Reflections on Carl Trueman’s Fascination With Edward Said
By June Engdahl
March 1, 2009
In the December 2008 issue of Tabletalk magazine, published by Ligonier Ministries, a review of Carl Trueman’s book, Minority Report appeared. The reviewer noted that one of the chapters dealt with the subject of what Carl Henry’s followers could learn from the late Edward Said. This got my attention because I knew Edward Said was a highly controversial scholar. What, I wondered, could Trueman possibly be suggesting. A Google search located an essay that sounded like the chapter in question. It can be downloaded from The Gospel Coalition website at http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/publications under “Archived Themelios Issues”, Issue 30-2. The essay is entitled “Uneasy Consciences and Critical Minds: What the Followers of Carl Henry Can Learn from Edward Said.”
I do not know if the essay was edited or updated for publication in the book. This paper will interact only with the essay as it appears in Themelios. I believe a response to this controversial essay is needed. Its thesis is questionable and Trueman’s argument for it unconvincing. Even to suggest that Christians should take lessons from a leftist whose mentors were Marxists and revolutionaries is lamentable. This paper will highlight and discuss Trueman’s criticisms of Evangelicalism and also take issue with his main thesis that Evangelicals should learn from Edward Said.
Carl Trueman is a young, but already highly esteemed, academic who teaches Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, as well as holding other positions there. I have profited from his writings, his Reformation 21 blog entries, Internet interviews, sermons and lectures. Therefore, it is difficult to have to take very serious issue with this 2005 Themelios article, now reprinted in his book Minority Report.
Trueman is from the United Kingdom and describes himself elsewhere as being “center-left” on the political spectrum. The Themelios article leaves the impression that he is more than a little “left” of the “center”. His high regard for Edward Said and the other scholars who influenced him is puzzling. None of them are Christian. They are enemies of Christianity. They are leftists, Marxists and post-modernists. They despise the West while they enjoy its benefits and freedoms. To suggest that Carl Henry’s followers can learn from Edward Said and his friends is disconcerting to say the least, especially coming from a Reformed academic. Trueman himself said Henry and Said were “strange bedfellows.” Neither “would appreciate the company of the other” (p. 45). Why then such a provocative essay?
The first half of Trueman’s essay is very interesting and with few exceptions non-controversial. Trueman claims Evangelicals are heirs of Carl Henry in putting into practice his initial vision for cultural engagement. Trueman believes Henry’s most influential book was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. It was instrumental in helping bring about a “new Evangelicalism” out of the “cultural and moral legalism” of fundamentalism. Henry and those new Evangelicals around him sought to be “less polemical,” and urged the like-minded among them to get rid of their apathy, become activists in a common Evangelical front, and rise above differing theological traditions to confront and engage modern secularity.
Trueman rightly points out that getting Christian influence into the culture is especially difficult because doctrinal distinctives of individual churches must be downplayed in some respects in order to get a general consensus. A case in point is the deterioration of Christianity Today magazine. It began with high theological standards and serious articles. It now makes its appeal to ever broader segments of the Christian culture. As Trueman so well states: CT gravitates “towards lowest common denominator themes.” It can be said to even manufacture “consensus.”
Trueman makes a good point in stating that Henry’s vision needs “to be modified, indeed radicalized, to include careful reflection upon how Evangelicalism is to be held accountable to the church.” This subject, however, was not adequately pursued. More effort was given to show the shortcomings of much of the political involvement of Evangelicals. How that related to the problem of accountability to the church was left unclear.
I believe Trueman gets off the track when he starts discussing the political engagement of Evangelicals. He criticizes them with misstatements and hyperbole worthy of a politician: They practice “right-wing politics of a fairly radical kind.” There is “fierce loyalty to the Republicans being exhibited by most white Christians.” He claims “[w]hen individuals from other countries and cultures, with different political convictions, come to America, they are disenfranchised because the church has created unnecessary barriers to evangelism” (p. 40). This is an odd assertion and makes no sense.
Trueman must be unaware of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States which specify the rules for citizenship. Only persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens. Immigrants are not disenfranchised when they come to America. They simply are non-citizens and do not have the same rights and benefits that citizens have. The franchise has not been taken from them. It simply has not been given to them. That would happen if and when they satisfactorily complete the citizenship application process and pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America. Thus Trueman is accusing Evangelicals of something totally outside their prerogative.
It is not clear what Trueman meant to convey with this odd statement. He uses the phrase “the church has created unnecessary barriers to evangelism.” Does he mean that the church discriminates against immigrants “with different political convictions” and that this makes it more difficult for them to go through the citizenship process? If he were to take a look around him at all the wonderful things Evangelicals and other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) do for legal immigrants in this country he would realize he spoke too hastily. The many ESL (English as a Second Language) programs offered by Christian churches and para-church organizations are a case in point. There are other services Christians perform which help immigrants. Even though Trueman implies it, Evangelicals do not discriminate against immigrants for holding to “different political convictions.” Most of them espouse different religious beliefs as well. The immigrants and their convictions and beliefs are treated with dignity and respect. The good work that the churches and other organizations do for immigrants is actually lowering barriers for their assimilation into American society, not raising them as Trueman claims.
