John Caputo Listens to Creed

The cake is a lie.

This post title is also (probably) a lie.

But I continue to find John D. Caputo one of the most interesting living philosophers. He’s written an interesting preface to the Chinese edition of his book What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Entitled “Why the Church Deserves Deconstruction,” it’s an interesting read even if you haven’t read the book and actually serves as a decent introduction to a couple major themes in Caputo’s thought.

Also, and this is completely & utterly unrelated, but I’ve been greatly amused by this awesome new song by Creed:

Poor People Suck

The must-read article of the month is Michael Lewis’ “The End of Wall Street’s Boom.” It is a superb account of our economic crisis and how we got here, as seen through the eyes of a handful of people who predicted it. I thought about quoting snippets, but decided I’d end up quoting most of the piece: it’s really good. After reading this article I went and also read Lewis’ 1989 book Liar’s Poker, the story of his four successful years at Saloman Brothers up to and around the 1987 crash. Though 20 years old by now, it still felt fresh in light of today’s recession.

Lewis’ Portfolio article also serves an unintended purpose: sufficient refutation of the notion that stupid, greedy, lower-to-middle class homebuyers are primarily to blame for our present troubles. This, of course, has been a persistent theme during the last six months and represents standard class prejudice. America hates its poor.
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The Culture of Fear

I read Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things about a year ago. It comes in handy when I read things like this:

Tragic Mistake in Halloween Shooting
SUMTER, S.C. (Nov. 1) – An ex-convict who thought he was being robbed gunned down a 12-year-old trick-or-treater, spraying nearly 30 rounds with an assault rifle from inside his home after hearing a knock on the door, police said Saturday.

It’s a terrible story, of course. But what also saddens me is that more people will read that article and think “OMG trick-or-treating isn’t safe!” than will read that article and think “OMG letting citizens have assault weapons isn’t safe!” I’m sorry, there’s no justifiable reason to let a populace own AK-47s. The poll on AOL confirms my suspicions: Do you think we should ban semi/automatic assault rifles? Do you think trick-or-treating is safe? The majority, at 58%, said no. Which is moronic. Trick-or-treating is safe. Assault rifles are not. Please let your kids beg for congealed sugar. Please do not let your kids think guns are cool.

Also, polls open in 5 hours.

Dear Barack,
Please do not lose.
Love,
Kevin.

Lastly, thank you for praying for me and my family over the weekend. The viewing was Friday, the funeral Saturday, and then we returned Sunday afternoon.

Oh, one more thing: please stop texting me. Whomever you are. My phone does not have texting capabilities anymore since it’s almost 5 years old. So stop. It’s only making me curious. Bi-curious.

“Creating is living doubly.”

In “The Push to ‘Otherize’ Obama” Nicholas D. Kristof has a throwaway paragraph that’s better than the whole rest of the piece:

Just imagine for a moment if it were the black candidate in this election, rather than the white candidate, who was born in Central America, was an indifferent churchgoer, had graduated near the bottom of his university class, had dumped his first wife, had regularly displayed an explosive and profane temper, and had referred to the Pakistani-Iraqi border…

Be sure to also read Bill Saporito’s “How We Became the United States of France”, if not for the content then at least for the brilliant writing. Personally, I have no qualms with admitting my admiration of the French. I just finished reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, one of France’s finest writers. The blurb on the back of my copy calls Camus “aphoristic,” by which I think they simply meant that he’s eminently quotable. A few of my favorites: (more…)

Boy With Curious Sentences

Here, for your amusement, is one single sentence from David Foster Wallace. It’s from the short story “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR.”

[The Account Representative] administered CPR, beating at the soft dent of a chest’s breastbone, alternating quartered beatings with infusions of breath down through the senior striken executive’s full but faintly blue lips and tilted head and into the rising sunken chest, the chest falling, the Account Representative taking affordable time and breath at every possible four-beat pause to call “Help” in the direction of the quiet street as, using CPR, he kept the Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production minimally alive, until help could arrive, as he had been trained and certified by the petite new-Bohemian almond-eyed Red Cross volunteer instructor — by whom, he remembered, all the students had volunteered to be straddled and infused, and whom the Account Representative had, one spontaneous and quartz-lit evening, bought a cup of coffee and a slice of nine-grain toast, and had asked to the Sales Trainees’ Annual Formal, and had married — certified by her to do, one never knowing when it could save a life, he seduced utterly by his fiancee’s dictum that you erred, in doubt, always on the side of prepared care and readiness to preserve minimal life-function, until help could arrive, his arms and lumbar beginning to call “Help” again and loosen his own stiff collar, sweat moving oily on the tight skin beneath his own newer lined topcoat and gray knit clothes, his own breath coming harder as he kept the incapacitated Vice President in Charge of Overseas Prodctuions minimally alive, pending the arrival of help, at well past ten, amid complete emptiness, calling “Help” unheard, the happily married and blankly kind grandfather of one person’s own life now literally the junior executive’s, to have and to hold, for a lifetime, amid swirls of forgotten exhaust, beneath the composed and watchful eye of his decapitated cycle’s light.

