Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.

MTV’s Mixed Messages About Females and Teen Sexuality

MTV’s Mixed Messages About Females and Teen Sexuality

′′Jersey Shore

"Jersey Shore" t-shirts for sale in Seaside Heights, New Jersey

Here at the Jersey Shore, we’re none too fond of the way MTV’s reality show “Jersey Shore” portrays our generally bucolic region as a mecca for teenage and young adult hedonism. Now, along comes the Parents Television Council (PTC) with a report that says its portrayals of females, along with those on the network’s other youth-oriented reality shows, are overwhelmingly negative.

PTC found that “only 21.4 percent of language about or directed at females was positive” and only “24 percent of what females said about themselves was positive across all shows” (“Jersey Shore,” “16 and Pregnant,” “Teen Mom 2,” “The Real World“). Additionally, conversations about sex on these shows rarely included talk of virginity (0.2%), contraceptives (1.4%) and STDs (2%).

On one level, this news is unsurprising. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the network and from this genre of television. But two of the shows, “Teen Mom 2” and “ and “16 and Pregnant” have been conditionally lauded by feminists like Slate editor Jessica Grose.

In a 2010 blog post, Grose said, “There is actually data to support the notion that a dramatic, narrative show like ‘16 and Pregnant’ could make adolescent girls more likely to use contraception,” and in a June 2011 post, she quoted data that said watching these shows makes people more likely to support legal abortion.

“For all the pro-choicers out there who are still complaining that the fecund high schoolers of ‘16 and Pregnant’ and ‘Teen Mom’ glamorize teen pregnancy—you should stop complaining. The elevation of the stars of these shows might help abortion remain legal for future generations,” Grose concluded, in what sounded to me like a slap in the face to both teen moms and their children.

As Seen on MTV

The Jersey Shore "As Seen on MTV"

The popularity of reality television among young viewers has “generated greater interest among researchers and critics” with both groups “working to comprehend viewer motivations for watching as well as the impact of a genre rooted in stereotypical representations of gender and class, simplistic portrayals of social problems, and a disproportionate appeal to young audiences,” PTC’s report said.

Karen Dill, Director of the Media Psychology Doctoral Program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, is quoted as saying the stories media tells “make up much of our shared cultural ideals and therefore shape how boys and girls [feel] about themselves and their peers.”

In her 2010 post, Grose wisely noted the mixed message MTV communicates with its reality TV lineup.

“While MTV aims to send a good message with earnest shows about teen motherhood, the message gets muddled when it is in the context of the network’s other reality programming. Commercials for the current season of ’16’s’ sister show, ‘Teen Mom,’ ran around the same time as the reality juggernaut ‘Jersey Shore,’ which depicted consequence-free carousing. Why, a teenager may wonder, is [’16 and Pregnant’] Jenelle’s beach-bunny act so terrible when it looks like Snooki has so much fun behaving in a similar manner?”

Why indeed? And why, I wonder, do some feminists offer even conditional support for shows that portray young women and young mothers in such a negative light?

What do you think?

Is there anything redemptive to be found amidst MTV’s mixed messages or is its reality TV line-up pure trash?