Trueman goes on to suggest that there is a “colour bar which runs through American church life, particularly as it relates to whites and African Americans” and that the “white churches’ record on slavery” causes economic and “class divisions” (p. 41). These accusations of racism and classism were not backed up with any reasoned argument, and are similar to those Edward Said hurled against imperialistic societies. Trueman is here unilaterally charging one group (white churches) and society (America) with sins that are universal. While not denying the fact of racial discrimination in the history of the American church, a more nuanced discussion of this subject would have been helpful.
The American church is not acting “as the nation’s conscience” as Carl Henry stressed it should (p. 39). Henry would not have approved its “black and white, simplistic politics.” Certainly Henry could be critical of certain aspects of Christian political involvement, but does anyone doubt that certain issues would indeed be “black and white” issues for him, abortion being just one. Evangelicals and other pro-life individuals have been attempting for decades to instruct the nation’s conscience on the abortion issue and have succeeded, at least thus far, in keeping a pro-life position in the platform of one of the political parties. Even though Trueman said Henry’s vision needed to be “radicalized” he didn’t apply that radicalism to the fight against abortion:
“The current function, however, of abortion as the card which trumps everything has killed meaningful political thinking on other issues in many Evangelical circles” (p. 39).
“The relationship between the church and politics is always going to be complicated. This is not least because political thinking is a culturally specific, occasional activity, where the black and white moral categories of right and wrong do not always, or even often, apply” (p. 40, emphasis supplied).
“Only the crudest of Bible-thumping simpletons can possibly correlate the teaching of the Bible in a direct, no-nonsense way with the party political platforms of the early twenty-first century. . . . Yes, God hates the slaughter of infants – but abortion is merely the most obvious way in which this takes place” (p. 40, emphasis supplied).
Trueman then sets forth the typical leftist litany of other political issues and causes that should be part of any Evangelical political agenda because, he says, “they kill infants too.”
But it is patently obvious that AIDS, famine, war, pollution, and the rest of the litany of leftist issues and causes he lists do sometimes kill infants. But it is always after they are born. Babies who are aborted don’t get out of the abortion clinic alive. The right of “choice” was established by judicial fiat to allow women to murder their unborn if they so desire. And abortion happens all over the world not just in America. It is not a “culturally specific, occasional activity.” It is odd that a Christian theologian is unable to see it as a black and white issue that “always” applies. Christians should always oppose it and seek to stop it in every non-violent way possible.
If any issue should be a defining issue for the Christian community it is the abortion issue. Yet Trueman believes Evangelicals are overzealous and polarizing for giving it so much attention. There must be “root and branch criticism of the culture” and there are worthier causes in Trueman’s “wider world” (p. 43):
“[t]he enemy at the moment is consumerism, reinforced by the old mythology of Western superiority. These foes are deadlier in many ways than the Red menace if only because they are that much more insidious and seductive . . . . The prophetic voice must speak to this in the coming years if the church is not to become a religious form of wholly secular substance . . . . Evangelicals need to heed the cultural criticism of a Said if they are to avoid a simplistic and idolatrous identification of Christianity with a particular political project, whether of the right or of the left” (p. 44).
Granted, consumerism is a problem but it doesn’t rise to the level of importance that surrounds the issues of abortion and homosexuality. It is acceptable in most contexts to speak negatively about consumerism. The same cannot be said for speaking negatively about abortion and homosexuality. And to say that the myth of “Western superiority” reinforces consumerism is only partially true. Greed and lust are part and parcel of human depravity, which includes everyone, whether living in the “superior” West or in countries ruled by tyrants, most of whose citizens lack sufficient money and opportunity to indulge the consumeristic habit. If given the money and opportunity, would inhabitants of these countries be any different? Christians have Jesus’ command not to lay up treasures on earth (Matt. 6:19) as a guide when dealing with a problem like consumerism. Why is Jesus’ command not enough? When Trueman demands that “the prophetic voice must speak to this in the coming years” he wants the “cultural criticism of a Said”, his prophet extraordinaire, to inform that prophetic voice.
Yes, consumerism is a menace and Christians are guilty of its attractions as well as unbelievers. The West is particularly prone to self-absorption, luxury and concupiscence. Christians are guilty of these sins as well. The economic stresses the West is now suffering are in part a direct consequence of the foolishness of idolizing and hoarding up earthly treasures. The Bible speaks to these sins. When Christians do not heed its guidance they falter. Christians have Jesus as their instructor in how to live righteously in the context of a materialistic culture. It shows the strength of the leftist categories that govern Trueman’s social analysis, at least in this essay, that he finds the “cultural criticism” of Edward Said more compelling in speaking to these problems than the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.
