All about the Bass: Searching for Treble in the Midst of a Pounding Culture War
Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation
Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement
Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church
Let’s start with the proposition that conversation about civility among evan-gelical Christians today has too much of the book of Proverbs and not enough of the book of Job. In contrast with the complex emotional world of Job (more on that later), the proverbists have a settled, centered comfortability with the world—so long as one follows the way of moderation and temperance. There are fools, of course, and bad politicians. But a thrifty, hard-working, decent life generally finds reward, while a lazy, errant lifestyle generally suffers punishment. For the record, I don’t mean to impute either the proverbists or the evangelical authors under review in this essay with a pat outlook. Lady Wisdom, after all, cries out in a way that is far from temperate or sedate. Similarly, the authors I examine in this essay are urgent (and good-humored) in dealing with thorny problems in human society.
But still, the briskness of these books reminds me of what I take to be the overall effect of the book of Proverbs. The balanced and temperate style invites reflection; it can also create detachment from what we are talking about. I find it endlessly instructive to consider that when the Hebrew people dealt with cultural predicaments, they did not just quote proverbs to explain what had gone wrong. They did that, of course. And the prophets made sure that they didn’t forget that troubles in exile traced to misbehaviors in peace time. But the Hebrew people also did things like writing and reading some very agonized wisdom literature. That pained rhetorical labor in Job, for example, did not explain suffering in retributionist terms. Instead, it sought for a way to live with trauma and, what is more, to live with trauma with others.
I am on my way to becoming a habitual reader of David French. Long before I got my hands on Divided We Fall, I’d been reading his Sunday-morning newsletter. As in that newsletter, so here in this book, I appreciate his acknowledgement of generational racism, his determined unveiling of religious sexual abuse, and his willingness to stand against the bigoted populism of Donald Trump. French is a kindly and reassuring voice, often insisting that American goodness and greatness is recoverable. Reassurance may not be the first word to come to mind, admittedly, in regards to a dire book that diagnoses “geographical sorting, group polarization, and individual intolerance” as the already-present gangrenes making an amputation of portions of the United States ever more likely (25). Things get even more dramatic in the second unit of Divided We Fall, with its unsettling hypotheticals for how secession could proceed. Reading these accounts, first about California and then about Texas, created a strange blend of excitement and anxiety for me. Some days, dealing with our national dividedness by allowing one set of tribes to secede from the others sounds pretty good. But French also helped me see the precarity that would almost certainly result for huge swaths of my fellow citizens. Further, the dramatic conviction driving these not-so-futuristic parables arises from French’s conviction that American greatness is essential to global well-being and that secession must therefore be avoided at all costs.
These core chapters read like political thrillers, which suggests that French has a future in other literary genres than the journalism that has so long been his bailiwick. (Unlike the other authors under review in this essay, French demonstrates the superior rhetorical sway of imaginative discourse over conventional argumentation.) And yet, there is, after all, something oddly reassuring about a Clancy-esque or Ludlum-styled thriller, in its assumption that social order can be stabilized through deft and courageous action. That reassurance makes French’s conclusion, with its calls for courageous pluralism and deft federalism, disappointing for me. What disappoints is not “David Frenchism,” as a famous First Things piece by Sohrab Ahmari called it. Ahmari argued that, instead of French’s blend of politeness and evangelical conviction, we should all take up cudgels and get down to culture-warring. In contrast with Ahmari, I object to French’s thought not on pragmatic, but on traumatic grounds. The devastations of the natural world and the intense suffering of Black and Brown peoples amount to a kind of trauma that I’m not convinced French’s thought can account for, much less speak for. I appreciate his optimism for pluralism, but I fear that the collective emotions circulating in contemporary culture are weirder and wilder than Madisonian federalism can negotiate.
If French speaks in evenhanded but urgent terms, Scott Burson speaks in evenhanded but blithe terms. His book All About the Bass offers a raconteur’s blend of moral psychology and faith-infused stories about dealing with ideological difference. Much of what makes the book a fun read is that he reels out anecdotes, movie scenes, TED-Talk insights, and a bevy of original maxims—idiosyncratic and gnomic formulations like “Befriend the Behemoth” and “Spot Theological Specialties” and “Exorcise Demonization.” His most important source is the Moral Foundations Theory of Jonathan Haidt, a theory that works out how intuition and reasoning collaborate in political and religious life. You’ve probably encountered Haidt’s thought in the Atlantic, on the TED circuit, or in Twitter arguments, where he has argued that people intuit moral positions well before they can reason explicitly about them and that they often sort themselves into groups based on particular prioritizations of values. Cartography of moral intuitions, Haidt insists, could enable a more peaceable understanding and healing of our divisions.1 Burson replays Haidt’s sense that things have gotten pretty bad, but that conditions can improve when we understand other people’s values hierarchies better.
