Category: Culture

Three Rival Versions & the Thomistic Solution


Thomas Aquinas

This is part two of my analysis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics. This part focuses on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.  Click here to view part one.

We are faced with a variety of competing views of morality within our society. There are many who would like us to believe that no one view is superior to another, or that all views are equally valid. This is problematic. On an intuitive level we somehow know this is not the way it should be. There remains within us the desire to resolve our differences – to enter discussion and debate for the intended purpose of convincing others that our view is correct (and theirs mistaken). But this problem goes deeper than simply having different starting points and perspectives. Every other person is convinced that their view is best, that it makes the most sense, that it is entirely rational, and in fact, more rational than any other. The result is that we are locked in a moral standoff, where no amount of arguing is likely to convince our counterparts. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre provides an excellent summation of this moral mess.

Debate between fundamentally opposed standpoints does occur; But it is inevitably inconclusive. Each warring position characteristically appears irrefutable to its own adherents; Indeed in its own terms and by its own standards of argument it is in practice irrefutable. But each warring position seems to its opponent to be insufficiently warranted by rational argument.[1]

How did we get to this point? More importantly, how do we get out of this predicament? MacIntyre’s purpose in writing is to answer these questions and further develop the vision of virtue ethics that he initially articulated in After Virtue.

three rivalIf After Virtue is perceived as an incomplete work, as I believe it should, then Three Rival Versions should be viewed as bringing MacIntyre’s aretaic vision to completion, providing the metaphysical grounding for objective virtues and providing us the means of arbitrating between competing moral views. Of course, MacIntyre’s proposed solution is not without its critics. The first, is the more serious charge that MacIntyre’s solution simply doesn’t provide enough clarity to make any difference in our moral standoff. I say this is more serious, in that if true, then the work is inconsequential. Second, is the charge that MacIntyre’s vision is essentially postmodern. This concern has been expressed by several prominent Christian philosophers. What one thinks of postmodernism, and the extent to which MacIntyre is thought to incorporate aspects of it into his position, will determine if this is a serious charge or not.

So, how did we get to this point? MacIntyre begins Three Rival Versions by delineating the development and presuppositions of three different conceptions of moral inquiry: Encyclopaedia, which is named for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica; Genealogy, after Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; and Tradition, representing the Thomism put forth by Pope Leo XIII as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By tracing these three views, MacIntyre demonstrates that moral enquiry has progressed from objectivity, to subjectivity, to complete incommensurability and untranslatability of rival conceptions of morality.[2] The essential move being the genealogist’s rejection of any theoretically neutral, pretheoretical ground by which all competing claims can be judged.[3] So while contemporary moral theorists still cling to the idea that we can enter rational discussion with those who hold different points of view (a weak conception of rationality left over from the Enlightenment project), they deny the ability to reach rational conclusions and resolve differences (the strong conception of rationality that Nietzsche rejected). MacIntyre’s point here is to expose the irrationality of clinging to this weaker conception of rationality, if no such independent standard of adjudication can be found.

It is precisely here that MacIntyre challenges the conclusion of the Nietzschean genealogist, pointing to the example of Aquinas. By resolving the conflicting issues between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism, Aquinas proves that one tradition can be demonstrated as rationally superior to another. In MacIntyre’s thinking, Thomism provides us with the philosophical craft-methodology of how to engage morally incommensurable views. Thomas was able to articulate problems within both these rival traditions in terms internal to each system, demonstrating how each lacked the necessary resources to resolve those problems. He was able to demonstrate how the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition was then able to provide solutions to those same problems. And finally, Aquinas anticipated his critics best counterarguments (framed again in terms of these rival views) and emerged with a superior response.[4] This alone is a significant contribution to moral discussion. But MacIntyre believes that Thomism provides more than just this methodological approach; it is also the tradition which offers the metaphysical grounding required to provide an objective standard for the virtues, something that was lacking in After Virtue.


Alasdair MacIntyre

At this point, some have raised concerns that MacIntyre has not sufficiently delineated the finer points of his moral theory. As Richard T. De George has pointed out, “MacIntyre never makes clear how we are to use whatever in Thomism he believes valuable.”[5] But this doesn’t seem to be an accurate assessment. MacIntyre discusses at length several key features of Thomism that are essential in demonstrating its superiority to other views. For example, just as Aquinas argued on the basis of natural law, MacIntyre states that contemporary society’s unwillingness to discard the fragments of morality is evidence of its metaphysical grounding in human nature.

The Thomist . . . discerns in the continuous reappropriation of the rules, and in the recurring resistance to discarding them, evidence of the work of synderesis, of that fundamental initial grasp of the primary precepts of the natural law, to which cultural degeneration can partially or temporarily blind us but which can never be obliterated.[6]

Synderesis is the idea that human consciousness has an innate inclination toward the good. MacIntyre is therefore arguing that our intuitive desire to determine a morally superior view is grounded in human nature, an insight he sees as essential to Thomism. MacIntyre states elsewhere,

The plain person initially, as plain child, exhibits his or her knowledge of the principium of the natural law, which is the principium of practical reasoning, in the same way that he or she exhibits his or her knowledge of the principle of noncontradiction, that is to say, not in any ability to formulate the principle explicitly, but by showing a potentiality to do just that, in the way in which the truth of the principle is presupposed in a multiplicity of particular practical judgments.[7]

Additionally, MacIntyre identifies Thomism as providing both a human telos which is eternal and the virtues and right actions required to direct humanity towards that telos.[8] De George concurs with MacIntyre that Thomism provides the philosophical and methodological activity necessary to conduct moral enquiry, but he conveniently overlooks the metaphysical contributions of Thomism. It is these two Thomistic contributions that allow us to not only arbitrate between rival moral theories, but also between rival approaches to the virtues. In this regard, it doesn’t seem possible to view Three Rival Views as an inconsequential work, especially when read in conjunction with After Virtue.

But what of the criticism that MacIntyre’s view is postmodern? Thomas S. Hibbs argues that MacIntyre’s overall body of work has presented a postmodern Thomism, prominently featuring three postmodern motifs: namely, the emphasis on tradition and Moreland and Craig.106authority, the role narrative plays in shaping thought and culture, and the part community plays in shaping one’s personal identity.[9] But, does simply using these motifs make MacIntyre postmodern? Given MacIntyre’s commitment to essentialism, the belief that we can arbitrate between competing moral claims, as well as his intimations about the authority of scripture, it is hard to see how this can be the case. For example, both William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland have characterized MacIntyre’s overall approach as presenting virtues as mere “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.”[10] While one might be able to make this case solely based on After Virtue, it cannot be maintained given the contributions of Three Rival Versions. In this latter work, MacIntyre has demonstrated a commitment to the idea that human nature provides an objective grounding for the virtues. Essential to who we are as human beings, is an innate knowledge of what is good and virtuous. This belief would certainly seem to undermine the idea that he is postmodern, or, at the very least, Craig and Moreland’s charge that he is anti-essentialist. While it is true that, for MacIntyre, community plays an important role in cultivating the virtues, he clearly establishes nature as providing the objective grounding and impetus for such cultivation. As such, a fully orbed postmodern rejection of a transcendent, overarching telos/narrative cannot be harmonized with what MacIntyre is presenting.

I have stated elsewhere that the overall contribution of this work, in conjunction with After Virtue, provides Christians with a viable alternative to deontological approaches to moral theory. Virtue theory, properly grounded in the objective understanding of the human good afforded by MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas, could provide a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. This is not to say that MacIntyre’s approach should be adopted wholesale. However, the groundwork presented in Three Rival Views should guide our consideration. Christians, who fear that wading into such waters would open them to the influence of postmodern thinking, must keep in mind that simply borrowing common motifs from postmodernism does not make one postmodern. If anything, MacIntyre has demonstrated that these motifs are premodern, being originally found in the writings of both Aristotle and Aquinas.

[1]Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 7.

[2]MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 75. Even the Thomistic tradition which factors heavily into MacIntyre’s proposed solution, has not escaped “the indefinite multiplication of disagreements,” by wrongly giving priority to epistemological questions. It is important to note that when MacIntyre advocates for Thomism, he is advocating the version articulated by Thomas himself.

[3]Ibid., 172-173.

[4]Ibid., 182.

[5]Richard T. De George, review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Faith and Philosophy 8, no. 4 (1991): 542. De George is actually quite emphatic in making this point, going on to claim that “If MacIntyre wants to be heard more, he must produce the substantive theory that will engage his opponents. Simply to claim that Saint Thomas has the solution to the ethical and philosophical problems of our times is a move that has been tried in Catholic schools for over a hundred years, with less than compelling success.” And then a few lines later, “This volume argues for a method. The proof of whether it is in fact superior to alternative and opposing methods will be whether it can yield a moral theory adequate to the times. This series of lectures claims that it can; but the lectures contain only a promise.” Ibid., 545.

[6]MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 170.

[7]Ibid., 136.

[8]Ibid., 79-80.

[9]Thomas S. Hibbs, “MacIntyre’s Postmodern Thomism: Reflections on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (1993): 277.

[10]J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455.

After Virtue & Relativism


A brief review of MacIntyre’s seminal work on Virtue Ethics, After Virtue. This is part one of a two part analysis of MacIntyre’s overall theory of ethics.

There is no question that Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a significant work in moral philosophy, if not the most significant moral work of the 20th century. While it certainly figures as a major contributor to the modern revival of aretaic ethics, its true value can only be assessed within the larger context of MacIntyre’s follow-up works, particularly Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. On its own, After Virtue presents an incomplete rendering of the virtues that not only falls short of the Aristotelian variety that MacIntyre professes to be offering,[1] but that additionally runs the risk of contributing to the very moral quagmire from which MacIntyre is attempting to deliver his readers.  Despite these concerns, After Virtue offers the aspiring Christian moral theorist an attractive alternative to the deontological approaches that have dominated Christian ethics for much of the church’s history.