I mean really, this one sentence could serve as the complete story. This one sentence is better than half of the entire books on the NYT‘s current bestsellers list.

Part-Time Hitchhiking For Fun And Profit

I’m back in Columbus again after a weekend in Cleveland/Sandusky for Dan Gifford’s wedding. I hitched a bit both ways for a total of about 100 miles. The rest via rides with Katie, Kraig, and Brenton. I will do a trip report tomorrow since I’m too exhausted tonight. Here’s some Douglas Coupland (from Life After God) instead:

…I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.
But then I must remind myself we are living creatures – we have religious impulses – we must – and yet into what cracks do these impulses flow in a world without religion? It is something I think about every day. Sometimes I think it is the only thing I should be thinking about.

The Gospel from Outer Space

Back to our regularly scheduled programming. Here’s an excerpt from Slaughterhouse-Five by the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut:

…The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.
But the Gospels actually taught this:
Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought:
Oh, boy – they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
And that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things in said in the Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

Moral of the story: don’t be rude to the bum-looking old man eating alone in McDonald’s, because he might just end up giving you $20 to help you hitchhike to Seattle and then you’ll feel like an asshole for traveling 2000 miles and yet still being a shallow narcissist.

A Young Person’s Guide to OMGWTF

Alpha Sigma hosted a used book sale this week to raise money for the org — and we earned enough extra to buy a llama, a goat, and two chickens through WorldVision. We named them Kierkegaard (llama), Nietzsche (goat), Plato and Aristotle (chickens), which is sure to thrill the 3rd world family that receives them.

I got a couple books out of the sale as well. One is titled 50 Days to Welcome Jesus to My Church: A Young Person’s Guide. On page 11, however, is a young person’s guide to something very, very different.

The verse accompanying this illustration was Matthew 6:4 “…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” I assume they meant my Roman Catholic father.

Books are neat. You should read one. These nerds agree:

Derrida via Claiborne

Like many students, I was saddened to learn on January 30th that Shane Claiborne’s expected campus event had been canceled. In one sense it was simply disappointing that we missed an opportunity to listen and dialogue with Claiborne in person. More importantly, the incident was disappointing in what it revealed about the “forces for status quo” (to use John Edwards’ phrase), or the length to which the foot soldiers of legalistic fundamentalism will go in order to silence an “ordinary radical” whose message of love, peace, and justice are simply too extreme for this campus. Personally, I’m particularly drawn to Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution because it seems to me an important picture of “The Great Law of Hospitality”; that is, the ethics of Jacques Derrida.

The juxtaposition of Shane Claiborne and Jacques Derrida is, at first blush, more than a little odd: one a young American hippie, the other a deceased French theorist. However, Derrida’s connection to Claiborne and Derrida’s immense relevance to this campus is perhaps best encapsulated in his claim that “ethics is hospitality.” For Derrida, unconditionally welcoming the foreigner — the Other — is the very meaning of justice.

As he tells the story, the history of philosophy or Western ideas is the history of exclusion. All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, it is a history that is hell-bent on erecting binaries: male/female, rational/irrational, objective/subjective, inside/outside, presence/absence, fact/opinion, and so forth. The former is always privileged and the latter always sidelined, dominated, oppressed. To be male, rational & factual, was supposedly clearly superior to being female, irrational & opinionated. Derrida’s goal, among and with many others, is to subvert — he says “deconstruct” — this traditional arrangement to demonstrate the inter-dependence of both concepts. For example, it does not make sense to speak of being inside unless there is an outside with whom it is contrasted; there are also spaces which destabilize the binary even more by being both/neither inside and outside. Derrida does not want to invert the binary, so that being outside is better/greater than being inside, but rather make the two live in tension between the forces of violence that would pull them apart or have one subjugate the Other.

