Monday, May 21, 2012

A Review of Jonah Goldberg's "The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas"

Yes, this is a book about politics; but one of the things I found most interesting was what the book had to say about religion. Goldberg describes himself as a secular Jew but he does a much better job of defending the church and Christianity (past and present) than many Christians (even many in the clergy.) The basic idea of the book is that many people substitute clichés they’ve heard for any real thinking on a variety of important issues: bumper sticker thinking. Goldberg elaborates in this paragraph from the chapter ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’: “YOUR KARMA RAN OVER MY DOGMA. You’ve no doubt seen the bumper sticker. The pun is easy to get, but the underlying point is more elusive. Most of the time, like so many bumper stickers, it’s more a smug declaration of superiority whose appeal derives more from the appearance of cleverness rather than the reality of insight.” In this chapter, he points out that many in our culture have accepted a cliché that Eastern thought is more spiritual and less dogmatic. Goldberg responds that Buddhism is every bit as doctrinaire as Christianity or Judaism and in his book that’s not a bad thing. We all follow doctrines, creeds and systems of belief and that’s a good thing. There is wealth in collected wisdom in religious and political orthodoxies. We are more likely to get into trouble when we think we are pioneers finding our own pragmatic and individual truth, because we blindly fall into sloppy thought and practices. I greatly appreciated his take on other religious clichés beyond, ‘I’m not religious; I’m a spiritual,’ such as ‘Science vs. Religion’. This is the idea that religion had opposed and feared scientific thought through the centuries. The key example that is always brought up is the story of Galileo. Galileo didn’t oppose religion, he wrote books of theology. He may have spent 3 days in jail, but who clamored for the Church to silence and punish the man were not clergy by “jealous, lesser, scientific colleagues.” Goldberg deals with other supposed crimes of the church. He points out that the Crusades were not the first stirrings of imperialism but rather a defense response to the military conquests of Islam. He responds to Daniel Browns claim in “The Da Vinci Code” that millions were killed by the church in witch hunts with facts that show that thousands were killed (still a horrible thing) and usually by secular authorities, not the church. Yes, there were injustices committed by the various Inquisitions formed by the church through the years, but they were much more thoughtful then the secular courts of the time. Yes, the Spanish Inquisition did use torture, but in two percent of the cases. The Church has through the centuries acted contrary to the teachings of Christ, but it has confessed as such. But the leaders of the French Revolution acted true to their secular beliefs and killed more people during the few years of The Terror than were killed in 300 years of the Inquisition. Some in the church did act in barbaric ways in a barbaric age, but Goldberg argues that the church was not an anchor holding back the progress of Western Civilization but rather a sail. Of course, the bulk of the book is devoted to politics, but even then theological ideas are important. The clichés that “Nothing was every solved by violence” and “Peace, Love and Understanding” have been presented as Christian ideas, but if they are presented apart from the Christian idea of human sinfulness, Goldberg clearly shows they lead to folly. Goldberg presents serious issues, but illustrations from “Animal House”, “30 Rock” and “Monty Python” keep a lighter tone and easy page turning. This book probably won’t be used as a college text as Goldberg’s previous work, “Liberal Fascism”, has been. But it’s still insightful and a little more fun.

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