Is David Bentley Hart the Worst Gasbag in Christendom? The Contest Begins.

By John Zmirak Published on May 1, 2019

In one of the few consolations left us in this darkening world, Monty Python’s whole run is still on Netflix. I’ve been leaning hard on that show each night to help me deal with the daily headlines. And last night something ominous happened. I watched the very last episode. Not sure what I’ll do going forward, to be completely honest….

A great skit on that episode did give me a useful idea. In it, the BBC conducted an annual contest, “Most Awful Family in Britain.” To help you understand my reflections on an important Orthodox Christian theologian, I suggest you watch the skit in full.

Because that episode inspired me. I’m starting a contest right here at The Stream. The goal? To narrow down, locate, and finally honor The Worst Gasbag in Christendom.

A Coveted Title with Many Contenders

What really do we mean by that word, “Gasbag”? Let’s ask the Urban Dictionary:

Gas bag = wind bag, pompous, talkative, bloviator. One who bloviates – constantly talking, often in a longwinded pompous manner. Many of these folks like the sound of their own voice – often unaware of those around them who are often laughing at them behind their backs. These folks are often very vain and conceited – impressed by their own self importance. Many politicans are gas bags, full of empty hot air.

Each week I’ll present another contender, chosen for his or her really distinctive qualities. Out of respect for these highly self-regarded thinkers, in judging them I’ll hew to venerable standards, long hallowed by tradition: the categories of the Miss America Pageant.

The Key Categories

  • Swimsuit: How “sexy” are their ideas to a jaded, post-Christian public? How eagerly do anti-Christian venues publish their work, especially around holidays such as Christmas and Easter?
  • Evening Gown: How hard do they work to flaunt their elite accolades, intellectual gifts, or secular prestige — really rubbing them in your face? How haughtily do they vaunt themselves and their own authority? Then set themselves up as superior to the whole of Christian history before them. … That’s the kind of spunky attitude we’re looking for here at the Pageant.
  • Talent: How energetically awful are the ideas which they’re presenting? Which of their notions, if taken seriously, would do the most damage to the church? Or make faith itself seem repugnant and impossible?
  • Intellect and Personality: Which one is the best at sneering? At mocking those less educated, older, or poorer? Which one really makes you want to reach through your smart phone so you can punch them in the face?

I’m sure you’re already thinking of names. In the interests of fairness, you may submit new nominees through my account on Twitter. I’ll take such suggestions seriously.

The First Blushing Contestant

Future weeks will see such worthy candidates considered. But I’d like to start off with a very strong contender for Worst Gasbag in Christendom, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Before we start the judging let’s introduce the contestant. Eastern Orthodox priest Ben Johnson has already done a good job here at The Stream. Johnson pointed to Hart’s Easter Sunday op-ed at The New York Times.

[Hart] picked this perfect day to launch a caustic attack on his political enemies. And Hart’s reversal of the paschal call to peace infuses his whole article. Nearly everything he wrote, from theology to economics, came out backwards.

Hart wants his readers to believe socialism is just “a noble tradition of civic conscientiousness.” To pull that off, Hart attacks the dictionary definition of the word. He insists that Venezuela, the USSR, and North Korea never practiced real socialism. That’s a notion Kristian Niemetz comprehensively refutes in his latest book. Then Hart conflates “socialism” with the most benign intentions of social democracy. This even after European scholars have gone out of their way to clarify that Nordic countries are not socialist.

Wealth Is Evil

In 2016, Hart wrote in First Things that the market system cannot

coexist indefinitely with a culture informed by genuine Christian conviction. Even the fact of the system’s necessary reliance on immense private wealth makes it a moral problem from the vantage of the Gospel, for the simple reason that the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil. …

In the Sermon on the Plain’s list of beatitudes and woes, he not only tells the poor that the kingdom belongs to them, but explicitly tells the rich that, having had their pleasures in this world, they shall have none in the world to come. He condemns those who buy up properties and create large estates for themselves. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Hart believes that the message of Jesus is completely at odds with what His Father promised His people in the Old Testament. Almost as if the Marcionite heretics were right, and the God of the Old Testament was an evil one, whom Christ came to free us from.

Blessed Are the Poor, and We Shall Keep Them Poor

It actually gets worse. Another Orthodox priest, Rev. Gregory Jensen, analyzed the New Testament translation which Hart took it upon himself to do. Jensen noted Hart’s tendentious, class-struggle perspective.

In his reading of the New Testament – and Hart reads the New without reference to the Old, where references to the moral goodness of material wealth abound – wealth itself is “an intrinsic evil.” If only, Hart says, we were able to lay aside “the genius with which Christians down the centuries have succeeded in not seeing it, or in explaining it away, or in pretending that it does not mean what it unquestionably means,” we would understand that “the real text of the New Testament, uncolored by theological fancy” doesn’t just condemn wealth; it “is utterly perspicuous and relentlessly insistent on this matter.”…

What would happen if, as he suggests, we were to do away with private property in favor of the (purely theoretical, non-Marxist, non-materialistic, Hartian) communism he says Christians are called to live? What would happen if accepted the practical implications of Hart’s theological theory? What would happen is that people would die, and die horribly.

