Obama’s Crusades

Original post at The Common Vision

Snce all of this nonsense about the Crusades has been going on quite long enough, I think it’s time for an intervention, and since the discussion has heated to the point of righteous anger, I think some pugnacity is appropriate. To review: President Obama made a rather boneheaded and apparently off-script comment at the National Prayer Breakfast:

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

The conservative responses have been predictably vitriolic but a bit more prolific than usual, adding a touch of pettiness to the backlash. I blame this on the lame duck lull while the President is still relevant, but he’s shown all of his cards and everyone is too tired of him to comment on anything more interesting than his holier than thou attitude. Meanwhile liberal exegetes have taken up the challenge of either defending Obama’s invocation or interpreting his comments so literally as to suggest that he intended no comparison at all between ISIS’s atrocities and those of the crusades.

Probably the most reasonable response is to point out that the President is being falsely self-deprecating since he is the sort of Christian who is not stung by bringing up the church’s past misdeeds, but this does little to cool an argument, (as Ta-Nehisi Coates this week proved) so I propose another method: take this eruption as an opportunity to do some honest reading about the Crusades and stop being so serious about history that, on a normal day, takes up none of our waking hours. I loathe the American habit of ignoring history until somebody brings it up, and then acting as though it’s nothing but a great heap of moral tinder ready to be ignited by the flame of present grievances.

Rodney Stark’s book God’s Battalions is just the sorbet needed to cleanse our peppery palates. Stark’s name is sure to turn up the noses of those on the liberal side of the argument–as his partisan style makes no bones about his fondness for Western civilization over and against its many alternatives–but he is not in fact a Christian apologist. He’s about as religious as Obama is, just with a different ideological temperament.

Stark’s book, was written with the intention of diabusing modern minds from many of the more pernicious myths associated with the Crusades–it was proto-colonialism, Western lords and lordlings enriched themselves with the treasures of the east, the Crusaders were crueler and more uncouth than any other faction involved, the persecution of Jews was systematic–but its stubborn adherence to the facts sets it far off from a celebration of that period as something anyone should be really proud of.

Instead, Stark writes the Crusades true to what it was: a grand and terrible contest between competing civilizations. Sometimes it was a grand mess. It had larger than life personalities–including one scandinavian knight who purportedly punched a horse in the skull, killing it instantly–mishaps, betrayals, heroes and villains. It’s very fun to read about, and I’d highly recommend that one do so. He points out that the Muslim world went along untroubled by the memory of the contest (in which they came out proving their own martial prowess and valor about as often as the soldiers of the cross) until anti-colonial voices of the 19th and 20th Centuries started using them as an allegory for the Modern West’s abusive relationship with weaker nations.

Stark’s book is an invitation to not take all history, particularly those periods that are at a considerable chronological and ideological remove, so damned seriously. Anyway, the truth is that we moderns (Western AND non-Western) have a lot less at stake in a period like the Crusades than this debate would have us think. There are layers to reading history. Certainly there is that of serious moral reflection, but one typically needs to earn that level by careful study or proximity (both chronological and geographical) to the event in question.

There is another, more sensible layer for those of us in the far flung present: that of the epic poem, the nursery rhyme, the embellished legend, the kind of sensibility that turns the unimaginable darkness of global pandemic into “Ring Around The Rosy.” There’s a wisdom to this, overlooked in our polarized present, that says “we’re at such a far remove from this time, this place, that we would probably do it an injustice to try and recreate the living experience of this time or that event, but we can’t forget it.” This is a sense that acknolwledges a humility before the very being of the event, the time, the person, whomever or whatever in the past we’re considering, and admits that we may not be able to comment on it with words beyond what a child could learn and repeat. So we sing, we tell stories, distill it down to its important bits so that we do not forget, but at the same time we practice enough humility not to think that our critical method amounts to a time machine that can put us right back on the muddy lanes of Acre or in the Saladin’s horde and pass judgment on the matter. This doesn’t entirely sideline moral considerations, but it leaves it to another time and another people than ourselves, preferably those who were not so far removed from the time and place to speak most authoritatively on the matter. Certainly, there are some atrocities that are so infamous that they will rightly resist any lighter treatment, but the Crusades–largely a symbolic contest between volunteer armies–is not one of them. We cannot treat every instance of war or conquest like the Holocaust and come out looking anything but simple.