The back of the book described Burson’s work as “the first extensive Christian engagement with Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory.” That is surely true. But I was frequently distracted by the thought that evangelical Christians might just as well go read the highly accessible Haidt for themselves. Given the overwhelming number of works being published (some measures suggest 4,000 volumes per day), given the numerous distractions from other digital media, is it attentionally economical to write a digest of academic research? I kept wishing, too, that Burson had not been so deferential to Haidt. What, for example, might a philosopher of Burson’s skill do with Haidt’s assumption that religious confession is epiphenomenal to deeper moral impulses? I’d love to learn not only about how Haidt’s ideas comport with Christian confession, but also how gaps in his thought might benefit from Christian reflection.
Still, Burson’s book does bear some notable gifts. Its resourcefulness comes through most clearly in his careful expositions of public controversies like Drew Brees’s comments about kneeling during the national anthem. Case studies like these give us a chance to weigh Haidt’s claim that the divisions of our time can be corrected by discovering other people’s sometimes inaudible intuitions and by augmenting still other intuitions within ourselves. Hence Burson’s central metaphor of equalizing treble convictions shaped by compassion instead of constantly amping the bass of firmly held convictions. Noting that people were angered and mystified by what Brees had said, even after he apologized, Burson suggests that Haidt’s moral psychology raises the possibility that “perhaps the other side has a different moral focus” (79). It is helpful, in other words, to recognize that those kneeling during the national anthem are motivated by compassion, while their conservative counterparts are motivated by conviction that long-standing institutions should be preserved and defended. Instead of denigrating the former for being unpatriotic or the latter for being heedless of suffering Black and Brown citizens, Burson counsels us all to discuss how we are prioritizing our various values. Locating our values more clearly “can lower the temperature and help us see that one side rarely possesses all the high moral ground” (91). I appreciate the way this move gives more margins in our dispute and makes it easier to be curious about each other, feel some empathy for each other, and, if we are lucky, recognize the goodness in each other’s moral sense-making.
I love Burson’s audio metaphor for dispute. But the images of harmonization invite reflection, too, on the tonalities of his own book, which I hear as conspicuously cheerful. I want to be careful not to make too much of this affect. I also want to acknowledge that, as a counter to cynicism and resignation, cheerfulness sounds mighty good. Still, Burson’s can-do affect, in my judgment, does not interact well with the trauma that is so often in the background of our disputes. His writerly bearing makes me think of Elihu, the fourth interlocutor to show up about two-thirds of the way through Job. This fourth friend is a hard one to figure out. He is talkative (his are the longest speeches of the book up to that point), optimistic, and charismatic. But does he merely repackage what the other friends have been saying all along? Maybe. Still, he also anticipates what the Voice in the Whirlwind will say when Job finally meets God. I can no more deny the wisdom of Burson’s book than I can dismiss the eloquence of Elihu’s speech.
But thinking with Elihu’s highly emotive speechmaking makes me wonder what other emotions books like Burson’s might move into communal circulation—wryness, for example, sarcasm, or quite simply pain. I’m asking these questions because I think that one good way to gauge the worth of Burson’s book is not simply as a conceptual project, but as a purveyor of a certain range of public feelings. Here, I’m thinking with the communication scholar Celeste Condit who explores the “motivating affects focused around collective action.”2 Just as she analyzes what public anger can or cannot do in democratic life, so I’m asking what Burson’s likeable blitheness does as it circulates among what seem to be perpetual states of crisis. His good cheer, upon entering public circulation, could engender optimism. Might it also create a kind of detachment from the more material sufferings of people in conflict?
Let’s turn to another plucky project in moral mapmaking, this one focused less on the culture wars generally and more on disputes within the walls of the church. Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer“believe the greatest threat to the church today is the same as it has been in every generation since the New Testament was written: quarreling” (17). Their prescriptions for correcting this problem entail an often interpersonal tracing of convictions and a respectful communicational praxis.