There are two heroes in this book. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom MacIntyre views as a hero of sorts; not because he is right, but because he takes the moral discussion in the modern period to its logical end. Nietzsche properly discerned that the rise of emotivism had effectively undermined the Enlightenment project’s attempt to craft an objective science of ethics. If all assertions of morality are nothing more than mere expressions of will, then better for us simply to abandon all pretense of objectivity and embrace our autonomy. MacIntyre understands Nietzsche as saying,

. . . my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’[2]



In other words, there is no transcendent moral truths to which we can turn for guidance. What is good, is what the individual wills it to be. While Nietzsche is not responsible for morality devolving into utter subjectivity (MacIntyre places that responsibility on those who came before), he is responsible for justifying its acceptance. The result is the moral theorist’s complete inability to arbitrate between rival expressions of morality; moral discussion and debate is effectively halted.

Those thinking that Aristotle is the other hero in this book, better think again. That honor falls squarely upon MacIntyre himself. If Nietzsche is the King Kamehameha II of the European tradition because he awakened the world to the fiction of what morality had become,[3] then what are we to make of MacIntyre? In like fashion, MacIntyre stands as a Nietzschean type hero, conducting his own genealogy of moral theory and awakening the world to the moral morass of modernity.

What then the conjunction of philosophical and historical argument reveals is that either one must follow through the aspirations and the collapse of the different versions of the Enlightenment project until there remains only the Nietzschean diagnosis and the Nietzschean problematic or one must hold that the Enlightenment project was not only mistaken, but should never have been commenced in the first place.[4]

We can either follow Nietzsche or follow MacIntyre as he takes us back to a theory of morality rooted in Aristotelian virtues. MacIntyre plays the role of Nietzschean prophet, delineating the problems of modernity, and claiming to offer a solution far better than Nietzsche himself ever offered. What MacIntyre has done, as Richard Bernstein so ably points out, is to present us with a choice between morality and no morality.[5] The question is whether he has sufficiently convinced his readers why they should choose the former and not simply embrace the liberation that the latter promises. Even if MacIntyre is successful in exposing modernity as devoid of morality, and even if countless moralists are awakened to realize their present condition for what it is, what’s to stop them from simply declaring, “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is no doubt that MacIntyre has laid out a substantial vision for moral theory, but why is it better than Nietzsche’s opposing vision? Why should we choose MacIntyre over Nietzsche?

The answer to this question hinges on one task. If MacIntyre is successful in presenting his readers with a teleology common to all of humanity, a shared telos such that it necessitates everyone embracing an objective catalog of core virtues, then I think they have no choice but to choose MacIntyre. To do otherwise would be to go contrary to nature and undermine the very idea of what it means to live in community. However, this is a big if. As it turns out, the most significant criticism of MacIntyre is that he has failed to do just that, instead leaving many to wonder if his account is more relativistic than objective. This charge of relativism is not entirely unjustified, and MacIntyre seems to have anticipated it. After reviewing various historical traditions related to the virtues, he finds incompatible lists and differences in rank order, acknowledging that it would be all too easy to draw the conclusion that no “single core conception” of the virtues can be found.[6]


Martha Nussbaum

MacIntyre attempts to avoid this conclusion by providing a three-tiered account of the virtues, placing them within the context of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives. But it is precisely here, with MacIntyre’s emphasis on goods and standards internal to practices, that the charge of relativism is introduced. Martha Nussbaum characterizes MacIntyre’s approach as a clear turn toward relativism, in which “the only appropriate criteria of ethical goodness are local ones internal to the traditions and practices of each local society or group that has questions about the good.”[7] Part of this criticism is grounded in the fact that MacIntyre’s vision does not seem to rule out practices that adopt vices rather than virtues. Building upon MacIntyre’s own speculation about the possibility of evil practices, Bernstein raises the prospect of a practice aimed at international espionage which requires excelling at dishonesty in appropriate situations. He, too, claims that MacIntyre’s position is in danger of being relativistic “because there is no reason to believe that the ‘acquired human qualities’ required to excel in one practice are the same as, or even similar to, those required for other, incompatible practices.”[8] He rightly concludes that what seems to be missing is a clear objective standard to arbitrate between rival traditions and practices, the very task MacIntyre’s whole work hinges upon. To summarize this criticism in MacIntyre’s own words:

I have suggested so far that unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.[9]

aristotleThe fundamental problem with MacIntyre’s approach is his insistence on rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the human telos. If MacIntyre were truly harkening the reader back to a thoroughgoing Aristotelian approach to the virtues, then he would need to embrace an essentialist view of human beings that includes what it means to properly function and flourish as a person. Defending the notion of an objective teleology without grounding it firmly in human nature denies MacIntyre of the one feature that could tie all local traditions and practices together and provide them with an external referent by which to judge the value of conflicting virtues. This is a problem that MacIntyre seems to recognize and acknowledge in his prologue to the third addition of After Virtue.

. . . my attempt to provide an account of the human good purely in social terms, in terms of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives, was bound to be inadequate until I had provided it with a metaphysical grounding. It is only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.[10]

It is only in MacIntyre’s later works that this deficiency is definitively addressed. In this sense, After Virtue is an incomplete work.

No one should interpret this to mean that After Virtue is an inconsequential contribution to moral discussion. While MacIntyre might have downplayed the need to provide a metaphysical and biological grounding of the good, he was correct in emphasizing its inherent social context. Our conception of the good cannot be articulated apart from what it means to live the good in community. This is a contribution that Christian moralists cannot afford to overlook. Virtue theory, properly grounded in an objective understanding of the human good, provides a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. Remaining fixed in a mindset that absolutizes all the individual commands and truths of scripture will take us down the path of developing curious theological schemes for arbitrating the conflicts that necessarily result.[11] In this sense, MacIntyre’s approach retains a degree of relativism, but it is a relativism we Christians should not be afraid to embrace. Applying moral values differently to different contexts does not deny the existence of objective moral truths. Even one of MacIntyre’s harshest critics acknowledges this. Nussbaum concludes, “The fact that a good and virtuous decision is context-sensitive does not imply that it is right only relative to, or inside, a limited context . . . It is right absolutely, objectively, from anywhere in the human world, to attend to the particular features of one’s context.”[12] Of course, the fundamental problem with extending relativism to all moral truth is that it prevents us from judging which application is appropriate, and which misses the mark. In the larger context of his writings on the virtues, no one should be charging MacIntyre with making this error.[13]

[1]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 118. I am thinking here of MacIntyre’s own claim to be presenting something like that of Aristotle’s approach, as well as his rejection of Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the virtues which will be addressed more fully later in this review.

[2]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 113-114.


[4]Ibid., 118.

[5]Richard J. Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle? Reflections on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 100, no. 4 (2017): 296.

[6]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 181.

[7]Martha Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2013), 631.

[8]Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle,” 304.

[9]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 203.

[10]Ibid., xi.

[11]I am thinking here of conflicting, non-conflicting and graded absolutism.

[12]Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues,” 639.

[13]J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455. In my opinion, the criticisms leveled by Craig and Moreland are a bit too harsh. They read MacIntyre as presenting the virtues as “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” On a simple reading of After Virtue, that seems a fair criticism. However, they most certainly have failed to take MacIntyre’s later works into consideration in making this assessment.

Ethical Hypocrites?


Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe

My commentary on a recent article I ran across.  

“Dennis Prager Doth Protest Too Much,” by Jeff Jacoby

The Boston Globe, 23 October 2016 (view article here)

How should we view ethicists and moral experts who fail to live up to their own standard of ethics? Does it discredit the moral views they espouse?

For moral and religious leaders, this past presidential election was a challenge. Conservative Christians were faced with having to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, the candidate not only stood opposed to the vast majority of views that Christians hold dear (i.e. abortion, gay marriage, immigration, etc.), but her campaign was mired in accusations of corruption and abuse involving both her and the former president. On the Republican side, the candidate was beset with recriminations of sexual harassment, adultery, and financial misconduct. What was a good Christian to do? Pick the lesser of two evils and hope for the best? Or, vote for a third party candidate and potentially hand the election to Clinton? Six months into the Trump presidency, and it’s obvious which path most Christians chose. Following the example of prominent Christians who publicly endorsed Trump, as well as conservative leaders such as Dennis Prager, evangelical Christians overwhelming voted for Trump.

Jeff Jacoby finds this troubling. Dennis Prager does not. Dennis Prager is a conservative


Dennis Prager

radio talk show host and nationally syndicated columnist. Jacoby describes him as “an important ethicist on the Jewish right” whose work has focused “on goodness and decent values as the most important ingredients in a healthy society.” Jacoby, himself a syndicated conservative columnist, criticized Christian and conservative leaders for being hypocritical. His basis for such an accusation? Many of these Trump supporters, were the same ones who declared Bill Clinton unfit for office back in the late 90s, and for virtually the same behavior.

While Jacoby did not name Prager in his original column denouncing “those in the highest ranks of the religious right,” in this article he responds to Prager’s claim that the accusation of pharisaism was an expression of gratuitous hatred. Jacoby is convinced that integrity and decency are indispensable qualities for those in leadership. Speaking in terms that he knows Prager will understand, he makes reference to Deuteronomy 16: 18-20, pointing out that God charged Israel with appointing judges and officers who were impartial, incorruptible and righteous. In supporting Trump, Jacoby sees Prager clearly violating this principle. And the result? When those who stand for morality support candidates who violate practically every standard of good character and decency, they damage their own reputation and influence. Jacoby fears that such inconsistency ultimately undermines the moral message of these leaders.

But is Jacoby’s fear misguided? Does the inconsistency of Christian leaders supporting


Mark Coppenger of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Trump serve to impeach their testimony as moral authorities and undermine their message? While Jacoby’s reasoning is based upon an ad hominin argument, a noted fallacy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is wrong. Mark Coppenger points out in Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians, “if someone proposes to instruct others in how to live, his behavior is fair game for scrutiny.” But, while examining the moral credentials of an ethicist is valid, it cannot be said to carry the argument. Jacoby is right that the man on the street may well conclude that these moral leaders have damaged their authority, and that is unfortunate. But his inference that their moral message may also be damaged is a leap.