But our pundits, liberals and conservatives alike, are not disposed to take this wondrous view of history, especially when politics is at stake. They’re all like the train of dour flagellants in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Sealwho break up the mummers’ performance, drowning out comedy and creativity in favor of asceticism and doomsaying. I don’t appreciate their tone, not because I am against moral judgments of history, but because the rush to that judgment shortchanges the relish of reading history. There’s a lot of fun to be had reading our red and rowdy past, and we ought not shortcut that sense of fascination and wonder so that we can get straight to what we think of it all.

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The Trouble with the Liberal Response to Charlie Hebdo

I’m  rebooting my blog in order to publish thoughts that are outside the specifically Christian forum of thecommonvision.org (and therefore, less considered! I implore you to pick me apart in the comments, dear readers.)

It seems to me that maintaining the free press has always included a defense of offensive content. It also seems to me that a free press is always in need of defense. So I completely disagree with anyone who supposes that free speech is something that has been so firmly established in the West that it is no longer necessary to inspect its foundations and outer limits to detect where the foundations may be cracking.

I look at inflammatory speech like a disclosing tablet. It is not news that controversial speeches or images gets a response, even a violent response, but it’s the response to the response that’s worth paying attention to, because that will tell you something about the health of the first freedom.

The “debate” (if one can call it that) surrounding the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, whether the cartoonists deserved it for their offensiveness or were “asking for it” commits the same fault that I’ve written against before: the presumption that the freedoms enjoy in liberal society are, by now, so firmly established that they need not be contended for. In this latest case of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, Liberal pundits are the ones committing this last error. It is their own scruples that push them to it, not a secret dislike of liberty. They recognize that Charlie Hebdo’s content was deliberately provocative and distasteful. Good liberals are always very concerned about how the West treats other nations and other cultures, setting a high bar for respect of non-Western peoples. This is not a perspective to be disdained in the wake of the shootings, but it is one that, on its own, is not always on the side of liberty or reason, as many of the high-profile reactions to the attack are making clear.

This latest attack is a painful reminder of the murderous intentions of some non-Western people (whom I label as such because they seem to have a particular animus toward the West that cannot be appeased by any amount of deference or respect for their culture.) This is what leads Jon Stewart to say something as out of character as “our goal tonight is not to make sense of this since there is no sense to be made of it” right after placing Charlie Hebdo and all other political opponents on the side of “Team Civilization.”  It’s what leads someone like Ezra Klein to sound a bizarre call ignore context, history, motivation, or politics and that the murders “can only be explained” as an isolated case of madness. Klein’s website’s mission (Vox.com) is usually to put everything neatly into context and expressed in as many graphs and charts as it takes to explain events beyond their first impressions. I wonder whether anyone now writing at Vox thought it was a good idea to resist the contextual questions swirling around the Newtown massacre:  America’s gun problem and lack of care for the mentally ill. But their answer in this case is: don’t connect this to any larger program or threat that might end up indicting a people group (even, it seems, the culture of radical Islamism!)

This seems to me, a flight not only from courage but clear thinking as well. It is false to say that these murderers do not represent anyone or any ideology beyond themselves. Connecting the dots from 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo, we can see that this is a laughable position to hold. Of course the murderers do not represent all of Islam, but it does mean that they represent a thriving and exportable ideology that finds Muslim adherents everywhere from France to Nigeria. It is unreasonable to say that Western liberties (like freedom of speech) have no consistent ideological enemy in radical Islamism. We ought to rush to define it so that the idea that violent spectacle and terrorism represents Islam itself does not take root. Charlie Hebdo was brave enough to define it, albeit satirically, in the pages of their magazine. While one may not support the style in which they did it or even the contours of their definition, it would be foolish let continue the project of defining the enemies of Western liberty drop for fear of reprisal.

