Impressions of “The Devil’s Bargain” by Joshua Green and “Hacks” by Donna Brazile

I recently read two books focusing on adjunct figures to the 2016 election: The Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency about Trump’s third campaign manager, and Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that put Donald Trump in the White House by the former Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (Donna Brazile). They are parallel books: Brazile is a media personality and the book is obviously designed to improve her own image. Likewise, Bannon is so transparently the source of Devil’s Bargain the book is essentially written by him, except for some obvious sops designed to expand the book’s reader base.

Both books are more interesting than Shattered, the story about the inside of the Clinton campaign written by two professional journalists. While that book provided additional depth to the decision by the Clinton campaign to embrace identity politics as a campaign strategy, both Bargain and Hacks expand the discussion beyond what was commonly discussed.

I was impressed by the focus of both books on the new opportunities and threats presented by the internet and internet culture. For Bannon, the protagonist of Bargain, it is the communities that exist beneath the sites of the mainstream media. An early business opportunity, trying to professionalize the “gold miner” community in the popular online game World of Warcraft, failed because of an organized customer revolt that spooked the gamer’s manufacturer but never made the news. The shadow of this could be felt years later in the sub-cultural hashtag campaigns #gamergate, #sadpuppies, and even #maga. For Brazile, who was more involved with the operations of the Democratic Party fund-raising machine than the campaign itself, the previously unknown threat was “hacking.” I was impressed by the seriousness Brazile gave to this issue. She’s clearly not an information security professional, but she honestly expresses her fear and bewilderment at this sometimes confusing world. Hacks is the most accurate depiction of the CrowdStrike security I have seen in any book outside of a trade press.

It’s interesting that neither perspective is flattering to Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor whose career at MSNBC is now being covered by Bannon’s news company. “Trump’s toughest opponents in Cleveland were not his fellow candidates but the Fox News moderates, who went right after him” — writes Green — “none with more gusto than Kelly.” Brazile writes of an interview with Kelly, “It was less of an interview than an ambush. She was so eager to get to me that when she saw me approaching, her producers yanked Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway out of the chair almost mid-sentence so I could sit down right away. Megyn was gunning for me.” And Bannon reminisces about wealthy bullies at his old school: “They were the rich snobs. They’d always do the employer-employee joke at us: ‘When you grow up, you’ll work for us,’ And we’d punch them in the nose.”

Both books contain claims that are factually.. questionable. It’s obvious in Bargain the writer is surrounded by secular society and treats religion like an anthropologist would treat a remote tribe: for example, “the Latin-only Tridentine Mass, which was banned by the Second Vatican council.” Likewise, Donna Brazile is often more interesting to read between the lines than at face value, for instance when she was disinterested in building her own base of support: “” But here, Brazile’s book is better constructed. In the places that either leave the literal truth, Brazile’s writing still leaves it clear what message she wants sent (often it is to praise or blame specific allies or enemies). Green’s errors, by contrast, seem lazy. You can read a sentence from Brazile’s book, such as — “When [a Hatian AM radio host asked me when the campaign was going to start a dialogue with his audience, I knew what he meant by that. When were they going to spend a few hundred dollars in advertising there, which would encourage him to urge his followers to get out and vote?” — and it i sclear that so-and-so is asking for a bribe. A sentence like this the Latin mass comment from Bargain, however, just leaves the reader with the impression that the writer is not versed in the relevant subject matter.

This is especially disappointing in light of the fact that both Bannon and Brazile are Catholics. Pope Francis, author of Laudito Si, comes under attack by Bannon: Bargain quotes Bannon as calling Francis “a liberal theology Jesuit” and a “pro-immigration globalist.” Brazile does not discuss theology, but is interested in how Catholic rites can impact the everyday world: she prays for both victory and proper ordering, and uses Holy Water on offices of the Democratic National Committee.

My high-level impression of Bargain is that it is predictable result of a liberal journalist attempting to flatter a conservative source. Hacks, by contrast, is hatchet job by an insider against other insiders, combined with a surprisingly accurate outsider’s discussion of a security incident response operation. You can pass on Bargain. Hacks is great fun.

In an amusing twist, you can read a favorable comment on Hacks from Steve Bannon’s media company. I read both Devil’s Bargain and Hacks in the Kindle editions.