The book moves from discussion of “Biblical Foundations” for construing disputable matters to examination of New Testament guidance for peaceable communicational moves in the midst of conflict, and finally to exposition of how interpersonal wisdom can remedy social breakdowns within and beyond the church. The authors define their terms carefully, distinguishing among terms like conviction, mandate, value, and guideline. But they also keep the book congenial and funny. In talking about the body of Christ, for example, they offer that “Each body part is connected to the others by a joint. Joints are subject to the Great Law of Joints: if joint, then joint pain. If you don’t agree, you are under forty” (140). Delightfully put.
Muehlhoff and Langer are cheerfully workmanlike in discussing the dynamics of dispute. At times, their “conviction mapping” struck me as impractically complicated for the quick turns that conversations can take. Still, the elaborateness of their process registers just what a complex task communal negotiation can be. As they themselves say, “We’ve gradually learned that the idea of getting everyone in a room and talking it out is deeply flawed” (161). Before that sort of talk can be done, there is the work of values-location and values-formation to do: “[W]e do not believe that strong convictions cause incivility. Instead, we believe poorly formed convictions cause incivility” (5). This maxim reminds me of Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse, in which she argues that we escalate behavior in the midst of conflict because we are unwilling to deal with what is going on in our own souls, in our own pasts.3 Like Schulman, Muehlhoff and Langer carry a good deal of optimism about the hard work of interpersonal communication. Such exchange can be confusing, sure, but it can also be remarkably practical.4
The vitality of interpersonal exchange for values formation has been honored in the liberal arts tradition at least as far back as Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus. Early in that fictive conversation, a young interlocutor asks Socrates about a controversy of the day. But Socrates refuses to take the bait: “I have no time for such things; and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that.” Muehlhoff and Langer’s social ontology appears to comport with a Socratic approach to communication’s role in moral reflection. (On my wish list for future iterations of the Winsome Conviction project: to see Muehlhoff and Langer exploring the Joban move from dialogue towards multilogue in the book’s conclusion.)
But even when they leave this dialogic mode behind and discuss group and organizational dynamics, they tend to talk about groups socially rather than collectively. To talk about a controversy socially is to examine what Condit has called “social signals that guide interactions at the interpersonal level.”5 But to talk about a controversy collectively is to broach the suprapersonal elements of disputation, which entail “greater demands of spatiotemporal coordination” and “orientation toward specific actions that are greater than the sum of the parts of individual actions.”6 Winsome Conviction does acknowledge some collective dynamics at work in disputes (groupthink, for example). But my sense of things is that their perspective on civility tends towards the social, perhaps because, for all sorts of historical and cultural reasons, such exchanges simply make for more vivid stories. They discuss, for example,how one inter-group conflict was remedied when group leaders happened to fall into conversation after finding themselves sitting next to each other at lunch (81). Similarly, when Muehlhoff discusses his negotiations of conflict on a college media board, he, too, narrates interpersonal remedies (81). Further, the authors’ “definition of the situation” is guided by individual and social heuristics such as, “What beliefs do I have about myself? What do I believe about the other person? What are we trying to do together?” (95). This distinction between the social and collective dynamics of civility raises the question of how to cultivate moral attunement at all three levels of participation, individual, social, and collective. Winsome Conviction broaches that third level, especially in their discussions of power, but I am eager to hear more. Perhaps reflection on Job can illumine that conceptual work. At the end of the poem, Job’s relinquishment of his death grip on dialogue—I must, must, must speak face to face with the Almighty—may well entail a return to the collective, especially enacted in the circulation of gift and giving in the last verses of the book.7
One final point of inquiry: Muehlhoff/Langer’s project, like Burson’s, recommends bringing the tacit into the explicit. But how might we avoid exaggerating what explicitness can do? What do we do when the uncanniness of language itself makes distortion difficult to suss out? I’m not just talking about the dodgy way that, say, Tucker Carlson uses language, when “he sanitizes and legitimizes right-wing conspiratorial thinking, dodges when you try to nail him down on the specifics, then wraps it all in an argument about censorship and free speech.”8 It’s hard to say whether Carlson himself knows that he is propagandizing. But prior even to that question is this one: how can we manage the weirdness of language itself? Contemplative theology has had to distinguish between the apophatic and cataphatic in order to acknowledge how God exceeds what language can convey. Rhetorical sociology has had to make similar observations about the language’s limitations for human interaction.9 Something I’d like to hear more from Muehlhoff and Langer about is how to deal with the weirdness of language itself.10
The strangeness and capability of language features significantly in the final book for this review, Compassion (&) Conviction, in which Giboney, Wear, and Butler highlight what might be called contemporary tropical economies. That sounds like a reference to Caribbean islands, but I’m pointing rather to the discursive spaces formed by tropes, or figures of speech. Teachers of rhetoric sometimes treat tropes like spices in a pantry, which a writer or speaker sprinkles over the pot—a little of this, a little of that—to make the rhetorical chili taste great. Some rhetoricians have suggested, though, that we see tropes not as spices, but as the pot that contains the chili. The great thing about pots is that they contain and intensify the cooking of a particular recipe. But just as nonstick pots can flake into the chili, contaminating the meal, shouldn’t we also think about the tropes that Giboney, Wear, and Butler use and their contribution to the changemaking economies of our time?