Respect for non-Western people is, I think, a good worth pursuing, but it ought not come at the expense of the foundations of the liberal order, which I don’t think anyone liberals most of all, wants to go away. On a personal note, it is hard for me to take liberal calls to prudence seriously when attacks on traditional Christianity and other religions closer to home is the regular domain of liberal critics. I daresay liberals would believe free speech to be under attack if the ability to criticize Christianity were to be suddenly denied. But partisan cheap shots aside, the truth is that nobody, liberal or conservative, religious or none, really wants a free and open society that allows all kinds of speech, but we all need it, at least if we want to keep on acting like we’re free.

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The Common Vision

Hello all,

I’d like to welcome you to my new website, The Common Vision.  It is a Christian journal of religion and culture.  On it you’ll find just the sort of stuff I post here but from a variety of different contributors.  It’s already a lively community, so please feel free to click around, make comments and join in on the discussion on cultural, political, and theological issues.  All are welcome!

I’ll still be updating my blog with quotes and other interesting things so keep me in your RSS.  

Follow us on Twitter  @thecommonvision




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The Multiverse: Fantasy Fiction’s New Deity


Every moving fantasy adventure tale elevates its audience to some sort of transcendence.  Luke discovers the ways of The Force, Frodo discovers the Ring, Neo discovers the Matrix, Harry discovers the world of wizardry, Jack discovers the secret power below the Island.  In each story, the adventurers onscreen, and the audience vicariously, is invited to peek behind the curtain of reality to glimpse what it’s really all about.  The transcendental power usually also functions as the story’s moral universe, showing our hero his true purpose for living.  The adventurer, in order to overcome, must learn to act in concert with the transcendental power or use it as it was meant to be used.  Luke has to discover not only the force but how to use it without succumbing to the Dark Side.  Frodo can’t indulge in the power the Ring without being corrupted.  This double purpose of enlightenment and morality shows the essentially religious character of the modern adventure fantasy.  It could even be said that these stories feed off of the natural human desire for God–the discovery of a source of benevolent strength in the midst of violence and strife and a peaceful home to reach at journey’s end.

But in 21st Century we’re seeing a new deity rise in fantasy adventure fiction:  the multiverse.  The multiverse is the idea that there are infinite variations of our own world that exist beyond our reality.  It may not be merely fictional, it’s actually a scientific hypothesis that some very smart people believe is true.  Without getting into whether or not it satisfies scientific or philosophical standards for explaining reality, we can certainly judge its effect on fiction and whether or not it satisfies our need for adventurous drama.

It is fitting that the most complete treatment of the multiverse occurred in a video game.  Bioshock: Infinite was one of the most anticipated video games of last year, the sequel to 2007’s Bioshock.  Bioshock was a taut psychological horror trip through a dystopian underwater city.  Its philosophical depth and clever plot twists were surprisingly affecting, and after finishing it, it leaves the player with the sense that they have just watched a good film.  For its follow up, director Ken Levine and Irrational Studios prepared the ultimate American nightmare.  A war between extreme nationalism and violent class rebellion set on a literal city in the clouds.  The game does not disappoint.  It is a mind-blowing trip through impressively rendered environments that seem as real as they do fantastical.  The political savagery is well realized.  The game’s two factions, The Founders and the Vox Populi, are affecting amalgams of real-life American extremisms.  In the middle of it all, you, a disgraced hero must rescue an imprisoned princess from a tower.


Much of the game is a familiar action fantasy pastiche.  You, the hero, must escort your charge from one battleground to the next, running and gunning, trying to escape, like some bloody steampunk vision of The Empire Strikes Back.  But things quickly start to go wonky, and this is where the game really gets interesting.  Though the year is 1912, you start hearing people humming Beach Boys and CCR, player-piano versions of Tears for Fears.  Clearly, history has not traveled along the same rails as our world.  Elizabeth, the imprisoned princess, turns out to have the ability to open gates to other times and places where history has followed a different trajectory.  The two of you skip carelessly between worlds until you’re not even sure whether you are in the same reality as the one you started in.


