Lost Opportunity

The ability of Evangelicals to tap popular trends has always been ambiguous. At once it makes faith available to many, and yet it always threatens to careen of track, to make faith less transcendent and more cultural. The movement needs its prophets.

Sharon Hodde Miller has been thinking about this in particular, and tapping into Walter Breuggeman, as in this quote

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3)

Evangelicals and the Loss of Prophetic Imagination

Mything the Stranger

Jonathan Storment has an interesting start of discussion at the Jesus Creed on “The Myth of Inclusion,” that beguiling path of hospitality that certainly seems to be a desired good for Christians. Shouldn’t we be including everyone?

 In the Gospel of John, there is a difference between those who are inside the life of Jesus and those who aren’t. And it turns out the way isn’t for everyone.

Which gives us heartburn, right? This kind of stuff honestly does keep me up at night.  All of us know the pain of being excluded and how demoralizing and dehumanizing being on the outside of something can be.  But do we have any real alternative?

The question of inclusion or non-inclusion shares the same abstract framework as the old “saved/not-saved” and so naturally we stumble into a sort of fine-sifting, a “scholasticism” as an old friend once put it.

Rather, it seems we are bumping into the very scandal of particularity, both of my neighbor and of myself. Inclusion then has its limits because I have my limits, so any attempt at inclusion is partial, or perhaps sacramental: it is a sign of God’s Reign.

The abstract idea of inclusion feeds on a sort of perfectionism, that we can embody properly God’s work. It sees the “telos” of Matt 5 as within our grasp — we get to be perfect, too. But, of course, we cannot.

The question is not abstractly how to be inclusive, but practical, the one on my doorstep, the one that sees and says, “here, let me help you with that.”

The Fruit of Calvinism

Is environmentalism?

This at least, is the take from Mark Stoll in Inherit the Mountain (Oxford, 2015).

Thomas Cole, “The Oxbow.” Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
While D.G. Hart’s review covers the core notion, that environmentalism is a product of Calvinism, or more specifically the views of the Puritans and the American Presbyterians. This is a push-back to the long-standing critique by Lynn White Jr. (“The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”) that asserted that  Christian (and especially Calvinist) views of the Genesis notion   of dominion and the general dis-enchantment of nature led to its exploitation.
Hart wonders if Stoll and White are looking at the same Christianity. In doing so, he also ponders the role of religion and the degree to which religious affections touch policy.
At the same time, contemporary scholars have good reasons for discounting the influence of religion in peoples’ lives. Sometimes religion is not the sole motivation for a position or policy; at other times, circumstances lend themselves more readily to taking actions based religious idealism. Creating national parks in remote territories is one thing, but regulating the oil industry at a time when the nation’s economy depends on fossil fuel is an altogether different challenge that religion may not happily resolve.
The mystery may be solved by considering the broader structures of Reformed thought. Its high theology places an emphasis on the sovereignty of God; historically this has repeatedly walked over into broader understandings, ones emphasizing immanence. This intellectual deterioration clearly feeds the Transcendentalists, John Muir and others. The Immanent God, is the shadow of the Reformed, Electing God. A second aspect, answering the second part of Hart’s quote above, is the role of Presbyterians in shaping the American regulatory state, with its notion of law and common good. The regulatory apparatus developed at the turn of the 19th Century (see Theodore Roosevelt) is deeply grounded culturally and philosophically in the notion of ordered human relationships and the desire to build for the common good. It is the Reformed thought’s emphasis on the corporate and public dimension of religious life which feeds and shapes the emerging regulatory State.

God the Stranger?

John Suk bravely explores what a  post-theistic stance looks like.

the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.
 God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in.
 So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.

Suk is obviously moving into some deeply personal waters, a way of knowing but not knowing as it were. As with all pilgrims, the language must be his; it is not language that one disputes.

But this business about “God as stranger” did catch my ear as another pilgrim. Leaving behind the ordinary narratives of the status quo is unsettling to say the least, not least because one must surrender in order to find. In the midst of this seeking, perhaps some caution on the meme of God as stranger is in order.

First, there is the nature of that very word, “stranger.” Already at the outset we are in world of us and Him, Our Angel of the Jabbok so to speak. Sneaking into that concept is the hint of self, that I still get to define God, even if God is a stranger, or an empty place at my table. I’m still (subtly) in charge.

Of course, to say God is a stranger is also to say that God is a stranger in the world I experience, that the world can’t speak.

Is that really the case?

Abraham Heschel in Man is Not Alone starts with this world, and more specifically our sense of wonder. The world contains a surplus of meaning; things inevitably point to something other. And off in the corner of our eye, are these experiences of the indescribable, the ineffable. Wonder. This certainly is a  sunnier way of encountering the Unknown.

Another challenge to the stranger is  the idea of forgiveness/hope. How do we start over again, what we do “the day after”? As with the wonder that rises from the surplus of meaning in the world, is there a surplus of possibility for my life? For our life together? Can we do something different? The possibility of transformation is every bit as strange as that of the unknown God.

What I suspect Suk is reaching to is not an epistemological stance, nor an ethical one, but something more intimate. To speak of God as stranger is to whisper another, softer prayer, not that we may find, but that we may be found, and that being found  we may find ourselves beloved.

And that’s the truth

How do we know if something is true?

One of the sources for Truth has been “the plain teaching of Scripture”  — a common term in the circle I run in. The other day, John Suk penned some thoughts on that notion (actually a rather lengthy post). the topic is actually rather slippery, since it moves from the rhetoric used in controversies, to the theological stance of the  Reformation (aka perspicuity), and from there to theology of revelation.