Here is the reality: Christians are not only capable of hypocrisy, we should expect it. At the heart of the Christian ethic is the message that humans are fallible creatures. It is not possible for us to live up to the moral standards that God sets out in his word, and inscribes upon our hearts. This shouldn’t surprise us, given how every moral example put forth in the Bible (with the exception of Christ) suffered from moral failure. But our ethic is not truly about living up to a standard of what is right; it’s about receiving God’s forgiveness and allowing him to live through us. So while some may be disappointed in those who threw their support behind Donald Trump, they shouldn’t be too quick to cast aspersions. After all, they were imperfect people, in imperfect circumstances, making an imperfect choice. Ultimately, in a fallen world we shouldn’t put our confidence in fallen people. We can, however, put our confidence in God and the truths expressed in his Word. As such, Prager does not view his own support of Trump, and prior condemnation of Bill Clinton, as hypocritical. He views it as standing up for principles greater than any one individual. According to him, “defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the left is also a principle.” In fact, Prager calls it a higher principle.

The Age of Twidiocy


I wish I could take credit for coining this term, but I can’t. Driving in my car, listening to the news about the President’s latest Tweets, the word twidiot came to mind. Now please, don’t get upset. I am not calling the president an idiot. I am also not getting ready to play armchair psychologist and diagnose him as suffering from some form of mental disorder. It was all of the hoopla associated with the President’s Tweets that triggered my moment of genius. Unfortunately, a simple Google search revealed that I was clearly not as original as I imagined. Twidiot is already a part of the vernacular, albeit not well known.  The Urban Dictionary defines it as “Someone who twitters constantly, usually about insignificant or trifling events.” By definition, that would make the President a twidiot. Sorry, Mr. President. But don’t worry, you are not alone. It turns out we’re all twidiots.


Why are we so surprised that anyone, especially a 70 something year old man, would be Tweeting such inanity? Isn’t that what people do on Twitter? Somehow, the media is acting as if the President is the only person to ever act like an imbecile on social media. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter, cyberspace is rife with opportunities for the masses to unleash their distinct brands of verbal diarrhea. All one has to do is scroll through the history of tweets from any well known celebrity to prove my point.


Social platforms give everyone the ability to instantly vent or pontificate about whatever foolishness comes to mind.


And let’s be honest, we are all prone to outlandish and vapid thoughts.


There are a great many things that come to my mind throughout the day – most of them ridiculous and juvenile. Fortunately for me, I don’t have a Twitter account, and never will. It provides me the luxury of reflecting upon, and ultimately censoring, the rubbish that never turns out to be as profound as I’d like to think. But if I did have a Twitter account, I’ve no doubt that it would inevitably reveal that I too am a Twidiot.


Serrano’s Piss Christ Reconsidered


Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, vandalized at a Paris exhibition.

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a 60 x 40 inch full color glossy photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artist’s urine, was first displayed in 1988 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The photo took first prize in the center’s annual competition, but immediately caused outrage among the Christian community. Its subsequent display at museums around the world has lead to protests, accusations of desecration, a reduction in funding for the


Ed Knippers

National Endowment for the Arts (the government agency that funded the SECCA competition won by Serrano), and acts of vandalism carried out against the controversial photograph.[1] While violence should never be condoned, it’s understandable why so many Christians are upset. What Christian could possibly view this so-called work of art as anything other than an offense against the faith? One would think, we would be hard pressed to find a single follower of Christ for whom this photo is deemed beautiful. And yet, this is exactly what we find in Christian artist Edward Knippers, who believes that after more than twenty-five years it’s time for the church to no longer view Piss Christ as sacrilegious, but rather as a statement of divine truth.[2]

How exactly does Knippers come to this conclusion? He begins by asking the reader to consider what she would think upon viewing the photograph without any prior knowledge of the fluid in which it is contained, or of the artist’s intention in creating the work. Under such conditions, Knippers cannot help but feel that she would consider it beautiful.

The image in and of itself is quite beautiful as we see a crucifix almost nostalgically glowing in a golden mist of timelessness.[3]

It’s only upon becoming aware of the title and the realization of what the fluid is, that one takes offense. Knippers describes it as a jolt to the emotions. In his own reflection on Piss Christ, philosopher Jorge J. E. Gracia states that this is because of how society views the act of deliberately urinating on another person or object. It’s considered an act of power, defiance and humiliation. It’s as if the one pissing is declaring the person or object as worthless and disposable, like piss.[4] It seems only natural for the viewer to conclude that this is exactly what Serrano is doing. But what if the viewer were to discover that this was not the artist’s intention? If this disturbing immersion was for a noble purpose, would it no longer be considered an offense? Knippers is not the first to make such a speculation. It’s entirely possible that Serrano is trying to make some statement about the trivialization and commercialization of the Christian faith. In this sense, he would be attacking the reduction “of one of Christianity’s most precious and seminal moments to a plastic trinket.”[5] That would mean that Serrano is not attacking the Christian faith, but rather the Christian community for the way they themselves have desecrated the image of Christ. Along these same lines, Serrano may be expressing his anger about corruption in the Catholic Church (the institution most commonly associated with crucifixes), acting in a manner not unlike Christ when he overturned tables in the temple and chased out the money changers. Wouldn’t we then have to view Piss Christ as a work of piety and righteous indignation?[6]

Even though Knippers considers these possibilities, in the end he dismisses the artist’s intention as unimportant. It wouldn’t even matter to Knippers if the artist was Catholic, or considered himself a Christian. What matters for Knippers is what Piss Christ comes to mean for him (and for Christians in general), independent of the artist’s actual purpose.

No matter what Serrano’s intent or what this piece has become through the crucible of the culture wars, at this distance in time, from all of the shouting and wounded feelings of hard fought battles, the Piss Christ has become for me an elegant statement of the Christian truth that should be at the heart of our contemplation . . . the fact that our dear Lord and Savior has come, and is here, to powerfully redeem the likes of us with his love.[7]

Knippers has come to view Serrano’s work as symbolic of the incarnation: Jesus left the splendor of Heaven to be immersed in the cesspool of earth, in order to sacrifice his life on the cross for a fallen and filthy world. In this way, Piss Christ is to be seen as a powerfully instructive tool aimed at shocking us out of our comfortable lives to “wrestle with the hard reality of what Christ has done for us.”[8]

Is Knippers correct in his interpretation? Given that Serrano has been largely silent regarding his intention, one might conclude that the meaning of this work is ambiguous. If this is the case, then Knippers is certainly justified in his postulation. It’s not



uncommon for artists to construct works that lend themselves to multiple interpretations. In a recent interview focusing on Piss Christ, the artist acknowledged that this was his goal.

I distrust anyone with a message. The best artistic intentions are usually cloaked in mysteries and contradictions. It wouldn’t be interesting for me if the art were not “loaded” in some way. I always say my work is open for interpretation and that’s why I prefer not to read many of the “interpretations” out there. Suffice it to say, the work is like a mirror, and it reveals itself in different ways, to different people.[9]

But Knippers is not premising his interpretation on the basis of ambiguity. He is declaring that Serrano’s intention makes no difference in how he interprets this photograph. In taking this approach, he is isolating it from the context in which it is necessarily embedded.

First, there is the context of the artist’s intention. While Serrano may have intended for it to be a debatable thing, the fact that it has outraged so many would seem to suggest that he has failed in his goal and “loaded” the work too heavily in the direction of desecration. Is this a surprise? There is nothing ambiguous in the title he has chosen. As Gracia points out, the title is not Piss on Christianity, or Pissed Christ.[10] Serrano entitled the work Piss Christ. There is simply no getting around the fact that Serrano has pissed on an image of Christ, and that alone is not easily separated from negative intention (especially given that he knew it would outrage people). Second, there is the context of the cultural reaction to the photo. To casually dismiss the perceptions of seemingly countless Christians worldwide (and quite a large number of non-Christians as well) and ask that they instead view it as an elegant statement of faith is ludicrous. Knippers is advocating a reckless hermeneutic. And because of this, I believe his interpretation is wrong.

This photo is disgusting and insulting. Given our society’s perception of what it means to urinate on someone or something, there is simply no other way to interpret it. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not instructive. Piss Christ should serve as a visual reminder of precisely why Christ came into this world. Even knowing that men would reject him, even knowing that they would mock his work on the cross, he still came. Though the world would piss upon it, the image of Christ’s unconditional love remains visible.

“. . . While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[11]

[1] In 2011 a print of the photograph was destroyed by a mob of protesters in Avignon, France.

[2] Edward Knippers, “Serrano’s Piss Christ Reconsidered,” Critique, February, 2016, 8.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jorge J. E. Gracia, “On Desecration: Andres Serrano, Piss Christ,” Michigan Quarterly Review 52, no. 4 (Fall 2013): accessed October 15, 2016,;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0052.415;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1.

[5] Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.

[6] Gracia, On Desecration.

[7] Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Udoka Okafer, “Exclusive Interview with Andres Serrano, Photographer of Piss Christ,The Huffington Post, June 4, 2014, accessed on December 1, 2016,

[10] Gracia, On Desecration.

[11] Romans 5:8 (NASB).

A Freak No Longer: An Analysis of Christ & the Disciples at Emmaus

This is my attempt to put into action the principles learned from the book Art and Music: A Student’s Guide. You can refer to my post on What is Beauty? for a full review of that book. Keep in mind that I have zero experience evaluating works of art, and even less skill.


Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret in his Paris studio

I first encountered Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret at a mall gift shop in 2004. I was thumbing through an eclectic mix of art reproductions, movie posters, and bikini clad women stretched across the hoods of luxury sports cars. I was killing time and not expecting to make a purchase. When I saw the print of Dagnan-Bouveret’s Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, I knew immediately that I had to own it. Was it because I instantly recognized this as a great work of pictorial art? That didn’t matter to me. I had never heard of Dagnan-Bouveret before that day. What mattered to me was what the painting represented. As it turns out, this artist is not considered one of the Old Masters, and this particular painting is not regarded, at least by most critics, as a masterpiece. However, it may be time to reconsider its place in history. My goal here is to evaluate the work in light of aesthetic principles and theological/biblical considerations, with an eye toward allowing this piece to speak to others just as clearly as it first spoke to me over a decade ago.


Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret

The history of Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus is one of promise and disappointment. The work was purchased by Carnegie Steel chairman Henry Clay Frick, when he first saw it unfinished on the artist’s easel in the summer of 1897.[1] An avid patron of the arts, Frick immediately donated the work to the Carnegie Institute, where it became one of the centerpieces of the newly established Carnegie Museum of Art. Carnegie’s vision for his museum was not to build upon the acquisitions of Old Masters, but rather to showcase contemporary painters who would in time become the ‘new generation’ of Old Masters.[2] Dagnan-Bouveret was seen as exemplifying that vision. John Caldwell, one of the trustees of the Carnegie Institute’s Fine Arts Committee, was quoted as saying to Frick,

Unless I am greatly mistaken, this is one of the modern paintings that is going to hold its own and remain a ‘masterpiece’ for the instruction as well as pleasure of future generations.[3]

Caldwell was mistaken. Frick purchased a total of three of Dagnan-Bouveret’s paintings.


Henry Frick

After his death his estate was unable to give away one of the more repudiated, the Consolatrix Afflictorum (which to this day remains out of public view in the storerooms of the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburg). While Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus remains on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art, it was subject to mixed reviews when first introduced. Even though the Chicago Tribune declared it “one of the most remarkable works of the modern French school,” it also criticized it for being unoriginal (specifically referencing Veronese’s Supper at Emmaus as an example of the derivative nature of the work).[4] The London Times, in its review of the painting’s London showing, also highlighted this point, referencing Titian and Rembrandt as examples.[5] There is even some insinuation of kitschiness from critics. In 1900, this is exactly what a correspondent for the New-York Tribune implied when describing Dagnan-Bouveret’s body of religious paintings.

As devotional works one cannot take them seriously. The figures are too intensely French; the spirit of each is somewhat lacking in the magic which would stir the emotions of the spectator.[6]

Contemporary art critic Ken Johnson characterizes the paining as “absurdly sentimental.”[7] I wish to counteract these claims and demonstrate that Dagnan-Bouveret has produced something entirely original, transcending any characterization as religious kitsch. Far from being derivative and devotional, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus should be viewed as Avant-garde.

I have been a Christian educator for over twenty years. In 2004, when I first came across this work of art, I was the principal of a K-12 Christian school in El Paso, Texas. As a mission oriented school, we had an open enrollment and saw our ministry as one of leading students to Christ. The passage of scripture upon which this work is based, Luke 24:13-35, resonated with me as an educator. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, my students metaphorically walked with Jesus. They were exposed to scripture-based curriculum, affording the opportunity to hear about Jesus in each of their classes. They attended weekly chapel services where they were regularly challenged to commit their lives to Christ. They sat under the teaching of fully dedicated Christian teachers, who constantly sought to apply the Bible to every area of the student’s life. And yet, many of the students never came to faith. Luke gives insight as to why.

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”[8]

These disciples did not recognize Jesus until he broke the bread and their eyes were opened. They did not, and could not, see Jesus on their own. He needed to open their eyes and make them see. It is this precise moment that Dagnan-Bouveret has chosen to capture. Seeing the painting for the first time, I suddenly realized that it was not my job to convert students to Christ. I could present him daily. I could open the scriptures just as Jesus did to these unknown disciples. But a person only comes to faith when God himself chooses to open the eyes. When this authentically happens, it is the most spectacular thing that can be witnessed. While it’s true that this passage is well depicted in European art, in my opinion, Dagnan-Bouveret is the only one to capture it with such vivid realism and emotion.

When looking at the painting, one cannot help but first be drawn to the figure of Christ. He sits at the center, surrounded in a glow of radiant light (reminiscent of Dagnan-Bouveret’s most famous work, La Cena). His hair is auburn, not typical of depictions of


La Cena

Christ, but adding to a heightened sense of awe and intensity. This stands in contrast to the drabness of all other colors in the painting. The artist wants Christ to be the focal point. His eyes are looking straight ahead, as if focused directly on the viewer, instantly drawing him or her into the image. In fact, from whatever angle the picture is viewed, it appears that Christ’s eyes follow the observer. His two hands are spread out, the bread now divided, and the eyes of the three supper guests clearly opened. Their bodies are largely situated in shadow and darkness, with the light that radiates from Christ shining upon each of their faces. The light even seems to wash out the background scenery making it impossible to discern what is back there. This effect adds to the notion that at this moment, nothing else matters; everything else is obscured by the risen Savior. Two of the supper guests appear to be disciples, and the third a servant. There is a gradation in the responses of each. The servant girl, dinner platter in hand, appears to be in shock as she realizes that Christ is sitting before her. The disciple immediately next to her has his hands thrown up in wonder, as if amazed and entirely speechless. The disciple on the opposite side of Jesus has pushed his chair back, dropped to his knees, and has his hands clasped in worship. The progression of responses moves from fear and terror, to awe and wonder, then finally to total submission.

There is no doubt that the artist is attempting to paint a biblical event in the style of the Renaissance, and both The London Times and Chicago Tribune are correct that other European artists have painted this same scene. However, while this may be a biblical story


Supper at Emmus

commonly depicted in European artwork, Dagnan-Bouveret captures the intensity and wonder of it better than any other. Take for instance the aforementioned Supper at Emmaus. Veronese seems more concerned with capturing the intricate detail of clothing than the intensity of the moment. Christ’s radiance extends barely beyond his own head. In contrast, Dagnan-Bouveret has Christ’s radiance overtaking everything in the photo. Where there is darkness, one gets the sense that the light is quickly chasing it away. You cannot help but conclude that this is a life changing event. Then there is the comparison of the people surrounding Christ. In the Supper at Emmaus, many of them seemed disengaged and unaffected. Nowhere in this work does anyone come close to capturing the mood and feeling that certainly must have accompanied this moment. In contrast, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus is filled with emotion.

But both the Tribune and Times were referring to something more than simply the style, when accusing the artist of being unoriginal. Off to the right of where Jesus sits, Dagnan-Bouveret has inserted three figures dressed in contemporary clothing. Numerous renaissance painters often did the same thing. Veronese was reportedly called before church officials because of this, being cited for the crime of heresy.[9] But whereas Veronese was clearly doing nothing more than embedding a family portrait into his painting (often wealthy donors would be included in religious depictions to display their adoration and worship), Dagnan-Bouveret is providing commentary on the biblical scene. In addition to the very clear biblical message, which I believe Dagnan-Bouveret has captured faithfully, he has added an additional layer of meaning, one that is in tension with the original.

The modern figures are that of a man standing, a woman kneeling, and a small child immediately in the forefront, kneeling next to the woman. While all three figures are more obscured than any other in the work, the faces of the boy and woman reflect the light radiating from Christ, while the man remains obscured in darkness with what appears to be a dubious demeanor. More than anything else, it was the image of this modern man that caused the Chicago Tribune to title its 1898 review, “Frick Buys A Freak.” The paper also included multiple sub-headlines with the piece: It Will Cause A Shock; Europe Considers It Scandalous and Sacrilegious; Boldness Of The Artist; and, His Cynical View Of Religion. History has left us with the artist’s own words responding to this criticism and explaining the meaning of the three figures. For Dagnan-Bouveret the man clearly is skeptical, finding himself unable to accept the truth of Christ as easily as the boy and woman. This is reflected in the positioning of each of the modern figures’ hands. The child’s hands are clasped near his waist, the woman’s hands are prayerfully at her chest, and the man’s hands are touching his face as he considers what is before him. The move is from childlike faith to the uncertainty of modern man. Dagnan-Bouveret explains that it is the man, enlightened by the advances of philosophy and science, that struggles with his own religion.[10]

But perhaps there is more to be seen here then the artist conveys in his own words. Upon closer examination, it appears that the child is the only one in the frame not looking at Christ. A child accepts the faith of his or her family, often without question. But while children understand the form of piety, they do not necessarily have a heartfelt devotion. This child appears distracted by something else, as children so often are. On the other hand, the woman is filled with devotion as she gazes upon the scene before her. There is no question of her sincerity or acceptance of the truth of Christ. But what of the man? Does Dagnan-Bouveret intend to communicate that educated man cannot, and must not give in to the superstition of religion? While the work does not reveal the man coming to faith, perhaps the radiance and intensity of the rest of the scene provides some insight as to the ultimate outcome of the struggle between faith and reason. The artist asks the question of his own work:

Have scholars and philosophers succeeded in giving satisfaction to the human soul? I don’t believe it. The figure of Christ remains, after 1,900 years, as effulgent as ever. His rule of morals is as sublime as ever.[11]

In providing a retrospective analysis of Dagnan-Bouveret’s work, modern critic Gabriel Weisberg concludes that the artist must be understood in light of the deeper meanings that are reflected in his paintings.

He was certainly one of the most personal of the academic painters, and perhaps the key artist who interiorized academic image-making in a way that reveals the doubts and traumas of an era in which traditional ideology was under severe stress.[12]

Of course, Dagnan-Bouveret did not limit his doubt to traditional ideology in artistic styling. In Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, he is clearly expressing doubt over the traditional ideology expressed in the very content of art, distinguishing this work as far more than sentimentality and devotion. This is the juxtaposition of two worlds in conflict: the enduring legacy of religious  art verses its rejection by modernity. Is that legacy merely the product of a time when scientific ignorance made room for naïve faith? Even though Dagnan-Bouveret entertains this idea, the transformative power communicated in this painting suggests otherwise. Ultimately, it is today’s viewer that finds herself in the exact same position as the skeptic within the painting, coming face to face with the figure of Christ. His eyes connect, his radiance overwhelms, and he draws the viewer into the scene. Will the response be doubt, fear, wonder, or submission? Whatever the response, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus compels us to decide.

[1] Gabriel P. Weisberg, Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 267.

[2] Ross Finocchio, “Frick Buys a Freak: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Development of the Frick Collection,” The Burlington Magazine, December, 2013, 827.

[3] Ibid., 828. 

[4] W. R. Hearst, “Frick Buys a Freak,” Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1898, accessed November 13, 2016,

[5] “M. Dagnan-Bouveret’s New Picture,” The London Times, December 21, 1897, accessed on November 13, 2016,

[6] Finocchio, Frick Buys a Freak: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Development of the Frick Collection, 830.

[7] Ken Johnson, “A Timid Academician, Tempted by Modernism,” The New York Times, September 20, 2002, accessed November 9, 2016,

[8] Luke 24: 30-33 (English Standard Version).

[9] Hearst, “Frick Buys a Freak.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Weisberg, Against the Modern, 10.

What is Beauty?

I will be posting several articles related to aesthetics and the nature of beauty. The following is a review of a book I picked up a few years ago and will serve as an introduction to the topic. Enjoy!



