The percentage of young people willing to entertain a genuinely countercultural Gospel has always been small. It hasn’t changed in my 35 years of teaching. I can introduce you to students who would make you despair for humanity, but I can also introduce you to students — Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, evangelical — who would give you great hope for the future of the Christian faith.
Seriously, I don’t get these people: what planet do they come from? Do they really remember, thirty years ago, teaching to a roomful of rapt scholars eager to absorb the richness of Christian tradition? Not a world I ever knew. Most people — here, now, and always — just want to go along to get along. Those who are open to the risks of genuine education are rare, were always rare, will ever be rare. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I’m absolutist about these matters, I guess. I think universal rules for police should be:
- If someone is unarmed, you can’t execute him.
- If someone is behaving strangely, even extremely strangely, you can’t execute him.
- If you think that someone might possibly be armed, you can’t execute him.
- If someone refuses to obey your orders, you can’t execute him.
- If someone runs away from you, you can’t execute him.
- If you shoot at anyone in any of the above circumstances, you will be fired. (Maybe prosecuted too, but that’s outside the scope of a police department.)
- If you find the above rules unfair, or are unable to follow them, you need to go into another line of work.
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.
About Berry, first of all, I don’t think he has ever had an especially broad audience — his message is too discomfiting for that. And while I approve and even celebrate the message, I don’t think there’s anything specially Christian about it. Berry, it seems to me, is a reincarnation of an early Roman: he worships his household gods, and if the Bible happens to say anything that supports the worship of those gods, he quotes it, and insofar as it does not, he ignores it. Like Rachel, he would have smuggled the teraphim in the baggage rather than trust wholly in the God of Israel. St. Paul’s talk of the cosmopolitanism of one whose politeuma is in heaven — I don’t think we’ll hear from Wendell about that, though I am immensely grateful for what we do hear from him.
… I would say that openly Christian writers are often welcome at the WSJ, as long as they don’t say anything that contradicts the foundational beliefs of the WSJ (primarily free marketism). But then the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the NYRB, at least for Marilynne Robinson: she can speak as a Christian because she pronounces her devotion to secularism. And my treatment of these issues in Harper’s is historical and social: if I tried to make a theologically grounded case for the political value of Christian intellectuals, Harper’s wouldn’t even look at it. I don’t in any way blame them for that; but it’s a factor that creates certain strategic challenges for me.
The problem for Christians, as I see it, is being “audible and free” as Christians without having to swear fealty to, or at least refrain from all criticism of, political and social positions that ground their legitimacy altogether elsewhere than in the Christian understanding of the world. Christians are welcome in many choirs as long as they agree to sing the songs written by non-Christians. If they want to sing their own songs, then they’ll probably have to do that in their own venues.
Again, that’s no tragedy, and I don’t know that it’s anyone’s fault, and I’m not even sure that it deserves my lamentation.* But I would love to have more opportunities to speak in distinctively Christian ways to people who don’t know much about Christianity, or who know all that they think they want to know.
*As my friend and colleague Scott Moore said to me the other day, in the time of Christian intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray and the like American society had an unspoken agreement to pretend to listen to what Christians have to say, and now they don’t pretend any more. Maybe that’s an advance.
[in response to an email from a reader of this essay]
But in answer to your question — “isn’t this a better state of affairs?” — I’d like split the question into two vectors.
Is it better for us, for American Christians? In many ways, yes. Being severed from the arrogance and complacency that afflicted us in the Constantinian era is usefully humbling. (By the way, I too like Lewis much better than Niebuhr, and I think a main reason for that is that Lewis knew he was living in a post-Constantinian world and Niebuhr didn’t.)
But is it better for the world, for the saeculum? I tend to think not. What the Athenians said to Paul on the Areopagus (“We will hear more from you about all this”) is a heck of a lot better than what we hear from Rorty (“The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen”). Sometimes, at least, people who pretend to listen can end up actually listening; but if they refuse to listen at all I don’t know how they can be reached.
So we need to be always striving to find ways to be heard without thinking that we’re owed a hearing.