Oh my.

In contemporary terms, perhaps the best term is that of clarity. Couldn’t God have been more clear, wonders Suk

God, for example, could have (as Buechner once imagined in a nice sermon) rearranged the stars to say that “I exist,” or “Jesus saves.” Or used a writing style more akin to Berkof or Plantinga than Isaiah or Paul. But if scripture is the best God can do when it comes to being clear, or perspicuous, I’m disappointed.

Perhaps this clarity business is a misreading, a going off track. After all, there’s a long-standing tradition (back to Benedict) of reading/listening to Scripture to meet God. At its basic theological sense, clarity needs to be connected to kerygma : the text is validated by the encounter, by the message. That seems to be a continuing process, time-tested, if you will.

From this perspective, the plain teaching of Scripture is closely associated with the dis-intermediation of Bible reading: it does an end-run on authority. In doing so, it creates a space for a counter reading of the Tradition; from the individual side, the plain meaning of the Scriptures is subversive — one reason why the Belgic Confession speaks of  “the detestable Anabaptists.”

This aspect of the notion poses an ironic counterpoint to the theological rhetoric of the “plain meaning of Scripture”. In present-day North America the term is used generally to privilege some position, silencing debate, or otherwise asserting the authority of the speaker (who can be a bigger source than God, right?). This claim to “plain meaning” has a further traction within the Anglo-American traditions of plain speech v Latinate speech; and especially the popular icons of the plain spoken western hero as a truth teller. We give a lot of credence to those plain speakers — look at the imagery for George W Bush.

Meanwhile, the plain meaning, spoken by the Spirit to the faithful believer’s heart continues to do its subversive work, educating that reader to such goods as love, hospitality, mercy and justice.

Chesterton, is that you?

Matthew Lee Anderson has a bone to pick with Donald Miller (he of Blue Like Jazz) over this quo

Personalities like Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Kipling are gone now in the Christian world. Or at least they are unknown. Christian thinking is dominated by Americans who choose simplicity over reason. We like thinkers who pick an enemy and attack them. Lost is the humor, a winsome nature and even a robust intellectualism. The same figures who demand “thought” are hardly thinking at all, and instead attack those who do because they won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.

It may be Anderson’s own work on Chesterton, or something more hidden, but perhaps there’s more.

 it strikes me as, well, surprising that Miller is commending Chesterton so highly to us.  Especially given that in the same paragraph he chastises those inclined to exhort people toward thoughtfulness for attacking people because they “won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.”  Such titans are gone indeed, but Miller’s own approach isn’t going to bring them back.

This strikes me far more as an argument with a shadow that haunts Anderson’s path. Frankly, Miller’s purpose seemed much lighter than the reaction it provoked. This was not advanced as an argument so much as an introduction to a video, where Miller explained why he found it interesting (and why a reader might, as well).

That this should be read as a sort of casual introduction is further underscored by the commonplace nature of the observation as to evangelical polemicists. Simplistic, bombastic, lacking humor — maybe it’s the Reformed circles, but that critique sees to come with the territory. And one doesn’t have to look far to find the casualties. What  is more, such critics invariably do clothe themselves with the posture of a Chesterton or some other Valiant-for-Truth type.

Miller writes, Anderson aims to guard the walls, or at least fight a rear guard action as a later comment reveals.

Or consider this bit, which Miller has recently sent out and which fits Chesterton’s way of doing things about as well as wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt to the LA Phil:
The fundamentalists want me to trust their truth. But I don’t. I look for truth. They sell confidence. Truth won’t make me proud.
… Miller’s exactly right that the truth won’t make us proud, but he’s exactly wrong that it won’t make us confident.

Here, Anderson mistakes Miller’s purpose.  When polemics are  framed as a one-way conversation then the speech easily turns to externals of the message, a sort of nominalism that easily decays into externals, hence one sells confidence. It’s partisanship. By contrast, what good apologists like Chesterton or Lewis do is to open up a space for the other by wit and graciousness. Our thoughts, our words, our lives must all finally co-inhere.

That Smokin’ Hot Wife

There’s a meme  floating through the Evangelical church that wants to celebrate marriage, especially the physical and sexual. But the gift of bodily reality is easily seized by culture — in our sexualized culture, how could it not be? Mary De Muth explores some of the problems at Her•meneutics, “I’m Sick of Hearing About Your Smoking Hot Wife.

In another day, this entire business about “Smokin’ Hot Wife”would be labeled worldliness. At its core lies a certain turn of thought, an understanding of  sexuality as integral to personal well-being. As a married Christian I deserve good sex, so to speak; or, we were made for sex, etc.  And it’s not that Calvinists have stood on the sidelines here. We pretty regularly think of sex as a creational good. But at least for Evangelicals, such a stance is a trap: once you start there, you have basically surrendered on young adult sexuality (think of Tim Keller’s warning), especially given the conflict of the times, on homosexuality. If sex is fundamental to human well-being than prohibitions of all sorts start collapsing.

But that shift in stances, of course, is only the start.

DeMuth herself notes in passing the basic male privilege of it all, the sort that only rubs salt into the psychic wounds of women who have been abused.

And finally, there is the problem of time. The understanding of humanity as sexual creates an artificial narrative of constant sexual availability throughout one’s life. But of course, our libido does ebb and flow, Viagra not withstanding.

In a Christian understanding, sexuality is less the content of the relationship than its  context. This Age’s idolatry of the physical limits our freedom to be for others, and it certainly blinds us to the role (and acceptance) of time.