Tagchristian

True Confessions (Wheaton College edition)

This long article/essay/meditation by Ruth Graham on the disturbing events at Wheaton College last year — click on the “wheaton” tag at the bottom of this post for some of my thoughts about that situation, and other issues related to Christian higher education — is by far the best thing that anyone has written on the subject: the most deeply researched, fair-minded, and thoughtful. I commend it to you whole-heartedly.

I’m going to take a personal turn now. Ruth was a student of mine, so I’m especially gratified by passages like this:

During my four years at Wheaton, I drifted away from evangelicalism. But I never contemplated transferring to another school. I was reading Foucault and Judith Butler (Shakespeare and Milton too); my professors were brilliant and kind and I found plenty of kindred spirits. When the religion scholar Alan Wolfe visited Wheaton for a cover article about evangelical intellectualism in The Atlantic in 2000, halfway through my time there, he found a campus whose earnestness was both endearing and impressive: “In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.” At a suburban dive bar on the edge of a marsh, we drank illicit Pabst on Saturday night and talked about politics, music and philosophy like undergraduates anywhere. Then we got up on Sunday morning and went to church.

(By the way, Wen Stephenson, who became my friend during his work as an editor on that Atlantic story, interviewed me about its topic. I can’t bring myself to re-read that interview, but there it is.)

During my 29 years teaching at Wheaton, I saw many students “drift away from evangelicalism.” I didn’t always regret that — it depended on what they drifted to. Evangelical Protestantism is by no means the only way to be a faithful Christian, and for some people it proves impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a faithful Christian in that tradition. But sometimes I did regret the drifting, if it led away from Christian faith altogether.

Still, we all, among the faculty, accepted that risk — it was and is built into the DNA of Wheaton (as it is in my current academic location, the Honors College at Baylor). As I’ve commented elsewhere, “The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.” So I understood and accepted that the exposure to new and powerful ideas, some of them quite alien or hostile to Christianity, has a tendency to change people, sometimes quite dramatically.

But here’s my True Confession: what I’ve always found hard to accept is how many of my students — how many of my best students, including the ones I’ve invested the most time and energy in — become so embarrassed about having attended Wheaton that they never, later in life, publicly acknowledge the quality of the education they received there. In their determination to separate themselves from the religious world they grew up in — and also, it must be said, in attempts not to have their careers or social lives torpedoed by anti-evangelical prejudice — they are just not willing to say what Ruth says here: that however frustrating they found the chapel services, and however stiff-necked they believed the college’s administration to be, at least they received a first-class liberal-arts education from smart and caring teachers, most of whom also understood and sympathized with and did not judge students for any drifting from evangelical orthodoxy.

Let me emphasize again that I very much understand the impulse: many of these students can pay a social or vocational price for acknowledging that they attended Wheaton. What a blessing it is that there’s another Wheaton College, in Massachusetts: Maybe people will think I went there. And if people do find out that you graduated from “that fundamentalist school,” then perhaps the best strategy for moving forward is to say that you hated every minute of it, and repudiate it with all your being.

So I get all that. But it makes me sad, you know? Because I devoted my best energies to teaching those students — it was always a heart-and-soul thing for me, it really was. And because, while some graduates of Wheaton hated everything about it and can’t stand anyone involved with the place, many of them place a great value on the education they received there. I know: they tell me. But they only do so in private. And for my part, I keep their shameful secret.

“the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

In this post I want to connect my earlier post about what needs to be done to reclaim the term “evangelical” with my frequently-asserted hostility to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a well-known passage from The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

If one side of this proper training is the delighted recognition of, and attraction to, the good, the other and equally necessary side is the instinctive recoiling from “the disgusting and hateful.” That second kind of response is what Leon Kass appealed to in his famous essay on “The Wisdom of Repugnance.”

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion.

It is possible, of course, to feel that revulsion and then decide that it needs to be mastered. That is what has happened to many Republican politicians who have supported Trump: they let their political ambitions (in the worst case) or political loyalties (in the best) overcome their revulsion. Consider the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who as I write has just withdrawn his support for Trump, saying, “He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be President of the United States.” That formulation is so perfectly accurate that I can’t help thinking that Pawlenty has been saying it in his head for quite some time now but has only today been driven to say it out loud.

I have little respect for politicians who ever, at any point, endorsed Trump, and none whatsoever for those who have not denounced him by this stage of the game, but I understand why they might have careerist reasons for doing what they do. We will set them aside, reflecting that verily, they have their reward — or their punishment, as the case may be.

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

There are many criteria we might apply to judge whether a given congregation (or for that matter denomination) is genuinely evangelical, here’s one of them: Is it raising up its people in such a way that they feel repugnance when confronted by truly repugnant ideas — like the idea of Donald Trump as leader of a nation?

What does a healthy response to the current controversy look like? We might turn to the editorial page of the Deseret News for an example. After incisively quoting Proverbs 29 (“when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”) they state quite straightforwardly their response to Trump’s sexual boasting: “What oozes from this audio is evil.”

My fellow evangelicals: listen and heed. Your very future depends on your ability to do so.

historical addendum to the previous post

The word ‘Protestant’ … originally related to a specific occasion, in 1529, when at the Holy Roman Empire’s Diet (imperial assembly) held in the city of Speyer, the group of princes and cities who supported the programmes of reformation promoted by Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli found themselves in a voting minority: to keep their solidarity, they issued a ‘Protestatio’, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared. The label ‘Protestant’ thereafter was part of German or imperial politics for decades, and did not have a wider reference than that…. It is therefore problematic to use ‘Protestant’ as a simple description for sympathizers with reform in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the reader will find that often in this book I use a different word, ‘evangelical’. That word has the advantage that it was widely used and recognized at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangelium.

— Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History

Steal It Back

The always-thoughtful Alastair Roberts asks:

In light of the ignominious behaviour of leading ‘evangelical’ voices in supporting and standing by Donald Trump, I have a question for my American friends who haven’t compromised on this point. At what point should the self-designation ‘evangelical’ be abandoned? At what point do the liabilities of the term outweigh its potential benefits? At what point does the meaning of a term need to be so hedged with qualifications and distinctions that it ceases to be fit for purpose?

Roberts concludes that the term should be retired: “We need to shift the weight of our identity and our labours away from the mass movement and back towards the church and the task of forming a healthy and well-defined public.” In one sense, he’s right: evangelicalism has traditionally been a renewal movement within existing denominations or traditions, not something that stands on its own outside those traditions, and I think it works best that way. Evangelicalism at its best sees how the Christian traditions tend to lose their focus and their fire; it strives to bring Christians within whatever tradition to a new intensity of focus, a new fire of faith.

But to say that is to say that the term “evangelical” needs to be re-situated, not that it needs to be abandoned. I find myself remembering that moment in Rattle and Hum when Bono introduces “Helter Skelter” by saying, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” It’s time to steal “evangelical” back.

Who should steal it?

  • Those who believe that renewal among Christians is necessary
  • Those who believe that such renewal is difficult
  • Those who believe that such renewal is costly
  • Those who believe that the power to be renewed comes only from the Trinitarian God
  • Those who believe that that power of renewal is primarily and always to be sought through what John Wesley called the “the ordinary channels of conveying God’s grace into the souls of men,” as identified in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In Wesley’s formulation, “First, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer…. Secondly, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in searching the Scriptures…. Thirdly, all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.”
  • Those who can discern the resources within their own denominational traditions to pursue these tasks

Whom should they steal it from?

  • Those who think God is happy with them just as they are
  • Those who turn to God for material prosperity in preference to intimacy with God and charity towards their neighbors
  • Those whose minds are formed not by “searching the Scriptures” but by television, talk radio, and Twitter

How should they steal it back?

  • Put “searching the Scriptures” at the heart of congregational preaching — and singing (which requires, among other things, immediately eliminating all praise songs that are not thoroughly scriptural and restoring the place of hymns that offer a sophisticated interweaving of biblical texts: nothing teaches Christians how the various parts of the Bible interrelate better than the great hymns)
  • Rigorously and patiently teach people the various disciplines of public and private prayer (Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, Lamentation)
  • Regularly and reverently celebrate the Lord’s Supper

If even a handful of the churches that now call themselves “evangelical” were to take these steps — in full awareness of how radically countercultural such steps are, and in full willingness to pay the price in popularity for their dedication — then in a generation or two there could be enough people who are properly formed within the ancient practices of the Christian faith to provide the critical mass necessary to have a significant impact on society. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it will be a great work of mercy and grace. And anyway, the churches that fail to do these things will fade away, because they have nothing to pass on to their (biological and spiritual) children.