“Imagination” became a word to conjure with in the Romantic era, thanks largely to Coleridge, with some help from Shelley, but it’s interesting to note that in the early modern period it’s usually, if not invariably, pejorative: e.g. Tyndale has Paul denouncing people who are “full of vanities in their imaginations” (Romans 1) and saying “we overthrow imaginations” (2 Corinthians 10). It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for years, because I have an inchoate theory about how imagination is a dangerous thing in an enchanted world but a necessary thing in a disenchanted one.
In any case, we need some kind of language to describe the mental investment of the listener or reader in generating a lively sense of what he or she is encountering artistically — the sort of constructive ability of the receiving mind to capture which Coleridge coins the adjective “esemplastic.” I wonder if the language used in cultivating The Art of Memory (the title of France’s Yates’s great book) in the early modern period, which was so relentlessly visual, would be helpful to you…
I developed a hatred for neckties in my youth, when I worked for several years in a bookstore that required me to wear at all times a big plastic name tag and a tie — even though I did most of my work in the stock room. (Once I severed the lower reaches of a tie while opening a box of books with a box cutter.) I would regularly loosen the tie so as not to be choked as I was bending and lifting, and my manager would just as regularly order me to tighten it again.
I took out my frustrations on these requirements by wearing on my name tag the name RASKOLNIKOV. Then one day a lady came up to me as I was shelving books, gently touched my arm, beamed at me, and said in a near-whisper, “It’s so brave of you not to Anglicize your name.”
Anyway, here’s my take: Most academics who were raised as Christians and remain so have gone through a process of sifting their inheritance, taking what they perceive to be the wheat and burning the chaff. And they want to make it possible for their students to do the same. But I think they may not realize how hard that is for many students to do: a given student can easily go from thinking that all of the beliefs she inherited from their parents and her home church are wheat to thinking they are all chaff. When we’re introducing our students to new ideas, to a more capacious model of what Christianity is and can be — and this is something we all do for our students, whether we’re on the liberal or the conservative end of the theological spectrum, and whether we are intentional about it or not — we need always to be aware that as students try to accommodate this new knowledge, these new-to-them models of faith, their whole Christian lives can go up in flames. This is something we can’t afford to forget, ever.
… As someone who was raised in a functionally non-Christian family and became a Christian in college, I have something like an anthropological take on those of you who were raised in the faith. But **X** strikes me as one of those people who just can’t get past his conservative-evangelical upbringing: there’s so much about it that he hates and wants to repudiate, but whenever he tries to throw it away it ends up sticking to his hand, so back in his pocket it goes. This gets repeated with slight variations for decades.
I think it’s a matter of wanting to retain absolutely everything that’s good about an evangelical upbringing and discarding absolutely everything that’s bad, but life doesn’t work that way. You’re going to end up keeping some things you wish you could lose and losing some things you wish you could keep. Sad but inevitably true.
… 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.
… When I think about the larger context of all this, I am always reminded of something Lewis says in a preface to Mere Christianity: that he got the strongest support and commendation for his project from Christians of all types who loved and were faithful to their own tradition. The deeper the Methodist got into Methodism, and the deeper the Catholic got into Catholicism, and the deeper the Orthodox got into Orthodoxy, the closer they got to one another. It was the people who stood at or near the periphery of their own tradition who were most suspicious about historic, orthodox, “mere” Christianity.
So I don’t think any particular tradition, whether Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, will survive the coming attacks unless it goes deep into its own resources; and I think if it does go deep into its own resources, it will thrive, in character and substance if not in sheer numbers. But this will not happen at the level of any tradition as a whole; it will happen at the level of the parish, the local community. Right now, I don’t see such “going deep” to be any more likely in one tradition than another. And I don’t think it will ever be the norm.
The Christian communities that thrive will
- be radically Christ-centered always;
- refuse to be therapeutic, but rather emphasize the worship we owe to the God who made and redeemed us;
- connect imaginatively and substantively with Christians throughout the past and around the world;
- be open to all, but reserve leadership to those who are willing to commit to radical obedience;
- turn the other cheek and go cheerfully on when attacked by the world; and
- recognize these practices in other communities, even those outside their tradition.