Thursday, January 28, 2016

Why I am a Barthian

I just finished Gary Dorrien's book The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology. It is a very good theological biography of Karl Barth and the dialectical theology movement he inspired. Its coverage is quite expansive, including many different objections to Barth's theology leveled by other famous modern theologians. Because of such objections, Barth became somewhat infamous. He has long been acknowledged for his great work in subverting liberal theology, but praise for the man has been consistently qualified by a corrective to his theology.

Despite falling in love with Barth at the end of last Fall, diving into his theology, and even establishing him as a subject of my master's thesis, I was taken aback by several of the points brought up by theologians like Bultmann, Brunner, Tillich, and others. Indeed, I even questioned whether or not Barth really should be the subject of so much of my study!

But I'm a Barthian. Still. And I'll tell you why.

Barth's theology, it is often noted, was important for its context. Barth not only subverted liberal theology, but his emphasis on idolatry and his claim of an infinite qualitative distinction between God and humans (along with his moral conscience!) led him to reject German Christianity in the face of Hitler and National Socialism. God cannot be made subject to human structures of power. God cannot be domesticated by humans and their institutions. To do so is to commit idolatry.

This was an important message, people acknowledge, but it served its purpose, and Barth is too problematic to be any more useful.

I disagree. And I'll tell you why.

The baptism of Republican politics and the compromise of Christianity in favor of Republican values constitute what is perhaps the most pressing issue facing the American church today. The fact that Jerry Falwell, Jr. can endorse Donald Trump is a case in point. The idolatry created by the Christian commitment to Republican positions, to the detriment of the Christian stance, calls for a revival of Barth's prophetic theology.

A very bright Marxist friend of mine and I were talking about Marx and Barth's respective views of idolatry. He said Marx objected to idolatry because it made an image of God out of an object when the human constitutes the true image of God. Barth, on the other hand, objected to idolatry because it exalted the human when there is an infinite qualitative distinction between the human and God.

While I think both of these views of idolatry are important and should be used dialectically, I think our confrontation with Republican Christianity calls for making use of Barth's conception of idolatry.

God is relentlessly demanding. If we are to be Christians, we have to be Christians from cover to cover. Christians first. Christians again. And Christians at the finish. Christians uncompromisingly. And God is endlessly subversive to humans and human modes of power. God will not be made subject to a political system of thought. We cannot capture God in our various construals of governance, and will not find God's sanction in any of them. This was Barth's potent message for his German Christian context, and it should be the one we voice in our Republican Christian context.

Are there problems with Barth? Of course. I would not even be a true Barthian if I did not challenge Barth himself. But the profound insights that pervade his theological work and the prophetic challenges he so boldly presented to the church of his time have much to teach us today, and much for us to look to for inspiration.

And that's...well, one of the main reasons why I am a Barthian.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Best of Film in 2015

20. The Black Panthers: The Vanguard of the Revolution

A nuanced look at the Black Panthers--accurately capturing the mission, message, spirit, and significance of their movement, while not idolizing or villainizing them

19. It Follows

A philosophical (!) horror film that, while obviously owing so much to John Carpenter, still managed to make me feel like I was watching something brand new

18. Lost River

Ryan Gosling's directing debut, an artistic and original film that, despite being great, everyone hated

17. The Hateful Eight

Not Tarantino's best, by a long shot, but still a lot of fun with some great signature Tarantino sequences and dialogue

16. Listen to Me Marlon

An innovative documentary that offers a well-rounded portrait of a film legend

15. Hitchcock/Truffaut

A festival of directors' insight

14. Spotlight

A thrilling look at the life of investigative journalists, with a fantastic ensemble and a poignant portrayal of the subject matter

13. The Big Short

An ambitious, strikingly original film that not only accurately captures the financial crisis in a way that isn't boring, but entertains from beginning to end

12. Amy

A complex character study and captivating indictment of American celebrity culture

11. Cop Car

The most pleasant surprise of the year, doing so much with so little

10. What We Do in the Shadows

The funniest new film in a long time

9. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman once again proves to be one of the best at creating poignant human portraits

8. Inside Out

Finally, another wonderful classic from Pixar!

