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A tale of two worldviews

RACE ISSUES | How Ta-Nehisi Coates is tearing down what Martin Luther King Jr. built up
by Scott Allen
Posted 2/10/18, 11:01 am

 

Booker T. Washington died in 1915, and for several decades afterward he was the most-quoted African-American leader. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, is still worth reading. I’ve referred to it 10 times in WORLD Magazine over the years, and we’ve listed it as one of the top 40 books of the 20th century.

In the mid-1950s, Martin Luther King Jr. became the leading American voice for civil rights, and large American cities now tend to have MLK boulevards but not BTW ones. King was a magnificent speaker who sadly did not live to write an autobiography, but this week on The World and Everything in It we recommended King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—available in many different books—as one of our February books of the month. 

Now a new generation has arisen that knew not Washington or King. The writings some now prize are by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. Coates’ essays and books are widely available, but critiques of them are not—and we need to think long and hard about what he’s advocating before we start to have TNC streets in city after city. Scott Allen, president of the Disciple Nations Alliance, sent me recently a comparison of King and Coates he had written. I learned from it, and I believe you will too. —Marvin Olasky

There can be no doubt that race relations in America have deteriorated in recent years. I’ve reflected deeply on what has led to this tragic situation, and the answer I’ve come to is worldview.

The basic worldview assumptions that animated the civil rights movement—assumptions that led to incredibly positive changes, are slowly being replaced by an entirely new set of worldview assumptions. Because of this, race relations have taken a distinctly negative turn, and the gains of previous generations are under threat.

Martin Luther King Jr. gave voice to the older worldview. The new worldview has many champions, but perhaps none as influential as author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. For those unfamiliar with Coates, he is a native of Baltimore. His beloved father was active in the Black Panther Party—a revolutionary socialist organization active in the 1960s and ’70s. He attended the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and today, he works primarily as a writer. His powerful and creatively written essays appear in The AtlanticThe New York Times, and The Washington Post. Perhaps his most famous book, Between the World and Me, won the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction.

Carlos Lozada of The Washington Post described Coates as America’s foremost “public intellectual.” New York Times editorialist A.O. Scott goes further: “‘Must read’ doesn’t even come close. [His writing] is essential, like water or air.”

Because ideas matter, Coates’ worldview needs to be taken seriously, for it is having a profound effect on the culture. Indeed, it is driving the discussion of race in America in 2018. And while Coates is at home on the far-left end of the political spectrum, he has a surprisingly large number of evangelical advocates and champions. With that, here’s a short worldview analysis of Coates and King. Their very different beliefs result in very different consequences.

Ultimate reality

King was a Baptist minister who operated from a Biblical set of assumptions about God, human nature, and history. His powerful speeches, letters, and books are among the most hopeful, stirring, inspirational, and prophetic in American history.

Coates is an outspoken atheist, who often describes the world as “chaotic.” His atheism colors his writing with hopelessness, anger, and resentment. His brand of atheism is heavily influenced by postmodernism, which reveals itself in a number of ways, particularly a willingness to push narrative at the cost of truth. Whether expounding on America’s history, or on issues such as policing or criminal justice, his tendency is to spotlight facts and evidence that support his narrative and whitewash those that don’t. As a result, the picture he paints is highly distorted.

Human nature (anthropology)

King, as a Christian, held to an orthodox, Biblical view of human nature: All people are created by God, in His image, with dignity, inherent value, and inalienable rights. Yes, there are different ethnicities, but King believed in a human nature that transcends ethnicity—one that unites all people regardless of skin color. For King, all people are children of God, whether “yellow, black, or white, all are precious in His sight.” He famously said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Perhaps most famously, he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Coates’ view of human identity is radically different. He absolutizes the forces of culture and community. Author Nancy Pearcey describes this postmodern anthropology: “Individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity.” For Coates, there is no common “human nature” that binds us together. Rather, our identity is determined entirely by ethnicity. Given this, there is little room for individuality, volition or personal responsibility. Commenting on this, National Review editor Rich Lowry writes that Coates “gives the impression of denying the moral agency of blacks, who are uniformly portrayed as products of forces beyond their control.” In short, for Coates, the individual means very little. The group defines everything.

In one of his most controversial statements, Coates describes to his son his reaction to watching the New York City police and firefighters rush into the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body” (emphasis added).

Here you see not only Coates’ disdain for the police and firefighters who sacrificed their lives on 9/11, but also his inability to see people as individuals—as fellow human beings. His worldview reduces them to subhuman representatives of oppressive groups.

The source of evil

King would no doubt agree with the famous Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” He would affirm that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Indeed, this is part of our common human identity. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. The source of evil isn’t of human origin. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

But for Coates, the line between good and evil runs between groups—in his case between whites and everyone else. In this, he channels the ideas of Karl Marx’s disciple Antonio Gramsci.

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