Don’t abandon “evangelical.” Steal it back.

A Tradinista! Manifesto

A Tradinista! Manifesto

The Frozen Standard Version

Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). This decision was made unanimously by the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee. All future Crossway editions of the ESV, therefore, will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.

— ESV BibleA good many people seem to be freaking out over this — here’s a hysterical and factually challenged example — but I am at loss to understand why. Contrary to what the just-linked screed claims, Crossway and the ESV committee haven’t said that their translation is perfect. They’ve hardly insisted that no further English translations of the Bible be made. The committee has merely said that they’re not going to revise their work in the future, and they hope people will continue to use what they’ve produced for a long time. Given that the founding leader of the committee, Jim Packer, is 90 years old, and some of the other committee members are also getting up in years, isn’t that decision understandable? Maybe they’re just tired.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasonable criticisms to be made of the ESV, and especially of some of the most recent changes to it. Scot McKnight makes some of those reasonable criticisms here, and comments: “It is profoundly unwise for a translation to alter this kind of text to this kind of reading without public discussion of it, and then to pronounce it Permanent.” Unwise seems a fair enough judgment (though only because of those as it were last-minute changes).

[UPDATE: Here’s a response to the McKnight post that I’ll want to reflect on.]

On almost all of the points at which serious scholars disagree with particular decisions made by the ESV committee, I side with the scholars. It really does seem to me that a particular theological agenda (sexual complementarianism) has guided the ESV’s translations of certain passages, and that’s very unfortunate; perhaps for many a flaw that renders the translation unusable. But to say that the ceasing of work on the project,  the committee’s choosing not to continue working on it until they drop dead at their desks, “smacks of incredible arrogance” — that’s just crazy talk.


P.S. I don’t use a single translation: depending on circumstances I might use the KJV, the RSV, the NRSV, or an interlinear New Testament (I don’t have enough Greek to move confidently through a standalone Greek text). Sometimes I’m moved by delight in books that I have owned for a long time: both my KJV and my RSV are more than thirty years old, and they keep me connected with a long personal history of encountering and meditating on Scripture.

bibles

I don’t use the ESV as enthusiastically as I did when it first came out, largely because I have listened to the scholars who’ve been critical of some of its decisions, but it still has a place in my rotation. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the ESV committee’s Prime Directive — defer to the RSV whenever possible — means that the translation retains much of the linguistic and poetic excellence that the RSV had inherited from the KJV. For someone who has devoted much of his life to teaching and writing about poetry, this can’t not be a consideration. By contrast, the utter stylistic incompetence manifest in all versions of the NIV makes it simply unreadable to me. Indeed, all translations not directly in the Tyndale line of succession suffer from one or another disease of the English language, and even the NRSV translators were often deaf to the music of what they had inherited. (N.B. People who say that translators of the Bible — which is comprised largely of poetry and narrative! — should focus only on accuracy and ignore aesthetic questions simply do not understand the concept of accuracy in translation. Beauty matters, and not in “merely” aesthetic ways.)

My second reason for keeping the ESV in my rotation is not unlike the first: Crossway has devoted far, far more time and energy and skill into quality book-making than any other Bible publisher. Look, for instance, at this gorgeous edition of the Psalms — and it is but one example among several. Crossway has lavished similar attention on their smartphone apps; in this area they have only one real competitor, Neubible, which is still very much a work in progress and in fact could take a few lessons from Crossway’s apps. Why doesn’t any other Bible publisher care about these matters as much as a little conservative evangelical press in Wheaton, Illinois does?

Sometimes I want to sit down to read the Bible in well-wrought English, within a book that is well-made, and on pages that are admirably formatted and presented. Those are all features that help me concentrate on what I believe to be the Word of God. And that’s why the ESV, for all its flaws, is still in my reading rotation.

liturgy (from my Sent folder)

I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.

It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.

Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.

a question for David Gushee

My favorite moment in this column by David Gushee comes when he says, “I have been a participant in the effort to encourage Protestant religious conservatives, generally known as fundamentalists and evangelicals, to reconsider their position voluntarily.” Voluntarily, or …? He sounds like a sheriff in an old Western: Are you gonna come along nice and quiet, or am I gonna hafta rough ya up?

But let’s assume that, contrary to certain appearances, Gushee doesn’t think of himself as an enforcer dispatched by the Powers That Be to bring recalcitrant bigots into line. Let’s set aside his insistence that none of the people on the wrong side of history are honest when they say they genuinely hold theological positions he himself held just a few years ago. (“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty.”) Let’s assume that he’s just quite neutrally letting us know what’s coming.

It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.

And, in case we didn’t get the point the first time around, he returns to it later:

Openly discriminatory religious schools and parachurch organizations will feel the pinch first. Any entity that requires government accreditation or touches government dollars will be in the immediate line of fire. Some organizations will face the choice either to abandon discriminatory policies or risk potential closure. Others will simply face increasing social marginalization.

A vast host of neutralist, avoidist or de facto discriminatory institutions and individuals will also find that they can no longer finesse the LGBT issue. Space for neutrality or “mild” discrimination will close up as well.

So in light of these warnings about what is to come, I have one question for David Gushee: So what?

That is: What, in his view, follows from this state of affairs — for Christians, that is? Odd that he doesn’t say. It has been my understanding that Christians consider it a virtue to hold to their convictions in the face of unpopularity and even persecution. (“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.… But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”)

Of course, you can also be persecuted for holding false views; being persecuted doesn’t confer legitimacy. But it certainly isn’t a sign of error, or those who have “endured to the end” are of all people most to be pitied. So how is it relevant, in Christian terms, that those who hold certain views will suffer for holding them — that those who hold the view that Gushee has publicly held for around twenty months are powerful enough to punish those who haven’t quite caught up with him? 

Lakoff on evangelicals

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.

Understanding Trump « George Lakoff. One of the most frustrating things about being an evangelical Christian is the frequency with which you have to hear yourself described by people who don’t have the first idea what they are talking about.

Lakoff’s post is noteworthy because it’s wrong about evangelicals at their best and equally wrong about evangelicals at their worst. As everyone with even the slightest understanding of the history of Christianity knows, evangelicalism has never in any of its forms taught that if you follow God’s commandments you go to heaven. It has traditionally held that no one follows God’s commandments, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” that “by grace are you saved through faith, not works, lest any man should boast.” These are among the most famous verses in the Bible, but clearly Lakoff is completely ignorant both of them and of the role they played in forming and perpetuating evangelicalism.

But do those verses characterize the foundational beliefs of most American evangelicals today? By no means. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have so exhaustively documented in multiple books — see especially Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers —Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals increasingly practice a religion that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And while the researchers’ focus is on younger people, “emerging adults,” MTD is not a position they have arrived at in spite of what they learned in church, it is the very model of how human beings relate to God that their churches taught them (whether explicitly or implicitly). The God of MTD and its twin, the Prosperity Gospel, isn’t interested in commandments and doesn’t send people to Hell, except maybe Hitler and a few others. He wants us to be happy and prosperous, according to our own definitions of happiness and prosperity.

In short, Lakoff’s imaginary Strict Father Religion, concocted in blithe indifference to the demonstrated facts on the ground — I think of C. S. Lewis’s old tutor Kirk: “You can have enlightenment for ninepence, but you prefer ignorance” — is characteristic of evangelicalism neither in its strongest (most historically and biblically grounded) forms nor in its desiccated Prosperity Deist forms. And, given that Lakoff wants to explain the popularity of Trump among evangelicals … well, the Donald isn’t exactly a Strict Father, is he? More like a sugar daddy, promising to use his unmatched personal charisma to make all the good white people safe and rich — the perfect Mortal God (to borrow a phrase from Hobbes) for Prosperity Deists.

the Bread of Life

A sermon preached to the Episcopal clergy of Dallas , April 13, 2016. The texts were the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:51 – 8:1) and the “I am the bread of life” passage, John 6:30-35.


Starting with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s, we have in the last 80 years or so seen an endless procession of books offering us strategies for … well, winning friends and influencing people.

It appears that Stephen did not read any of them.

When I read this passage from the Acts of the Apostles I find myself remembering Frederick Buechner’s line: “Nobody ever invited a prophet home for dinner more than once.”

