it here–the mother in the picture is reported to have said, “use this picture if you think it will help [raise awareness].”)

Creating dependence on formula among at-risk populations without reliable sources of both clean water and cash is unethical, if not criminal.

designed by Rebecca Clark, http://www.babymilkaction.org

And so…

3. Supporting breastfeeding IS an ethical act.

It’s a responsible way to live as a member of the community of God’s creation. It’s a way of living lightly on the planet while choosing solidarity with the members of our global community who do not have the luxury of choice.

{And if you’re thinking, “hmn, does breastfeeding really even need advocates?”, read this recent piece-on how U.S. hospitals do a “bad job” of encouraging breastfeeding–and think again!}

Some of our ‘mommy choices’ in the West seem trivial in light of the extreme suffering and struggle of mothers elsewhere. But I don’t think they necessarily are trivial–they can have impacts going far beyond our own households. (Imagine if every American chose to borrow or buy used of consuming endless piles of NEW baby stuff?) We who have the luxury of ‘choice’ also have the responsibility to live in such a way so as not to consume so many more times our fair share of global resources.

So by all means, do give aid if you’re able–but consider changing the way YOU live, too. Your choices matter to more than just you.