Most relevantly to us today, we need to see that the marginalized Other in our society is undoubtedly the sick, the poor, the downtrodden, the impoverished, the “least of these.” In the face of these, Derrida calls us to an impossible task: unconditional hospitality. The impossibility of such a demand is the very condition of the call itself, the very reason it ought to nag us by day and haunt us at night. Furthermore, this call contains in itself immense risk: there is no guarantee that an unqualified openness to the Other won’t bring personal danger, harm, tragedy. This is justice, Derrida says, for it invites the foreigner inside (our home, our space, our koinos, our heart) without question and without demand.

Enter Shane Claiborne. For I am convinced that Irresistible Revolution, a humble book that is certainly otherwise than philosophy, sketches a brilliant picture of what a life of unconditional hospitality might look like. Claiborne’s simple call is to love; love deeply, generously, excessively. Most importantly, do this to the unlovable.

Last fall, after reading Claiborne’s book, I attempted to commit myself to giving and welcoming unconditionally. One night I went to Dayton to spend on a 2-hour movie what one billion humans earn as a week’s wage. As I left The Neon I was approached by Jesus, disguised as a beleaguered white woman and her boyfriend. I don’t remember whether it was to see a long-lost brother or just escape the impending winter, but she wanted bus tickets and so I gave her money and wished them well. Not 20 feet onward I came across Jesus again, this time in the form of a scraggly black man who wanted to eat at Arby’s. There’s no doubt that the beggar and I should’ve shared a meal together, but opening my arms to a dirty Jesus seemed more difficult and so I just gave him some bills. The third time I saw Jesus was just minutes later, when a beggar began heading towards me from a ways down the sidewalk. I immediately began to think of excuses: that the price of my evening had already doubled, that I was “poor” too, that I “needed” to get home, that giving unconditionally was just getting to be too hard. And so I turned a blind eye and crossed to the other side of the street. Was there ever a more disgusting, obviously Pharisaical act? That my Savior passed His three tests, that He died on the cross, that He rose again on the third day, that is only what saves a wretch like me.

You see what Derrida and Claiborne were driving at is an ethical demand that’s too radical for us to handle, almost even comprehend. It was just as radical 2000 years ago when a Nazarene carpenter first proclaimed these truths. The Sermon on the Mount is so outrageous that it’s still unwelcome today, banned even from our Christian university. For if we truly unconditionally welcomed the Other — the unwanted, the marginalized, the destitute, even our enemies — our lives would require such radical re-constitution that we’d be shaken to the core. Wouldn’t we as individuals, as communities, as towns, and as a nation ultimately conduct ourselves very, very differently? Would we any longer bless the pre-emptive war-mongers, so that they might inherit the earth? Would we any longer tolerate cowboy imperialism, pretending that it represents the kingdom of heaven? Does unconditional hospitality erect a 2000-mile fence to keep out Unwanteds and Outsiders? Does unconditional giving mean HMO bureaucracy just to treat a sick child? To turn the other cheek and to give (not invest) our last dollar: these are the demands of that wandering Christ we claim to follow. Welcoming — not bombing — the poor, tired, and huddled masses is undoubtedly a risky proposition. Our Jesus, however, does not call us to safety or economic efficiency; He calls us to love. It’s so simple. To love extravagantly beyond all measure, because that is how our Father in Heaven loves us. This is a love that can transform my life, and yours, and all of us here at this Christ-ian university, so that next time Jesus wants to visit us in the disguise of a long-haired hippie from Philadelphia we unequivocally say Yes, please. Welcome.

2007 book list

As part of my year-end recap, here’s the list of books I read this year. I had a half-hearted goal of reading a book/week and almost made it — currently comes out to almost 1 every 8 days. I also read a lot of essays & articles, particularly in philosophy, so this isn’t really an accurate account of what I read over the last 12 months; really just the monographs I read cover-to-cover. If you want my opinion on a particular book or any recommendations, leave me a comment.

Fiction:
1. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
2. Budding Prospects by T.C. Boyle
3. Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
5. Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
7. No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
8. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
10. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
11. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
12. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
13. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
14. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Non-fiction:
15. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
16. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
17. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain by Michael Paterniti
18. Elvis is Titanic: Classroom Tales from the Other Iraq by Ian Klaus
19. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
20. Magical Thinking: True Stories by Augusten Burroughs
21. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
22. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman
23. Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World by Sarah Vowell
24. Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show by Geoffrey Nunberg
25. The Atomic Times: My H-Bomb Year at the Pacific Proving Ground by Michael Harris
26. The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story by Ken Dornstein
27. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner
28. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen
29. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne
30. The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs
31. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson
32. The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
33. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo
34. What is the What by Dave Eggers