Rhetoricians Jane S. Sutton and Mari Lee Mifsud have identified two basic systems of literary figures shaping how the western tradition has envisioned and pursued social change: tropes of substitution and tropes of transmutation, with the former tending to occlude the latter. Their analysis suggests that tropes of substitution have often reinforced the status quo, so they have looked for other tropes to make new social ecologies visible, shareable, livable.11 I raise this point of somewhat obscure rhetorical theory as a way to query the tropical optimism that Giboney, Wear, and Butler show for classical liberalism. They call their project The AND Campaign and use the graphic device of an ampersand within parentheses to frame the book’s chapters: “Christians (&) Politics,” “Church (&) State,” “Compassion (&) Conviction.” Skim through the table of contents, and you’ll quickly see that busy people can take in these chapters during a few morning coffees. But Giboney, Wear, and Butler manage this concision by foregrounding one discursive figure: a metonymic trope—this attached to that—which they believe promises a generous complexity of thought. But still, it’s worth asking how much changemaking promise this figure has for Christian civic engagement.
The book opens with the counsel to set aside what might be called a trope of subtraction (as in, We can’t have both this and that, so let’s just have that). On the one hand, the authors argue, Christians cannot opt out of political engagement. Giboney, Wear, and Butler are adamant that “Every Christian in America is political” (3). It may be tempting to hold politics in contempt for being Not Very Nice, but liberal democracy distributes civic responsibility among all its citizens. On the other hand, people of faith should not subtract everything out of political engagement, thereby reducing it to one focal concern. It is tempting to prioritize one political goal, such as nominating conservative Supreme Court justices or, more crudely, “owning the libs.” But to treat public life as a matter of winning or losing is to subtract too much from the full responsiveness of a complexly layered involvement.
Instead of a trope of either/or, Giboney, Wear, and Butler propose a metonymic trope of both/and. The book’s chapters consistently ampersand public life and personal piety, discussing the church’s relationship with the state, the Christian’s collaborations with the ideological other, as well as the imperative to practice both protest and advocacy. I wish that the book had focused on racial justice, and not just racial reconciliation. But Giboney, Wear, and Butler do at least commend citizens of faith to keep the ampersand in play. It’s not protest or advocacy, any more than it’s church or state or compassion or conviction. It’s always both. Faithfulness entails keeping the poles of the binary in play.
I fear, though, that this evenhanded, Proverbs-like move—which I see as common across all four of the books under review here—may not be adequate for the changemaking aspirations these authors put forward. Some political goals may be excluded from the get-go, simply because they don’t attach well to any current “poles” of thought. For example, Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson’s recent book, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, argues for the restoration of what has been stolen from Black citizens in the United States over the course of generations. But such an argument becomes virtually impossible if the reader holds to an individualist account of racism as nothing more than personal hatred for people with a different color of skin. The conviction that white supremacy is not a thing simply won’t attach to a compassionate pursuit of change. That deleterious either/or (white innocence or white supremacy) precedes and profoundly constrains the both/and pursuit of radical racial equity.
Admittedly, finding and using more expansive tropes to animate Christian political engagements presents people of faith with real difficulties. Sutton and Mifsud appear to embrace a post-structuralist political framework, in which human society is radically free of norms. But to deal with radical difference by asserting that there is no Good towards which society tends is like tearing down the house to make hospitality easier. The authors of Compassion (&) Conviction cannot help seeing the good life as sourced in and aimed towards the life of God, which means that visions for the common good will have confessional grounds and moral goals. But at the same time, post-structuralists are, I think, properly concerned about hierarchicalism in religiously shaped political engagements. The ampersanding of politics can easily collapse one side of the ampersand into the other. How, for example, might Christians keep compassion from being merely additive to conviction?
