Reforming for What?

Writing the history of this era will demand that shark jumping be elevated to poetic art.

We open news feeds with trepidation (but also a twinge of sadistic glee?), wondering which formerly trustworthy person or institution is going up in flames today. In a particularly painful twist of irony, this fall has seen American Christians by turns celebrating the liberation of the religious conscience and then re-enslaving it in service of a false god.

October 31, 2017, marked 500 years since then-obscure German theologian Martin Luther wrote up a list of disputations with abuses of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, publishing it in the accepted manner by nailing it to the church door in Wittenburg. Luther’s act is traditionally viewed as the start of the Protestant Reformation, which forever altered Western culture and religious practice (though, it should be pointed out, much of his inspiration came from beyond Europe). His theological descendants have enjoyed an anniversary victory lap this year, reveling (not without merit) in Scriptural authority and historical doctrines the Reformation restored.

At almost the same time, news broke that the always-controversial Alabama politician (now Republican Senate nominee) Roy Moore stood accused of numerous instances of sexual harassment and general creepiness toward young women over many years. Several of the same Christian media personalities who had earlier compromised to publicly support Donald Trump’s presidency have beclowned themselves defending Moore. Some maintained Moore’s denial of the accusations, others have gone so far as to urge Christians to continue to support him even if every claim proves true. The stakes are too high, they say, to let a pro-abortion senator even finish out an abbreviated Senate term.

What do these events have in common? Surely #Reformation500 is not to blame for Christians thinking it OK to vote for a theatrical (and possibly criminal) huckster as the “lesser of two evils”?

New York Times columnist (and outspoken Catholic) Ross Douthat certainly sees a connection, if not to Moore directly then to the general climate that allows him to even have a leg to stand on.

Reaction to Douthat’s tongue-in-cheek trolling tweet was fairly hostile. To distill our current political moment to a centuries-old theological dispute is facile at best, especially considering that “Luther was responding to chaos, not creating it.” Still, Douthat may be on to something beyond a joke. In a fragmenting culture, is it really that far of a leap from the priesthood of all believers to setting up the pragmatic individual conscience as final arbiter of right or wrong?

The Reformation itself is not a fit scapegoat for our crisis of moral authority. Indeed, most of Luther’s complaints centered around the leadership of the church in his day acting like pagan kings. The recovery of Scripture as authority (which stood over church and civil leadership alike) was the goal, not the casting off of all authority. Moreover, a proper doctrinal understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit should constrain the conscience of the believer to the whole counsel of Scripture, never contradicting it on any point.

We’re not sent out on our own as free-thinking Spirit-buckets to make utilitarian choices in each situation. Supporting flagrantly immoral leaders is wrong, even if it appears to preserve perceived freedoms or achieve desirable ends. To believe otherwise is Enlightenment hubris, not Reformation thinking. If anything, the Reformation recalls the core truth that our would-be secular saviors (whether clothed in the mantle of religious authority or not) are nothing but idols. They disappoint at best and destroy at worst, using and abusing Christians for their own ends.

But secular saviors we want. Even the disciples were, at first, dejected that Christ turned out not to be the political Messiah they longed for. The church has often been so hungry for the pottage of political power that we have suppressed a bottom-up design of societal transformation that begins with the household of God, is refined through suffering, and flourishes to God’s glory in perseverance (see 1 Peter). This failure of vision often leads us to turn inward, choosing piety and order over justice and peace, despite Scripture’s insistence that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits (see Isaiah 58, among many, many other passages).

The energy of hope, desire, and growth so vital to a healthy community is not sustained by a church that trades the bounty of God’s kingdom table for the scraps of an individual pie-in-the-sky gnosticism. That joy may fade from the church, but even in times of unfaithfulness, God will not be without a witness, allowing (for a time) the mantel of social reformation to pass from the church and onto the shoulders of a no-less-zealous progressive irreligion. The heirs of New England’s Puritans are not churchmen but the elites of liberal democracy. If we fear the loss of religious liberty in such a world, surely a measure of blame lies at our doorstep.

How else can one explain why, on October 31, that venerable bugaboo of conservative Christianity, NPR, tweeted all of Luther’s 95 Theses. Some thought their account had been hacked, but I didn’t see any incongruity there. Whatever one thinks of NPR, it’s hard not to see that their leaders are pursuing a certain vision of a better society. Why not hearken back to a historical restoration of free speech and democratization?