Crossway Press

What is beauty, and how do we identify it? While the nature of beauty has perplexed philosophers for generations, perhaps the problem is best illustrated by turning to children. In every home occupied by toddlers, there are likely numerous “works of art” hanging on the refrigerator door. What mother wouldn’t consider such pictures beautiful? But can a shaky, barely identifiable image, drawn by a three year old hand, actually be considered beautiful? Would a curator declare such a drawing beautiful enough to replace a Rembrandt or a Picasso in an overcrowded exhibition? Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake utilize this scenario in their book Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, to point out why so many in our society find it easy to accept aesthetic relativism. The idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” helps us understand how a mother genuinely finds beauty in a child’s drawing, while a curator does not. It helps explain the wide variety and dissimilarity that exists in people’s preferences of beauty. But is this thinking correct? Munson and Drake’s purpose is to prepare Christians to think Christianly about art and music. How does the Christian faith and scripture inform our understanding of art and music? What constitutes beauty in these mediums? The authors are convinced that how we come to view beauty, has a direct impact on how we view truth and goodness. Munson and Drake propose a distinctively Christian conception of beauty, that is both objective and absolute, while at the same time accounts for our apparent subjective differences in taste.


Joshua Drake

In fleshing out this proposal, the authors begin with an analysis of the two major approaches to defining beauty. First, is the classical approach, which views beauty as objective and uniform. Beauty is seen as a characteristic of the object of perception, and can be empirically studied and measured. At first glance, this would appear to be in line with the Christian view of beauty that Munson and Drake are putting forth. In fact, the traditional perspective of Christians has been predominately classical. But the authors view this conception of beauty as inaccurate  and dangerously idolatrous.


Paul Munson

But make no mistake: not only were the masterpieces of classical antiquity made in the service of idols but also the classical vision itself, at its purest, is an idol. When form is made absolute, when—like the media-bewitched teen starving herself before the mirror—we devote our lives to the pursuit of some created formal standard, the result is not beautiful at all, but wicked and ugly.[1]
Here, the authors connect this idea to C. S. Lewis’s warning against aestheticism. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis poetically cautions that the classical view of beauty can lead to idolatry, hinting at a more accurate conception (something the authors delineate later in the book).

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.[2]

Lewis is correct in his observation that the classicist conception has often led to the misguided notion of equating beauty with the object of perception. Perhaps, it is precisely this adoption of the classical approach that has led to the internal struggle that many Christians have with beauty. Why does God makes things beautiful, if beauty only serves to lead us away from him? Augustine, who clearly echoed Plato in defining beauty in terms of symmetry and proportion, writes of his own struggle in The Confessions:

Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within and I was without. I was looking for Thee out there, and I threw myself, deformed as I was, upon those well-formed things which Thou hast made. Thou wert with me, yet I was not with Thee. These things held me far from Thee, things which would not have existed had they not been in Thee.[3]

The authors maintain that the classical view is a mistake, not simply because we are sinful and inclined to abuse it, but because it is inherently idolatrous.

But idolatry is not the sole reason for rejecting this approach. The classical view tends toward uniformity, which seems to be at odds with our experience of beauty. If all things are beautiful in exactly the same way, how do we account for the diversity of tastes and the variety of perceptions regarding what is beautiful? It is precisely this phenomenon that has led to the second approach, which has become the most dominant. The postmodern approach maintains that beauty is not to be considered a quality of the object of perception, but rather a quality of the one perceiving. Beauty has essentially become synonymous with preference. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has led many to abandon the debate on what constitutes beauty. For the postmodern mind, there is no need to define what is relative to the individual and essentially undefinable.

It is at this juncture, that Munson and Drake begin to delineate a proper Christian conception of beauty. Building upon the teachings of scripture, the authors assert that beauty must be viewed as objective, rooted in the very nature of God.[4] A key verse for them is Mark 14:3-8 where Jesus commends the woman who has anointed him with oil. Jesus declares that she has done a beautiful thing. Instead of commending her for doing a good thing, he commends her for the way (or form) in which she worships him. Hearkening back to Lewis’s quote above, the authors then define beauty as the forms through which we recognize the nature and ways of God.[5] To make this clear, they juxtapose two scriptures discussing God’s creation. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, creation is referred to as beautiful. In Genesis 1:32 it is referred to as good. From this they infer that beauty is a form of communication. Beauty is the means through which God communicates truth and goodness. It is the means through which he communicates himself.

The authors are quick to distinguish this objective view from that of the classical approach. Yes, beauty is objective, but this does not mean that it is uniform. It also does not imply a cookie cutter approach to beauty where everyone must like the same things. Beauty is endlessly diverse. But how can this be the case if beauty is rooted in the unchanging nature of God? Beauty is endlessly diverse because it reflects and communicates the infinite glory of God. Because no mind can comprehend beauty in its fullness, we all see different aspects of it. Because we all have different backgrounds and experiences, we all have different perspectives and preferences. It therefore becomes necessary to view beauty as transcendentally objective.[6] In this regard, the authors believe that the Christian view of beauty is the only view that can properly account for both objectivity and subjectivity.[7]

The authors also assert that this is not a relativistic approach to beauty. The postmodern, relativistic approach implies that no one preference for beauty is better than another. When we are left with such a predicament, it leads to indifference. When no one’s view of beauty is better than anyone else’s view, then there is no need to learn from others or attempt to expand our understanding of beauty. Each person’s perception of beauty represents an objectively knowable facet of the overall concept of beauty. If we are going to come to a better and more complete understanding of beauty, then we must learn from others. “If we are going to see as much of God’s glory as possible, we have to learn to see through others’ eyes.”[8]

Returning to the illustration at the start of this essay, we can easily see how both the mother and curator are merely seeing different aspects of beauty, and to different degrees. In her child’s drawing, the mother rightly perceives beauty. The child’s picture communicates several objectively good things, namely love, imagination, and the development of fine motor skills. But the curator is also making a correct assessment of beauty in not including the child’s picture in his exhibition. He is trying to find the highest and best examples of beauty, and certainly the child’s work does not compete with those of Picasso, although some might feel otherwise. Munson and Drake conclude that to a certain degree, beauty is present is all art. Both the child’s drawing and Picasso’s painting are beautiful. However, this does not mean that all art reflects the same degree of beauty.

. . . the beauty of any object is its capacity to proclaim truth and to realize goodness. The ugliness of any object is the sum of all the ways in which it obscures truth and impedes goodness, which means that everything in this cursed world is both beautiful and ugly. Some things will be mostly beautiful, and some will be mostly ugly, but everything will be a mix.[9]

Munson and Drake next consider the question of art and music for the sake of enjoyment and leisure. Too many Christians believe that pursuing aesthetic pleasure is a waste of time. The authors provide several reasons, based upon general revelation, why this attitude is mistaken. Most notably, is the idea that Christians ought to start thinking of the artist or musician as expounding upon God’s natural revelation much in the same way that a preacher expounds on God’s special revelation. Just as not every Christian is gifted as a pastor, with the ability to exegete scripture, not every person is gifted as an artist, with the ability to observe and communicate through art the often obscured truths of general revelation. By means of color, symmetry, exaggeration and even abstraction, the artist draws our attention to the details of God’s revelation through the created order. The artist helps us see truth and goodness more clearly. She communicates a message, much like a pastor. And just as there are bad pastors, those who fail to communicate appropriately or clearly, so also there are bad artists and musicians. While Hegel is certainly not coming from a Christian perspective, I think he perfectly illustrates this when he talks about art being “born again.”[10] There is truth that is communicated via the created order, which receives added emphasis and clarity as it is reborn through the artist’s work. The artist should be seen as highlighting, elucidating, and communicating things that fallen men and women might not have seen, or might have glossed over in the busyness of life. Beautiful art and music reminds us that we need to stop, look, listen and read God’s works. Seeing it in this capacity, the Christian needs to understand that avoiding art would be disastrous. Those who fail to take the time to enjoy and appreciate beautiful art and music, or even worse focus solely on bad art and music, will inevitably become desensitized to truth and goodness.

The book concludes on a very practical note, providing the student with guidelines for judging art and music, and then asking the student to make applications. Every Christian’s goal ought to be identifying those works of art and selections of music that best communicate the true and the good, that best exemplify beauty. Here the authors once maxresdefaultagain turn to C. S. Lewis for insight. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis challenges the Christian to seek out art and music that reveals new ways of thinking, and enriches one’s life. We can either use art and music to reinforce what we already believe, or we can allow it to teach us, imparting truth and goodness. Ultimately, this means judging art and music on the basis of its purpose. Does it promote an evil use, or the reception of ideas that are evil? If so, then it should be considered ugly art. In this sense ugliness should be understood as a form that “poorly realizes a good purpose, whether it be a good use or the reception of something good.”[11]

In applying these ideas, the authors ask the reader to evaluate three separate works of pictorial art, spending at least fifteen minutes alone in contemplation before reading the author’s own analysis.[12] These instructions are repeated in the final chapter, with three separate musical compositions. In each case, the reader is looking for ways in which the artist or musician is communicating truth and goodness. Several study questions are provided for further reflection, along with a glossary of key terms and a list of suggested resources.

While I found this book to be a compelling introduction to discerning the nature of beauty in art and music, I believe it comes up short in two areas. First, in the area of providing a distinctively Christian approach. Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, is just one volume in an eleven volume series entitled Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. And yet, while the authors are clearly influenced by C. S. Lewis, they fail to significantly incorporate any other representatives from the long tradition of Christian thinkers writing on beauty. While I am fascinated by the position that the authors take, I am not sure this represents what Christians have traditionally held. In what is arguably the most important chapter of the book, when the authors are delineating their definition of beauty as transcendentally objective, there is more hints of Immanuel Kant and Werner Krieglstein, than there is to any distinctively Christian ideas. If one is hoping to learn about the rich tradition of Christian thought on art and music, this is not the book.

Second, the authors fail to provide any strong reasons for accepting the position they are asserting. Regarding the connection between beauty, truth and goodness, the scriptural argument is weak. This seems more of an assumption inherited from the classical approach, rather than anything based upon clear passages of scripture. Regarding their definition of beauty, if the authors are going to completely redefine how most people intuitively define beauty, then they will need to provide greater biblical and philosophical support. I found the proposal very intriguing, I just wish they have made a more convincing case. In the end, it comes across sounding more like a postmodern approach to beauty (everything is beautiful, everything is ugly), nuanced slightly to retain the appearance of objectivity.