Impressions of “Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King,” by Matthew W. Bates

Summary: The word most Bibles translate as “fide,” “faith,” or “belief” is better translated as “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” Phrases like “repent and believe in me” are offers of amnesty to defeated enemies, who are given the opportunity to join the winning army. Paul was contrasting loyalty to a King with a legalistic parsing of his rules — ain’t no rule of law on the battlefield. The Reformation-era argument over “Faith alone” was a consequence of arguing in Ecclesiastic Latin over translations in Vulgate Latin of Greek terms.

I then called Jesus to me by himself, and told him, that I was not a stranger to that treacherous design he had against me, nor was I ignorant by whom he was sent for; that, however, I would forgive him what he had done already, if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me hereafter.”
Titus Flavius Josephus, The Life of Josephus, circa AD 99

Repent, and believe in me
N.T. Wright’s translation, in The Challenge of Jesus

Faith Alone

“When I asked my counselors how this might be accomplished, Haman — who excels among us in sound judgment, and is distinguished for his unchanging goodwill and steadfast fidelity, and has attained the second place in the kingdom—
Additions to Esther 13:3

Three phrases summarize much of the Protestant Reformation — Faith Alone! Grace Alone! Scripture Alone! But the translation of these Hebrew Greek concepts — especially pistis as ‘Faith’ or ‘Fide’ and charis as “Grace” or “Gracia” — hide as much of the original meaning as they reveal. For example. the word translated as “fidelity” in describing the evil minister Haman — pistis — is the same word that is translated as “faith” or “belief” when used by Paul in the New Testament.

In Salvation by ALlegiance Alone: rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, Matthew Bates argues that both sides of the debate around the Protestant Reformation were overly reliant on Latin translations of Paul that did not accurately capture his meaning. That the Catholic faith was proclaimed in Latin, and the Protestant battle cries of Sola Fide and Sola Gracia were in Latin (a language that Paul did not write in, even when writing to Rome) and not in Greek (the language Paul actually used) greatly mislead both sides about the actual meaning of the Paul’s letters on faith and grace.

In short, Bates argues that Jesus and Paul use an extended military-religious analogy of a militant church. Christ is a conquering King. He has gracefully offered us not only terms of surrender, but a position in his military. We must be like Marines seperated from our main force by an enemy counter-attack: wise enough to understand the comamnder’s intent of the orders we received, and faithful to our God and our King. Indeed, “faith” or pistis means loyalty in the practical sense. In the Third Book of Maccabees (which whether or not it is Scripture, shows how Greek was written and understood in the classical Near east) is given by Jews to a foreign royal house!

While these plans were being put into action, some people plotted to injure the Jewish nation by circulating a hostile report against them on the pretext that the Jews were hindering others from practicing their own customs. But the Jews were maintaining goodwill and unswerving loyalty toward the royal house. 3 Maccabees 3:2-3

I’ve argued along similar lines before. On a secular level the writings of Paul provide a guide for a Christian insurgency, and the a Covenant is an explicitly military and political document. My thinking along these lines was greatly expanded by Michael Heiser’s focus on a war extending into the supernatural plane, and Taylor Marshall’s description of Peter as the annotated Prime Minister of the Kingdom. Bates further expands this mental world by describing what “faith” and “grace” actually meant in first century Palestine.

Of course, orders can be interpreted in bad “faith” (where the commander’s intent is malicious ignored), in order to provide a corrupted allegiance. Orders might also be followed without understanding (where the literally execution without reference to commander’s intent can lead to a disastrous outcome). In this, Paul (a former rabbi and a student of famous rabbis) would strongly agree with Rabbi Federow’s defense of rabbinical law: the point is not that a dead body, or bacon, or what-have-you is intrinsically evil, but it is ladder that one can climb actual virtue. Which is to say, we go to boot camp before we can follow the King on the battlefield. Or, as Paul said

But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Galatians 3:23-24

Grace Alone

So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king.
Esther 2:16-18

Just as the word we read as “Faith” in Greek is pistis, or “Allegiance,” the word we read as “Grace is charis, or gift. But Bates argues that the nature of this “gift” is misunderstood on both a personal and a corporate level. Personally, “faith” is from “grace” precisely because we are offered the opportunity to join a conquering army.