By the end all is revealed and the source of transcendence discovered.  There are an infinite number of worlds out there and therefore, an infinite number of “yous.”  As it turns out, you are all over the place.  The religious fanatic Zachary Comstock is actually another “you” from a timeline in which you’ve been baptized to wash away your past sins and became a zealot, founded the floating city and reached through time to steal the daughter of the “you” that did not accept baptism and instead went on to have a child, become a drunkard and sell his daughter for a chance at a clean slate.  The princess in the tower is your daughter and the multiple histories your choices have birthed all come around to the same evil ends.  Comstock steals your child, you go after her to save her, but you always fail.  It is finally revealed that the only way to save the world is to return to the moment of decision and reject both baptism and life.  As you drown in the baptismal waters, all the evil your choices begot dissipates around you.

This long synopsis is all very confusing, but trust me, it makes for a pretty riveting and even emotional head trip.  But then, it ends with no small tinge of letdown.  While the multiverse has some potential for psychological reflection it ultimately spells the end of true transcendence in fantasy fiction.  Instead of introducing the hero to ethical imperatives driven by hidden elemental realities, the multiverse just opens up more space and more possibile ways for you to screw things up (or do things well, but as Bioshock: Infinite explains, it doesn’t matter how many times you get it right, as it cannot ameliorate the amount of times you get it wrong).  Instead of a secret Truth that shows you the right albeit difficult path to overcoming evil, it’s revealed that evil and good are really just the extreme ends of infinite possible choice.

Mike Stokhlasa of Redlettermedia.com, a website that produces reviews of movies that are irreverent as they are insightful said of 2009’s Star Trek (which uses the multiverse conceit to reboot the franchise)  the idea that there are multiple universes is a more problematic reveal than it initially appears.  “Wouldn’t you just feel really insignificant?”  Dramatically speaking, he has a point.  Dramatic tension is necessarily dependent upon limits, death being the most important one.  The finality and permanence of death creates the will to live.  Also, the promise of setting things right once and for all gives the audience hope that things might turn out well.  Choices have consequences that cannot be reversed, only forgiven or avenged.  But factoring into your story other worlds where things go differently means that whatever happens to the main characters, there are always alternatives happening in parallel, so it matters little what happens to our immediate heroes.

Instead of an infinite God you are introduced to your infinite self.  Could this be a perfected mythological realization of narcissism, like looking into a double mirror and seeing an infinite extension of reflections staring back?  If so this makes Bioshock: Infinite’s suicidal ending not only appropriate but archetypal for a multiverse story.  Faced with an infinite inescapable self, the only way to avoid the consequences of your (inevitable) mistakes is to cease living.  It all tends toward the abolition of man.  Without transcendence, you’re stuck with yourself, an infinite menagerie of of good and bad (mostly bad, if you’re as pessimistic as Ken Levine), and the only way to prevent your harm of others is to remove yourself from the equation.  Bioshock: Infinite is not the first multiverse story to end in suicide.  Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (one of my favorite psychodramas) ends the same way.  Ultimately, it’s why I appreciate Levine and Kelly.  They are ready to take their setup to its only logical conclusion and even make it an emotional experience.  But the abolition of man is, after all, the end of consciousness and thus, the end of drama, and stories altogether.