And yet, when Stephen chastises his audience for their failures to listen to the prophets, while we’re told they are enraged, they keep listening. They keep listening, perhaps, because they realize this is the sort of thing that prophets do. Only a few years earlier they had heard John the baptizer talking to them in this way, demanding their repentance. And of course a long line of prophets had preceded him in such denunciations. Possibly by this point in the history of Israel listening to this kind of speech had become a kind of performance art, something that people might talk about later on and say, “Now, that was good. He got us worked up there, didn’t he? Of course, he’s no Jeremiah, but still…”

But then Stephen goes too far. Denouncing the children of Israel for their unfaithfulness – well, that’s par for the course, that’s part of the game, is it not? But saying that this Jesus who was so recently crucified, who suffered the most shameful of deaths, is standing at the right hand of God? That cannot be tolerated.

To “stand at the right hand of God”: this is, after all, a Messianic designation — see for instance the opening of Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” It seems likely that it was this claim for Jesus that broke the crowd’s patience with Stephen — especially since many of those listening to Stephen had shouted, not many days earlier, “Crucify him!” But in any case Stephen goes to his death, the first martyr for the cause of Jesus the Christ.

If we turn from this pivotal event in the early life of the Church, and go back in time to our Gospel reading, a moment from early in Jesus’s public ministry — here too we have a scene describing an encounter between a prophet and his audience, but this one is less contentious. No one is enraged; no one gets stoned; but the audience is, shall we say, somewhat skeptical.

(This is one of those relatively rare instances when the lectionary gives us only part of a story; you can’t really make sense of what’s happening here without looking a little earlier and a little later in the story. It’s easy to see why the lectionary-makers did this: John 6 is so rich, and so absolutely central to the Gospel, that it gets broken into small chunks for our rumination. But we need to keep a somewhat larger piece in mind when when we’re chewing on one of those small chunks.)

Now, the skepticism of this crowd is not invincible. They’re willing to be won over. All they’re asking for is a sign. In general, Jesus is extremely unsympathetic to demands for signs: as he says elsewhere, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.” But this time he lets it go — which is interesting, because if a crowd ever deserves a good tongue-lashing, it’s this one.

Why? Because they had just received, one day earlier, a sign, an astonishing one: the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus had filled their bellies, and they liked that, so they’ve climbed into boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee to find him and get a refill. Jesus knows what they want, and says so — this is from just before our passage for today — :“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”

So he’s onto them, but they’re still determined to wheedle something out of him. “Look, Rabbi,” they say — they start this conversation by referring to him respectfully as Rabbi, teacher — “we’re not here for the food, far from it, we just want you to demonstrate your authority so we will know that you are indeed speaking and acting on God’s behalf. So what would be a good sign? … Now, how about manna, or something like manna — bread, maybe? That worked for Moses.”

A transparent ruse! And yet Jesus does not lash out at them. He is remarkably patient. He just wants them to understand the situation. They got fed yesterday, but today they’re hungry again. In fact, even if what they really wanted was a sign, they would be hungry for a new sign tomorrow, too. Signs are not any more filling than bread. Wouldn’t they prefer the bread from God that gives life to the world?

Indeed they would. They like this idea very much. On the basis of this offer they elevate their respect for Jesus: before he had been Rabbi but now they call him Lord — Kyrie. Now, this is a curious form of address. It doesn’t mean the LORD God, which is why many modern translations render the word as “Sir.” But that may be misleading too, in the other direction. That Messianic passage from Psalm 110 I mentioned earlier — “The LORD says to my lord,” etc. — in the Septuagint “my lord” is also Kyrie.

So this crowd is treating Jesus with extreme deference — as long as they think they have a chance of manipulating him into providing them this bread from Heaven that gives life to the world. Because wouldn’t that be great, to have such bread? Maybe it would last a long time; maybe it could be stored safely; maybe they wouldn’t have to row back and forth across the lake to chase down this rabbi, or prophet, or whatever he is, to get more of it.

Unfortunately for them, Jesus doesn’t cooperate. He simply says: “I am the bread of life” — a statement that means nothing to them. (If we follow the rest of John’s narrative, we see that this is but the first of a series of “I am” sayings, some of which — especially “Before Abraham was, I AM” — get Jesus into a lot of trouble. But I don’t think anybody could have read a claim to divinity into this first “I am” statement. It only seems portentous in retrospect.

This much is clear, though: Jesus is telling them to stop thinking of their bellies, stop trying to manipulate him into performing a work that will get them what they already want. They need to turn to … to him. Not to his message, not even at this moment to the Father who sent him, but to himself. (“I and the Father are one,” he will explain later. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”)

So, no, he doesn’t cooperate. And, we’re told in verse 41, the crowd “grumbled” about him. They’re not angry — not yet — but they grow irritable. He isn’t what we thought he was. Or thought he might be.

If you take the whole of John 6 and link it to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, you can see the arc of the natural, unredeemed person’s attitude towards Jesus and the message of the Gospel. First curiosity; then perhaps excitement; then discontent; then hatred. What begins with the gathering together to hear a new voice ends with the flinging of stones, or, if we do things judicially rather than in the heat of temper, the nailing of a body to a cross.

And this happens because we want Jesus to give us the food we already know, already like. In our natural state, we can’t abide it when he insists on giving us instead the food that, though we refuse to acknowledge it, we desperately need. One of the saddest aspects of the Gospel story is this: only when they do not yet know what Jesus offers do the people in the crowd make requests of him. Once they hear what he has come to give them, they turn aside. They go away.

May we never turn aside. May we never prefer our familiar food, our daily bread, to the food that Jesus offers: himself. May we say, this day and every day, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And may we be granted the great, great privilege of sharing this food with others who have never tasted it. Amen.

Alton Sterling and “thoughts and prayers”

Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A great many things will happen on social media in the next few days, almost all of them predictable, few of them encouraging.

One of the predictable things is that Christians will offer “thoughts and prayers”; another is that atheists will rage at them for doing so. We’ll hear a lot about the uselessness of thoughts and prayers, mainly from people who think deploying Twitter hashtags counts as genuine activism.

Christians are commanded to pray. We are told to pray without ceasing; we are told to pray for our enemies; we are told to pray even when we do not know what to pray for, because in such cases the Holy Spirit will intercede for us. I would ask my fellow Christians to offer prayer in the aftermath of Alton Sterling’s killing; but I would also ask them to remember that typing the words “sending thoughts and prayers” is not praying.

We can and should do better than that. For starters, we could say what we are praying for. We pray for God to receive Alton Sterling into His presence and comfort him and wipe away every tear. We pray that God will comfort the friends and family of Alton Sterling — and all the people of Baton Rouge, and all the people of color in this land who live every day in fear — and give them peace in their spirits and hope for better days in this world as well as that eternal hope that transcends all others.

We pray, Lord, that you will turn the hearts of those who kill to peaceableness; that you will lead them to repentance; that you will make justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Further: May we remember that prayer ought to be the fuel of the spirit, the fuel that gives us the strength and the hope that alone can sustain work for justice and peace. “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace” — make me an instrument. Set me to work. In these dark days let me at least light a candle.

Hear my prayer, O Lord; and let my cry come unto thee.

capitulation (2) 

Evangelical leaders: If you back Trump, for the rest of your days, you will be forced to live with having had a hand in fracturing our nation on the basis of race, discarding the sanctity of marriage, and scorning honesty itself — all for the chance, the remote chance, that Trump will make one or two decent Supreme Court picks. You will be selling your integrity for the most meager of returns.

Otherwise, you can fight all the way to Cleveland, and beyond if a strong independent candidate emerges. If the choice does come down to Trump or Hillary Clinton, you can instead reserve your vote only for those down-ballot candidates with the integrity to resist corruption from either presidential nominee. Faced with the choice between further debasing our politics and refusing to do so, you’ll emerge with your integrity intact.

Christians have had to take tougher stands in darker times before. They do so in other nations today. This decision, by contrast, should be easy. Trump is not worth your consideration or even one moment of your time. Let others bend the knee.

David French

Into All the World

The message powerfully communicated in this book is entirely clear: when using the term “evangelical,” it is now imperative to consider the entire world. Whatever system is used for counting, more evangelicals now live in Nigeria and Brazil, when taken together, than in the US. More evangelicals are now found in each of those two countries—and also in each of China, Kenya, South Korea, India, and Indonesia—than in any of the European homelands from which evangelicalism emerged. And today the most evangelical nations in the world, when measured by proportions of national population, are not the United States, England, Scotland, or Canada—but Vanuatu, Barbados, the Bahamas, Kenya, the Solomon Islands, South Korea, and the Central African Republic.