If Hart is correct that wealth is “intrinsically evil” – and so must not be created or maintained – we all will die horribly as humanity’s accrued wealth evaporates and poverty spreads. Hart’s “voluntary” poverty would become involuntary as resources are consumed but not replaced. Economic and technological development will grind to a halt. We would starve as crop yields fell for lack of modern farming techniques and equipment. We would no longer have adequate medical supplies, air conditioning, or heat. Civil society and the Church would struggle to care for those suffering from the increasing material deprivation within, and the marked increase of violence from without.

Not a Lean, Ascetical Sort

Has Hart himself imitated St. Francis, who didn’t damn wealth as evil, but embraced “apostolic poverty” anyway. Well, no. As Jensen notes: “To his credit, Hart acknowledges that he can’t ‘pretend ever to have embraced poverty myself.’” 

David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart

Does Hart believe, in light of all this, that everyone except the very poor is doomed to hell? Well, no. Jensen points to Hart’s embrace of Universalism, that is the likely salvation of every last human being.

A Grand Farrago of Nonsense

Let’s sum things up for the judges:

  • Hart believes that the message of Jesus is completely at odds with what His Father promised His people in the Old Testament. (That is, material comfort and freedom from want, which Hart claims Jesus thinks evil.) Almost as if the Marcionite heretics were right, and the God of the Old Testament was an evil one, whom Christ came to free us from.
  • Jesus’ message, if we followed it, would result not in the comfortable, godless, childless decadence of welfare state Europe. (That’s the inevitable side effect of such socialism, as I showed here.) No, it would lead to mass starvation, a collapse of living standards worldwide to those of the 10th century, the last time the West really lacked accumulated wealth.
  • Jesus warned us in the sternest possible tones that such desperate poverty is necessary to salvation.
  • But we’ll probably all be saved anyway, no matter what we do. And Hart isn’t bothering with poverty himself.
  • Christianity is apparently an irresponsible crank theory whose real implications would be incredibly destructive to everyone. Following those consequences makes no difference to our salvation. So we should listen to it exactly … why?

Now that we’ve all met Hart, seen him strut his stuff and complete the pageant, it’s time to score him. How does Hart perform in each category of gasbaggery?

Swimsuit

Hart’s embrace of socialism couldn’t be sexier to the godless, pro-choice, anti-marriage elites we suffer under. It’s provocative and edgy, and just happens by sheer chance to coincide with the rising, ignorant embrace of “socialism” by young people. The New York Times, ever a friend to the Church, found Hart’s piece sexy enough to run it on Orthodox Easter. That bumps up his score to 8.7 out of 10.

Evening Gown

Hart struck the pose of a second Erasmus by producing his own personal New Testament with his own political stamp. That’s bold, and impressive to graduate students. He also set himself up against virtually the entire Christian tradition in denouncing wealth itself. They’d misread their own Bible, you see. Only Hart got it right, and to do that he had to go to the original languages and produce his very own version. Intimidated yet? You’d better be. A 9.7 here.

Talent

Hart’s ideas here are really distinctively terrible. He makes out Jesus as a reckless and indiscriminate enemy of human earthly well-being. And on top of that, one with an apparent Oedipal resentment against His Father — since He damns the very things the Father promised to the Jews as intrinsically evil. A more repulsive version of the Gospel may never have existed, except perhaps for the “German Christianity” of the 1930s. It also, coincidentally, rejected the lessons of the Old Testament.

And Hart’s finale was really impressive. Having rendered the faith utterly repugnant to reason, he makes it irrelevant to our actions, too. It’s unnecessary for salvation! The rich whom Jesus denounced get saved right along with the poor whom Maduro starved. Here Hart scores a perfect 10.

Intellect and Personality

Hart loses some points in the “intellect” sub-category. His version of Christianity is so crude and simplistic, it’s hard to see who could really be attracted to it. Not even the very poor, since it wants to keep them that way. And his claim that he alone, in virtually all of Christian history (except for a few heretical friars in the 13th century) has read the Gospel correctly…. Well, who’s really going to buy that? Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Wilberforce, John Paul II … wrong, wrong, wrong. Only David Bentley Hart could set the Christian tradition right, after two wasted millennia.

But Hart makes up some serious points in the “personality” area. There’s a special kind of nastiness in attributing conservatives’ horror at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her crackpot Utopian politics to … leftover sexual frustration from high school. Sending that as your Easter message — hat’s off, Professor Hart. That raises your score here to 7.2.

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Watch These Pages for Wednesday Gasbags

Look forward in weeks to come to new contestants, my friends! The trophy for Worst Gasbag in Christendom, which I’ve repurposed from a Queens bowling league, will go to its deserving winner some time in August.

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