7. Steve Jobs

Fantastically written, with a superb ensemble and top notch direction

6. Going Clear

The fiercest criticism and exposé from a documentary that maintains artistic integrity I think I've ever seen

5. Ex Machina

What a real sci-fi film looks like!

4. Phoenix

A love story unlike anything I've seen before

3. The Revenant

Iñárritu shows his versatility as a director with a film that feels groundbreaking in almost every scene

2. Wild Tales

One of the greatest revenge films of all time

1. Mommy

A highly original, incredibly moving, and relentlessly real film

Best Director:
Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant

Best Screenplay:
Aaron Sorkin for Steve Jobs

Best Actor:
Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs

Best Actress:
Anne Dorval for Mommy

Best Supporting Actress:
Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actor:
Antoine Olivier Pilon for Mommy

Best Soundtrack:
Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight
Honorable Mention: Johnny Jewel for Lost River

Best Comedy:
What We Do in the Shadows

Best Animated Film:
Inside Out

Worst Film of the Year:
Jurassic World

Most Upsetting Oscar Decisions:
Mad Max nominated for Best Picture
Ex Machina not nominated for Best Picture
Mommy not nominated for Best Foreign Film
Aaron Sorkin for Steve Jobs not nominated for Best Screenplay
Carol nominated for best soundtrack (Carter Burwell basically just ripped off Philip Glass)

Best Picture nominations I did not see:
The Martian
Bridge of Spies
Son of Saul

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2015

At one time this year, I was reading everything I could get my hands on concerning poverty; at another, several dystopian novels over the summer; and I finished the year with a lot of grad school reading. Of all the books I read, the following 10 are the ones I am most proud to have read.

10. Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and "The Mystic East"

In my Interrogating Religion class we learned about the deconstruction of the category of religion, tracing its genealogy and questioning its validity. King’s book was one of the texts we read. It tells the story of the creation of the concept of religion in India and offers a lot of insight on the colonialization behind the creation. In addition to being historically eye-opening, King is incredibly insightful philosophically. A master work of post-colonial study, King’s book is definitely worth the read.

9. Shūsaku Endō, Silence

Martin Scorsese is currently making a movie of this book, and after reading it I could not be more excited. It is an incredibly powerful portrayal of the struggles of a missionary in Japan who discovers just how complicated the issue of denouncing one’s faith becomes in the fray of persecution. Moving and poignant, it’s a short read but not an easy one.

8. John Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of “Perhaps”

I’ve got to say, I struggled with this one. At times, I was highlighting whole paragraphs for pages, and at other times I was getting ready to throw the book across the room for being too damn confusing. Caputo is not in any sense an easy theologian to read. While an exhausting read, it is still a worth-while one. Caputo adapts Derrida to theology in compelling ways, and creates dialogues, entertains concepts, and makes claims that promise to surprise conventional theologians. Caputo is an excellent postmodern theologian. He has to be reckoned with—and he’ll give you a run for your money too.

7. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty

I was originally nervous about this book because it was endorsed by The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, but after a couple chapters I realized how valuable a book it is. It stands in the middle of debates in economics between people who follow Jeffrey Sachs’ positivism and William Easterly’s harsh criticism of development experts, and asks, “Sure, but what works?” This work should be the beginning of on-the-ground, case-by-case studies that seek to know the problems natives actually have and the best way of going about aid, in ways that actually benefit those in need. It is a very strong work, and an important one for those interested in poverty issues.

6. Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence

Thomas Oord is one my favorite contemporary theologians. He isn’t afraid to challenge old ways of thinking, but also isn’t simply a nay-sayer. His thoughts come from conviction, are relentlessly concerned with actual human experience, and offer new insights to old questions in a time when it seems like everything has been said a million times, and even simultaneously. I look forward to Oord’s future work, and am glad to see his work is gaining the popularity it deserves.