It is also noteworthy that in 2005 there was no deadly “Red menace” but there was, and still is, an Islamic menace, which Trueman does not mention at all, even though America was involved in two wars against Islamic terrorists at the time of his original essay. His high regard for Said, who was vociferously against the United States policy in these conflicts1, may have influenced his decision to remain silent. Also his belief that Christians need to be critical of the culture in which they live may have played a part. In any case, Trueman did not bring up any kind of criticism of the religion that motivates people to maim and kill in its name.
Trueman is also critical of what he calls American “myths.” Particularly unsettling to him is the “insidious” myth that many Evangelicals believe “America has a special place in God’s providential care.” This is to harbor the error of “manifest destiny.” Myths are everywhere in America, especially the myth of “superiority.” The “mythologies” began with the Founding Fathers (never explained or qualified), are taken up by Hollywood, and carried forward by a media obsessed with “strength, beauty and superiority.” Christians identify “America and the American way, with its freedom, democracy and free market philosophy as identical with God’s way.” This all stems from “a basic human pride in anything that allows one to feel superior to others” (p. 40).
This sweeping denunciation of so-called American “myths” which Evangelical Christians are caught up in is unjustified. Why brand America as peculiarly “obsessed” with the “myth” of “strength and beauty” when this is a world-wide phenomenon. Trueman’s sniping at freedom, democracy and free market capitalism is also unjustified. People privileged to live in the Western world should be thankful to God for the freedom and democracy of their governmental systems. In the providence of God, Americans are further blessed with having had Founding Fathers who preserved our people’s rights in a Constitution and Bill of Rights. Why Trueman would castigate Evangelicals for believing that their own and other free and democratic governments are “superior” to, for instance, Socialist, Marxist or Islamofascist ones is amazing. He then adds insult to injury by accusing them of harboring a “basic human pride in anything that allows one to feel superior to others.” In actuality, American Evangelicals would be happy if the entire world were so blessed to live in democracies with Constitutions allowing those under its protections to live in freedom and dignity.
Generally speaking all Christians, but perhaps even more so the Reformed, believe in God’s special providence over their lives as individuals, and over all countries and mankind in general. Why Trueman would call this an “insidious” myth is odd. He even wrote a scholarly book on John Owen, the great Puritan divine, who had a highly developed sense of his country’s special place in the providence of God during the English Civil War, the Cromwellian Protectorate and the eventual restoration of the monarchy. God is sovereign over all. He has a sovereign plan for every country. Why should not Christians pray for and desire and strive to accomplish God’s known will in every area of their lives, personally, professionally and politically? That God might also bring unexpected judgment to individual Christians, churches and nations is also part of what it means to hold to the principle of having a “special place” in God’s providence. John Owen certainly understood that in his historical context.
Trueman’s harsh portrayal of Evangelicals culminates with a final indictment that they regard “a particular brand of politics as of the essence of the gospel.” He says:
“[m]ost white evangelicals are Republicans, while most African Americans are Democrats. Bluntly put, if I have to buy your political manifesto in order to buy your gospel, then your church is indulging in a dangerous confusion of categories and excluding individuals and groups from its congregation. They are excluded on grounds other than that of simply being outside of Christ. A gospel that is too American in this sense is no gospel at all” (p. 41).
While some Evangelicals hold strong political positions and actively work for various causes it doesn’t follow that they believe their political beliefs and activism are “of the essence of the gospel.” Trueman needed to give some examples before making such a strong criticism. Likewise, he should have told us which churches are asking people to “buy” a “political manifesto” before they can “buy” their gospel. This charge is totally unwarranted. Of the various faith commitments, and ethical and doctrinal standards that potential members are expected to submit to before joining a Christian church, fealty to “political manifestos” would not be included among them.
After setting forth all the ways Trueman thinks Evangelicals fall short in their cultural engagement, the last half of his essay is spent discussing ways they can improve their prospects for success, if they heed his advice and seek the insight that he claims can be found in the ideas of the famous Palestinian/American academic Edward Said. However, Trueman did not tell us enough about this man’s ideas or his character, and those who influenced him, information Christians need to know before they can endorse him or his ideas as being worthy of the Christian’s attention.
Edward Said was born in Palestine into a wealthy, nominally Christian Palestinian/Lebanese family. He spent more of his youth in Egypt than in Palestine. He had the best of private school education all through college. He became ardently pro-Palestinian and was a hearty PLO supporter but broke with Arafat when the latter made concessions to Israel. Said wrote his memoir Out of Place2 late in life. In it he reflects upon his childhood and early adult years in a highly interpretive way bringing to bear on his childhood and youth his mature worldview.3 Almost every reference to Christianity is negative. He was a highly regarded scholar at Columbia University where he taught English and Comparative Literature. He authored many books. His most successful and controversial one was Orientalism,4 which propounded a thesis on how the West views the Orient that has become the standard “doctrine” in most university Middle East Studies departments. As Trueman so well puts it: Said claimed “that ‘the Orient’ was a construct of Western ideology and thus part of the mechanism of Western imperial power” (p. 41). Trueman does not take issue with this thesis. He appears to agree with Said, who took his thesis further and applied it to famous English writers, most notably Jane Austen. One of her characters had a plantation in Antigua and Said attempts to implicate her in having favorable views of the slave trade.5
In an article written shortly after the events of 9-11, Stanley Kurtz in The Weekly Standard had this to say about Edward Said and his very successful “Orientalism” thesis:
“The public knows Edward Said as the most prominent American supporter of the Palestinian cause . . . who was famously and incongruously photographed – a Columbia professor in southern Lebanon – hurling a rock at a guardhouse on the Israeli border. But Said’s real influence has been as the founder of ‘post-colonial theory,’ arguably the dominant intellectual paradigm in those sections of the academy dedicated to the study of non-Western cultures.”