Mark Noll

a suggestion about the future of Wheaton College

When I was visiting Wheaton College last week I happened to hear a story on NPR about Intel’s attempts to create a more diverse workforce, with more women and minorities. Apparently Intel is putting a lot of energy behind this endeavor, and having some success, though retention continues to be a problem.

I was especially taken by one moment in the report:

Freada Kapor Klein is an investor who funds diversity-focused startups like Jopwell, which connects job candidates who are underrepresented minorities to tech companies. Klein says culture is key.

Tech companies don’t just make new engineers pass a coding test. They have to pass a “culture fit” test. That’s where a huge amount of bias creeps in, she says, as existing teams only want a unicorn. “They are looking for the one-in-a-million person who comes from a different racial, ethnic, cultural, gender background, but in every other respect is identical to the white and Asian men who work there,” Klein says. “That’s not diversity.”

It seems to me that this is a story that the leadership of Wheaton College should meditate on as the college tries to move on from its difficult relationship with Larycia Hawkins. I believe — I have good reason to believe — that Wheaton really, truly, seriously wants to have a faculty and student body that is more reflective of the ethnic and cultural range of worldwide evangelical Christianity. But I also saw, during my twenty-nine years on the Wheaton faculty and several years as director of the Faculty Faith and Learning program, far too many situations in which non-white faculty members were treated, if not with outright suspicion, then at least with bemusement and puzzlement, because they did not express themselves in ways that matched the cultural practices of white midwestern evangelicalism.

Minority faculty were of course not the only ones to have this kind of experience; it happened also to white faculty from charismatic or Pentecostal traditions, and to some others as well. But minority faculty — who not incidentally tend also to be charismatic or Pentecostal — always seemed to be under deeper and more lasting scrutiny.

I remember one black colleague who devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far; though I guess the deep-seated reluctance to go off-script is a trait I shared with white midwestern evangelicalism, one that helped make me comfortable at Wheaton, even though I am not midwestern. But I also believe that if I had gone off-script in precisely that way it would not have created the same degree of consternation. I am convinced that my colleague’s race made students, faculty, and administrators wonder what else he might do that deviated from the script.

To my lasting regret, that colleague left Wheaton, under less than ideal circumstances, and I believe he was allowed to leave simply because he wasn’t a unicorn. He was not someone who had dark skin but was “every other respect … identical” to the overwhelmingly white world he worked in. He didn’t “fit the culture” — and note that in this case the lack of fit was not even theological, or spiritual, but (supposedly) professional.

But what if the narrow scope of “the culture” is a bug, not a feature? What if a more ethnically diverse faculty, even if it contained people who made some of the existing faculty and administration and alumni and donors uncomfortable, helped the college to achieve its mission? I made a similar argument some years ago in suggesting that Wheaton should be open to hiring Roman Catholics — my logic here is fundamentally the same. What if an institution’s existing culture, and its concern to hire people who “fit” its existing culture, actually inhibit its ability to fulfill its mission?

Wheaton has a detailed and quite specific Statement of Faith, but again and again over the past few decades faculty who can enthusiastically sign that Statement have been deemed not quite right, not comme il faut, not “one of us.” The (often inchoate) sense of institutional culture and “fit” has too often trumped the college’s explicit statements of what it’s all about. Here’s my proposal: What if Wheaton were to trust its own Statement of Faith? What if it were to open its doors to people who don’t look or speak or think like the typical Wheaton person — but who share the same convictions? Might the college not, ultimately, be greatly invigorated by all that new blood? Might it not come closer to the vision granted to John the Revelator? “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.

once more on the academic-freedom merry-go-round

My former colleague Tracy McKenzie has posted a fine reflection on academic freedom and Christian colleges and universities, a topic that I have written about before and along very similar lines.

What I want to address here is a comment on Tracy’s post, which I’ll go through point by point, because it represents some commonly held views:

Thanks for your post on this topic, which is very important for Christian academics. You make some good points, and it appears that Wheaton is a very good fit for you. However, it’s not just non-Christians that might find the concept problematic. Not all Christians believe the same way, and this diversity of thought is likely even more pronounced among Christian academics. For Christians who may not hold to the orthodox line of the institution, this truly is a violation of academic freedom.

Let’s remember that a Christian college is a private voluntary association to which no one is obliged to belong. People choose to teach at them. So if “the orthodox line of the institution” is not one that you can affirm, it makes sense to go elsewhere.

As a disclaimer, I’ve taught at two Christian colleges, as well as four secular colleges and universities. I value all I found in all of these places, but have not had a problem with secular institutions being “hollow”, nor have I found teaching at Christian institutions to be particularly liberating. I found items in the statements of faith of those schools with which I had issues, but had to choose to keep my views “in the closet,” as it were.

I don’t know what institutions the commenter taught at, but schools in the Christian College Coalition tend to have — I think they all have — statements of faith that they ask all faculty to affirm. So if a school asks whether you affirm a particular set of propositions and you untruthfully say that you do, which seems to have been this commenter’s practice … well, then, of course you won’t find the experience “liberating.” Participating in a community under false pretenses can never be liberating.

The conclusion I have come to is that a statement of faith to which all faculty must adhere is incompatible with academic freedom. Basically, it is telling faculty to start with the conclusions about the most important questions in life, and make sure the facts they uncover back that up, or else the facts themselves are deemed invalid.

No, it doesn’t say anything of the kind. Faculty at Christian colleges aren’t newborn infants: they are adults, who instead of starting with “conclusions about the most important questions in life” have reached certain conclusions about what they believe, and want to try to live out those beliefs. And what’s at stake in the formation of the community are not “facts” but rather beliefs: if the facts that a scholar discovers seem to be incompatible with, or to challenge, certain beliefs, then we think out and work through those apparent conflicts as a community. Sometimes we discover that the conflict was merely apparent; sometimes the beliefs of the community are altered in response to the newly discovered truths; sometimes the scholar and the community part ways, one hopes amicably. (But alas, not always.)

And secular universities operate in exactly the same way. Imagine a tenured professor of history at a public university who announces, “After much study and reflection I have come to believe that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ holds the full meaning of historical experience, and henceforth I will teach all my classes from that point of view.” Would the university’s declared commitment to academic freedom allow him to keep his job? No, because he will be said to have violated one of the core principles of that particular academic community, which is to bracket questions of religious belief rather than advocate for a particular religious view. (Of course, atheists tend not to be held to the same standard, but that’s a story for another day.)

This is the polar opposite of academic inquiry or rational thought. Faith does and always will have the prominent place in my life and thought, but I cannot agree with any institution that tells me what I must believe if the facts lead me elsewhere.

No such institution “tells me what I must believe” — any more than a chess club tells me that I must play chess. Just as a chess club is for people who already like to play chess, a Christian college is for people who already hold certain beliefs. It says, Let’s gather together people who share these core convictions and see what the world looks like if we study it from within that structure of belief and practice. And if you do share those core convictions, as Tracy McKenzie does, then the experience of teaching in such an institution can be immensely liberating. If you don’t, then it won’t be, and it’s best to go elsewhere. But nobody at any point is telling you that you must believe anything — any more than the chess club is telling you that you must like playing chess. If you have become disillusioned with chess, then you can go somewhere else and do something else. But it would be rather absurd to walk away muttering that the chess club has infringed on your freedom.

excerpts from my Sent folder (2)

… I’ve written a couple of angry things in defense of Wheaton, since I left, but I think my having left made it possible for me to get away with the anger. It’s harder to make that work from the inside.

Moreover, what’s really needed here is not anything that could be construed as a defense of particular administrative actions — and even if you deny that you’re doing that, in the residual heat of last week’s news that’s how such a piece will be perceived — but rather an explanation of why places like Wheaton deserve to exist within the widely varied landscape of American higher education. And by “deserve to exist,” I mean on an equal footing with other institutions. You say that Wheaton isn’t going anywhere, and that’s probably true, but a great many other Christian colleges may well, in the coming decade or two, have to close their doors because they lack the financial resources and reputational stature to respond effectively to legal challenges, denial of federal student-loan funding, and de-accreditation. At the very least, religious schools will be threatened with constant demands that they bow to Caesar; even if they can get legal verdicts in their favor that will only be after great expense; and I find it impossible to imagine a future in which religious institutions won’t always be dealing with discrimination suits.