Ultimately, the book did not provide the definitive clarity I had hoped. I am still unsettled in my views about the nature of beauty. However, the book did engage me enough to make me want to study this question further. What truly is the traditional Christian view of beauty? Do we need to re-think our understanding of beauty and settle on a view that somehow bridges the gap between the classical and postmodern approach, as Munson and Drake attempt to do?

As a fun activity until the next posting, how do you think Munson and Drake would respond to the Voltaire quote at the top? How would you respond?

[1] Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 23-24.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 29. Italics mine.

[3] Augustine, “Augustine, from Confessions,” in Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, edited by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 1.10.5, Kindle.

[4] The biblical argument presented by the authors rests solely on Psalm 27:4.

[5] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 35.

[6] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 37.

[7] The language throughout this section seems to echo that of Werner Krieglstein and his thoughts on transcendental perspectivism. However, it should be distinguished that the authors are not making the argument that man can know nothing of the beauty of God, or that what defines absolute beauty is somehow relative to each individual’s own context and perception. Each individual has a tendency to hone in on certain aspects of beauty, on the basis of upbringing and personal experience. But each perceived aspect is still objectively discernible.

[8] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 38.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2003), 12-13. Of course, the Christian would not go as far as Hegel and claim that the artist’s work speaks with greater clarity and truth.

[11] Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 91.

[12] The authors do not provide a clear delineation of “things” to look for when contemplating these works. They more or less challenge the reader to take a disinterested approach and allow the works to speak to them. When reviewing the analysis of the authors, it is clear that they are employing knowledge of artistic style and art history. The student interested in getting more specific details on what to look for might find Joshua C. Taylor’s Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) exceptionally helpful.

Subjectivity & Inspiration



Crump, David. Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith. GrandRapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

I am of two minds when it comes to David Crumps’ Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture. On the one hand, I see it as a very useful response to the implications of higher criticism. I even find myself  agreeing with Crump about the importance of subjectivity as the only way to come to terms with these  implications. This is no small accomplishment, as I am generally reluctant to acknowledge the veracity of  anything that grounds itself in the philosophical insights of Sören Kierkegaard. [Yes, I have issues with the great Dane.] On the other hand, I find myself concerned over the implications of Crump’s approach, especially as it relates to our understanding of the nature of Biblical inspiration.

Crump begins his work wrestling with a problem that has been around for centuries, the Crump Picseemingly reckless manner in which the New Testament authors handled Old Testament passages identified as Christological prophecies. To Crump, the  messianic interpretations presented by Matthew are forced and unconvincing. There is no rational justification for Matthew’s approach, no harmonization that works. Here Crump draws upon insights from Kierkegaard to establish the only grounds upon which the believer can accept these as authentic: a leap of faith. We come to accept Matthew’s usage of these verses in the same way we come to Christ – through a subjective encounter with the living Christ. While I cannot agree with everything that Crump is saying, I do agree that these problematic passages are only fully understood through the lens of faith. I also agree with his assertion that while reason is not excluded from faith, embracing articles of faith is not a deduction from logical or historical arguments. But this is where my agreement ends.

At times, it seems that Crump is hesitant to characterize the Gospel writers handling of Old Testament scripture as divinely inspired. Crump describes their approach as one of “intuitive apprehension” when it comes to interpreting Christological prophecies. Of course, Crump would disagree with even characterizing these verses as Christological. He believes that the Gospel writers re-interpreted them, re-purposing them for the proclamation of the Gospel. The New Testament writers did not draw out what was hidden (or prefigured) in the Old Testament, they created an entirely new interpretation. This leads him to ask the very question that was foremost in my own mind: “What force directed the trajectory of this interpretive leap?” What led them to do this? An apropos question given the claims of higher criticism. But Crump’s response is far from resounding. He uses words such as artistic imagination, creative inspiration, and even personal inspiration rather than more traditional formulations. To be sure, he eventually characterizes it as “Gospel-inspired imagination activated by the Holy Spirit.” But this is the closest he comes to saying divinely inspired (and even that is the only reference to God’s role in the process in the entire book). Is Crump simply trying to articulate orthodoxy in phrasings that are more amenable to postmodern readers, or is he saying something more?

The something more comes through as Crump proceeds to demonstrate how this approach to the interpretation of scripture was not limited to the four evangelists. Jesus and Paul also made use of what he calls backward illumination, where modifications (or reinterpretations) are made to the scripture and convention. Crump is setting up a pattern that he maintains applies to all Christians. This is the way we operate in faith. While he places his exhortation primarily within the context of life experiences and our interpretation of them, he also commends this approach when “wrestling with the connections between Exodus and Calvary.” Unfortunately, he overlooks a key distinction between New Testament authors (to include the words of Jesus), and the average Christian alive today. They were divinely inspired. We are not. If we limit our understanding of inspiration to mere creative imagination fueled by our subjective experience of faith, then it is easy to see how Crump makes this connection. But if we view biblical inspiration in
the terms in which it has been traditionally articulated, then we are bound by the very words of scripture. No prophecy of scripture has ever been a matter of one’s own interpretation, or reinterpretation. The Bible is very clear on this point (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21 above). Their creative license comes from God. Yes, something we can only come to accept by faith. But faith alone, and the accompanying encounter we have with Christ, is not a sufficient license for us to creatively reinterpret scripture. I am not certain Crump is actually advocating this, but his ideas certainly lend themselves to this unfounded notion. And for that reason I did not enjoy this book.

For example, let’s apply Crump’s backward illumination to the issue of homosexuality. It is increasingly becoming more common for church leaders to “re-interpret” Old Testament passages in light of contemporary social mores. Yes, the church has traditionally interpreted passages in Leviticus, Genesis, and the writings of Paul to be condemning homosexual behavior. She has held that interpretation for centuries, and it has largely gone unquestioned. However, today’s Christian finds herself in a different context, with different experiences. We encounter homosexuals in our churches, living in monogamous relationships, and identifying as evangelical believers committed to the authority of scripture. This was not the experience that early believers, or even the people of Israel would have had when encountering homosexuals in their communities. They knew of temple-based homosexuality, pedophilia, and prostitution. Not exactly the face of homosexuality in the modern church. In light of the contrast between their experience in faith, and our experience in faith, would it be wrong for today’s Christian to view these scriptures differently? What are we to make of evangelical Christians who are increasingly re-interpreting these scriptures to only refer to the negative manifestations of homosexuality? After all, doesn’t our own personal experience of Christ’s love compel us to encounter these passages differently?

Perhaps, at this point you are ready to castigate me for reading too much into Crump’s little book. Please note that I am not saying that David Crump advocates embracing homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle for Christians. What I am saying, is that Crump’s ambiguity in his treatment of the interpretation of scripture, leaves the door open for others to make such claims. It provides a philosophical justification for such a view. When speaking about the interpretation of scripture, I would not expect a theologian (one who has committed his life to the study and teaching of scripture), to be less than resounding. When it comes to what we think of scripture, how we interpret it, and how we present it to others, we should be clear and emphatic. It’s God’s word. If we are to maintain that it encapsulates truth, that it is authoritative, and that it reflects God’s unchanging character, then we should do so with equal authority and force.

Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Seminary, makes the argument that the ideas reflected in scripture do not necessarily correspond to human experience today. The interpreter’s context is important to how one interprets scripture. Since the context of the one interpreting scripture changes over time, Pauw would argue that the interpretation of scripture must also change.

. . . there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality that seem very odd to both contemporary Christians and contemporary Jews—the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

The reason Dr. Pauw can say that there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage, is because she has bought into the notion that scripture is open to reinterpretation as individual experiences and social contect change. So it would seem that my reading of Dr. Crump’s book is not entirely out of line with the practice of modern theologians, especially those that share very close connections to Dr. Crump and Calvin College (where Crump teaches). [for the full text delineating Pauw’s views, visit]

Unfortunately, such views fail to take into consideration that true inspiration involves the guidance and activity of the Holy Spirit. Not only is God involved with the original composition of scripture (to the point where it does not represent the thought and opinion of man), he is also involved in our own reading of scripture. This is not to say that God somehow ensures that we will always properly interpret scripture. There are simply too many contradictory interpretations of scripture to make that kind of claim. But, it does ensure that we are not left to our own creative devices. We do not have the license to interpret and reinterpret scripture according to our own whims. There is a metaphysical grounding for the interpretation of scripture, and that grounding is the unchanging nature of God.

Having asserted that point, I think it is important to conclude by circling back around to the very thing that moved Crump to make the above assertions about backward illumination: the problem of how the New Testament authors seemingly reinterpreted Old Testament scriptures to have entirely new meanings. After all, my above assertion would leave open the idea that we could re-interpret scripture, so long as we could demonstrate that it is rooted in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to modern experience. There are two reasons that such an idea should never be entertained.

  1. If in fact the New Testament authors reinterpreted scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did so having received direct permission from Christ. As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no such permission given in scripture. That license was only given to the apostles, not every follower of Christ. John 16:13 is often misapplied to all Christians. It is important to note that in this passage Jesus is addressing the apostles and providing a future promise regarding biblical inspiration. This promise is never repeated in relation to the church in general.
  2. The New Testament authors may have divinely re-purposed certain Old Testament passages, making them prophecies about Jesus, but it is simply inaccurate to claim that they reinterpreted these passages. There is a subtle distinction to be made here. The Old Testament passages re-purposed to have Christological meaning, never lost their original meaning. And yet, this is exactly what Pauw, and others who would like to change the Bible’s narrative on homosexuality, are advocating be done with Old Testament verses regarding the biblical view of marriage. Giving a verse added meaning, and giving it a meaning contrary to the old, are two entirely different things. If we are to maintain that the writing of the scripture was guided by our unchanging God to reflect his unchanging will, then a passage of scripture can never come to have a meaning that is contrary to the original. More pointedly, even if we somehow accepted the idea that God divinely inspires today’s Christians to interpret scripture, he could never inspire them to reinterpret it.