But perhaps there are resources in Trinitarian theology. Doesn’t the dance of threeness and oneness make possible fresh figures of speech? Sutton and Mifsud’s Introduction discusses parataxis, for example, as a trope that connects disparate elements without enforcing an underlying logic. But might confessing Christians see parataxis as a trope connecting things with an emergent logic? Kwon and Thompson argue, for example, for an emergent Gospel logic in their imaginative reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Conventionally, this story has been read as obliging personal compassion: to avert one’s gaze from need is to do harm to the other. But Kwon and Thompson take the story a step farther: they propose restoring what has been lost through other people’s violent actions. Perhaps at first, this connection-making among reparations, repentance, and restitution will feel as if the parataxis doesn’t follow. But as Sutton and Misfud note, parataxis in ancient texts (they’re discussing a different work than Jesus’ parables, but the dynamic is similar) “alienates readers from the norm and opens up a wondering of what these ancient flashes of texts are, mean, do, and offer.”12 Surely, folks who confess hope for mercies new every morning can hope for fresh mercies of unprecedented ways of thinking and speaking.
I hope that my criticisms of these four authors are indicators of my respect for their work and tacit requests for more work to be done in this vital arena of communal and civic care. One thing I’d be grateful for these authors to take up in future expressions of their projects has to do not just with shared emotion and shared language, but also with the role of shared place in civic and churchly disputation. The role of place in civic life surfaces in Job, in that the Lord spends much of the final speeches of the book highlighting the material particulars of creational life. And despite the fact that God’s rhetoric almost wholly omits humans, Job experiences this humanly decentering discourse as an encouragement to return to community. Reflection on place leads to reengagement with society. I’ve learned a similar move, made more explicitly in writers like Wendell Berry for whom so much “turns on affection” for the local and from rhetoricians like Thomas Rickert whose “ambient rhetoric” is a matter of world as much as it is of word.13 My hunch is that place plays an often under-examined but essential role in our experiences of conflict. Sometimes when reading the accounts of conflict put forward in the books reviewed in this essay, the disputants sometimes seemed to be floating in a generalized social space. But as Rickert has shown, human communication is always materially situated, and those conditions are more than scenery for the dialogue. These conditions “are themselves complex agencies furthering ways of life.”14 But conflict negotiation and political civility are not only regionally particular, they may well be regionally restorative. If we liberal democratic citizens are to play an ecologically restorative role in particular places, few things are more vital than recognizing the interaction of rhetoric and region.
Cite this article
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2013). Part One of this book discusses the role of the intuitive in relation to the explicit, and Part Two discusses progressive and conservative hierarchies of values.
- “Collective emotion in this sense is more than simply the sum of the emotional predisposi-tions of individuals for three reasons: (1) it requires collective identities; (2) it necessitates the enunciation of motivating affects focused around collective action; (3) the circulatory systems that are the media and other social structures unevenly amplify the feelings of different individuals or groups.” Celeste Michelle Condit, Angry Public Rhetorics: Global Relations and Emotion in the Wake of 9/11 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 65.
- Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). See especially, Chapter 5, “On Escalation.”
- John Durham Peters helped me towards this insight with his observation that “[t]he task is to find an account of communication that erases neither the curious fact of otherness at its core nor the possibility of doing things with words.” John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 21.
- Condit, Angry Public Rhetorics, 3. Condit is talking about emotions as social phenomena, but other kinds of symbolic action could also be included.
- The commentator Lindsay Wilson reads Job’s confession at the end of the book, not as repenting in dust and ashes, but from them. In other words, he’s done insisting on his lonely position as the aggrieved interlocutor and “is now ready to resume normal relationships in society, the very thing he proceeds to do in the following verses.” Lindsay Wilson, Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 206-207.
- Charlotte Alter, “The Most Powerful Conservative in America,” Time (August 2 & 9, 2021), 28.
- As Condit has noted, our language tends, quite apart from our intentions, to rely overmuch on binaries, to contribute to fantasy worlds, and to resort to perfectionism. Condit, Angry Public Rhetorics, 36-41.
- How, for example, do we sidestep the delusion that we can (as Peters puts it) fuse minds with one another through careful dialogue and the ever-more use of precise language? Peters, Speaking into the Air, 12-16.
- Jane S. Sutton and Mari Lee Mifsud, A Revolution in Tropes: Alloiostrophic Rhetoric (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015).
- Sutton and Misfud, “Introduction: A Revolution in Tropes,” A Revolution in Tropes: Alloiostrophic Rhetoric, xxiv.
- Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and OtherEssays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012), and Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), 169.
- Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric, 154.