5. Roberto Sirvent, Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine

A lot has been written on the problem of human suffering, but little (in comparison) has been written on divine suffering. What we have in Sirvent’s work is a theologian engaging just this, discussing the complexities that come along with such a concept, and the criticisms of theologians who defend the doctrine of divine impassibility. In an age that (rightfully) refuses to let the old questions of suffering go, Sirvent’s theology is an important contribution. (Also, I heard there’s a great review of the book in the recent issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal ;)

4. William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

It is often claimed that the U.S. is the frontrunner in providing foreign aid. Look at us—we’re so wonderful, we help the world so much. Trouble comes, however, when one looks closely at the form in which this aid comes. The history of American foreign aid, as offered by Easterly, is imperialism disguised as philanthropy, experts following self-interested agendas in the name of development. The importance of Easterly’s work for those studying development simply could not be overstated.

3. Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion

I fell in love with Barth when I read On Religion, consisting of sections from Church Dogmatics, with a helpful and thought-provoking introduction by Garrett Green. It was in this work where I found that Barth is a true master of suspicion, along with Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Here, his capacity for relentless criticism is displayed in its fullest form. Christian theologians today still have not reckoned fully with Barth’s insight here, and they would do well to study this work closely.

2. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness

I originally started this book in January, but I had to take a break after being so broken up by what I found inside it. This was one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to read. Alexander speaks true when she says a human rights catastrophe is occurring on our watch, and she details that catastrophe in a most convicting and mortifying way. This might be the most important book of our time. It should be read by anyone with a conscience.

1. George Orwell, 1984

I’ve always had trouble reading fiction for some reason, but this summer I decided I wanted to read several dystopian novels. One of the first I read was 1984, and it was never topped. I need say little about how awesome it is, since its imaginative brilliance speaks for itself. One of the greatest books I’ve ever read.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

UN Sustainable Development Dreams: More Nice Ideas from the Beacon of Philanthropic Ideology

“The only consequence of inadequate progress on the solutions suggested by a UN summit is usually—another UN summit.”

– William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts[1]

Fifteen years have passed since the UN established the Millennium Development Goals, and here they are with more goals. The MDG’s were supposed to be realized by 2015, and the new Sustainable Development Goals are set for 2030. There are more goals than before, and these ones are more specific. What can be noted by an overview of these goals is that the UN has, if nothing else, gotten better at describing our dreams of world peace and harmony.
My most fundamental concern with these goals involves taking a step back and asking, Who among us really expects them to be accomplished? Is it not much more likely that in 2030 the UN will release another set of goals, perhaps aimed at 2045? I do not see around negative answers to these questions. Their own verbiage seems to even make way for the possibility of failure. William Easterly has called attention to various “escape clauses” in the goals. The 193 leaders that gathered for the summit are not actually bound to any of their commitments, but in fact are given quite a bit of leeway:
The signatories are committed to “respecting national policies and priorities.” The SDGs, we learn in paragraph 55, are only “aspirational,” with “each Government setting its own national targets.” In case you still don’t get this point, Target 17.15 is to “Respect each country’s policy space and leadership”—that is, to do whatever they want regarding the other 168 targets.[2]

The real message seems to be, “All of these things would be nice, so try to live up to them in the coming years.” But when has this not been the case? When has the UN not had grand goals for acquiring future peace and harmony? The story is an all too familiar one: they come out with goals, in the following decade some modest progress occurs in certain areas of the world, the UN takes credit for it, and then when it comes time they make more goals, which are justified by the meager progress “occasioned” by the previous goals. This logic depends on what Easterly calls a “Blank Slate” reading of contemporary situations, in which so-called experts ignore a country’s history and impose a narrative on the country’s situation.[3]
If these goals are not going to result in any remarkable change, we must ask, What are their function? What is it that these goals do for us time after time? Critical analysis of the UN goals, I think, reveals a supremely ideological function. These goals sustain the status quo by inviting us to think that things are getting better and will be ultimately better soon. The character Don Draper in Mad Men, while pitching an advertisement to the Lucky Strike cigarette company, reflects on the nature of advertising in the following way:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that, whatever you are doing…it’s okay. You are okay.[4]

