Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Book Review: Renegade: The Making of a President (2009) by Richard Wolffe.

Barack Obama changed the book Richard Wolffe set out to write.

Wolffe initially wanted to answer the question, "Who is Barack Obama?" (p. 5). According to Wolffe, despite President Obama previously writing "one memoir and one highly personal political treatise" and "debat[ing] two dozen times and deliver[ing] hundreds of speeches...something remained hidden about his character, suppressed about his moods, deep-rooted about his thoughts" that needed to be revealed. (5).

Instead, Obama suggested a story about the campaign, ala Theodore White's classic campaign books. Wolffe's first reaction to this suggestion was amusing: "Teddy White. How archaic. the poor man doesn't understand the media, I thought...." (330.) Wolffe continued: "Two months after our Teddy White conversation, I finally figured out that he might be right." (331.)

As a result, Wolffe has produced a book that is simultaneously both and neither. It's not fully a expose of the campaign (despite Wolffe's considerable access to the candidate and campaign from the outset) and not fully a biography.

Wolffe mostly tries to accomplish his twin aims by examining "a drama of political biography performed on the biggest stage in the world: an outlandish, extraordinary spectacle that veered from inspiration to exasperation, from the mundane to the faintly insane." (5.) However, Wolffe doesn't rely solely on the campaign in telling his story. Instead, he draws heavily from Obama's two books, especially Dreams from My Father (reviewed here on June 4, 2008).

Wolffe never seems to get quite comfortable with his book's title to characterize his subject. "Renegade" was the Secret Service code name for Obama, and Wolffe half-heartedly tries to weave it into his story-telling. Here's an example of Wolffe's noncommittal approach to the characterization: "If Obama was a renegade, he was a cautious and calculating rebel." (25.)

Due to its insider-access, Renegade contains some revealing anecdotes about the campaign and the then-candidate. For example, it might be surprising to some to know that the Rev. Wright controversy had the campaign rattled (and how they tried to handle it). It also was revealing to learn how speeches were crafted--usually at the last minute and involving the candidate himself with his chief speechwriter Jon Favreau (not the actor/director). This emphasis on speechwriting (and delivering) spoke to Wolffe's background as a writer for Newsweek and crowded out other crucial aspects of the campaign.

For example, Wolffe largely ignored the debates (both primary and general election) and inexplicably didn't even mention the widely viewed Saddleback Presidential Forum featuring John McCain and Obama. Also, the book veered occasionally from its stated objectives to take cheap shots at Sen. McCain (especially during a meeting with President Bush about bank bailouts), Gov. Palin, Bush and even Hillary Clinton.

While the book borders on the breathless (e.g. comparing President Obama to Ghandi [135]), especially when it quotes Obama's close friends, it delivers some of "the goods" that political junkies may find satisfying.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Church and State.

This week I had the privilege of appearing for the first day of oral arguments in the Fourth District, Division Three's new appellate courthouse in Santa Ana, California. A professional photographer was there to commemorate the event, snapping photos even during the proceedings. As a result, my back might make it into the history books.

Before the arguments, one of the justices came out in shirtsleeves and told counsel about the benches in the courtroom. Interestingly, the benches involved a church and state issue.

The justice explained that the benches were previously pews in a chapel on the campus of St. Louis University. In this capacity, they had icons (a cross-like figure containing Greek letters signifying Christ) on the sides. Because this was a public building, wooden pieces had to be affixed over the icons to hide the religious message underneath.

Even the court was evidently afraid of being sued.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by N.T. Wright.

Bill Clinton mastered triangulation or third-way politics.

N. T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture takes a page from Clinton's playbook.

Wright criticizes both the right and left's approaches to scripture (e.g., pp. 106-110) before positing a third-way. In his broad critique, Wright interestingly observes that all traditions elevate scripture, perhaps contrary to prevailing stereotypes. "[T]he churches which stem from the Reformation all emphasize...the central importance of the Bible. ... [A]ll officially accord scripture the central place in their faith, life and theology. This has marked out the post-Reformation churches from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which give a more complex and interwoven account of how scripture operates within the life of the church. But those older churches, too, have never shrunk from the insistence that scripture remains the written word of God." (p. 4.)

That just about covers all of Christendom. So, then, what accounts for the vast divergence of views about what Scripture says? As in law, it's a matter of interpretation.

Enter Wright's new-way-forward. Wright proposes a "five-act" narratival hermaneutic. (p. 121.) Wright asserts: "[T]he Bible itself offers a model for its own reading, which involves knowing where we are within the overall drama and what is appropriate within each act. The acts are creation, 'fall', Israel, Jesus, and the church; they constitute the differentiated stages in the divine drama which scripture itself offers." (p. 121.)

Then, Wright turns to how the church--living in the "fifth act"--may ensure that "the authority of scripture--i.e. God's authority exercised through scripture--can be the dynamic force within God's people." He proposes five: reading scripture that is (a) totally contextual, (b) liturgically grounded, (c) privately studied, (d) refreshed by appropriate scholarship, and (e) taught by the church's accredited leaders." (p. 127.) Here, Wright reveals his Anglican predilections, but these five are not all indispensable to get to scripture's meaning, and Wright does not even so argue.