While the political party pursuing (on paper) an end to abortion-on-demand is willing to cheerlead for the likes of Moore and Trump, the party of Planned Parenthood understands the wisdom of putting a Franken and a Conyers away for their transgressions. While some Christians make a public show of sweeping sexual sin under the rug, Hollywood’s empire of lust is throwing its newly exposed villains under the bus.

I’m not so naive as to think that public pressure, political posturing, and damage control have as much to do with these things than any latent morality, but they illustrate the failures of cultural Christianity nicely. Ceding the moral high ground to a secular culture can’t be good for Gospel witness (especially because it comes with all law and no grace), but it should wake us up.

It is deep in our humanity to long for the restoration of all things. The creation groans. If the church does not answer that desire with the fulness of God’s good plan through Christ, people will look elsewhere. When the church is rejected by a culture, it may indeed be persecution, but we ought also examine ourselves to see if what is being rejected is actually an incomplete and unholy vision.

It is time, now as always, for the church to declare the breaking in of God’s kingdom, already here but not yet fully seen. Why settle for power when we can rejoice in redemptive confrontation with the brokenness of mankind? Why settle for trying to make a temporary home “great” when we could be building on our imperishable inheritance? Why settle for burnishing our credentials to one or other political party when we serve the king to which they must one day bow? This is the good news of the Reformation, the one that began at Calvary and carried right through Wittenburg and on to the New Jerusalem. May we not settle for anything less.

Semper reformanda

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Qualm Before the Storm

O faith once delivered for all the saints,
Built, against the gates of hell, on truth’s rock.
Secure, sealed by grace from all earthly taints,
Fitting man to don his heavenly smock.
Holy Word of God on high, placed in feeble hands.
Holy church on earth, guarding the good deposit.
Holy Ghost within to guide, convince, and sustain.
With great strength and courage, sent out to all the lands.
Authority and order, to truth apposite.
Full-arrayed in mighty armor, the Devil’s bane.

O! Doubt that cries out from behind restraints,
And bristles at that double-dealing flock.
God, who made the world, does not take complaints?
Stout cathedral doors cannot bear a knock?
Lament opens a chasm, untying stale bands.
Horrors in the name of Christ would likely cause it,
How should “Love thy neighbour” unleash such pride-wrought pain?
Confidence, a casualty of our warring clans.
Our baptized idols spill from the church’s closet
Upending joy, sapping power, shading hope vain.

“O child, I know thy strife.
Take now bread, breath, and life.
O sinner, I have died
For every evil plied.
No one is good,
No one is right,
But I have stood
Despite all blight.
I alone good.
I alone right.”

Photo: Summer Sunset, Chattanooga, Tenn., July 2017.

Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

I’ve been scribbling a few ideas of late under the general heading of The Chalmers Option. Briefly, it is an attempt to think through how the Western church can recover a healthier vision for its future not simply in order to recover a holistic theology that encompasses poverty, oppression, and suffering but through that very recovery. This exchange of values is brought about by “the expulsive power of a new affection”—that we only turn away from a faulty love in the face of an overwhelmingly better one—a phrase from Thomas Chalmers.

The name’s similarity to The Benedict Option is not an accident. I am highly in favor of the direction Rod Dreher has taken in teasing out this concept on his blog and in his most recent book. The church cannot give away what it does not have, and this soul searching is long overdue. Without an internal culture shift, our hope of external cultural impact is a waning illusion.

So why bother to riff on a good idea? First, if there was any shortcoming to the book, it was the relative gloss on how well the concept might apply to those already on the margins of our culture. I chalk that up to the simple fact that nobody can put everything in a single book, so I’m offering this as an addendum more than a corrective. Second, several voices (both online and in person) pointed out that civilizational decline narratives don’t resonate very well with those who never experienced a cultural ascendancy. There is a similar sense of moral/spiritual loss in marginalized communities, but the present urgency is not felt so keenly where being an outcast has long been the norm.

Since poverty is as much a culture as a condition, this raises the question of how the BenOp translates across cultures. Though it is explicitly a strategy for the West, the spiritual and community disciplines that the book commends are needed for all Christians.

In this, as in so many other arenas, Christians tend to talk past each other about the same concerns and truths. Disagreement and uncoordinated efforts are as often the result of cultural disconnects as actual opposition. We usually fail to recognize the intentional and unintentional roles we play in shaping those very cultures.