If we who teach at religiously-based institutions have any chance of maintaining the status quo, we’ll need to articulate that more general account of what schools like Wheaton do and why even those who have no religious belief, or even sympathy with religious belief, should value that work.

the most incisive commentary on today’s disputes about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God

The process whereby ‘faith and works’ become a stock gag in the commercial theatre is characteristic of that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation. The theological questions really at issue have no significance except on a certain level, a high level, of the spiritual life; they could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure. Under those conditions formulae might possibly have been found which did justice to the Protestant — I had almost said the Pauline — assertions without compromising other elements of the Christian faith. In fact, however, these questions were raised at a moment when they immediately became embittered and entangled with a whole complex of matters theologically irrelevant, and therefore attracted the fatal attention both of government and the mob. When once this had happened, Europe’s chance to come through unscathed was lost. It was as if men were set to conduct a metaphysical argument at a fair, in competition or (worse still) forced collaboration with the cheapjacks and the round-abouts, under the eyes of an armed and vigilant police force who frequently changed sides.

— C. S. Lewis, from Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century. See also: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”

It’s true that in a certain sense, to share means that there aren’t differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – underscoring that word, a difficult word to understand. But I ask myself: but don’t we have the same Baptism? If we have the same Baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together? And you’re a witness of a likewise profound journey, a journey of marriage: itself a journey of family and human love and of a shared faith, no? We have the same Baptism….

The question [Pope draws question mark with his finger]…. The supper? There are questions that only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. This is my body. This is my blood. Do it in remembrance of me – this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.

Pope Francis. For what it’s worth, I am, as I suggested yesterday, not only in full agreement with the Pope about this but am hoping that he goes further.

The Catholic and Orthodox thinkers who support the closing of Communion to all Christians outside their jurisdictions typically make two arguments in support of their position: first, that full unity is a precondition for sharing the great Meal of the Church; and second, that their exceptionally high regard for the Eucharist is what makes it so necessary that they be careful about who receives it. I don’t think either of these arguments works.

The key to these questions lies hidden in a word that Pope Francis uses: viaticum. In Catholic usage this often refers only to the Eucharist given in articulo mortis, but the Pope is quite rightly using it in a broader sense: the Eucharist is the meal that strengthens us on our way through life, we wayfarers. Each of us is a viator passing through this vale of tears towards our true home (which is not “Heaven” but this very world renewed and restored); we are in desperate need of the “spiritual food and drink of Christ’s body and blood” to sustain us on the way. If you remember the lembas (waybread) of the elves in The Lord of the Rings you will get the idea precisely.

If this is what the Eucharist is, then to argue that we Christians — those of us who share, as the Pope says, one baptism (“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all”) — should achieve unity first and only then share the sustaining meal is simply to devalue the Eucharist dramatically. For if we can achieve true and full unity among ourselves without sharing it, why would we ever need it at all? Those who would withhold the viaticum from other Christians — or forbid their own members from receiving it elsewhere — are treating it not as essential provision for our journey but as a kind of dessert, a special treat for those who have already become good boys and girls.

All of which suggests that, whatever these Catholic and Orthodox leaders think they value, what they really (if almost always unconsciously) value is not the Eucharist itself but administrative control over the Eucharist. This has been a problem since the (relatively) early Church started modeling its administrative practices on the organizational structures of the Roman Empire; we have all been afflicted, ever since, by the unfortunate consequences of that imitation. It is past time that bishops in all Christian communions realize this perversion of episcopacy and choose a better way. And there could be no better place to start than to recognize the viaticum of the Eucharist for what it is, and to see the sharing of it as essential for the restoration of the Oneness which the Lord Christ wants his people to have: “Be one, even as the Father and I are one.”

In some quarters of American life, evangelical Christians are viewed as fearful and xenophobic—afraid of “the other.” Perhaps in a few cases, which happen to make the news. But in fact, US evangelical churches are refugees’ best friend. If anyone looks fearful and xenophobic, it is the federal government and its broken immigration policies.

This is not to deny the real political, social, and economic challenges of welcoming more sojourners. This is not to suggest that we open our borders without any security checks. It is to refuse to let the gods of fear and security dictate how we respond.

Nor do we mean to suggest our churches are doing all they can for the sojourner. Our resettlement agencies, here and abroad, need more money, more volunteers—more sponsorship from local churches—to face the burgeoning refugee crisis.

This is an unparalleled opportunity to love neighbors here and abroad, and to showcase the beauty of the gospel that proclaims good news to the poor, liberty for those stuck in refugee camps, and a new life for those fleeing from oppression, so that those “yearning to breathe free” can breathe easily.

This article reports the results of a nationwide audit study testing how Christian churches welcome potential newcomers to their churches as a function of newcomers’ race and ethnicity. We sent email inquiries to 3,120 churches across the United States. The emails were ostensibly from someone moving to the area and looking for a new church to attend. That person’s name was randomly varied to convey different racial and ethnic associations. In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior. They responded most frequently to emails with white-sounding names, somewhat less frequently to black- or Hispanic-sounding names, and much less to Asian-sounding names. They also sent shorter, less welcoming responses to nonwhite names. In contrast, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little variation across treatment groups in their responses. These findings underscore the role of homophily, organizational homogeneity, and the costs of racial integration in perpetuating the racial segregation of American religious life.

For Michaelmas: Jacob Epstein, St Michael’s Victory over the Devil (1958), Coventry Cathedral

I was brought up in the church, back in the old days before the deluge when church-going, confirmation and so on were ordinary landmarks of life, but lost touch with it for twenty years, like almost all of my generation. I came to real belief as an adult, after a practical demonstration of God’s mercy at work in my life. I’m at the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, I suppose, in that I support the ordination of women, with full authority, to all three of the historic orders of priesthood; and I’ve come around, slightly to my surprise, to thinking that same-sex marriage is something we should be bringing within the Christian vision of a faithful, monogamous union. But though these things matter a lot to me as justice issues, they are not central to me as a Christian. If I’m a liberal, I’m a liberal saved by the blood of the Lamb. It is Christ that makes me a Christian, and the story of redemption and resurrection with Him at its heart. I come from a parish setting where it would seem a crazy luxury to pick and choose between different styles or schools of faith, not to mention weirdly beside the point. Locally, Christians of all kinds co-operate as a matter of basic survival – beggars can’t be choosers – but that seems right to me theologically as well. God is bigger than our tastes, our divisions and our theories. In Him is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek, and neither liberal nor conservative either. We’re all brothers and sisters. We should behave like it.

— My friend Francis Spufford, who is standing for election to the Church of England’s House of Laity.

Page 15 of the new student handbook of Cedarville University tells students to obey “the laws of the land.” However, there’s at least one law the Ohio evangelical college doesn’t support: the recent Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.

Evangelical Colleges Still Discriminate Against LGBT Students Despite the Supreme Court’s Gay-Marriage Ruling. This is only scraping the surface: for instance, it’s legal in all 50 states to have extramarital sex, yet the behavioral codes of such colleges typically prohibit such acts. Lying, gossip, and general lack of charity are also forbidden, despite there being no legal prohibitions against such behavior, except in rare cases.

Moreover, American law clearly allows anyone who wishes to be an atheist, yet Christian colleges clearly do not support the legal system in that matter either, since they forbid atheists to enroll. Moreover, non-Christian theists — whose status under the law is clearly protected — are also often blocked from attending Christian colleges.

Indeed, the list of acts and beliefs explicitly allowed by the law and yet excluded from Chritian college campuses is very, very long. How has such blatant discrimination been allowed to continue for so long — in fact, only questioned in the past few months? This is a scandal of the first order.

I do not know where I came across this image of St. Basil the Great giving alms to the poor and wounded — if anyone can turn up its source, please let me know — but I love it because it captures something of the man who, for me, is the greatest model of Christian leadership the Church has ever produced. The man who was in his time and place the chief defender of orthodoxy against the Arians was also the person who essentially invented the hospital and was relentless in his advocacy for the poor.

In one of his greatest sermons, he said to the wealthy of Cappadocia,

Think, you who call yourselves ‘Benefactor’! Be mindful of yourself, who you are, of what things have been placed in your charge, from Whom you received them, and why you were favored above others. You have been made a servant of the good God; an administrator for your fellow servant…. For a little while these things will give you pleasure; then flowing away from you they disappear, and then you must with exactness render an account of them. But you try to lock them up and keep them hidden using bolts and bars and under seals. You watch them anxiously and think, ‘What will I do?’

‘What will I do?’ Offhand, I would say, ‘I shall fill the souls of the hungry. I shall open my barns and I shall send for all who are in want. I shall be like Joseph in proclaiming the love of my fellow human being.’

As some of us contemplate a Benedict Option, let us remember Basil and the other Cappadocians. They are the greatest models that our Christian history offers us.