Of course, it would be more consistent with the traditional understanding of inspiration to simply maintain that today’s interpretations of passages dealing with the biblical view of marriage and sexuality are not reinterpretations, but rather corrections of previously held misinterpretations. This is a harder argument to make, but nonetheless one that is being made quite popularly by several leaders in the gay Christian movement. Wisely, this is not the path that most theologians have taken. Such a path involves denying the clear facts of history and appearing as nothing more than a blind ideologue. For most, it is simply easier to undermine the nature of inspiration. See my earlier post Should Evangelicals Evolve on Homosexuality? for an evaluation of such attempts.

Black Lives Matter, Too

I remember being offended the first time I learned about the Black Lives Matter movement. The presidential campaign was just getting underway, and the earliest advocates in the movement were often seen on the news interrupting Democratic political events. They were angry. They were interfering with the ability of others to freely express their beliefs and ideas. Who can forget former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley being famously booed off the stage when he dared to exclaim that all lives matter. I didn’t get it, and apparently neither did O’Malley. Of course, I wasn’t the only one offended. Lately, it has seemed like every white person on the planet has taken to declaring that all lives matter. It’s time for us to stop doing this, at least until we can honestly say that it is true.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. It was a single picture that changed my whole perspective on the Black Lives Movement. On the surface, the above picture reinforces what I initially believed about this group. I know it’s 2016, but I still get offended by vulgarity being used in public. To me, it’s classless and counter-productive to a cause. But if you allow yourself to get hung up on the signs in the front of this photo, you will miss the truly illuminating one just behind the orange banner. It simply reads: All lives will matter when #Black Lives Matter. That one sign best articulates the message that this movement has been trying to communicate, and reveals exactly why white people declaring all lives matter are actually the ones being offensive.

A black man who was recently shot in Miami, despite the fact that he was laying in the street, despite the fact that he was unarmed with his hands extended above his head, and despite the fact that he was fully cooperating with police on the scene, clearly illustrates that black lives are still not viewed the same way that other lives are. Racism, particularly toward African Americans, is still alive and well in America (despite how often white people like to claim that it is a relic of the past). If some have taken to claiming that having a black president somehow proves that we have overcome our racist past, then what does the shooting of Charles Kinsey prove? Just in case you missed this little detail, the white male sitting next to Charles, and the one suspected to be holding a gun, was not shot.

Saying that all lives matter, when the evidence indicates otherwise, is offensive. Instead of trying to “out shout” black lives advocates, we should be joining with them. In fact, as a Christian, it should be my goal to live a life that truly affirms the value of every one that bears the image of God. Simply saying that all lives matter, while not taking steps to ensure the truth of those words, is hollow. Saying it, doesn’t make it true. We have to actually live it. If all lives matter, then we need to stand up for all lives.

This week, L-Mani S. Viney wrote a compelling article in Vanity Fair in which he addressed why it hurts when people say “All lives matter.”

Do all lives matter? Of course! And you will be hard pressed to find any African-American who would say otherwise. But we will continue to say Black Lives Matter until African-American lives are given the same value as the lives of people from other countries, our police officers, your property, a lion named Cecil, and a gorilla named Harambe.

This little essay is not an endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement. You will not see me out in the street protesting with Black Lives Matter advocates. I will not be donning a black tee shirt. There is simply too much baggage, and bad ideology, associated with this movement that I cannot endorse. However, I can acknowledge the legitimacy of their anger. I can raise my voice against racism. I can vote for politicians who acknowledge the lingering reality of discrimination in our nation and are committed to doing something about it. When I see discrimination taking place, I can do everything within my power to stop it. And, most importantly, I will not say the words “all lives matter” until I am convinced that as a nation we actually believe that all lives matter.

Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action once again finds itself in the news, as the Supreme Court just upheld admission policies at the University of Texas that take race into consideration. The following post was written about a month before this decision was handed down and is intended to get Christians to re-think how they approach so-called affirmative action policies. I think the default position for most conservative Christians is to label all such policies as reverse discrimination. I’m not sure my approach was well received when I presented it to a group of colleagues. I’ll let you decide for yourself.  



In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech that has proven pivotal in shaping modern American policy regarding affirmative action. The goal of this post is to take a closer look at the content of his speech, and see if today’s Christian might gain insight regarding how to approach the issue of affirmative action. Do affirmative action programs represent a legitimate avenue for redressing the problems of past discrimination and eliminating racial inequities in the workplace? Affirmative-Action-demonstrationI want to be very clear in what I am proposing in this essay. First, I maintain that Christians should be advocating for what I consider to be the spirit and intention of affirmative action: the desire to help groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination. I believe this to be in keeping with the Church’s call to help the poor and persecuted. Second, I want to specifically propose that affirmative action programs only be implemented at the most basic levels of education. Equality in the workplace, as a fact, can only be accomplished if all members of society are provided equality of opportunity to build knowledge, skill and ability. Following this course of action will avoid the kind of programs that involve reverse discrimination and show preference to the less qualified.

The term affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order from 1961 requiring federal contractors to take “affirmative steps” and “affirmative action” to ensure equal opportunity in the hiring of minorities. The word affirmative was merely used as an adjective describing the need to be proactive in ending workplace discrimination and inequities. After this order, the phrase quickly became the official nomenclature for any such policy aimed at ending discrimination and cultivating diversity. This order actually provides an early articulation of the goal of affirmative action policies.

. . . it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment . . .[1]

The early focus of affirmative action was clearly upon ending current workplace discrimination. As the policy would develop over subsequent years, employers could potentially lose government contracts if it was demonstrated that they were discriminating against minorities (or the disabled) in their hiring practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented these policies, in addition to ending segregation policies in schools and places of public accommodation.

President Johnson’s landmark speech at Howard University (June 4, 1965) was perhaps the first time the issue of affirmative action was clearly and persuasively brought to the attention of the American public. While the nation as a whole was wrestling with the civil rights movement and the implications of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson articulated a vision that charted the course of future affirmative action policy and has sustained it to this day. Even though he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Johnson deemed it to be insufficient legislation.[2]

. . . freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not LBJtake a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.[3]

While Johnson never uses the phrase “affirmative action,” he is clearly talking about the ability of minorities (specifically blacks) to adequately compete for jobs in the workplace. Reflecting back on the definition of affirmative action in Kennedy’s executive order, we can see that Johnson has added a new dimension. Johnson shifts the focus of affirmation action away from simply ending current discriminatory practices, to somehow compensating for past discrimination. This would later be articulated in 1977, when the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement specifically defining affirmative action as,

. . . any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.[4]

Johnson is arguing that simply giving minorities freedom from discriminatory hiring practices is not enough. If the minority applicant does not have the proper education or skills needed to compete for a job, they will likely not be hired. Quite naturally, it is the hope of every employer to hire the best qualified person for a job. Likewise, the perception is that most colleges want to admit the best students, as determined by standardized entrance tests and performance in high school. In this kind of environment, how can a minority applicant or student properly compete? Since minorities have a higher chance of coming from a single parent home, living well below the poverty line, and not having access to the best education, more than likely they will not be as well-equipped as those they are competing against.

The illustration Johnson provides in order to make his point (a runner being released from his chains and being asked to compete at the same level as those who never had chains), echoes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he used a similar analogy.

Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having their legs off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.[5]

Martin Luther King Jr.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

While certainly not logical arguments for affirmative action, both analogies go a long way toward explaining the intent behind the policy. Johnson and King are both trying to justify that affirmative action is needed in our society to recompense for past discrimination. More than 50 years later, it seems the need still exists. The most recent census data supports that 27% of blacks and 25% of Hispanics earn an annual income below the poverty line, as compared to only 12% of whites.[6] The same data also shows that 67% of black children, and 42% of Hispanic children are born in single parent homes, as compared to 25% of non-Hispanic whites and 17% of Asian Americans.[7] It becomes very difficult to maintain that the economic and social status of minorities today, particularly blacks and Hispanics, is not somehow related to past injustices.

For those who have not had to endure the challenges that have faced minorities, it is easy to take lightly the impact of past discrimination. Take the heritage of African Americans for example. Slavery in America officially began in 1619 when African slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, that this practice officially ended.[8] That means that the institution of slavery formally existed in America for nearly 250 years. What followed was a century of laws institutionalizing racism (preventing minorities from voting, attaining an equal education, etc.), the continued practice of peonage and involuntary servitude, public lynching (which was overwhelmingly carried out against African Americans), and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other organized hate groups. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act put an end to this era of slavery and discrimination, which all together comprised approximately 350 years of American History.[9] How do we quantify the impact that kind of history still has on today’s blacks? How does nearly four centuries of having no freedom, being the objects of hatred, and having doors of opportunity continually slammed in your face, affect the psyche of a people group? Putting it in this context, we can more fully appreciate what King is referring to when he talks about black children growing up “with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.” Author Lisa Sharon Harper acknowledges that the black community has made great strides in overcoming racial discrimination. But she is quick to caution those who think we have outgrown the need for affirmative action programs. “We have made only two generations of progress after 17 generations of comprehensive, structural, systematized, and racialized oppression.”[10] She is not arguing for a balancing of the scales that would require minorities to receive 17 generations of protected status. However, she is trying to convey the enormity of the impairment that needs to be overcome. Returning to Johnson’s speech, he touches on this by acknowledging that blacks in particular have suffered from “a devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred and injustice.” Can we honestly claim that the poverty that still exists in the black community is not a direct result of this history?

Imagine a society where the local government adopts a policy of chopping off the left hand of all left handed citizens. For a variety of reasons, the right handed members of the community, who vastly outnumber their left handed neighbors, argue that such a policy actually helps the left handed by forcing them to learn to use their right hand. This will ultimately allow them to better adapt to the way society operates. The federal government becomes aware of this deplorable policy and intervenes by outlawing the practice. Unfortunately, this intervention only comes after every left handed citizen has already suffered the debilitating amputation. Now imagine two formerly left handed members of the community, John and Sally, applying for jobs. The federal government has rightly implemented anti-discrimination policies, making it illegal for employers to not hire the left handed. However, when John applies to the local supermarket, he is informed that he will not be considered for the job, as it requires the use of two hands (a requirement he obviously does not meet). There are simply too many boxes that need to be lifted and items that need to be handled. And so the job goes to a right handed applicant, not because he is right handed, but because he is more qualified. Likewise, Sally applies for a job that requires data entry. Because of her educational background, she is given an assessment that involves manually entering figures into a spreadsheet. While an applicant only needs one hand to do this, Sally’s right handed motor skills and dexterity are not as developed as the other applicants. Like John, she is not being discriminated against because she was formerly left handed. She is simply not as fast as the others taking the test.