“At a stroke, Said’s 1978 book Orientalism created post-colonial theory. . . . Orientalism is built upon the supposition that there is no such thing as disinterested knowledge, that all knowledge is contaminated by its entanglement with power. It follows that all Western knowledge of, say, the Middle East or south Asia must wittingly or unwittingly serve the purposes of imperialist (or present-day ‘neo-imperialist’) domination.”
“But the cleverest twist in Said’s theory is his claim that even the most sophisticated and respectful Western accounts of foreign cultures are actually tools of imperialist oppression. Just by treating Islamic societies as different from the West, scholars commit an act of highhanded condescension. The insinuation hiding behind even the most respectful study of cultural difference, Said claims, is that the people who practice exotic customs, however intriguing or complex they may be, are sufficiently irrational as to be unfit to rule themselves.” See http://www.travelbrochuregraphics.com/extra/edward_Said_imperialist.htm.
David Zarnett, a scholar at King’s College, University of London, wrote an article in 2007 entitled “Edward Said and the Iranian Revolution.” It appeared in Democratiya, an online journal and can be found at http://www.democratiya.com/review.asp?reviews_id=92. Zarnett set forth how badly flawed was Edward Said’s analysis of the Iranian Revolution. So convinced was Said of his own thesis in Orientalism that he viewed the Iranian Revolution through its lens. In doing so he misinterpreted that Revolution’s true character. Zarnett specifies two points which led to Said’s errors: (1) Said was not an expert on Islam, Iran, the Shah or Farsi and thus believed the Western press’s portrayal of the Revolution had to be “inherently wrong”; and (2) Said didn’t take seriously what Khomeini said about the Jews and Shari’a law. As Zarnett states:
“What irked Said most was the idea that the Iranian revolution symbolized a ‘Return to Islam’. Contrary to how the media reported it, Said saw the Iranian revolution as unrelated to Islam. The real roots of the revolution, and of resentment towards the West throughout the Middle East, he thought, lay not within Islamic culture or society but rather Western treatment of the region.”
“After his years of research and writing for his book Orientalism (1978), Said thought he knew exactly what was going on. His analysis of systematic Western misperceptions of Islam – orientalism – was to be vindicated by a stinging critique of this orientalist discourse about the Iranian revolution.”
“His out-of-hand rejection of the media’s characterization of the revolution as ‘Islamic’ resulted from his a priori hostility to all American mainstream media discussions of Islam. His method blocked a more nuanced approach that might have seen the Islamic and the political dimensions of the revolution. It would have served Said well to consider one of George Orwell’s dictums: ‘Just because you read something in the Daily Telegraph doesn’t mean it’s wrong’.”
“The irony is that while Said made his career criticizing the West for denying Muslims or Arabs their own fully autonomous existence, his own thought – as Kanan Makiya has pointed out [citing Makiya’s Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and The Arab World] contributed to that very denial. Through the distorting lens of ‘orientalism’ key Muslim and Arab personalities and movements are routinely denied their identity, their words ignored, and an alternative and self-serving image is thrust upon them (and us).”
Zarnett’s well documented essay makes it clear that Said was not a trustworthy guide in truthfully deciphering and interpreting the Iranian Revolution. The traits of character Said displayed throughout his involvement in the Iranian issue and the quality of his interpretation of the whole project were not praiseworthy. If Christians can “learn” anything from Edward Said it would be not to emulate him or subscribe to his ideas.
In Out of Place Said often portrays himself as a victim in all areas of his privileged existence. He creates a narrative that is captivating and full of detailed observations of events spanning decades, family members and conversations and people who passed through his life and how he interacted with them. One can’t help but wonder how such minute details could be remembered by anyone, even a brilliant man like Said, especially when they are decades removed from the actual occurrences. Some, (see Endnote 3), have questioned some aspects of his narrative’s veracity.
The circumstances surrounding Said’s birth are telling. After having lost one baby because of the Egyptian hospital’s inability to properly treat an infection it contracted at birth, Said’s parents went to Palestine in 1935, so Said could be born in a hospital more advanced than what Cairo offered. To the end of his days, even after becoming totally Americanized, he promoted and acted as an apologist for the Palestinian cause and denigrated Israel accordingly. He spent more of his youth in Egypt than in Palestine, yet the way he goes back and forth with such details in his memoir the reader never gets a clear picture of that truth. He became such a proponent of the Palestinian cause that claiming deeper Palestinian roots than he actually had could only help enhance his personal narrative and standing among his compatriots in Palestine, even while enjoying all the privileges and comforts of an influential university professorship at Columbia.