The sustenance of happiness via reassurance that what you are doing is okay is depicted here as the ideological function of advertising. I find the UN development goals to have the same ideological function.
            In springing from an impulse for the privileged to act—to do something, anything—for the underprivileged, the concern of the UN development goals turns out to be not so much for the benefit of the underprivileged, but for the privileged. Bob Gedolf, organizer of the Live 8 concert which supported the movement to end poverty, stated, “Something must be done; anything must be done, whether it works or not.”[5] This statement makes one suspect that such movement organizing has more to do with alleviating the guilt of the privileged than alleviating poverty.
            In the recently launched Amazon.Smile program, Amazon committed to donating 0.5% of customer payments to a charity of the customer’s choosing—which means you’d have to spend $10,000 in order to donate $50 to charity. Little to no actual aid is given, and the only thing that changes is that the customer can now moralize and feel good about her consumerism.[6] A similar campaign by Starbucks was tellingly launched with the slogan, “It’s not just what you’re buying. It's what you’re buying into.”[7] Slavoj Žižek comments,
The point is that, in buying [coffee], we are not merely buying and consuming, we are simultaneously doing something meaningful, showing our capacity for care and our global awareness, participating in a collective project.[8]

He calls this phenomenon “spiritualized hedonism.” The UN development goals, I claim, offer the same recompense. We do not need to question the systemic conditions which bring about the problems we address; we do not need to critically analyze our own contribution to the suffering of others; we need only to do something—anything. Or, at least, we need to know that there are organizations and bureaucracies taking care of the underprivileged on our behalf. And, we need to think that the underprivileged view our organizations and bureaucracies as agents of positive change. This is the ideological function UN development goals serve, and it is by this ideology that the status quo is perpetuated, and true change fails to be made.
            I join Žižek in calling for more theory, more critical analysis, and less emphasis on immediate action: “There are situations when the only truly ‘practical’ thing to do is resist the temptation to engage immediately and to ‘wait and see’ by means of a patient, critical analysis.”[9] We need to study the conditions which bring about the problems of poverty, government corruption, et al. We need to answer, How have things come to be this way? Who benefits from the status quo? How have the problems been addressed in the past? What was wrong with how they were addressed? How can we hope to approach the issue better? We need to subject our problems to relentless, scrutinizing analysis. Without comprehensive understandings of the issues we address, history is only going to repeat itself and we will only have more empty UN goals in the future.

[1] William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 206.
[2] William Easterly, “The Trouble with the Sustainable Development Goals,” Current History, November 2015.
[3] See Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts, 129–200.
[4] Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” episode 1, July 19, 2007.
[5] Quoted in William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 17.
[6] See Brady Josephson, “Why Amazon Is Smiling and Charities May Be Losing,” The Huffington Post, December 2, 2013.
[7] Quoted in Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (Brooklyn: Verso, 2009), 53.
[8] Ibid., 54.
[9] Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 7.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The 50 Best Songs of 2015

50. "How Could You Babe" by Tobias Jesso Jr.