The book's North American title, The Last Word, is ambitious (to put it charitably). It's unlikely that Wright's "third-way" will end the "Bible Wars". Moreover, Wright inconsistently (with the title) advocates for continuing dialogue about Scripture. And he provides a very useful script to elevate the dialogue from the superficial sloganeering that has historically permeated the debate.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Review: The Right Stuff by Thomas Wolfe.

In light of the hoopla surrounding the 40th anniversary of the "moon walk", I decided to read about the US space program. Thomas Wolfe's acclaimed The Right Stuff seemed a good place to go.

Since the book was published 30 years ago, and was made into a 1983 movie, it has somewhat permeated the public consciousness. Accordingly, I will keep this review brief. The book actually begins well before the "moon walk" phase of the space program. It deals primarily with the Mercury missions which involved Earth orbits--not moon landings.

Three aspects of the book bear mention even today. First, the book does a good job capturing the political environment from which the space program emerged. Near hysteria about Soviet domination of space had more to do with US space exploration than a scientific curiosity about the "final frontier." It's quite amazing what can be achieved through fear. Second, Wolfe creatively posits astronauts as types of biblical single-combat warriors (e.g. David and Goliath). I had not heard this analogy made before in this context, and I thought it insightful, especially given the time's climate. Third, I wonder if the country has the political will to take such risks any more.

The Right Stuff is a folksy, yet informative, foray into the genesis of the US space program (and even before). Further, it offers insights salient to today.


Sunday, August 09, 2009


Note: Please understand this post is made in the spirit of commemoration--not congratulation.

"In order to be in control of your life, you have to have a purposeā€”a productive purpose."
"The most depraved type of human being ... (is) the man without a purpose."
--Ayn Rand

Goals are good. Their absence isn't.

This morning I accomplished a goal. I now weigh less than I did when I played high school basketball.

People have asked me how I did it. Broadly, I created and implemented a holistic approach with spiritual, intellectual, and physical dimensions. However, it really can't be transferred to another. It has to come from within, starting with a goal.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Book Review: Was Jesus God? (2008) by Richard Swinburne.

Former University of Oxford professor Richard Swinburne answers his own question: "probably".

Swinburne isn't hedging his bets or laying odds for Vegas. He's revealing his philosophical methodology. Was Jesus God? represents Swinburne's extensive use of Bayes' Theorem, although he never mentions it by name.

Swinburne starts with his conclusion from his "prequel", Is There a God? (reviewed here on July 10, 2009) that God probably exists (p. 1), which he briefly revisits in Chapter 1. From there, he concludes that it's probable that God is a Trinity (Chapter 2); that God would become a human to identify with humanity's suffering and to atone for their sin (Chapters 3 and 4); that He would give us teaching for living (Chapters 5 and 11); and He would found a church to propagate it (Chapter 10), among other things.

In particular, Swinburne's defense of Trinitarian doctrine (as enunciated in the Nicene Creed) is something to behold. Swinburne writes: "The love of the Father for the Son must include a wish to cooperate with the Son in further total sharing with an equal, and hence the need for a third member of the Trinity...the Holy Spirit, whom they will love and and by whom they will be loved. A universe in which there was only sharing and not cooperation in further sharing would have been a deficient universe; it would have lacked a certain kind of goodness. The Father and the Son would have been less than perfectly good unless they sought to spread their mutual love of cooperating in further sharing with an equal." (p. 29.)

Swinburne draws the line at three. "So the perfect goodness of the Father would be satisfied by his bridging about only two further divine persons. He does not have to bring about a fourth divine person in order to fulfil his divine nature. But then any fourth divine person would not exist necessarily, even in the sense of metaphysical necessity. His existence would not be a necessary consequence of the existence of an ontologically necessary being and hence he would not be divine. So there cannot be a a fourth divine person. There must be and can only be three divine persons." (p. 33.)

In so defending the Trinitarian formulation, using Bayes' Theorem, Swinburne somewhat undercuts his prior use of Ockham's razor for God's existence (i.e. the simplest explanation holds). (See my July 10, 2009, post about Swinburne's Is There a God?). No matter how one articulates it, the Trinitarian doctrine is not a model of simplicity. Swinburne seems to concede this apparent inconsistency (calling the Trinity "a very sophisticated" concept [p. 38]), but he labors to reconcile it by claiming that the Trinity is actually a simple construct because it "depends on two very simple moral intuitions: that perfect love requires total sharing with an equal and requires cooperating in spreading that love further, so that anyone you love has someone else to love and be loved by." (p. 38.) Here we see fissures erupting where Swinburne's two primary philosophical methodologies abut each other; they simply don't meld seemlessly in this context.

In any event, this book represents an elegant extrapolation from Swinburne's premise that God "probably exists". He traces probabilities from God's existence through the primary tenets of Christian doctrine, and in so doing produces an innovative approach for Christian philosophy of religion worthy of study and discussion.

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