Of interest to Christians is Said’s reference to his great-grandfather, Yusef Badr, who is mentioned in American missionary Henry Jessup’s memoir as the first native Protestant minister in Lebanon, around 1880. Said was referring to Jessup’s Fifty-Three Years in Syria published by Fleming H. Revell Company, in 1910. Said claims in Out of Place that Badr and other Protestants in Lebanon:
“[h]ad an embattled, even belligerent, sense of what it meant to be Christian in a Muslim part of the world. My mother’s first cousins and her uncles were educated at the American University (formerly the Syrian Protestant College), and all had been or were still avidly religious, and further developed these affiliations through frequent trips to the United States and graduate studies there, plus, in my later view, too close an identification with American views on Islam as a depraved and unregenerate religion”6 (emphasis supplied).
Even though Trueman initially gives generally high praise to both Henry and Said, the impression might be left that they are on an even keel in his thinking. But upon closer reflection a different picture emerges. Trueman says that Said had the “greatest influence on his thinking of all non-Christian writers” (p. 43). Evangelicals need to learn from this “dazzlingly brilliant and eclectic thinker” who has “something with which Christians should familiarize themselves” (p. 41). This one-sided lofty praise, alongside the overall critical depiction of Henry’s followers, diminishes Henry himself and elevates Said disproportionately. The latter was “a polymathic scholar who also wrote widely on Middle Eastern affairs in a passionate and engaged way.” Henry, however, “was a high-class journalist who, though undoubtedly very clever and accomplished, really devoted much of his life to a popular explication and application of the Christian faith in the contemporary world” (p. 32). Such a portrayal of Henry sounds rather pedestrian when compared to Said’s pristine erudition and style. Henry’s scholarly attributes, and whether they encompassed the “great learning,” viz. “polymathic” qualities of Said’s scholarship, are left for others to plumb. Even a cursory look into Said’s vast writings proves he is indeed a very learned, well read scholar. But are his passionately held opinions and analyses valid?
Other writers and scholars have lower opinions of Said. Martin Kramer writes that after the 1960’s the institutions of higher education turned ever more leftward:
“Academization translated radical political agendas into the theoretical framework of postmodernism, which postulated the subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. In a time of diminishing opportunities in academe, this challenge increasingly took the form of an insurgency, which ultimately overran university departments in the humanities and social sciences.
“Said’s Orientalism far from bucking convention, actually rode the crest of this immensely successful academic uprising.”7
In the years following the publication of this book it became acceptable for scholars to
“spell out their own political commitments as a preface to anything they wrote or did. More than that, it also enshrined an acceptable hierarchy of political commitments, with Palestine at the top, followed by the Arab nation and the Islamic world. They were the long-suffering victims of Western racism, American imperialism, and Israeli Zionism – the three legs of the orientalist school.”8
Trueman’s essay shows that he has imbibed at least some of the academic thinking Kramer describes above. Another trait worth noting in Said’s character is his McCarthyist tactics. Here is how Kramer described it:
“The analogy to McCarthyism, an American phenomenon, rested upon Said’s tendency to list his protagonists and antagonists. Listing was a consistent feature of his style – a favorable reviewer of a later book noted Said’s tendency to run together ‘a string of names, as if that in itself constituted an argument’ [citing a review in the New York Times of Culture and Imperialism by Michael Gorra, Feb. 28, 1993] – and when he listed his orientalists, this effectively became a blacklist.”9
Should not Trueman have made his readers aware of such negative traits in his hero before he suggested Christians learn from him? It is also important to know a little about the men from whom Said himself took lessons. In Evangelical circles they are not usually viewed as legitimate sources of wisdom, nor should they be. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist; Michel Foucault, who agreed with Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary politics, was a French homosexual leftist activist; Frantz Fanon grew up in Martinique and wrote The Wretched of the Earth (1961), called by its publisher "the handbook for the black revolution." Trueman offers no caveats of these men’s ideas or character. One has to ask: Why would a Christian theologian give credence of any kind to such men? Here’s why Trueman thinks they are worth listening to:
“From these he learned both the ways in which established power uses all aspects of wider culture in order to extend its own project of control and manipulation, and the need therefore to be critical of the culture in which one lives lest one be unwittingly co-opted into its wider agenda” (p. 41).
It is obvious that the “established power” he speaks of is Western. Would Said and his Marxist mentors have been as critical of the power structures of the Palestinian Authority for instance? Or the power structure of the Iranian Ayatollahs? Of course not. This criticism is meant to apply to the governments of the free world, particularly the United States.
