Introduction: The Poet in Babylon

Briton Rivière
Daniel’s Answer to the King, 1890
Oil on canvas

Not too long ago, I put together a blog dedicated to “Christian mythopoetics.” The work I had aimed to do was to write in the spirit of the Christian humanists of the mid-20th Century (Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, Sayers, Underhill, even their forebears: Eliot, MacDonald, and Chesterton), engaging literature from the view of Christianity. I wrote about Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the problem of power, about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and the terror of knowledge, and about Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and the crisis of the modern family.

It was a fun blog inspired by an Honors course I took in undergraduate, during which I encountered mythopoetic theorists that provided me a beginning with how to engage literary matters (including Freud, Jung, Lévi-Strauss, and Eliade). That Honors course led to another move in my life, one that took me to Chicago to pursue my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. I read the great Renaissance humanist tradition, from Cicero to Petrarch to Vico. I read the Marxist theorists, from Marx to Althusser to Agamben. I read the postmodernists, from Foucault to Kristeva to Berlant. I read Hegel (of course). And I read many in-between.

Soon, it became apparent to me that my previous work in mythopoetics was not where I wanted to focus my time and energy. During the M.A. Program in the Humanities (which I will refer to as “MAPH” from here on), I discovered a whole intricate web of modern intellectual thought, and I quickly learned why the Christian Gospel was unbecoming to these thinkers, these students, and the academic world in general. It soon became evident to me that the methods of apologetics I had long worked to master in my previous contexts (as a campus minister) simply did not function amidst intellectuals. As I wrestled how to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ to these humanists, atheists, Marxists, and “liberals” (none of whom fits all of these categories), I began to experiment with a new method of apologetics.

I will leave specifics on why most contemporary Christian apologetics are ineffective at communicating the Gospel to most contemporary intellectuals for another post, another day. What is crucial for this prolegomena is simply to say that most contemporary Christian apologetics, whether presuppositional or rationalist, depend upon the dangerous foundations of assuming Cartesianism and modernity as perennial standards of truth. This is, to be sure, not an intentional Cartesian-modernist-rationalist foundation, but an ever-present one nevertheless. These types of apologetics can be useful insomuch as they articulate the Gospel and its meaning effectively to people who are already invested, in some manner or another, into that world of modernity (re: scientists, for instance). But these types of apologetics can be dangerous too, insomuch as they articulate the Gospel as being the sort of thing that can be dependent upon modernity’s existence. This critique of mine is not particularly new; my sense is that Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, Charles Taylor, and even Tim Keller, have all articulated some version of this critique. (I could go further and include Cornelius van Till, surprisingly, as someone whose apologetics depend upon a fundamentally different notion of truth than the common, rationalist-modernist conceptions of it; he does so following Martin Luther.)

The marriage of modernity / Cartesianism and the Gospel in most modern apologetics is, in my view, a great shame. Its results can be seen in the demographic changes in the Church over the past half-century: the collapse of the mainline denominations and the forthcoming sense of implosion of the conservative evangelical denominations. It is, simply put, morally and theologically unsustainable to accept the myth that the Christian faith is the kind of thing that fits within a liberal democratic framework of truth. The result of those sets of beliefs, those modernist, capitalist, democratic views of human be-ing, is a Christianity that looks an awful lot like American political engagement.

Thus, we do not have, in America, the typical denominational splits down matters of the Sacrament (re: Lutheran vs. Calvinist), or down matters of the authority of the Pope (re: Catholic vs. Protestant). These exist, of course, in their imported forms from the Continent. But the more crucial distinction in American Christianity comes down to the split between Liberals and Conservatives (manifesting at one point as “the Modernist versus Fundamentalist debate”). In American Christianity — and slowly the Continent, as its religious views are shaped by America’s cultural hegemony — each theological camp can be socially and culturally divided into its political camps: the evangelical right / the evangelical left; the Catholic right / the Catholic left; the Presbyterian right / the Presbyterian left; and so on and so on.

The very fact that our divides are more political than they are theological reveals to us that our Church is often first-and-foremost a participant in the liberal-democratic view of the world, rather than an active agitator for a different view of the world, that is, for the Kingdom view.  In spite of their lack of biblical substance, these political views are often the “Gospel” propagated in many American churches, whether explicitly or implicitly, whether liberal or conservative. And, just as often, our contemporary apologetics serve to support or oppose one or the other of these politically-contrived camps. To sum up quickly: most of American Christian discourses are driven by liberal-democratic concerns, rather than Kingdom concerns, no matter the political / ideological / theological camp of a particular Christian community.

I have spent a lot of time around atheist, humanists, and intellectuals, and I am beginning to realize that their arguments against the Church are much more serious and complicated than we might like to admit. Our apologists who stand against these arguments seem only able to confront them with rhetoric rooted in modernity’s ways of thinking, rather than the Kingdom of God. Rather than a “Case for Christ,” making an argument based on the politico-legal framework of a secular democratic state, we need to learn, again, as our forefathers once knew, how to confront such arguments with spiritual weapons, “casting down strongholds and everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ” (see II Corinthians 10:4-6). We should not confront the humanists’ and philosophers’ arguments with the methods of the world-that-is, but with the methods derived from the world-that-is-and-is-not-yet. We are in desperate need for a discourse of the Kingdom of God.

But this discourse cannot be communicated in its “purest” form. It is necessary to translate it, to communicate it in a manner palpable and receivable by its target audience. Here we come to the crux of the difficulty in doing decent apologetic work amidst the humanities. The Christian humanist should be a representative of a world order that does and does not exist (the “Now-and-Not-Yet” of the Kingdom). His or her words, actions, behavior are all to be infused with the essences of the Kingdom, and he or she should strive to not be infused at all with the essences of Babylon (which is the Bible’s codeword for the hegemonic “world of modernity” that I have been discussing up until this point). Yet the apologist lives in Babylon. The apologist works in Babylon. All his or her friends speak Babylonian.

