Sunday, September 20, 2015

Thanks, Johnny Walker

Not the whiskey.  Whoever wrote that nice review for Amazon.  Reposting the review with gratitude:

It's likely that only Stan Goff could have written this book - and thank God that he did. Reading through the some 400 pages of Borderline is akin to sitting with your doctor as she relays diagnosis after diagnosis of your sick and failing body. The pages are often jarring and unsettling, disclosing secrets you'd rather remain blind to, yet they are desperately needed and therapeutic - even if the therapy is painful. Whenever someone committed to the church and its Lord exposes the ways the church has failed to be faithful to God's gracious Word, we ought to humbly receive this chastisement as the merciful discipline of God. To confess Christ as Lord is to stand under his judgment, which, as Rowan Williams puts it, is to receive the truth "about us as human beings implicated in a network of violence and denial" (OCT, 81).

Goff begins,
I want to tell you some stories, but I will need a little theory, a little philosophy, a few schemas and paradigms, and a little cultural criticism to make the stories tell you the stories within the stories. Narrative theologians say that Christians are a 'story-formed community,' so if stories are formative, then we have to attend to all the stories that for us, especially those stories that might be forming us prior to the story of Christ and that might hold us back from fuller participation in the story of Christ. (xv)

The stories within the stories that Goff hopes to unveil are the stories of masculinity, or manliness, and its relation to war, as well as manliness and its relation to women. Both of which, of course, are united by a shared vision of masculinity which creates an intersection between war and gender (or sex). All of which find themselves colliding together in Goff's own autobiography, as a long-time war veteran turned feminist-Christian-pacifist.

The thesis is simple and, even at first glance, persuasive - all the while being disturbing.

War is implicated in masculinity. Masculinity is implicated in war. Masculinity is implicated in the contempt for and domination of women. Together, these are implicated in the greatest sins of the church.
Borderline is about two questions. First, why have Christians been so warlike? Second, why do Christian men still caricature, dominate, misrepresent, condescend to, and dismiss women? I am convinced that these two questions must be answered together. (1)

So in order to answer this, Goff tells a couple of big stories, "provid[ing] a rough genealogy of church-and-war alongside church-and-sex in which the reader can discern how often, and often terribly, the church has allowed itself to be pulled away from the example and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth" (3). The narrative narrows as it moves forward, beginning in early Christendom, working up to Enlightenment Europe, spending a good length of time in US history, and ending with Goff's own experience in the military, beginning in Vietnam and stretching to the end of the 20th century.

For Christians then, especially Christians in the West, especially Christian men in the West, especially white Christian men in the West, this is a kind of "group autobiography" (6). One which plants us (I'm writing as a white Christian man) within a story that we'd rather not be a part of us, but which nonetheless we must confront, because it continues to determine how our lives are lived.

Goff writes as a pacifist, however, he is clear that "As a Christian, I am not trying in this book to 'make the case' for pacifism. I don't need an account of the state, war, or masculinity to underwrite my commitment to nonviolence, because that commitment is based on my belief that war has been abolished in the kingdom of God, even as we live now between Pentecost and Parousia" (5). So this book is not a book for pacifism, nonetheless, there is obviously much prodding that direction, especially as Goff demonstrates the way in which war, as a set of practices, cultivates masculinity-conceived-as-domination, which has been so detrimental to women. That is definitely not to say that only pacifists will find this book worthwhile. That history and analysis set forth here are such that any Christian, especially just-war Christians, must deal with them.

Stan Goff is a very gifted writer and wonderful story teller - even if the stories he tells are not so wonderful. The book is very readable and engaging. He ranges from discussion of the Crusades to witch-hunts, to a cultural analysis of the movie Man On Fire, to ramblings in Enlightenment philosophy and psycho-analysis, even touching on American ideals of respectability and eugenics.

The book prompts question after question. Some of which go answered, many of which do not. His skilful wielding of wide range of feminist theory helpfully gives readers new eyes to discern the hidden ways in which harmful power arrangements are upheld in apparently neutral cultural myths and practices. Especially illuminating was Goff's (Augustinian) insights about the often perverse nature of sex (married or non-married) within a society of masculinity-as-domination. Any Christian sexual ethic must deal with the uncomfortable relationship between eros and violence.

All in all, this a very important and well executed book. One which I am still trying to come to terms with - and which I expect the church as whole needs to come to terms with. Discussion about gender today is confused on all quarters and while Goff does not give us a prescription for how to go forward, he does offer certain delimitations that should be commended. Likewise, debates over the Christian engagement in violent conflict will continue, but Goff has rightly pointed our attention to the way in which decisions here have dramatic affects upon women and our understanding of gender.

There is honestly so much that could be said about this book. Its scope is massive and I don't pretend at all to have done it just. Many areas demand further reflection and investigation and I suspect certain points need much greater nuance and theological/philosophical consideration. Nonetheless, I earnestly commend this book and I pray it receives a wide hearing.

It deserves it and the church downright needs it.


Here is the link to Johnny Walker's blog, Freedom in Orthodoxy.

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