Philosophy:
35. After the Death of God by Gianni Vattimo & John D. Caputo
36. Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein
37. Future(s) of Philosophy: The Marginal Thinking of Jacques Derrida by Gary Percesepe
38. Gorgias, Sophist and Artist by Scott Consigny
39. How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith by Crystal L. Downing
40. Jacques Derrida: Live Theory by James K.A. Smith
41. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge by Jean-Francois Lyotard
42. The Predicament of Postmodern Theology: Radical Orthodoxy or Nihilist Textualism? by Gavin Hyman
43. What Would Jesus Deconstruct? by John D. Caputo
44. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? by James K.A. Smith

I believe that I believe

Research log:
I finished James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? earlier this week and am wrapping up Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernim Serves (My) Faith (“Question Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art”). In the back of the book she has a list of resources that were helpful to her and one of them is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Postmodern” by one Gary Percesepe. The name jumped out at me because Gary Percesepe taught philosophy at Cedarville for a number of years and, I think, is the founder of CU’s Honors program. I could only find the article on microfiche (Dec ’90 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review) and I’d highly recommend it to you, my enterprising readers. The article is more amazing in light of how controversial postmodernism has been at Cedarville in the last couple years — yet here’s a sympathetic voice from 17 years earlier. I may try to put the whole thing online soon, but here’s an excerpt:

“The postmodern conversation after all is our conversation, and it is we postmoderns who shall have to live amidst the fragments of a world whose unraveling can be traced back to the work of our own hands, doing what we have always done — making and unmaking texts of meaning. This is no mindless, deathlike nihilism; it is merely the realization that it is the discourse of modernity, after all, that has put forward the unpresentable in its own presentation, moving the conversation along until now. The mark of the postmodern is the stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable. Rather than strive for the unattainable in the shadow of the total, the postmodern searches for newer presentations, if for no other reason than to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. The postmodern marshals resistance to the totality, knowing that the price of the illusion that one can have it all is terror. And we have had enough of the terror of the totality, we moderns” (pg 129).

Also particularly good is his discussion at the end of Kundera and the lightness/play of postmodernism vs. the heaviness/gravitas of modernism.

So now I’m reading lots of Dr Percesepe. Intertext published a good (if uneven) short story of his called “Missionary” and I very much enjoyed an Enterzone piece entitled “The Way You Live Now” (and three poems of his at Enterzone). Also recommended is the short essay Reflections on the Integration of Faith, Learning and Life” which features a story from his Cedarville days. Percesepe was editor for a time of Antioch Review but I haven’t yet located any of his work published therein. OTOH, The Mississipi Review has published nine pieces, mostly prose. None of it philosophy per se, so take a look. I’m still wading through the MR stuff myself.

Here’s a schedule of what’s next:

Deconstruction: A Reader, will probably skip most essays except:

  • “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing” – Richard Rorty
  • “Jacques Derrida: Wholly otherwise” – Emmanuel Levinas
  • “God is not differance” – John Caputo
    The whole end of this reader has eulogies by Derrida which I’ll probably get to, plus an “Open Letter to Bill Clinton” from Derrida.Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology looks good through-and-through (features John Searle, William Alston, Roderick Chisolm, Donald Davidson, and Gilbert Harman). The last chapter is Richard Rorty’s critique/response to all five essays so I may skip them and just read him to save time and just because Rorty is my homeboy.

    I will probably read a lot in Postmodernism: A Reader just because of who’s in it (Baudrillard, Rorty, Lyotard, Habermas) and I’m particlarly excited to read Gianni Vattimo’s “The Structure of Artistic Revolutions.” Vattimo has intrigued me since his collaboration with Rorty in The Future of Religion. Vattimo’s Belief also contains a fantastic story of postmodern faith:

    “…One hot afternoon I made a telephone call, from an ice-cream shop near a bus stop in Milan, to Gustavo Bontadini, a distinguished representative of ‘neoclassical’ Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Although I did not share his theoretical theses, I felt bound to him by deep affection and admiration. The call was about the competitive examination for a university chair. As we were both members of the examining commission, we had some confidential academic business to discuss. But while we were still greeting each other, Bontadini, with whom I had not spoken for a long time, shifted to fundamental matters, asking me suddenly whether at bottom I still believed in God. I don’t know whether my response was conditioned by the paradoxical situation in which the question aros: next to the telephone was a table of women, eating ice cream and drinking orange juice in the heat. So I answered that I believed that I believed” (pg 69-70).