New York Times columnist David Brooks’ July 11 piece on the growing cultural divide between elite and mainstream American cultures (the now-infamous “Sandwich” column), has a lot to teach us in this regard. Class cuts across many planes, and members of the elite culture (those with education, at least a little bit of money, and connections to the halls of power) are increasingly incapable of even holding conversations with anyone not just like themselves.

Brooks is by no means the first to raise this point. Sociologist Charles Murray published a book-length study of the growing cultural divide in 2012’s Coming Apart. Murray’s work shows that on nearly every metric of social health (social capital, marriage, employment, etc.) those on top tend to remain on top, and those on the bottom tend to remain at the bottom. The divide itself is nothing new, but what has changed in recent decades is the lack of mobility across it. We simply do not mix across class lines anymore. Murray’s thesis rings true, and he supports it with compelling evidence, but I fear that his tense is wrong: maybe we really have come apart. Nothing short of love (with intense patience) can restore the power of community, the value of shared rituals, the art of neighboring and other practices that can hold us fast against the wider cultural maelstrom.

Brooks, Murray, and others (including Alan Jacobs and Dreher) speak of a set of cultural shibboleths, and these can hold just as much sway within the church. Murray observes that religious attendance in the U.S. has held somewhat steady among the richer classes while cratering among the poor. What underlays this, though, is not only the broader issues Murray discusses (healthy lifestyles, social networks, etc.), but a cultural stratification among and within churches themselves.

The failure of evangelical jargon (“Christianese” we used to call it) to connect with unbelievers and the general culture has been talked about a lot, so much so that most churches have thrown it out in favor of simpler terms (which, in turn become jargon themselves). “Getting saved” becomes “trusting Christ.” “Christian” becomes “Christ-follower.” “Sanctuary” becomes “worship center.” The list goes on. I’m not sure what can be done about this particular phenomenon—in-group slang will always be with us.

At what point, though, does a shared language become a barrier rather than a unifier? I see some unsettling trends in the way that the educational and economic segregation of the faithful interacts with professionalization of pastoral work to contribute to disunity among the faithful. The theological language used in wealthier and more educated congregations (technical terms, church history, Greek or Hebrew being used and translated, etc.—all good things in themselves) is incomprehensible to the majority of Americans who call themselves Christians. Moreover, the level of education expected for pastors in most evangelical denominations leads those with seminary degrees (and the debt burdens that come with them!) to only seek ministry roles in wealthier areas. This accelerates the divide, depriving trained pastors of the opportunity for long-term learning from Christians outside of their social bubble and depriving lower-income churches the chance to benefit from the good work of seminaries.

These threads are coming together to function as “condensed symbols” for a largely accidental elitism within the Body of Christ. None of us have planned for this to happen, but we’ve wound up here by virtue of not considering the larger cultural issues at work. We’ve arrived now at a place where childlike faith is not enough to burnish our identity in Christ, where “loving the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength” means having a Masters-level understanding of Scripture and theology.

When we consider many of the other disappointing aspects of church culture (the rise of a mushy “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” in place of submission to King Jesus, churches’ accommodation of aspects of the sexual revolution, etc.), this dynamic is lurking in the background. The generally poor state of teaching afflicts all of us across the spectrum. When we live in one bubble or the other, we will always be tempted to shade our teaching away from the whole counsel of God and bow to the cultural norms that press on our churches from the outside (see again the “A-side/B-side” comparison in the last post).

A little courtesy and communication theory (“consider your audience”) could go a long way. All of us need to rediscover how to treat American God-fearers with the same love and patience we treat the unevangelized across the world—listening, contextualization, and long-term discipleship. People should always be growing in their understanding of the depth of God’s truth, but the vibe in church should be “welcome to our journey together” not “you’re too dumb to be a good Christian.”

Food for thought.

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
The Spiritual Vitality of Place

Photo: Atlanta History Center, July 2017.

Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?

Few would argue that all is well “in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world“—it’s what most needs to be done about it that divides people. I’m increasingly convinced that something very like Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option represents a good path forward.

Even if we weren’t facing an impending crisis of religious liberty, I’ve got little confidence in the current status quo of American church life. The standard combo of buildings, preaching (which is vital!), programs (which can be useful!), partisan politics (which will be our undoing!), music (which can be meaningful!), messaging, and mission statements is failing to reach unbelievers and retain believers in active membership.

A Poor Competitor
Why? It is too compatible in many respects with other visions of the good life, and asks just enough of us to make it a poor competitor. A church that offers little more than a tepidly baptized consumer culture is no substitute for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” As Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin put it, “people need other things to live by,” and the church should be the fountain from which a purer vision flows.