I don’t know exactly what Benedict Option evangelism might look like. I don’t know what kind of diminished numbers of converts we might see in the coming decades as a result of the collapse of American “Christendom.” But I do imagine that if Christians decide to do what Griffiths recommended in his blog post—if we begin to polish and attend afresh to our own practices of discipleship and faithfulness—we may end up seeing many more people embrace what the church teaches about marriage as both comprehensible and convincing. It has happened already for some, and it will go on happening, please God.

Wesley Hill. I think this is true, but I want also to suggest that Wesley may be thinking about these matters in ways that are not fully compatible with the BenOp idea, at least as I understand it. I think these reservations apply also to Leah Libresco’s recent reflections.

Both Wesley and Leah write about the BenOp as something that could be attractive right here and right now, especially to people of their generation. And that may well be true. But the emphasis of the BenOp, as I understand it, is to focus our attention on very long-term strategies: how can people devoted to serious, authentic, deeply traditional Christian living (faith, thought, action) be shepherded through a culture that acts as a powerful corrosive upon that form of living? — a culture in which almost no one will think that form of living attractive, because they have been catechized into another and very different way of life?

I’m groping for the right metaphor here, but I think that Wesley and Leah are wondering how we orthodox Christians will do in the cultural Olympics, and I’m saying that we can’t think about that now because we need to dress our many wounds.

before Francis

The problem arises from the strange status of human nature in the cosmos; we are a part of the whole yet we are a very peculiar part, the part that is open to the whole and in whom the whole is recapitulated and anticipated. Renaissance poets captured this by calling man a microcosm. We are at once in and of the material world and yet capable of transcending, in our unrestricted desire to know, any and all material objects that we encounter.

It is a mark of the brilliance of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that, in their reflections on the environment, they not only supply a context within which our present difficulties become intelligible, but that they also return us to the perennial sources of wonder in the philosophical and theological tradition.

How we ought to respond to our present difficulties will require a complex negotiation of an array of factors. But this much is clear. We will not even formulate the problems correctly unless we recover some sense of the proper place of the human person in the cosmos.

Thomas Hibbs in 2011, giving us a sense of how deeply Francis’s new encyclical draws on the work of his predecessors

Charisms

A thought I had while eating hot dogs with friends today: What if Christian colleges and universities were to think of educating their students into distinctive charisms? And took as their models some of the charisms of the Roman Catholic religious orders?

  • Students called primarily to service would explore a Franciscan charism
  • Those called to preach and teach: a Dominican charism
  • Those called to live out their faith in commitment to a particular place: a Benedictine charism
  • Those called to a scholarly life, with its inherent cosmopolitanism and pursuit of intellectual communities wherever they can be found: a Jesuit charism

Each of these paths could be pursued within a single institution, if its faculty and curriculum were flexible enough. In an ideal world — which we do not live in, mind you — a structure like this could replace, or at least complement, the more typical pursuit of a “major.”

The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society.  The recourse to arms for civil war did reflect, at the very least, a glaring weakness in republican and democratic polity.  From the outside [i.e. in Europe] it was clear that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. … Foreign commentary makes clear how tightly American religious convictions were bound to general patterns of American life.  Only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery] conflict, only because they had done so much to create the nation that went to war, did that conflict result in such a great challenge to religious belief and practice after the war.  The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery. … The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock.  The first was the course taken in the Civil war, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. … The second [course of action] though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War.  That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of scripture.   The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous.  In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena.  In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of scripture, and urban industrialization, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of religious perspective in the body politic.

Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. An incredibly important passage for the current moment, as pointed out at agreatercourage — see Derrick’s further reflections there.

The “Benedict Option” Revisited

What Rod Dreher calls the Benedict Option has been getting a lot of pushback from critics — and Rod hasn’t even explained in any detail what he means by it! So before you develop your own premature opinion about it, or even if you have already given your premature opinion about it, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) The Benedict Option, whatever form it ultimately takes, arises from a concern for strengthening the church of Jesus Christ. If you don’t really care about strengthening the church of Jesus Christ, you have no skin in this game, so you’d be doing everyone, including yourself, a favor by, you know, just moving along to other things.

2) Christians, by commandment and by experience, have a complicated relationship to “the world” — the saeculum. In his farewell talk to his disciples, Jesus prays to the Father: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world … I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And St. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” None of this is easy to parse; there can be great disagreement over how to implement this vision of believers who are in the world but not of it. It would be foolish to expect unanimity.

3) Moreover, from the very beginnings of the church it has been understood that Christians will not fulfill this divine vision in a single way, but rather in very many ways, according to particular vocations: “many members [organs] of one body” and all that. So if other Christians are discerning a calling that you do not discern for yourself, there’s no need to be consumed by agita — even if the New Benedictines are running for the hills, you can just wish them well and return to whatever calling you perceive to be your own. Nobody is going to make you run for the hills, so relax. (N.B.: the Benedict Option, whatever it is, is not about running for the hills.)

4) Whatever else it is, the church is ekklesia — assembly — and koinonia — community, fellowship. It is therefore a shared culture, or subculture, or counter-culture. Christians cannot simply and wholly offload the responsibility for culture-making to non-Christian members of society. So if you are a Christian, and you don’t think the Benedict Option, whatever you believe it to be, is a valid model of culture-making, then you have an obligation to articulate an alternative model. “I don’t like it” is Not. Good. Enough.

“The problem that I and many other Baptists had with Carson speaking at the Pastors’ Conference is…”

The problem that I and many other Baptists had with Carson speaking at the Pastors’ Conference is not primarily that he is an Adventist. My problem is that evangelicals need to stop platforming political candidates at denominational functions. This goes not only for Carson, but even for someone like former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee.

By highlighting the political insiders of the week at Kingdom-oriented events, we keep giving the watching world the impression that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is inextricably connected to voting Republican. And that our talk about Jesus, grace, and forgiveness is really just pious window-dressing for a core political agenda. Annual denominational meetings for pastors should attend to issues such as the best preaching practices, evangelism, missions, reaching and discipling young people, praying for revival, etc. – isn’t that enough to do without giving keynote space to random presidential candidates?

—Thomas Kidd

The chronicles of American Christianity are littered with pronouncements of the shallowness of evangelicalism—set-ups for testimonies of leaving the faith entirely, or (far better) departing for greener pastures within Christendom. But the Lincoln Park Zoo best exemplifies my experience. I have, admittedly, supplemented my evangelical diet with a hearty dose of high church Anglicanism. Nevertheless, as I’ve pursued the study of ancient Orthodox and medieval Catholic Christianity, I’ve been consistently surprised to discover the same things I learned as an evangelical convert. Decades ago someone wrote a bestseller entitled “All I really need to Know I learned in Kindergarten” (including, I presume, how to work the anti-intellectual American book market). Nevertheless, I’m tempted to say that all I really need to know about Christian life I learned in the evangelical culture that I so desperately tried to escape.

A wonderful meditation, complete with an image from the wall of my former church, All Souls’ Anglican, by Matt Milliner.

fairy tales and myths

The individual fairy tale is not itself a myth, but it presupposes a mythic framework of surprise, dependence or vulnerability, the balancing of anxiety with expectation: a thumbnail sketch of human experience in a bewildering natural and emotional environment.

Perhaps the problem with specific fairy tales becoming our shared myths, in the sense Warner suggests, is that they turn so easily these days into dramas of the individual psyche with supernatural special effects: either leaving us in a world of paralysing moral ambiguity or (in the Disneyfied version) offering salvation through the discovery of unsuspected inner resources (we can all be what we most want to be). Against this, both the original fairy tales and the chaotic romance of the Arabic wonder stories present a world of sharper edges, larger shocks, and possibilities of unmerited help, as well as danger, from outside. And that, in one form or another, may turn out to be more like the mythology we really need.

demolition work

Another reason for the upsurge in writing about religion may lie in the failure of a convincing anti-capitalist discourse to emerge after the financial crisis. ‘One of the problems for a post-Christian age is what on earth to do with the figure of Jesus who – ha ha! – just won’t stay buried,’ Spufford says, unsure whether or not to be pleased with his pun. Even after we dispense with the miracles, the figure of Christ remains attractive because, as history has shown, he cannot be reduced to a single narrative account of what a person should be, but can be incorporated into several others. ‘Many consider him the last bit of demolition work that needs to be done [to rid Britain of religion], precisely because he is opposed to a utilitarian account of people: the figure of Jesus resists speaking in terms of prudence or cost-benefit analysis about individuals of limitless value.’

Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

Jonathan Edwards in a New Light | Marilynne Robinson. A beautiful essay, even if Robinson does tend to recreate Edwards in her own image.