When General Josephus said to the rebel commander, “Repent, and have allegiance in me” he was offering the rebel commander the gift, or grace, of joining his army. This did not mean the rebel had to do nothing. Rather, it mean the alternative to doing the right thing was death. Accept the gift of the opportunity of demonstrating allegiance, or be put to the sword.

Recognizing that Christians are members (distinct specialized units) in the Body of Christ further resolves another Reformation-era controversy. Who is the “us” that is predestined?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.
Ephesians 1:3-12

The answer: The Body of Christ, the Church: those that work for him

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
Romans 8:28-30

Bates argues that every New Testament verse that speaks of pre-election is corporate, not individual, and is identifying the Conquering Army which the Conquering King leads. Given either bravery or cowardice, any individual can enter or leave an army as he wishes. But the Army has been chosen. The Body of Christ cannot possibly turn away, the military will not ever be dissuaded. But any individual soldier may come and go.

But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.
1 Corinthians 12:20-27

Scripture Alone

But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.
Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times, for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice
Esther 1:12-13

While Allegiance Alone is a fascinating defense and reinterpretation of “Faith Alone” and “Grace Alone,” the equally Protestant demand of “Scripture Alone” is not present. In one way this is because the theology of Matthew Blake is Christ-centered. The entire book is outlined with the key that the Apostles Creed is the key to understanding the entire Gospel. He considers the Creed, it the equivalence of the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing that “believe” in contemporary English is best understood as pistis — allegiance. As the Son is the enthroned King of the Universe, our pledge of allegiance to Him is particularly important:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

If Sola Fide means we are saved only by our Allegiance, and Sola Gracia reminds us we only have the opportunity to be allegiant because the new King invited us to His Army, what might be the resolution to Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone?

Perhaps, that it contains the entirety of our general orders, which kept us under guard until the Transfiguration. The presense of Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John for the declaration of the Rule of the Son is the most monumental event in the history of the Kingdom of Israel…

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”
Matthew 17:1-7

… since the similar announcement about David’s son, Solomon:

Then King David answered and said, “Call Bathsheba to me.” So she came into the king’s presence and stood before the king. And the king took an oath and said, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my life from every distress, just as I swore to you by the Lord God of Israel, saying, ‘Assuredly Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ so I certainly will do this day.”
Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the earth, and paid homage to the king, and said, “Let my lord King David live forever!”
And King David said, “Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada.” So they came before the king. The king also said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord, and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and take him down to Gihon.
1 Kings 1:28-33

Christianity did not produce a new religion, but revealed historical changes in the history of the unfolding and divinely ordained Kingdom of Israel. The requirements are the same as they have always been. Allegiance to God. What has changed is the historical circumstances. As the true King announced Solomon was the true King, God Himself commanded the disciples to hear Christ.

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.”
Galatians 3:10-11

‘Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law by observing them.’
“And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’
Deuteronomy 27:26

Bates says what Paul calls “works of the law” are dangerous, because they attempt a legalistic minimal effort to obey the maximum number of orders, ignoring the Commander’s Intent. The problem with a Law-based approach is that perfectly acceptable clarifying questions, such as how we are to determine who is in active collaboration with the Enemy, given the order to deescalate conflicts with both restless locals and irregulars

But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
Matthew 5:39-42

Yet, any sailor or marine who asked follow-up questions about general orders such as:

  • Regarding ‘fraternizing with the enemy,’ in what circumstance smight I be allowed to regularly communicate with officers on the general staff of the enemy?
  • What, specifically, is the definition of treason? Does it depend on being paid for working against our army? If so, how much?

Such a sailor may not actuall ybe afithful at all!

Earlier I emphasized the same point by a World War II analogy — A “Covenant” is literally an Instrument of Surrender, a “Law” is a “General Order,” and the Conqueror is both the judge and jury over any questions of whether or not you were properly steadfast and followed commander’s intent in executing those orders.

