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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Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

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.

Rhyme and Reason: Christ and Jonah

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, December 2013. Part 1 of 5

Perhaps no section of Scripture is as familiar to today’s Christians and yet poorly understood and overlooked as the story of Jonah. If you grew up in American evangelicalism, you may have heard one sermon on Jonah for every 15 Sunday school lessons (who can deny that the whole bit about the great fish rivets children’s attention?). Even then, most of those lessons focused on Jonah as an example, exhorting us to learn from his mistakes by listening to God and obeying His will. This is in no way incorrect exposition, but it is incomplete. As a result, one of the clearest pictures of God’s redemptive plan for mankind (Jew and Gentile alike) in the Old Testament goes unnoticed by many. In the scope of Christian history, this hasn’t usually been the case, as many great theologians have written extensively on the book. 

The Sign of Jonah
Of course, Jesus knew Jonah and his story, and pointed out to the Jewish leaders its significance and its prophecy. While they were in the physical presence of the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, they kept demanding signs and wonders from Him to “prove” His identity. They had already seen many signs, but each time they had witnessed a miracle from Jesus, they accused Him of blasphemy or called Him a devil—e.g., when he healed the paralytic (Matt 9:1-8), when He healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8-21), and when He cast out a demon (Matt. 12:22-29), to name a few instances.

When they came again to ask for another demonstration, the Lord knew their hearts, and answered them with a condemning exposition of Jonah: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as “Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster,” so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here’” (Matt. 12:38-42). Continue reading