Perhaps this amounts to the maturing of fantasy fiction, but if it does, then I’m not sure I want anything to do with it.  I suppose that it results from the desire to get away from the theological element of fantasy fiction.  We’ve swallowed whole the notion that religion amounts to immaturity as it creates a big cuddly deus ex machina in the sky (an image not so subtly inserted in to Bioshock: Infinite, in the character of a monstrous mechanical bird that keeps Elizabeth locked up in her tower) projecting the comoforting feeling of our parents onto the unknown.  But if religious believers project a cosmic person, then I charge the proponents of the multiverse with projecting a cosmic dice-roll: mathematics and probability imagined as positive, metaphysical reality.  Dramatically speaking, I’d much prefer a Deus ex Machina.  At least it makes for a good story.  It’s not that the multiverse breaks logic, it breaks drama and leads to an uncomfortably de-humanizing self-effecement.  Maybe some sorts of stories were never meant to “mature.”  Actually, I just have trouble with the idea that genres of fiction “mature.”  How does that work?  I thought people just wrote stories that are either poorly conceived or well-conceived, and executed them in their various media either artfully or badly.  (Better let that one lie for now.  Subject of a different post maybe.)

Despite all this, I believe that the multiverse is not a passing plot point, but will continue to become a more frequent fantasy staple in film and popular novels for one reason, and it’s not a surprising one given the state of modern fantasy fiction.  “There are infinite worlds” means there are infinite ways to retell, repackage, reboot, and resell the same story.  In a way, the multiverse is the perfect excuse to not write anything new.  It is already a well-worn conceit in comic book fiction, the accepted canonical metaphysic of both the Marvel and DC Universes.  The multiverse will endure in fantasy fiction because things that are profitable, modern, and hold the pretension of sophistication tend to become the order of the day.

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You know who ne…

You know who needs to find their voice and use it right now? Conservative Christian pastors and leaders. Christians need to seriously reconsider uncritical support for a political party that prioritizes lavishing subsidies on the agribusiness rich while telling the poor to sit quietly and wait for scraps.

– From The Monty Burns Republicans by Rod Dreher on The American Conservative

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“We are all born two drinks shy of happiness.”

gordon-hs09Gordon Keith, lead funnyman for Dallas’s great cult radio station, Sportsradio 1310: The Ticket has written a column for the Dallas Morning News about the suspiciously widespread habit of mind that supports frequent and often heavy alcohol consumption.  It also sparked an accompanying discussion on his radio show, the Dunham & Miller show–being in on the inside joke that is The Ticket is one of the built-in compensations for growing up in the drab Dallas area.  It’s really one of the most profound breaches of taboo that I’ve had the pleasure to read.  It goes beyond simply reminding people to retain some indefinable level of moderation that staves off both alcoholism and legalism alike.  Keith asks tough questions about the human need for alcohol and our cultural inability to question it.

“I got a promotion.  Let’s have a drink.  

I didn’t get the promotion.  Let’s have a drink.  

Alcohol is the prescription and the accepted response for all life’s experiences, even opposing ones. Part of this is cultural. But most of it’s human.”

I think Keith is wise to treat alcohol consumption as something other than a deeply ingrained social illness and instead ask why we live in a society that can’t seem to bring itself talk about it.  The only time the subject comes up is when someone asks you if he can get you one or alternatively why on earth you just said you don’t want one.  Turning down a drink is not the same thing as saying “no, I don’t want fries with that.”

“Not all alcohol consumption is bad, but most of it remains unexamined. How many bad decisions have been made under the fuzzy blanket of alcohol? How many mornings have been salted with the detective work of piecing together the previous night? How many afternoons have been christened with new drinks to swallow old shame? It’s a carousel that some stay on because they think carousels are fun. Maybe they are, but they don’t go anywhere.”

It fascinates me that Keith, a self-proclaimed liberal, has come to train his critical eye on a cultural sacred cow that is only assailed by rural fundamentalists.  Here, his locality probably has something to do with it.   Keith, like pretty much all Dallas folk over 40, grew up in church, though he is not a conservative.   The religion-tinged cosmopolitan environment of the DFW area is the fecund field that allowed this liberal reformist cross-examination of alcohol to sprout, and I think it’s a unique and unusual specimen.  It’s just funny it comes from a shock jock radio personality who is best remembered for his crass impersonations of Jerry Jones.  This isn’t his first thoughtful column proving he has a mind beyond the potty humor, but I think it is his most important.