The above illustration is an attempt to better elaborate on Johnson and King’s analogies.  Minority applicants can’t get the best jobs, not because they are non-white, but because they don’t have the skills and background needed to qualify for the job. This is the most compelling implication of Johnson’s speech. The issue minorities in America now face is not primarily racial. Certainly, most Americans would agree that there is no inherent inferiority in a person due to the color of their skin. The fact that the majority of Americans elected a black president, twice, somewhat illustrates this point. Race is not the primary reason that minorities struggle to find quality paying jobs and earn a decent living. For Johnson, this problem is due to a deficit in ability. Rather than being discriminated on the basis of race, it is more likely that minority applicants are discriminated on the basis of not having an adequate resume. To be sure, this lack of “merit” is rooted in past racial discrimination. But simply removing the barriers of racial discrimination in the workplace, has failed to truly solve the problem of enabling minorities to actually take advantage of their new found opportunities. Minorities are not competing on a level playing field because they have been historically cut off from the means of developing their abilities, have had to deal with persistent poverty, and have suffered from a wounded spirit.

Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

Here Johnson again stresses ability. How can the majority of minorities be expected to have the same chance as their white counterparts, if their ability has been stunted by a heritage of discrimination? For Johnson “equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.” Johnson is saying that it is necessary to go beyond simply providing equality of opportunity; society must somehow guarantee equality of result.

Unfortunately the development of affirmative action following this speech did not properly focus on the problem of developing ability, choosing instead to focus on guaranteeing equality as a result through de facto quotas and reverse discrimination. It is no surprise that a few months after giving this speech, Johnson signed executive order 11246 greatly expanding the government’s ability to enforce affirmative action in the workplace. From this, government policy began requiring federal contractors to establish abolish_affirmative_action_nowgoals and timetables for the hiring of qualified minority or disabled workers, and also required annual reports indicating the number of qualifying hires, in proportion to the number of total hires in a given year.[11] Affirmative action policy was moving closer to fulfilling Johnson’s vision of guaranteeing equality of result; it was simply going about it in the wrong way. Commenting on Johnson’s message, political scientist Edward J. Erler states, “some form of unequal opportunity is necessary to achieve equality of result.”[12] If we are to focus only on equality as an end result, then we will necessarily find ourselves limiting the freedoms of some, in order to make room for the advancement of others. Erler finds, as have many others, that this is a blatant violation of the 14th amendment, as it establishes discrimination on the basis of race.

Christian ethicist Mark Coppenger has no problem understanding Johnson’s reasoning.

It is undeniable that for many years blacks were denied many freedoms by whites . . . The suppression of blacks was so thorough that they were unable to spring forward when the pressure was released. Generations of injustice had caused significant loss of capacity and confidence among blacks. The external limitations generated internal limitations. In short, blacks were not instantly ready to compete with a change in law.[13]

What is problematic for Coppenger, and should be for all Christians, is the approach that the Johnson administration and later affirmative action policy took in order to address this situation. There is no question that the discrimination historically carried out against blacks constituted an unjust harm to innocents. However, Coppenger refers to affirmative action policies that resort to reverse discrimination as “doing justice unjustly . . . a good aim pursued in the wrong fashion.”[14]

Philosopher Robert Nozick attempts to convey the complex nature of trying to compensate for past wrongs.

If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify those injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? . . . How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but, for example, their descendants?[15]

Answering such questions proves difficult. But one thing is certain: society will not tolerate a plan for restitution that appears unfair. A preference program operating on behalf of whites would not be tolerated. Why should society tolerate one that operates on behalf of select minorities? Forcing employers to hire less than qualified applicants simply to meet a racial quota seems inherently wrong. This is clearly the conundrum we find ourselves in today. Is it right to discriminate against others in order to make up for past discrimination? In 1995, the Clinton administration conducted a review of government affirmative action programs. The official report of the study clarified that affirmative action programs entail a “national effort to remedy subjugation of racial and ethnic minorities and of women – subjugation in place at our nation’s founding” and that still continues to this day.[16] However, the report affirmed a commitment to discontinue any program that “creates a quota; creates preference for unqualified individuals; creates reverse discrimination; or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.”[17]

All of these undesirable ramifications of affirmative action policy have come about as a result of failing to properly focus on what Johnson identified as the real problem facing minorities: stunted ability. “The next and more profound stage of the battle for Civil Rights,” as Johnson put it, should have been on redressing the underdeveloped ability of minorities rather than resorting to quotas. If society can place the emphasis on building human ability, as LBJ implies in his speech, then policies can be developed that address the problem at its root. In order to achieve equality as a result (or, equality as a fact), equality of opportunity is necessary. But, an individual must have the ability to satisfy the conditions required to take advantage of an opportunity. Moral philosopher Bernard Williams states that

[Equality of opportunity] requires not merely that there should be no exclusion from access on grounds other than those appropriate or rational for the good in question, but that the grounds considered appropriate for the good should themselves be such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them.[18]

This is where affirmative action policies must be aimed: leveling the competitive job market by building up the ability of minorities. Equality of result can only be achieved if every member of society has an equal chance. This means that the focus of affirmative action programs needs to involve education and job training. In this way, minorities will be hired on the basis of merit, not because of the color of their skin. This will also insure that innocent applicants do not suffer from reverse discrimination. If someone fails to get a particular job, it will be because someone better qualified was hired.

Affirmative action is best directed at redressing inequities of opportunity in education, at the most elementary levels. True equality of result can only be achieved in the workplace if there is first and foremost equality of opportunity in the building of human ability. Johnson hints at this in his speech when he says, “the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance . . . to develop their abilities – physical, mental and spiritual.” Again, Coppenger would agree, saying that society needs to “make every effort to give black children a first-rate education . . .”[19] A year after her retirement from the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor reflected back upon the Grutter case, declaring that deficiencies in education are preventing minorities from achieving success. She very clearly suggested that the success or failure of affirmative action depends upon its ability to target this as the real issue. But in making her point, she highlights the importance of early education, as opposed to higher education, which the Grutter case involved. “We have to make sure we are maximizing their educational potential when they are 8 rather than when they are 18 . . . we are falling down in that area.”[20] Applying affirmative action quotas to college acceptances possesses all of the same problems inherent with doing it in the workplace. But if affirmative action programs can be focused on building the potential of minorities, at the very beginning of their educational journey, then that foundation will lead to better performance in high school, higher scores on college entrance exams (eventually being, on average, as good as their white counterparts), fewer college drop outs (a significant problem for minority students admitted on the basis of racial preference criteria), and higher paying jobs.

On a practical level, focusing affirmative action efforts on education will necessarily involve investing more money and ingenuity in developing quality early childhood and elementary age programs in minority neighborhoods. It will also involve investing in support systems that ensure maturing minority students don’t fall through the cracks and drop out of school early. Magnet programs designed to target minority students is a great way of building upon a strong early education foundation. In order to pay for this, one might be tempted to advocate for equality in spending in all public schools. Schools in wealthy suburbs provide predominately white students with better educational opportunities due largely to the higher taxes paid by their wealthy families. Meanwhile, inner city schools in impoverished neighborhoods suffer from a lack of funding and offer inferior educational opportunities. Do we remedy this by equally redistributing tax funds from wealthier districts, effectively reducing the quality of educational opportunities for their families? It seems that we are facing the same fundamental problem with any affirmative action policy – limiting the freedom of some to advance the freedom of others. This may be an inescapable. If so, that is why affirmative action programs must be limited to this rudimentary level. However, I remain optimistic that our leaders can find creative ways to fund these programs, without limiting the opportunity of others.

It is important to note that true equality as a result will never fully be achieved, even if affirmative action programs are properly directed at education. Inequality in regard to human ability is a fact of life and should not be considered unjust. We are all gifted with different skills and abilities. While I can be subject to the same educational opportunities as Stephen Hawking, I will never attain the level of knowledge and insight that he possesses. Nevertheless, this reality should not dissuade us. Equality of educational opportunities will bring us closer to equality of result and fact.

At the heart of affirmative action policies is a desire to help the less fortunate, especially those who have suffered as a result of past discriminatory practices. The goal of this paper is to assert that Christians should at the very least share this same desire and advocate for policies that proactively seek to right past wrongs and provide every American an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. As Christians, we have a moral obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged in our society, finding ways to restore them as valued members of the community.

[1] Executive Order no. 10925, accessed May 23, 2016,

[2] Edward J. Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind?” USA Today Magazine, July 2004, 62.

[3] “Commencement Address at Howard University: To Fulfill These Rights,” LBJ Library Archives, last modified June 6, 2007, accessed May 20, 2016,  All subsequent quotes from Johnson come from this source.

[4] “Statement on Affirmative Action,” United States Commission on Civil Rights, accessed May 20, 2016,

[5] Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.

[6] Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty and health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013), 14.

[7] Joyce A. Martin, Brandy E. Hamilton, Stephanie J. Ventura, et al., “Births: Final Data for 2010,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 1 (Hyattsville, MD: National center for Health Statistics, 2012), 43.

[8] Slavery did continue in some places in the south, and was not officially eradicated until the thirteenth amendment was formally ratified in December 1865.

[9] This was not just against blacks. It also included Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics.

[10] “Jesus and Affirmative Action,” Sojourners Articles, last modified June 25, 2013, accessed May 28, 2016,

[11] The 1972 Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act is an example of such requirements.

[12] Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind,” 63.

[13] Mark T. Coppenger, A Christian View of Justice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 142-142.

[14] Ibid., 143.

[15] Robert Nozick, “The Entitlement Theory,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 303.

[16] George Stephanopoulos and Christopher Edley, Jr., Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs (June 1995), Section 2.1.

[17] Ibid., Section 11.4.

[18] Bernard Williams, “Equality,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.

[19] Coppenger, Christian View of Justice, 143.

[20] John Fund, “Getting Beyond Race.”