When commenting on colonialism’s legacy, Said quoted Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth approvingly:
“We should flatly refuse the situation to which the Western countries wish to condemn us. Colonialism and imperialism have not paid their score when they withdraw their flags and their police forces from our territories. For centuries the [foreign] capitalists have behaved in the underdeveloped world like nothing more than criminals.”10
So even though the European colonialists have left their colonies, often in better shape than they found them; and even though many of those same colonies now find themselves suffering under the terrible conditions imposed on them by their own ruthless dictators; yet the West is still being blamed for all those “wretched of the earth” having to exist in such miserable conditions. This is the social analysis Trueman suggests is relevant in critiquing imperialistic institutions and power structures, i.e. America’s, and right-wing political activism of American Evangelicals by necessary inference.
Said is praised especially for criticizing the “cult of specialization” (p. 42) in the academy. This is a practice that prevents those who have competence in some specialized calling from then making statements outside their specialty. Those who do so are accused of “speaking out of their hats” as Trueman so Britishly puts it. Said claimed that “academic specialization is being used by a political establishment to marginalize a dissenting voice.” When, if ever, does the political establishment marginalize dissenting voices of leftist academics? While he was alive, Edward Said’s voice was heard in many venues outside his Columbia classroom. The academy is chock full of scholars speaking outside of their specialties. And they are definitely not hectoring from a “right-wing” perspective. The only people the political establishment tries incessantly to marginalize are Evangelical Christians.
One “specialist” Trueman admires and made a point to mention in his essay is Noam Chomsky.11 He claims Chomsky made “significant . . . contributions” to the ‘theoretical linguistics’ field yet what he says outside his specialty is “often denigrated.” Trueman applauds Chomsky for making “major contributions to understanding how propaganda functions, how the West has frequently played a duplicitous game with regard to human rights abuses and geopolitical issues” (p. 42).
Does specialist Chomsky have anything to say about how propaganda functions in Iran, Sudan, China, North Korea, Putin’s Russia, the Gaza Strip, and in other terrorist states? What about human rights abuses in these tyrannical states? Did Said have anything to say about them? No, the criticism is all one way – against the democratic West. And Trueman acquiesces in this totally unbalanced view. He wrote his initial essay post-911 yet made no reference to that terrible event. Nor did he mention the continuing murderous acts of terror perpetrated by Islamists like those who committed the atrocities against America on 9-11. What caused such an oversight? Was it a concern about not wanting to be considered an “orientalist” or to be overcritical of Muslims and Islam?
Certainly people should be allowed to speak outside of their particular areas of expertise. But why does such a concept need Edward Said to commend it and Noam Chomsky to model it? Christians have examples from the Bible. The New Testament is a record of lowly, humble people speaking outside their areas of “expertise.” The disciples of Jesus spoke outside their professions of fishing and tax collecting as they brought God’s truth to the worldly powers of their day. And Priscilla and Aquila spoke outside of their profession of tentmaking contending for Gospel truths. And the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 1: 21, 25, 27 teaches believers to be wary of worldly-wise specialists, operating in any era, when Christians have the Word of God to guide them:
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those that believe.”
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. . .”
Some of the great Christian missionaries of the past lived during the days of the British Empire, including William Carey, Reginald Heber, Henry Martyn and Samuel Zwemer, to name just a few. According to Edward Said’s thesis, they would never be able to truly understand the Orient. Carey, Heber and Martyn because they were part of the British Empire. Zwemer because he was from America, which had no foreign colonies but did have international influence. Yet these were godly men, who believed they were instruments in God’s hand to spread the Gospel, not instruments of the governments from which they came. Said was only partly correct when he stated the following:
“Even the legendary American missionaries to the Near East during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took their role as set not so much by God as by their God, their culture, and their destiny. The early missionary institutions – printing presses, schools, universities, hospitals, and the like – contributed of course to the area’s well-being, but in their specifically imperial character and their support by the United States government, these institutions were no different from their French and British counterparts in the Orient.”12
It is true the good works done by the missionaries were a fact and much appreciated by the people benefiting from them. But Said is wrong to attribute “imperialistic” motives on behalf of America for what they did among the people they truly loved. Robert Kaplan saw things a little differently:
“In marked contrast to the conduct of European colonials in the underdeveloped world or American expatriates in the Panama Canal Zone and the Pacific holdings, imperialism and commercial exploitation were entirely missing from the baggage carried by the missionaries in Lebanon. Nor did the Americans even present a threat to the local religious culture, as the missionary colonies in India, China, Burma, and Siam would. For if truth be told, compared to the missionaries in the Far East, who won over significant numbers of Chinese to Protestant Christianity, the American missionaries in the Middle East were complete failures. The intractability of Islam quickly forced them to give up any hope of converting souls to Christ.
“It would be only as purveyors of Western education that the Americans in Lebanon were to succeed. And for that the local Arabs would learn to love them.”13
Kaplan portrays the early 19th century American Christian missionaries very sympathetically. He makes clear that they did not have the imperialistic “baggage” Said attributes to them. They learned the languages and identified with the people. But Kaplan sees them more “like romantic explorers and Peace Corps workers than real missionaries.”14 However, to claim the Christians were “complete failures” in “converting souls to Christ” is perhaps too strong an indictment. Even if few, we are aware that Jesus does tell us there is “joy in heaven” over even one sinner who repents (Luke 15: 4, 8, 10).
