[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Dan Schultz, known online to many as “pastordan” at Daily Kos and Streetprophets, has put together a challenging book: Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21 Century.
It is a book long on theological discussion, but the topics he digs into to illustrate this “authentic progressive political theology” are things that are of huge importance around FDL: abortion, the Big Shitpile, and torture. He takes on false negotiations and triangulations, and pushes folks to look and work for real solutions. He goes after not only the TheoCon Right, but also the Religious Progressives that buy into the “script” posited by the Right for what solutions might look like.
Schultz writes, he says in the introduction, in order to deal with one simple thing: “what the Religious Left is doing is not working.” One problem, he says, is that many do not wish to speak words of judgment in the political realm, as religious progressives “have been schooled too well in reconciliation and engagement with leaders.” The other problem is “an inability or unwillingness to think imaginatively about faith in the public square.”
Enter Walter Brueggemann.
Brueggemann, a professor of Hebrew Scripture, has been a favorite of mine since my seminary days some 20+ years ago. Brueggemann is constantly demanding that his readers look at the broader context of scripture — the setting of the stories, the overarching themes of the poetry, the political circumstances of the cries of the prophets — in order to discern God at work in the world. Against those who would slice and dice scripture, looking for the right verse to quote or fall back on for a particular situation, Brueggemann consistently pushed his readers to see more than the simple words on a page.
Schultz takes a 2005 journal article by Brueggemann as the jumping off point for the book.
[Brueggemann] discerned the presence of “scripts” in our lives: dynamic, normative stories that actualize our values in patterns of behavior, often below the threshold of consciousness. . .
The primary script in control of our lives, according to Brueggemann, is “the script of the therapeutic, technological, consumerist materialism that permeates every dimension of our common life.”
Alongside the therapeutic idea that there’s always a product or cure to deal with anything that might be painful or inconvenient, the technological idea that with just a little more effort, anything can be made right, and the consumerist notion that we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it, with little or no regard for neighbors comes the militaristic script that allows us to protect and maintain the system of therapeutic, technological consumerism. “This script, says Brueggemann, promises to make us ‘safe and happy,’ and yet has failed to do either. For our health and the health of the world, we must let go and grasp a new one.”
From there, Schultz dives into three specific, concrete issues: abortion, the Big Shitpile, and torture. He explores — often in painful detail — what the dominant script looks like, exposing its weaknesses by naming them for the idols that they are. Those who labor for the goal of abortion reduction, for instance, often do so with a paternalistic attitude that merely trades one form of second-class treatment of women, like laws that rule how women’s bodies are to be treated, for unwritten but no less rigid attitudes that say precisely the same thing. “This is where the middle ground approaches to abortion ultimately founder: they desperately seek to provide any kind of alternative to women seeking an abortion except empowering them.”
Schultz pushes for a return of progressive prophets. Prophets are not some kind of spiritual fortunetellers, gazing into a crystal ball to see whether a tall dark stranger will enter your life and sweep you away in love, or deciphering a sometimes obscure ancient text to predict the future. Biblically speaking, prophets are truth-tellers, who boldly criticize the dominant powers that seek to supplant God and God’s loving will for the world. But more than simply criticize and hector those in power, prophets also offer hope — real, concrete hope, over against the false promises of unfaithful scripts.
Schultz grounds his writing in his faith, but does not do so in a way that demands that all progressives must have similar beliefs in order to “change the script.” Indeed, such a demand must be ruled out (emphasis added):
While this is framed in the suppositions of Christian theology, there is an insight that is available beyond those borders. I firmly believe that one of the crucial tasks of building a sustainable progressive movement will be to name the ambiguities and crises our society is already in, and create the venue for real change. That this insight is grounded in religious thought suits this work to faithful progressives, but all liberals — believers or not — can participate in the work of transformational politics.
I insist on that point first as a reminder in the middle of this hip-deep theologizing that the religious left operates as part of a larger movement that includes diverse opinions on the subject of God. Unlike conservatives, who are dominated by evangelicals and Catholics, progressives are made up of all beliefs and no beliefs. While religious progressives need not surrender their faith to enter the public square, they must remain engaged constantly in the work of translating their insights into forms useful to those who do not share their religious commitments. The goal is to share the resources of faith, not impose religion on all people.
For religious progressives, Changing the Script is a marvelous illustration of this kind of “constant translation” of insights born out of religious faith into something useful to all. For readers who do not share these religious beliefs, Changing the Script offers insights into how religious progressive think and act — or could think and act, if we set ourselves to it — so that common cause can be made in the political realm.
The footnotes in the book are perhaps the best proof of the dual nature of what Schultz has attempted. For each reference to scholars and theologians like Brueggemann, there are scores of references to online, non-religious sources like RhRealityCheck, Glenn Greenwald, and Media Matters. (As a personal note, for the first time, I found myself wishing I had an electronic text rather than a book on paper, so that I could more easily chase down the links in the notes!)
To kick off the discussion, a demonstration of script changing from outside the book might be in order.
At the mammoth Macy’s department store in downtown Philadelphia, they have a gloriously enormous organ — the Wanamaker organ — right in the middle of their seven-story atrium. The organ was originally built with more than 10,000 pipes for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and later sold and transported to Philadelphia. Once in the store, it was judged “too small” to fill the space adequately, and so another 18,000 or so pipes were added. It has six manuals, and more than 700 stops. In a store devoted to The God of The Market, that offers for sale of the largest, the most stunning, the most amazing one-of-a-kind consumer items, it seems fitting to find the largest, most stunning, one-of-a-kind organ.
On October 30th, thousands of shoppers were gathered as usual at Macy’s. Cosmetics salespeople were trying out their products on potential customers as usual, purveyors of various tasty treats were encouraging passers-by to sample their wares as usual, and people strolled through the displays fingering the clothing and other products on display as usual. The organ was playing a recital, as usual, and when one piece ended, the organist moved into another: the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. But then, in a most unusual manner, and to the amazement of the shoppers, the music of the organ was joined by 650 voices brought together by the Opera Company of Philadelphia in a “random act of culture.”
Shoppers were stunned, and by the end they were caught up in the music. They gave the singers a sustained round of applause. The video cuts off there, but I had to wonder: what did the shoppers do next? Did they smile and go about spending extravagantly, or did they put away their credit cards and say to themselves “who do I honor with my spending here?”
Viewing this YouTube while reading Changing the Script, with all its critique of consumerism and The God of The Market, was a mind-boggling experience.
Please join me in welcoming Dan Schultz to the FDL Book Salon.