On this Reformation Day, it is good to remember that Martin Luther belongs to the entire church, not only to Lutherans and Protestants, just as Thomas Aquinas is a treasury of Christian wisdom for faithful believers of all denominations, not simply for Dominicans and Catholics. This point was recognized not long ago by Franz-Josef Hermann Bode, the Catholic Bishop of Osnabrück in northern Germany, when he preached on Luther at an ecumenical service. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “just how radically Luther puts God at the center.”

Luther taught that every human being at every moment of life stands absolutely coram deo, before God, confronted face-to-face by God. This led him to confront the major misunderstanding in the church of his day that grace and forgiveness of sins could be bought and sold like wares in the market. “The focus on Christ, the Bible and the authentic Word are things that we as the Catholic Church today can only underline,” Bode said. The bishop’s views reflect the ideas of many other Catholic theologians since the Second Vatican Council as Luther’s teachings, especially his esteem for the Word of God, have come to be appreciated in a way that would have been unthinkable just a century ago.

That music you hear in the distance? It’s St Augustine, St Teresa, Teilhard de Chardin, Pascal, Kierkegaard and Simone Weil all singing together, and what they are singing is that, as Christ commanded, we are supposed to love God with our minds, as well as with our hearts and our souls and our strength. It is an illusion to think that there is any necessary conflict between a Christian commitment and free, adventurous thinking. No-one ever does their thinking on a blank sheet of paper. Every intellectual of every kind is in a conversation with some set of ideas, doctrines, ways of seeing the world, and that’s what makes their own thinking serious. The Christian conversation with Christian ideas, and with every other kind of idea, need not be defensive or imprisoning. Why is there a stereotype that says you have to choose between faith and thought?

“post-religious spirituality”

In other words, the Christian alternative to the post-religious spirituality outlined earlier is not simply ‘religion’ as some sort of intellectual and moral system but the corporately experienced reality of the Kingdom, the space that has been cleared in human imagination and self-understanding by the revealing events of Jesus’ life. Standing in this place, I am made aware of what is fundamental and indestructible about my human identity: that I am the object of divine intention and commitment, a being freely created and never abandoned. Standing in this place, I am also challenged to examine every action or policy in my life in the light of what I am; and I am, through the common life of the ‘Assembly’, made able to change and to be healed, to feed and be fed in relations with others in the human city. Faced with the claims of non-dogmatic spirituality, the believer should not be insisting anxiously on the need for compliance with a set of definite propositions; he or she should be asking whether what happens when the Assembly meets to adore God and lay itself open to his action looks at all like a new and transforming environment, in which human beings are radically changed.

The Spiritual and the Religious: Is the Territory Changing? – Rowan Williams. I can’t imagine a more important paragraph for today’s Christians to meditate on. Seriously, this whole address is absolutely vital.

I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lonely in the world around them. I’m not sure hunkering down is what Jesus called us to, and when, for example, a member of the Alaska community I mentioned says that “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” I wonder how living in a remote Alaska village is not isolation. Christians are given the Great Commission, not the Great Retreat. I’m not trying to demean the people Rod profiled, but rather express that I can’t quite understand Christianity in the same way. Jesus always seemed to wandering around, telling strange stories, mingling with the kind of people Benedict Option types might prefer to avoid.

Matthew Sitman. Well … no. Not always. In fact, the life of Jesus embodies a kind of systolic/diastolic alternation between public ministry and private retreat — with intermediate stages in the company of the Twelve or his friends.

Each of us needs such alternation, and it seems likely that communities do too. Sometimes batteries need to be recharged, energy regained, ideas and options considered. Nobody, and no community, can live in the thick of things all the time, and it is foolish to try.

I think individuals and communities often consider the Benedict Option not because they’re trying to avoid the wrong kind of people — a seriously uncharitable assumption on Sitman’s part — but because they feel that their spiritual lives are undernourished and unstable. Benedictine-style communal retreats aren’t usually meant to last forever, or to build permanent barriers to contact with non-Christians, any more than people who shelter under a bridge during a thunderstorm mean to set up housekeeping there.

And typically, even when the retreats themselves become permanent, their population is always in flux: some are always coming in for rest and renewal, others (now well-fed) are going back out into the highways and byways.

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

Dylan Thomas

Vernon Watkins wrote in an obituary that Thomas had lived his life as a consistent manifestation of Christian principle. This has provoked some mockery, or at least some condescending remarks about the blind affection felt by the fathomlessly patient, saintly and charitable Watkins. But he was serious. Thomas was no admirer or adherent of conventional religion; but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all the varieties of human oddity.

Eli Jenkins’s evening hymn from Under Milk Wood is another over-anthologised piece, certainly inviting the label of sentimentality. Yet those rather haunting words – “O please to keep Thy lovely eye/On all poor creatures born to die” – tell us volumes about Thomas; about a poetry (and prose) “singing in chains” about our human invol­vement in a material world where death and birth alike open doors of perception.

“new ways of being in our bodies”

The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.

Evangelicals and Americans

Is evangelical Christian morality still viable in American public life? This is the question lurking in recent debates over religious-liberty issues, from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Christian bakers who object to baking cakes for gay weddings. In discussions of these cases, objections to same-sex marriage and contraception are described as a retreat from “secular society.” And in some cases, evangelicals actually have retreated: Since the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow openly gay Scouts to participate, a “Christian” alternative has been created, giving Christian parents a “safe” space where they can send their kids. But these incidences of retreat have actually been rare. Ultimately, the idea that evangelical Christian morality is incompatible with modern life isn’t sustainable.

Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America? – Alan Noble – The Atlantic. I get what Alan Noble is trying to do here, but this is a conceptually confused essay. Just look at the title and the first and last sentences of this quotation. Together they assume that “America,” “American public life,” and “modern life” are synonyms. Which they most definitely are not. It just doesn’t make sense to put American evangelical Christians on one side and “American society” (another phrase used here) on the other. That contrast assumes precisely the point that the cultured despisers of evangelicalism assume: that evangelicals are somehow less American than they (the despisers) are, or non-American. But American citizens who happen to be evangelical Christians are not by virtue of that commitment any less American than anyone else. Nor are they necessarily less a part of “American public life.” Last time I checked a good many of them were in Coongress, and on the radio and television, and in books and magazines.

I fear that Noble’s way of formulating the conflict — which he rightly discerns — plays into the hands of those who think that they get to decide how much of the Christian religion they are willing to tolerate. I, on the other hand, am not willing to grant them that authority. Nor is the law — at least for now.

One of the most important moments in the history of American religious freedom — now rarely remembered — is the letter that President George Washington wrote to the members of the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Those Jews had (graciously) written to thank the President for his suppprt of their religious freedom. To this Washington replied that he deserved no thanks: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

I’m going to give you that again: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

In the same way, people who happen to despise evangelical Christians cannot arrogate to themselves the decision of how much religion they’re willing to accept. They are not the arbiters of tolerance of others. We are all on an equal footing before the law, and should insist on that equality — for others more than for ourselves, but when necessary, for ourselves also.

The ‘return’ to the lost, the excluded, the failed or destroyed, is not an option for the saint, but the very heart of saintliness. And we might think not only of Jesus’s parable of the shepherd, but of the great theological myth of the Descent into Hell, in which God’s presence in the world in Jesus is seen as his journey into the furthest deserts of despair and alienation. It is the supreme image of his freedom, to go where he is denied and forgotten; he shows his inexhaustible mercy for all by identifying even with the lost.

— Rowan Williams, The Truce of God

poverty and desire

Thus the demand for ‘poverty’ or simplicity in the lifestyle of the Christian is inseparable from the vocation to peace-making. The beatitudes are all about ‘making a whole’ of our world of relationships, in relation to an order of balanced mutuality and growth in and with one another. So campaigning for peace is, in the long run, inseparable from resistance to what I have called ‘passive consumerism’, to the cheapening and trivializing of desire. And it is in this context, incidentally, that I believe Christian criticisms of pornography should be understood: the question we should ask about alleged pornography is not about its ‘explicitness’ but about its collusion with neurotic, self-protective and violent fantasy, the various forms of rejection of the world and of the other. Its problem is not eroticism, but that it is not erotic enough — not concerned with desire in its central human significance.