Kaplan writes that “by 1860 the American missionaries were operating thirty-three schools in Syria.”15 They wanted to “civilize” Syria and were downplaying proselytization and replacing it with education. Their one enduring success was the creation of The Syrian Protestant College in Beirut. It was founded in 1866 with 16 students. Kaplan described its importance this way:
“The Syrian Protestant College . . . was probably the most inspired idea in the history of foreign aid. Not only was it a quintessential cottage industry project for filtering Western values into the Arab world over time, but it also provided a permanent aesthetic monument to America in the region, a monument that posed no threat to anyone else’s sovereignty. In fact, the school became an agent for the promotion of Arab sovereignty.”16
Christians might not be satisfied with the missionaries’ decision to be more concerned with education than with evangelization. Said’s adherents might continue to view the Protestant College as another example of American imperialistic meddling where it did not belong. But it still was a force for good in the region. It eventually became the American University of Beirut. It actually helped foster Arab nationalism, the outcome of which has not always had positive results. The ensuing years of turmoil in Lebanon had effects on the University also. The new Islamists were using Said’s Orientalism to stir up strife. As Martin Kramer explains:
“[I]n Orientalism, Said determined that American hospitals and universities in the Middle East were tainted by ‘their specifically imperial character and their support by the United States government’ [citing Said, Orientalism, p. 294] . . . . It was a telling coincidence that when a militant Islamist movement arose among the Shi’ites of Lebanon in the 1980s, its zealots saw these institutions in just this light and deliberately targeted university and hospital personnel. . . .
“AUB drew much of the fire. In 1982, the university’s president became the first American taken hostage in Lebanon. After the abduction, Malcolm Kerr arrived in Beirut to serve as president. Kerr was a son of AUB, a founder and past president of MESA [Middle East Studies Association of North America], a supporter of Arab causes – and the lone American critic of Said’s Orientalism. That he continued to reject Said’s premises was obvious from his inaugural address in Beirut. In it, he pointed to the evolution of AUB ‘from a university offering Western culture to the Arabs, to one that promotes both Western and Arab cultures and implicitly looks for a symbiotic relation between them, in the best tradition of European Orientalism.’ In 1984, Kerr was gunned down outside his office, by assassins who must have seen this symbiosis and its best tradition as forms of imperialism.
“There was much irony in the fact that Said and the ‘progressive’ scholars, from the safety of American universities, should have delegitimized the one university in the Arab world where academic freedom had meaning thanks to its American antecedents.”17
In a footnote to his remarks Kramer said that another irony was Said’s complete reversal of his former view of American universities in the Middle East, telling an interviewer in 1997 they were the “last utopian place.”
There are several reasons why I have given so much attention in this paper to probing into and exposing Edward Said’s dangerous beliefs and criticizing Trueman for praising the man so highly. First, Said’s influence is still dominant in the academy even though many scholars disagree with his ideas and the political positions he held. He did not always tell the truth. Trueman’s high praise indicates there are Christians willing to give his opinions acceptance. Yet the post-colonial, postmodern agenda espoused by Said is detrimental to Christianity. His Orientalism thesis pervaded all of his thinking. If applied to modern missions it could have deleterious effects. Christians should be wary of giving it credence.
Another reason for this paper is to register amazement that a Reformed scholar could suggest that unbelievers, leftists and post-modernists are proper teachers for Evangelicals, or anyone else for that matter. It jars one’s sensibilities. Obviously, learning what these people think and say is necessary in order to understand and refute them. But to view them as valid arbiters of Christianity’s flaws is absurd. The truth claims of their various writings in themselves are questionable. And the flaws that Trueman asserts are attributable to Evangelical political activism over the past decades are themselves open to more debate than Trueman’s one-sided negative discussion gave them. That the worthy Christian Carl Henry, and his bumbling followers, had to be brought in as foils to the leftist Palestinian ideologue, Edward Said, and his Marxist mentors, is a quite remarkable slice of chutzpah.
The Christian church has the authority of the Word of God to bring to bear on its own who overstep biblical boundaries. American Christianity is a mixed bag, full of all kinds of egregious sins and shortcomings and needs to be confronted when in error, which is often enough. There are biblical principles which speak to Evangelicalism’s sins. There is also a vast treasury of Christian wisdom to be found in Luther, Calvin, Owen and Edwards to name just four. That Trueman chose to make a case for accepting the criticisms of Said, Foucault, Fanon, and Chomsky against Evangelicals is simply incredible.