It reminds me of an article I wrote for my college newspaper called “The Sacrament of Alcohol” that I decided not to publish because the subject matter was too sensitive for my immediate social group.  Keith too, in the radio discussion expresses similar feelings, saying that he told his editor to pull the article if he thought they should.  Talking about alcohol immediately sends people back to prudery and prohibition.  I think I’m going to rewrite it now that Keith has opened the way again.  It should probably involve some examination of the recent craft brewing craze, (which I’m currently inclined to think is a positive thing for the American attitude toward alcohol) but the overriding reality is that alcohol is probably our culture’s most ritually observed social sacrament and it is very difficult to persuasively propose that we loosen our grip on it.

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Douthat and the Moral Case for Immigration Reform


Ross Douthat, a writer I have come to read voraciously and respect greatly, has finally run crossways with me on the immigration bill. He is a fullblown skeptic of the current bill, and has convinced me that it’s probably nothing better than an alliance between Democrats and business Republicans. But he has not convinced me that its main aims: amnesty and increasing low-skilled immigration are not worth pursuing. Of course, as usual, he has good reasons to think what he thinks. Increasing low-skilled immigration will be hard on the working classes by increasing competition at a time when joblessness is still a problem, assimilation is stagnant, or at least it appears to be, the increase in low-skilled immigration is a little too good for Republican businessmen who want low-wage labor, and amnesty, the part of the bill that has drawn most of the liberal moralistic fervor, is an incentive for continued illegal immigration.

What I cannot get past is Douthat’s (like Romney’s) insistence on increasing only high-skilled immigration. It makes sense I suppose. An information-oriented skillset will help immigrants attain the sort of work that is more available in our digital age. But these practical considerations fail to include any of the moral spirit of uplift and charity that has always hovered around the dream of coming to America. It seems to me that when the populist phrase is invoked that “this country was built by immigrants” it should be remembered that it was built by poor immigrants who displayed some remarkable ingenuity in overcoming the many obstacles that stood in the way of their achieving a place among the middle class. Furthermore, the insistence on “high-skilled immigration” opens Republicans up to the same charges of elitism that they so effectively deploy against New York liberals and the media. It might be better to try for a more consistent approach to class considerations. The moral aims of immigration policy have always been with us and they are as persuasive as ever, certainly more moving than fear of a stagnant economy. The “rags to respectability” story is still a relevant mythology amongst Americans and would-be Americans, and it may do more harm than good to any party who favors shutting out the ragged in favor of “high skilled” immigrants.

Personally speaking for a moment, it is not clear from my own present experience that assimilation has stalled. Ross argues from data, which he graciously does not use to whap ordinary folk over the head with superior knowledge, but it does not always line up with my own experience, which is admittedly limited, but it’s all I have beyond the graphs. The immigrants and children of immigrants that I know are quite well assimilated, in that they are thoughtful, articulate, socially involved, and I and they are on a common pathway to gainful employment. The only difference is that their fortunes are not quite as vouchsafed to financial security as my own since I have a well-connected and established family network of wealth, but this of course is just what they are building.

As for amnesty, I do not think the idea is unassailable by reason or prudence, but I do think it is important to remember that our immigration caps have been seriously disproportionate since the elimination of country-specific quotas (which were admittedly racist). What are backlogged hopefuls to do when they have decades to wait and there is a tempting, lightly defended border just over the river? A sweeping one-time-only amnesty proclamation doesn’t have to be some gesture for humanism but an attempt to redress some bad math. Going forward, offering Mexicans a larger share of the pie and a cleaner path to citizenship might actually do more to lock down the border than building a wall.

The broader point is that immigration has always carried a moral purpose, to help as far as can be done, the suffering peoples of other nations and the strengthening of the American dream by bonding ethnicities and cultures together under the ideal of self-rule. I hope that Ross and the other skeptics can offer some moral reflection to their case rather than just practical considerations. The case they have is sympathy for the existing working class, but the reality is that much of that class remembers its friends and fellows, to say nothing of family, across the river and are probably looking for another alternative than just saying “no.”

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