— Rowan Williams, The Truce of God

It follows also that this new vision of ‘natural theology’ is equally concerned, let me also state at the start here, to be flexible in a variety of ways for use in different contexts and genres, for different audiences, and by means of varying forms of communication. The term ‘apologetics’, unfortunately, tends to come with as much bag and baggage from the era of brash modernity as does its cousin ‘natural theology’; but its history of association with rationalistic brow-beating is one we need to live down. The art of giving a reasoned, philosophically- and scientifically-related, account of the ‘hope that is in us’ in a public space is a Christian duty, and it may take a great variety of forms. As discussed last time in relation to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s analysis of Thomas Aquinas’s own variety of uses for his own Five Ways, ‘natural theology’ must indeed at times be used apologetically and even polemically, when the occasion demands it: that is, if one is called to public debate in the university, in public political contestation, or in the press. There is a huge cultural interest in seeing theologians and philosophers of religion perform this undertaking in discussion with secular science, and we undermine our own credibility if we fail to take on this task with grace, clarity and humour.

But more often, I find, I am called to this task as a believer, as an academic, or as a priest, in quieter, less overt, but no less significant public contexts: in being asked intrigued questions about evolution and theology by the seeker who wanders into Ely cathedral looking for something, she knows not what; by the half-believer who wonders if science does indeed render Christianity invalid; by the generation of my children’s age for whom in so many cases the church has seemingly lost all intellectual and moral credibility; for those hoping to deepen their faith spiritually or make it more intellectually mature; and for the doubting amongst the faithful. The disposition, attentive prayerfulness and bodily grace with which these conversations must go on is especially crucial: this task is not about the soap-box, but it‟s not for the faint-hearted or defensive either. It has to be as philosophically and scientifically sophisticated as it is spiritually and theologically cogent; in short, it must not merely dazzle; it must more truly invite and allure.

— Sarah Coakley, from her 2012 Gifford Lectures (PDF)

The world which issued from the Renaissance and the Reformation has been ravaged since that time by powerful and truly monstrous energies, in which error and truth are closely commingled and feed upon each other – truths which lie, and “lies which speak the truth.” It is the duty of those who love wisdom to try to purify these unnatural and deadly products, and to save the truths that they distort.

It would be fruitless to try to conceal from oneself that this is a particularly thankless task. Those who carry in the world the energies of which I am speaking think that they have no need of being purified; their adversaries see in them only utter impurity. In vain will the philosopher arm himself with perfect instruments of purification; he runs the risk of having the whole world against him. If he is a Christian, he knows this from of old, and scarcely cares about it, being the disciple of a God hated by both the Pharisees and Sadducees, condemned by the chief priests and by the civil power, and mocked and scorned by the Roman soldiers.

— Jacques Maritain, foreword to Integral Humanism (1936)

In memoriam Margaret Spufford

Her most personal book, Celebration, came out in 1989, shortly before Bridget died at 22. It is a tough, clear meditation on illness and suffering in the light of her faith in God. Margaret itemised without flinching the cruelties she had discovered in creation, in her daughter’s life and on the wards at Great Ormond Street, where she once reached out to stroke a crying child’s face and was stopped by a nurse who told her that the slightest touch could break the child’s bones. She could reconcile none of these things with the idea of a loving and benevolent God and she made no attempt to do so. Instead, she was convinced that God shared in the sufferings of his creation and that through the symbolic recreation of Jesus’s acceptance of death in the eucharist it could somehow, sometimes, be made bearable.

On Denouncing “False Teachers”

About this —

— which answered a comment of mine on Tim Challies’s claim that Pope Francis is a “false teacher”, I would say, no, they have a duty not to say so unless certain stringent conditions are met. At least, that’s my inclination. So I tried to figure out why that’s my inclination — which led me to these thoughts:

The identification of a person as a “false teacher” is a particularly strong condemnation with a clear biblical source, 2 Peter 2:1-3:

There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

It’s a sound general principle, I think, that the stronger the charge you bring against a person, the stronger should be the evidence that you have against him. With that principle in mind, here are the steps that I think a Christian should follow before denouncing another Christian — or self-proclaimed Christian — as a false teacher, or a church as proclaiming a false gospel.

1) If I, for example, “believe that Catholicism is a false gospel” and its Pope a false teacher, what is the epistemological status of this “belief”? Is it a feeling I have? A long-held prejudice? Something I’ve thought about a bit but not in a systematic way? Or a position I have reached by long and serious study? Only in the last case should I even consider uttering my denunciation publicly.

2) Have I studied the relevant writings or speeches with true charity — that is, have I read in a way that seeks to build up the love of God and of my neighbor, including the neighbor I disagree with? As Augustine wrote about biblical interpretation, in a passage that is relevant to all acts of reading, “Whoever … thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.” Have I read my opponent in this way? Have I resisted the temptation to interpret him as saying what I would like to denounce?

3) Closely related: am I in my interpretation of this person or church who claims to be Christian prayerfully seeking the oneness of the Church that Jesus implores us to seek in his great farewell discourse in John 17? Jesus pleads with the Father “that they may be one even as we are one, in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Has that been my prayer also? Have I heard the appeal of St. Paul to the Corinthians? “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

4) And also closely related: Have I read and meditated on the parable of the wheat and the weeds?

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

5) Who am I? What status do I have to make public pronouncements on matters of such import? Am I in danger of “darkening counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2)? Even if I am reading with care, and reading with charity, and even if I think I have been granted an exemption to the command to let the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest, do I have the wisdom, discernment, and intelligence to make a pronouncement for others to read and heed?

6) Moreover, might I, through my own limitations, end up doing damage to the cause I want to uphold? As Thomas Browne wrote long ago, “Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity: Many from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error, and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth: A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender.”

7) Presumably, I do not wish merely to denounce others, but to uphold and celebrate some form of Christian life and belief. Pascal wrote, “Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true.” Have I considered that, if I indeed have a strong conviction that my understanding of Christianity is the right one, there are alternatives to denunciation of others, and a vital one is the difficult task of making my model of Christianity so lovable that people will want it to be true?

8) Am I praying for those whom I believe to be in error? If not, I should dare say no word against them. And if so, have I considered that such prayer may be a superior alternative to denunciation?

I’m asking people to go to a lot of trouble before publicizing their denunciations, am I not? Indeed I am. I am also setting a standard that I have rarely lived up to. But I can’t see how we can avoid at least asking the questions I have pressed here.

Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase) that’s the gaseous residue of an evaporated mainline Protestantism. The Christian world I know best as (a) a native-and-recently-returned Southerner and (b) a longtime resident in the evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois simply plays no role in Jody’s story. I don’t know whether my puzzlement at that is a result of my limited perspective or Jody’s or both. But in any event the book left me feeling like an anthropologist from Mars, to almost coin a phrase, looking at an America that’s not any America I’ve directly known. I can’t help thinking that if Jody had seriously reckoned with, for example, Mark Noll (whom he cites once), George Marsden (whom he does not cite), or Eugene Genovese (ditto), he’d have produced a more complex book. Maybe not better; but I think more faithful to the richness of America-and-Christianity, an amalgamation that has a different feel when you’re resident in the Southern or evangelical provinces. Still, that could be my provincialism speaking.

Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

(And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

Or consider this: a manifesto on immigration reform that I, as someone appalled by anti-immigrant hysteria in America, might well sign on to — except that the Catholic authors of the manifesto emphasize that hostility to immigrants is not grounded in (for example) race but in “something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic” in the American mind, and that the corruption of the original American experiment is wholly Protestant: “The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land.” This is followed by an appeal that simply rules out non-Catholics: “May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.”

But do we really want to see immigration reform — or economic reform (hearkening back to PEG’s posts) — as distinctively Catholic issues? It seems to me that these are issues on which all Christians might benefit from thinking together. But not if Catholics persist in seeing soi-disant “Protestants” as their chief adversaries. Late in his book Jody writes that by the 2012 election “the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ project had failed.” No kidding.

Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worth while asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

“pro-straight”

Evangelical theology cannot be ‘pro-gay’ – but neither can it be ‘pro-straight’. As I understand it evangelical theology is, or should be, opposed to all idolatries indifferently. This is precisely because it is, or should be, ‘pro-human’. I’ve argued before that classical evangelical practices of holiness in the nineteenth century involved profound subversions of then-standard ideas of masculinity and femininity. There is plenty of good scholarship on the reconstructions of femininity away from the domestic sphere into political and social activism. The reconstructions of masculinity away from celebrations of machismo, violence, and alcohol consumption and towards a more submissive, gentle, family-oriented life have not been quite so well studied. But they too are clear. Evangelicalism in its classical forms undermined and reconstructed the culturally normal gender roles of the day; it will do the same in our day, if it has an adequate grasp of the gospel.

© 2018 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

css.php