One of the most common slogans offered up in praise of Edward Said was that “he spoke truth to power.” It is ironical that in all of Trueman’s suggestions that Evangelicals learn from leftists and their social theories against power structures (understood, of course, as Western power structures), it is actually Carl Henry and those Evangelicals he influenced who actually did speak truth to power. Despite their many sins and foibles, Evangelicals have for many years been an influence in the public square. They have confronted political parties, legislative bodies, academics, the media and, when needed, even the churches. Whatever errors and theological weaknesses were, and are, connected to such efforts, at least the attempt to make Christian principles known and respected, if not heeded, is admirable. The best of those efforts would have pleased the late Westminster scholar John Murray, who wrote:
“God alone is sovereign. His authority alone is absolute and universal. All men and spheres are subject to God. The civil magistrate derives his authority from God. Apart from divine institution and sanction, civil government has no right to exist. ‘The powers that be are ordained of God’ (Rom. 13:1). Since civil government derives its authority from God, it is responsible to God and therefore obligated to conduct its affairs in accordance with God’s will. The infallible revelation of his will God has deposited in the Scriptures. It will surely be granted that there is much in the Scriptures that has to do with the conduct of civil government. And this simply means that the Word of God bears upon civil authority with all the stringency that belongs to God’s Word.
“Furthermore, the Word of God reveals that Christ is head over all things, that he has been given all authority in heaven and in earth. The civil magistrate is under obligation to acknowledge this headship and therefore to conduct his affairs, not only in subjection to the sovereignty of God, but also in subjection to the mediatorial sovereignty of Christ, and must therefore obey his will as it is revealed for the discharge of that authority which the civil magistrate exercises in subjection to Christ. . . . To recede from this position or to abandon it, either as conception or as goal, is to reject in principle the sovereignty of God and of his Christ”18 (emphasis supplied).
In these days, when the complete secularization of the West is almost accomplished, and militant Islam is posing an ever greater danger not only to the West, but to the entire world, Evangelicals need to remain engaged in cultural confrontation according to biblical norms and imperatives. They would do well to remember John Murray’s words and ponder how to understand and implement what he said about not abandoning the headship of Christ “over all things” either as “conception or as goal.”
1 See Edward W. Said, From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, Pantheon Books, New York, 2004, by the Estate of Edward W. Said, which incorporates many of Said’s essays in Arabic media publications between December 2000 and July 2003, to get a flavor of how he presents his case against the United States and Israel to the Arab world.
2 Edward W. Said, Out of Place, A Memoir, Alfred A. Knoph, New York, 1999.
3 A very interesting article appeared in the magazine Commentary in September 1999 entitled “’My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said”, written by Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli scholar, who meticulously researched claims Said had been making in different venues over many years about his so-called home in Jerusalem. It is most illuminating. Said was capable of creating a highly inventive personal narrative. In Out of Place published after Weiner’s massively researched exposé, Said left out his former fanciful narratives about this “house” which proves Weiner’s efforts at truth-telling bore fruit. The article has proof of many more discrepancies in Said’s memory and can be found here: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/-my-beautiful-old-house--and-other-fabrications-by-edward-said-9062 for a fee; and here also in different formatting: http://cosmos.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/glosses/weinerAttackOnSaid.html; a further response from Weiner to critics of this article is found here http://www.meforum.org/article/191.
4 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York, October 1979.
5 Mansfield Park illustrates this in Said’s view. See Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, Alfred A. Knopf/New York, 1993, pages 80-97 for his reasoning. For a critique of Said’s view of Austen see Ibn Warraq’s July 2007 essay entitled “Jane Austen and Slavery” in the online journal New English Review located at: http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/8722/sec_id/8722.
6 Said, Out of Place, pp. 168-169.
7 Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p. 31.
8 Ibid., p. 37.
9 Ibid., p. 38.
10 Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 12.
11 For more on Chomsky see the following http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/Read.aspx?GUID=7A71842F-32D5-4401-9D64-276122F38563 which is the Introduction to The Chomsky Reader by David Horowitz and Peter Collier. Here is a brief excerpt of Collier’s Introduction: “Some of the ideas on his intellectual curriculum vitae that are discussed in the following pages—his defense of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; his support of holocaust revisionism—may surprise those who know Chomsky only generally as a critic of U.S. foreign policy. Other of his commitments—the assertion that the U.S. as a world power is continuing the program of Nazi Germany and his fierce hatred of Israel—will, unfortunately, be more familiar. But either way, as Chomskyism continues to grow at home and abroad, it is clearly time for a reckoning.”
12 Said, Orientalism, p. 294.
13 Robert D. Kaplan, The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite, The Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1993, 1995, p. 16.
14 Ibid., p. 25.
15 Ibid., p. 33.
16 Ibid., p. 37.
17 Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand, p. 46.
18 Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume One: The Claims of Truth, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976 Valerie Murray, pp. 364-365.
June Engdahl, the writer of this paper, is a retired legal secretary. She began her career in Minnesota and later moved to San Francisco where, for 27 years until retirement, she worked for a large San Francisco law firm. Ms. Engdahl enjoys reading history and biography, especially relating to the English and American Puritan era. Since September 2008 she has edited Rev. Bassam M. Madany’s various writings dealing with the global challenge of Islam. They appear on this and several other websites.