Final Thoughts

Allegiance Alone is a fascinating book. It fits in with a cluster of books which seek a military/political interpretation of the life of Christ without reducing Jesus to a politician. Rather, all argue the certain types seen in the Old Testament — such as the Kingdom, the King, the Prime Minister, the Queen Mother. We are soldiers in a militant church. And our retirement benefits sound pretty good: we may even good cushy jobs managing angels.

We just passed the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation, specifically the rupturing of communion between a largely Germanic northern Europe and a largely Romance southern Europe. In some areas, like the nature of the miraculous appearance of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, it seems there was no real disagreement at all, but differently ways of describing the same mystery. In other areas, of course, there were and are disagreements. The New Perspective on Paul, a largely Protestant movement to better understand Paul by paying attention to the meaning of Greek words and phrases Paul used (instead of relying on later Latin commentaries) may have opened up another area of agreement.

A good interview with Matthew Bates is available on the Shaun Tabatt Show. I read Salvation by Allegiance Alone in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “The Dark Forest,” by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is a sequel to the Three-Body Problem, one of the best science fiction novels I ever read. Three Body starts with a bang, the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, China. Characters were well developed, and both sentimental and ghastly motivations are pained as flowing naturally from surviving the insanity of that era. Three Body also balanced two different time periods, the Cultural Revolution and the near future, as well as a virtual environment that closely connects the other two settings. It is a “hard” science fiction story, where special attention is given to explaining the plausibility and possible mechanics of future technology. And last, Three-Body carefully navigated (and even more carefully, comments upon) the censored and politically-monitored nature of speech in China.

The Dark Forest has none of these virtues. Substantial sections appear to be written by a Communist party literary committee, which they may well have been. Characters are two-dimensional tropes, and social motivation is simply bizarre. The ending is easily guessed. It is twice as long. Grudgingly, I will read the next book in the series and finish the trilogy.

So many things are radically different I wonder if The Dark Forest was originally supposed to have continuity with Three-Body at all. While Three-Body invokes hard science fiction extensively, one could substitute the aliens for Russians, Japanese, or Americans, and the story would make sense. Indeed, that may have been the problem. I’m aware of at least one other award winning science fiction where the original text of the sequel was rewritten to have continuity with the first book (Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead), so it would not surprise me the same thing happened here. While the length of The Dark Forest is about twice the length, a major theme of Three-Body (the difficulty of individuals aligning themselves with the goals of a government organization, from low-level lumberjacks to high-level politburo members) is entirely gone. Every government official appears to be basically productive and well-meaning. “Neighborhood committee” members and “political officers” receive special adulation.

In keeping with the Communist Party discipline that appears to be behind much of the book, religion is almost entirely expunged. The Catholic and Buddhist architecture of Beijing is described in Three Body, as are some contrasts between those religions. Understanding the enigmatic prayer, ‘Lord, save my Lord’ is part of the reader’s motivation to unravel the mystery, and the unique perspective of author Cixin Liu means Three-Body is neither a religious tract nor an atheist screed. That’s replaced with an almost complete absence of religion except as a dressing for basic emotions. Early in the book Osama bin Laden states that the core of all religious belief is simply hatred, while later in the book a character id described as an angel and as God himself for taking military command.

Buried in The Dark Forest is half of an excellent sequel. Three-Body ended in a moment of heightened tension for all characters. In the very last page two characters discuss the situation, and an interesting metaphor is raised. That metaphor is abandoned in Dark Forest, the tension dissipates almost completely, and all important actions are the result of deus ex machina — arbitrary events and decisions that are explained afterwards. The final communication process (for all war is communication) is interesting, but the reader only sees the end of it, as a tremendous amount just happens off-page. In Three-Body intelligent and learned individuals discuss ideas as they are using them. The shock of The Dark Forest‘s ending depends entirely on not being familiar with game theory or bargaining.

Reading The Dark Forest was fascinating, because besides the story and the writing, there is a real-life story about an original science fiction epic coming out of China. Something is happening in our real world, and both The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest are part of it. For this reason I will finish the trilogy, and hope it recovers. For now, I am not optimistic.

From the American publisher’s website, I found a link to this fan-made, impressionistic film “Waterdrop,” an homage to The Dark Forest in general and one chapter in particular. The short piece does a terrific job expressing The Dark Forest at its best, without giving away any important plot elements

I read The Dark Forest in the audible edition.