In multiple conversations of late around the subject of preserving and strengthening this faith, I’ve used the The Benedict Option as a gauge of sorts—testing appetites for the hard work of a Christianity uncoupled from the shackles of Americanism. Most resonate with the call Dreher articulates to a faithful, intentional community of spiritual formation, even if there is disagreement over his particular application. Others (often those who hold the power and purse strings) see tweaks and innovations to be made, for sure, but believe the basic design is still working.

This is why pursuing legal cover for churches and nonprofits, conscience protections for service providers, and other current political maneuvers (though crucial) cannot be the whole solution. For generations, we’ve been discipled to believe that we can live and let live; that the rest of the culture is just one radio revival away from returning to our fold. The opposite has turned out to be true, and it is we who are walking the aisle to pledge faith to the other side. Americanism is a religion; glistening advertisements the illuminated manuscripts of its bible of consumption. Protecting a vision of the church that fails to recognize this does nothing to advance Christ’s kingdom, and often works actively against it.

Perhaps this is why the reaction to Dreher’s thesis has been so heated (albeit often from those who pan the book without having read it, or, at least strain to miss the point). Nothing less than the nature of the church is at stake. Either the Gospel matters in every nook and cranny of life or it doesn’t matter at all. Either “in [Christ] all things hold together,” or nothing holds together at all. Such an all-encompassing and embodied faith ought to be the pursuit of any healthy church.

Of course Dreher isn’t the first to call for such. One of his more ardent detractors, James K. A. Smith, is a leading voice in this direction. What Dreher adds to the discussion is framing it in terms of strategy. How do we get to a place where such a holistic vision is the Christian norm? This requires something greater than simply an intellectual assent to the the idea of a revitalized church. Human behavior seldom shifts on the merits of an argument alone.

A New Affection
Smith tells us that “We are what we love,” but warns that we may not love what we think. Retraining our loves takes discipline, but it also requires grace-driven vision. This is not a new idea, by any stretch. In the early 19th Century, well-known Edinburgh pastor Thomas Chalmers preached a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” In it, he said:

“The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. Nothing can exceed the magnitude of the required change in a man’s character—when bidden as he is in the New Testament, to love not the world; no, nor any of the things that are in the world—for this so comprehends all that is dear to him in existence, as to be equivalent to a command of annihilation” (emphasis mine).

Within the context of the serThomas_Chalmers_-_Project_Gutenberg_13103mon, Chalmers leans heavily toward personal spiritual discipline as the key to answering that call. In the life and ministry of his church, however, a powerful grasp of embodied grace worked itself out in faithful care for the needy, massive social reforms, and holistic approach to ending poverty and restoring dignity in his city.

Chalmers seems to have understood that the Gospel of Christ speaks of a relentlessly physical reality—an incarnate Savior who bled, died, and rose just as surely as he preached, healed, and forgave. A Christianity that promises only spiritual gifts lacks real “expulsive power” to dislodge our present comforts and fears. A Christianity that demands nothing of us in this life but a public piety and lip service to doctrine sounds an awful lot like a “command of annihilation.” Sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp for eternity is hell, not heaven. What we need to understand is that this call to a whole-body, whole-life discipleship is a feature, not a bug, in God’s good design.

Turns out, we do need other things to live by. Nothing short of this world-upending, world-rebuilding mission—given to us directly from the hands of Jesus Christ the Son of God!—can dislodge our stubborn pursuit of self, wealth, and health.

Perhaps this Scottish churchman has much to teach us yet, particularly in terms of how we live out the Gospel toward the wider society. Perhaps his call to look to the poor and oppressed can cure our atrophied vision and give us the strength to endure. Who is more likely to accommodate their faith to the cultural winds, the one who is afraid of losing privilege or the one who has long endured shame? A church unwilling to suffer is bound to be swept into irrelevance by the increasingly anti-Christian mainstream.

To put it another way, what do we have to lose? Any commitment to biblical truth and standards will ultimately land us on the margins of modernity. Better to rush there ourselves in love, “boast of the things that show our weakness,” and embrace the lessons forged in hardship by those who have always lived there. This faith in which we stand, this church we love, which Christ has promised will endure to the very gates of hell, is embodied, suffering, and persevering—just like our Lord. Pursuing the fullness of His kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, is the way we will weather the coming storm.

Further thoughts
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church
The Spiritual Vitality of Place

Photo: Dew on spider web with flame azaleas, Elk Knob, North Carolina, June 2017.