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.

Just say no?

It’s probably because of the Oscar season, but John Fitzgerald grouses about the Evangelical approach to culture.

It’s foolish to imagine everything is equal when it comes to pop culture. But evangelicals have to stop stunting their intellectual and spiritual maturity by sheltering themselves from bad words, fake blood, and the tantalizing sight of skin.

It is perhaps unfair to park this solely at the feet of the evangelical, though, inviting targets that they sometimes can be. Christian practice through the ages has shown a fairly consistent theme of suspicion about popular entertainments, from the early church’s rejection of the circuses to the Puritan rejection of Christmas, to the very sober-mindedness of the 19th C Presbyterians and Methodists. This is not a new thing.

That said, Evangelicals today often have a more ambiguous relationship to pop or mass culture, generally a “cultural-lite” sort of approach. Like the easy embrace of pop culture, this approach still accepts the fundamentals of the cultural context. This is a kind of Constantinianism. What we could use more of is the nurturing of alternate viewpoints, coupled with the robust interrogation of culture in our theology and our practice.

Culture buildling as a political act

Matthew Lee Anderson takes stock of the election,

What people want is not handwringing when things don’t go “our way,” but hope.  And a sober and serious assessment of how things look along with something like a strategy to turn them around that stays true to our principles.  Or maybe I speak too broadly.  So let me narrow the scope:  that is what want from an evangelical leadership, not the sort of handwringing that we are currently experiencing.

Still, it’s not as if Evangelicals will abandon the Republican Party. The first reactions are less about policy than they are about disappointment and real grief. And in understanding  that this still part of a grieving process, several points come to mind.

As political scientists will remind us, political identity is rather stable; culturally evangelicals will continue to be a part of the Republican coalition, particularly in the South. That cultural identity is a trap as to the real transformational goals of the faith community (and this is what I hear you struggling towards). In this light, Evangelicals face something of a choice whether to reinforce this cultural and political identity, that is to take part as a political community, or to take part in something akin to culture-making.

I would opt for the culture making approach.

Evangelicals in the last election voted more intensely GOP than in 2008. If there is an electoral failure, it is not for their not trying. What is missing is their ability to find allies in the center. Here, the deep cultural identity as a wing of the GOP played against them, particularly in the polarized electorate and an election framed as a cultural war, a war the Right lost (per Jonathan Chait).

To advance a transformational approach will it seem, call for different approaches than those previously advanced. At the least, as you suggest, it calls for something like a cheerful engagement. I would suggest that you especially pay attention to Peter Leithart’s concern for justice; a second place to turn would be the sober approach of Alan Jacobs’ thinking on information deficits and global warming.

And Leithart is right in this also: culture making can only take place in the context of a deep faith in the sovereign God who claims our lives at the Cross. Sovereignty and sacrifice walk together, indeed are the proper fuel for hope. But if such hope were easy, we would have it already, wouldn’t we?

The language of churches

Keith Miller brings an interesting take on church architecture. Who needs, since the congregation that builds it defects?

Permanent edifices like church buildings belong to particular institutions which are not guaranteed (or even very likely) to maintain their fidelity to the pure Gospel. Therefore, since tomorrow’s true Christians may be forced to abandon the First Church of Centerburg for less Spirit-quenching climes, buildings whose usefulness is measured in decades rather than centuries are a better bet.

Let’s just say that this raises a point, but one that perhaps misses a few truths.

First, there is the problem of history. Evangelical churches too often have a  dissonance between their claim of historic orthodoxy and the use of space that seems altogether modern. The present tense of the reuseable and repurposed can be expressive of the moment and its convictions, but we are also people who travel through time. The spaces we inhabit pick up the imprint of memory. The humblest gym becomes sacred because of our worship and lives. Our buildings make a claim about our relation to the past and the stories we care.

Second, this evangelical worship space of Miller’s forgets the link between functionality and theology. Our spaces where we gather express a sort of theology as to what we consider proper to worship. The shape of the room, where and how we enter, the rhythm of spaces as we enter, the arrangement of the chairs ( In a circle or front to back?), the way we honor preaching in this space (pulpit, screens?), all these and more express our operating theology. We do not need to speak of aesthetics, simply the place and shape of things tells the story.

Here the primary critique of evangelical building comes to mind: it too often is simply indifferent to this space, any will do. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Continue reading “The language of churches”

Greed and Capitalism, Part 2

[This is the second of two essay-notes on Greg Foster’s article  at The Gospel Coalition}

Paul VanderKlay highlights the same paragraph noted in the previous post:

Capitalism has not flourished most where there was a spirit of greed. It has flourished most where there was a spirit of stewardship—a sense that we are responsible to make the world a better place. That—not greed—is what produces a capitalism that thrives.

As far as I can tell, Foster  is actually arguing for something close to an “Optimal Capitalism”, a capitalism that works best. From his viewpoint, when capitalism has worked best it has done so by being grounded in a moral viewpoint. The utilitarianism that governs the transactional side (that is, the self-interest of the actors) rests on pre-existing moral assumptions. This is obviously not a stable relationship. Indeed, the historical difficulty is that the very nature of utilitarianism tends to erode this set of moral assumptions (religious or otherwise), as one can read in the hesitation of Christians throughout the 19th Century on the role of money and enterprise, Christians both leading enterprises and those in the Church.

But if the author is arguing for an Optimal Capitalism then he is likewise advancing a moral critique of current practices, assuming that present work is not especially optimal. Now an interesting question underway would be what determines this optimal outcome. What well-being are we striving for? Again, the business of utilitarianism and the “doctrinal” neutrality of business practices seems to recreate the conflict. Can moral precepts function as a boundary to capitalist endeavors? Is there some set of moral bright lines that ought not be crossed?

That is, if we assume the following, what then is our critique? How do we put boundaries on this behavior? What cultural or moral truths are evading?

Our political system has adopted many policies and practices that incentivize materialism, exploitation, and crony capitalism.

Lastly, I found that there was a certain drift to optimism that would be experientially unwarranted. The underlying notion of most market economies is that they are self regulating through competition. Yet at the same time we also find two sets of easily observed phenomena: the regular collusion among the actors led by their own self interest; and secondly the distribution of success along Pareto’s lines (the so-called 80-20 rule, where 20 percent do 80 percent of the business). Both limit the effective role of competition as self-regulation. Cooperation and co-option seem more the order of the day.