I love the Book of Daniel. Over the past two years, I have gone through two different studies of the whole book that have brought me to conclude that it is one of the most crucial texts for Christians in a world such as the one we find ourselves in. I feel called to be a Daniel in Babylon. What does this look like? As one interlocutor of Daniel preached this past summer, “Daniel and his friends are speaking Babylonian, they are working government jobs, they are wearing Babylonian clothes.” (See Tim Mackie and Josh White’s series on Daniel at Door of Hope Church in Portland, OR.)

Rather than opt for Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” — the suggestion that the American Christian Church should retreat (in certain ways) from the public sphere — I would like to propose that we opt for the “Daniel Option.” Instead of privatizing our Christian faith and disconnecting from the Babylonian world, we live lives as Babylonians who speak the Babylonian language, who know the Babylonian culture, who wear the Babylonian clothing, who listen to Babylonian CDs, and, yet, who are active resisters of Babylonian atheology.

To put these things together, the Christian apologist in our day and age must BOTH speak the Language of the Kingdom and not be shaped in their thinking by Babylon, AND speak the Language of Babylon in order to communicate the Kingdom’s values effectively to Babylonians. This requires the apologist to work hard at discerning which values they hold are are actually of the Kingdom and which values are actually of Babylon. If we are consistent, I suspect that we will come to conclusions about certain things (say, work ethics) that are a radical departure from the popular expressions of Christianity, married as it is to the values of liberal-democracy. And, if we pay attention to the atheists who critique us, we will see that they are often not writing in opposition to us (some are, of course), but in opposition to Babylon in us. Such critiques we should not oppose but wholeheartedly embrace.

The Poet in Babylon is a project whose goal is historically-tied to the old vision of the Renaissance humanists. Petrarch and Dante and Boccaccio and Valla, and all their kin, saw their purpose to be ambassadors of the Latin language and classical culture to a world that desperately (in their view) needed that language and culture. These men changed the world, simply by translating. The work of translation is not just linguistic or etymological, it involves understanding, at a deep, heart level, the content of a discourse. It is about making difficult decisions in what to bring forth in a given translation and what to set back. There’s a narrative piece to it, and that should not be intimidating to us.

We live in Babylon. If we are going to communicate the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to Babylonians, then we need to participate in the work of translation. This means using the language of Babylon but not using the values of Babylon that are coded in Babylonian language. We must learn how to communicate the idea of Grace to a culture that fundamentally has no conception of it. We must retrieve the word Hope from its superstitious and fantastical conception (“I hope so”) and let it shine with its full glory. In many ways, we must continue the work that both Jesus and Paul do over and over again in the New Testament, taking a word like “Kingdom” or “Victory” or “Power” and re-defining them against the norms of the culture they were in.

So, The Poet in Babylon is to be an apologetics project, reaching non-Christians with a different type of language, and a humanist project, translating the language of Babylon for the sake of the Kingdom. But how we aim to do this project is a little more complicated. My purpose on this blog is to create a “space” for the Christian intellectual to flourish. Rather than be stifled by the “orthodoxies” of the Right and the Left, this blog aims to be a space for orthodox, biblical, critical, philosophical Christian work. It is not divorced from the Church — I write with the full knowledge that there are plenty of churches out there that do not fit into that blasphemous “Right / Left” dichotomy I earlier lambasted — nor is it divorced from the Church’s history. Part of this project will be to use our forefathers (Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Barth, et cetera) as interlocutors on various types of problems.

I will also engage with atheist intellectuals often. I am particularly fond of Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Louis Althusser, and I have little doubt that they will appear from time to time. With these I will speak in Babylonian, as it were, in order to communicate the Gospel with Babylonians. And I enjoy these authors in many ways because they, too, critique Babylon. They are not unaware of the horrors that human civilization works upon itself. Sometimes I feel more than a little sorrowful that these men and women who spend their lives attacking Babylon and its manifestations never come to the revelation that they could be allied with the Kingdom of God, if only they would see Jesus’ ultimate victory over Babylon.

I call the blog “The Poet in Babylon” because I recognize that I am not Daniel, the Prophet in Babylon. Maybe I have had a prophetic voice, or maybe I will have a prophetic voice. I am not going to say Yay or Nay to that. But this blog is not written as a communication of prophetic intent. It is a communication of artistic-intellectual endeavor. I have a conviction that poets communicate truth more effectively than philosophers, and that our modern apologists tend toward philosophy rather than poetry. I hope to correct that direction through literary reading, critical engagement, and humanistic mastery.

My invitation is this one: If you come here as a non-Christian, then I welcome you to come with your biggest questions, your biggest provocations, and, maybe, you will see Christ here. Maybe you will see Christ where you did not expect Him, in the middle of a discourse on Marxism. Or maybe in the midst of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, even despite all its horrific sufferings. Or maybe you will see the mere possibility that a Christian could be intellectually-robust without compromising biblical orthodoxy. Maybe you’ll be surprised as to what I consider biblical orthodoxy. All of this is welcome. I even encourage emails with suggestions of problems to address!

If you come here as a Christian, then I want to provoke you to ask questions, maybe questions that you previously thought taboo. I do not aim to shake your faith, or to make you question your faith. The questions I wish to raise are the ones that, if raised by an atheist or humanist friend, would cause you to question the foundations of your faith. But here they are asked by a brother who has your good interest in heart. I hope to strengthen your faith. And I welcome engagement — emails, comments, etc. — from you as well.

The ultimate purpose of this blog can be summed up by one phrase: orthodox, Christian, intellectual excellence. I hope to fulfill these expectations.

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