Installation Address at Crandall University

As we approach the start of a new academic year, I’ve returned to the Maritimes after a summer at home in North Vancouver to take up my duties again at Crandall University. In two weeks I’ll mark the one-year anniversary of my installation in the new Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies, so perhaps some will be interested in the address I gave on that occasion:

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Sanctifying Culture, Cultivating Saints

What am I doing here?

What are we doing here?

As we begin a new academic year, and as many of us begin our time at Crandall University, we might take a few moments to reorient ourselves and refocus our attention on what truly matters in the enterprise of a Christian university.

A university clearly has something to do with culture—with studying culture, passing culture along, and even contributing something to culture. And a Christian institution obviously has something to do with the worship and service of Jesus Christ.

At what more precisely, however, ought we to be aiming as we begin again the truly massive expenditure of hours and words and images and assignments and relationships and experiences that constitute university life?

Columnist Mark Steyn has warned his fellow conservatives about how their liberal counterparts have more fully grasped the realities of social change: “Conservatives aim to elect politicians every few years while liberals aim to shift the culture day by day by day.”

Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, more generally advises those who wish to see society embrace their chief concern not to force something onto other people’s agenda, but to make that concern—currently unthinkable—to be  merely plausible. From there, he said, people can opt for it without compulsion…and in a large and diverse society, likely lots of people will.

Compare, alas, these prudent observations with the typical “all-or-nothing” approach of the culture wars fought by too many Christians south of our border. Even sociologist James Davison Hunter, who helped popularize the very phase “culture wars,” has since pulled back into recommending a kind of Stanley Hauerwasian “faithful presence”—albeit without the characteristic Hauerwasian prophetic confrontation.

Meanwhile, far too much discourse in American public life today, even among the sophisticated, seems aimed at rallying the troops and impressing the choirs, rather than actually changing anyone’s mind.

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Abortion and the U.S. Election

As so many conservative Christians, including some prominent evangelicals, seem to be fixated on the single question of abortion and eventual Supreme Court appointments they hope will undo Roe v. Wade etc., I thought it might be well to revisit a review I published a year ago of a fine book on the matter. A slightly edited version appeared in Christianity Today magazine (April 2015), and I post it here with their permission:

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Review of Charles C. Comosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Eerdmans, 2015).

“The test of a democracy,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “is not whether the people vote, but whether the people rule.” Does the average citizen see his or her values and concerns reflected in the actions of the state?

Charles C. Camosy, an ethicist at Fordham University, argues that a moral consensus has recently emerged in the United States around the vexed issue of abortion. Yet neither of the major parties, nor the federal government, reflects that consensus. Citing poll after poll, from sources across the political spectrum, Camosy demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans prefer abortion to be limited much more than it is now.

Indeed, Camosy avers that abortion policy should shift in a much more conservative direction, allowing abortion only in the cases of imminent danger to the life of the mother, conception by rape or incest, and a few other extraordinary instances. To that end, Camosy outlines an actual legislative proposal, what he calls The Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (MPCPA).

It is this sense of a new political moment opening up the possibility of new political action that is most exciting about this book.

Camosy argues persuasively that the interests of the major news media, major political parties, and major advocacy groups all are advanced by an abortion debate that is deadlocked between extremes. Polarization and demonization attract viewers and listeners, galvanize supporters, and mobilize volunteers. Binary categories harden edges, stiffen spines, and arouse passions. It is in the interests of the powerful, Camosy shows, to keep mediating and moderating views out of sight and instead to go on fanning the flames of partisanship.

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Cheap Grace, Again

You don’t need me to tell you why this famous passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great work, Nachfolge (“Following”–called The Cost of Discipleship in the first English edition), pertains here and now:

Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organized churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquired too cheaply? We gave away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations; we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard. . . .

. . . It could not happen any other way but that possessing cheap grace would mislead weaklings to suddenly feel strong, yet in reality, they had lost their power for obedience and discipleship. The word of cheap grace has ruined more Christians than any commandment about works.