49. "The Wind (feat. Adam Rhodes)" by Doe Poaro

48. "Never Ending Circles" by CHVRCHES

47. "Bury Our Friends" by Sleater-Kinney

46. "Hyperion" by Windhand

45. "No Other Heart" by Mac Demarco

44. "Times Square" by Destroyer

43. "Lake Song" by The Decemberists

42. "To Die in L.A." by Lower Dens

41. "You Shall Know the Spirit" by Pfarmers

40. "Clearest Blue" by CHVRCHES

39. "Flesh without Blood" by Grimes

38. "Swirl" by Westkust

37. "Apple Cherry" by NAO

36. "Match 4 Remix" by James Murphy

35. "Boys Latin" by Panda Bear

34. "Mr Noah" by Panda Bear

33. "XT" by u-Ziq

32. "Smut!" by Neon Indian

31. "The Less I Know the Better" by Tame Impala

30. "Snakeskin" by Deerhunter

29. "Miniskirt" by Braids

28. "The Blacker the Berry" by Kendrick Lamar

27. "To Get By" by Empress Of

26. "Belle" by Yowler

25. "Lucette Stranded on the Island" by Julia Holter

24. "Feel You" by Julia Holter

23. "Pretty Pimpin" by Kurt Vile

22. "I Need a Minute" by Ariel Pink

21. "Come Back" by Deafheaven

20. "Etsy Point, Summer 1978" by David Borden

19. "Hold Tight" by Jamie xx

18. "Shadow" by Chromatics

17. "No One Is Looking at U (feat. Lorraine)" by Nicolas Jaar

16. "Home" by Holly Herndon

15. "Taste" by Braids

14. "10:37" by Beach House

13. "All of Me Wants All of You" by Sufjan Stevens

12. "Sparks" by Beach House

11. "Alright" by Kendrick Lamar

10. "Baby's Eyes" by Neon Indian

9. "The Three Sides of Audrey and Why She's All Alone Now" by Nicolas Jaar

8. "Grief" by Earl Sweatshirt

7. "Depreston" by Courtney Barnett

6. "Gosh" by Jamie xx

5. "Somewhere Tonight" by Beach House

4. "Wheelhouse" by Kurt Vile

3. "REALiTi (Demo)" by Grimes

2. "No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross" by Sufjan Stevens

1. "Let It Happen" by Tame Impala

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The 40 Best Albums of 2015

40. Amusers and Puzzlers - Sightings

39. Hysteria - Drainolith

38. Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2 EP - Aphex Twin

37. Corn - Arthur Russell

36. Days - Earthly

35. Country Music - Vision Fortune

34. Moonbuilding 2703 AD - The Orb

33. Painted Shut - Hop Along

32. Goon - Tobias Jesso, Jr.

31. La Vie Est Belle - Petite Noir

30. Poison Season - Destroyer

29. On Your Own Love Again - Jessica Pratt

28. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit - Courtney Barnett

27. No Cities to Love - Sleater-Kinney

26. Grief's Infernal Flower - Windhand

25. Portal/Well - Insect Ark

24. Sleeping Tapes - Jeff Bridges

23. Never Were the Way She Was - Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld

22. Every Open Eye - CHVRCHES

21. Art Angels - Grimes

20. Fading Frontier - Deerhunter

19. Remixes Made with Tennis Data - James Murphy

18. Escape from Evil - Lower Dens

17. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper - Panda Bear

16. Elaenia - Floating Points

15. Me - Empress Of

14. Platform - Holly Herndon

13. Deep in the Iris - Braids

12. Nymphs I, II, III, and IV - Nicolas Jaar

11. Music for Amplified Keyboard Instruments - David Borden

10. Have You in My Wilderness - Julia Holter

9. To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar

8. New Bermuda - Deafheaven

7. Thank Your Lucky Stars - Beach House

6. VEGA INTL. Night School - Neon Indian

5. b'lieve i'm goin down - Kurt Vile

4. In Colour - Jamie xx

3. Depression Cherry - Beach House

2. Currents - Tame Impala

1. Carrie & Lowell - Sufjan Stevens

Honorable Mention:
Blossoming Decay - Noisem
Black Messiah - D'Angelo
Revisionist - Sannhet
Blues: The 'Dark Paintings' of Mark Rothko - Loren Connors
I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside - Earl Sweatshirt
Another One - Mac Demarco
The Offer - Yowler