Bill Clinton: In Red, White, and Especially Blue

This is how objections to presidential immorality sounded twenty-one years ago (from the October 1998 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

Of the several disadvantages of growing up in a fundamentalist home, one was the ability of my father to detect off-color humor a mile away. (Sure, the promoters of family values would see this as a virtue. But, then again, they are the ones responsible for the Family Channel where firm parental guidance is little different from parental naivete.) I can remember those rare nights when for some reason my brother had been sufficiently well-behaved to merit staying up late – it also needs to be added that it was Friday night. And then around 11:30 we would gain access into the sophisticated adult world of “The Tonight Show” and hear the urbane (to us) humor of Johnny Carson. We would listen to Fred McMahon announce the evening’s guests and cherish the prospects of seeing Buddy Rich or Don Rickles.

BUT WE KNEW ONE OBSTACLE lay in the way of our making it past midnight. It was Carson’s monologue. If Johnny went blue – the showbiz vernacular for telling dirty jokes – then we knew dad would get up from his recliner and turn the TV off, thus forcing an abrupt end to the quality time around the tube. Sometimes Carson’s allusions to parts of the female anatomy would be tame enough to keep our father in his seat – he no doubt enjoyed Carson and wanted to see the same guests that we did. (By the way, it helped if dad fell asleep. But there would be hell to pay if he woke up to a dirty joke. And could you be really sure that he was asleep?) But in those cases where the jokes were only a shade blue, the pressure I felt was even greater than if Carson had gone ahead and told a crude one-liner. I couldn’t stand not knowing when my father would turn off the TV. And so, in some cases I would be the one to make the first move. It wasn’t because I objected to the humor, nor was it even a case of trying to protect my innocent dad from the dirty jokes that I had come to hear at school (often repeated from “The Tonight Show”). Instead, it was simply a desire to end my misery. I could not bear hearing off color jokes in my dad’s presence. If I laughed I would certainly disappoint if not anger him. If I didn’t then why bother watching?

MEMORIES OF MY YOUTHFUL late night discomfort have come back to me over the past eight months, first as a trickle, and now as a virtual geyser, as the sordid and tawdry details of our President and his intern have absorbed the nation and its media. Through it all I know that my aging fundamentalist parents sit glued to the TV, not because they are so interested in Bill Clinton’s sex life (though as registered Republicans these incidents have no doubt confirmed their prejudices). Rather, it is their habit to watch at least ninety minutes of news each night, first the local variety at 6:00, then the national edition at 6:30 – I think they still watch Peter Jennings, who has had his own intern problems, because their local news of choice comes from the ABC affiliate and they don’t have remote control. Then, they finish off the day with a dose of local news at 11:00, complete with that evening’s murders, fires, and woes of the Major League Baseball’s closest franchise.

THROUGH IT ALL, MY DEAR, devout conservative independent Baptist parents have had to hear about parts of the human body and sexual positions that had Johnny Carson ever mentioned my dad would have likely not only turned off the TV, but put it out by the curb for the next trash pick-up. I feel this obligation to go home at certain times of the evening so I can be there to turn off my parents’ TV. Many people have talked about how parents are going to explain the President’s actions to their children. But what about former fundamentalists like me? Who is going to explain it to our parents? I want to protect my parents from the evening news which is now pornographic. They don’t need to know about oral sex or stained cocktail dresses. Their lives, innocent though they may have been, would have been complete without such carnal knowledge. And this is the source of my complaint against our President. His sexual life is his business, though I can see its repercussions for the body politic and his ability to govern. But do my parents have to know? Couldn’t he have thought about all those fundamentalists out there who had never dreamed that sexual desire could take such bodily form?

Now, part of the problem may be mine. I could be suffering from the same naivete that Hamlet exhibited when he denied that his mother was a sexual creature. In other words, I may think my parents so sexually innocent that I can’t conceive of their sexual intimacy, let alone the fact that they did produce two sons. They both grew up on farms and probably know a lot more about sex than I can ever fathom. Still, if they felt the obligation to protect me from Johnny going blue, I feel a similar responsibility to protect them from Bill Clinton, who should be turning red.

Townsend Levitt

If You Go Back to 33, Why Bother with 1776?

While John Fea has tried to live tweet David Barton’s claims about America’s Christian founding, Roman Catholics in the U.S. also feel the need to make America safe for faith. Which allows a repetition of a point: not integralism but Americanism is the default setting for Roman Catholics in the U.S. That is, American Roman Catholics, contrary to the worst anti-Catholics like Paul Blanshard, were never ambivalent about American exceptionalism or the need to modify aspects of church life to assimilate the church to American ways.

And so, Roman Catholic defenders of America have come out parading once again for July 4th. A little early to the festivities was Matthew Schmitz who used the approaching national holiday to vindicate Sohrab Ahmari over against David French:

David French of National Review said that Ahmari was forsaking America’s historical commitment to “neutral principles” such as free speech and due process. By insisting that governments should re-order the public square towards the common good, Ahmari was “forsaking the framework for ordered liberty established by the Founders.”

But the idea that America was founded on “neutral principles” is a myth. From its beginnings, America has been characterized by what Tocqueville called the “intimate union of the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty.” The Americans whose representatives drafted the Constitution did not seek to end this union, but to place it on a stable footing.

In 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “The general Principles, on which the Fathers Achieved Independence, were … the general Principles of Christianity … and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.” The former are not neutral principles.

Every early administration except Jefferson’s summoned America to days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Americans were urged to “confess and bewail [their] manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life … and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain pardon and forgiveness.” Is this neutrality?

…As these men show, the belief that politics should be ordered to the common good and the highest good is not only classical and Christian, but American. We need to reinvigorate this tradition, not by going back to colonial arrangements, but by pioneering new ways to unite the spirits of Christianity and liberty.

David Barton could not have said it better, though Schmitz’s praise may seem odd for a convert from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism if only because he fails to mention his examples all came from Protestants. Roman Catholics at the time (and down to Vatican II) were hostile to civil liberty, freedom of ideas, and free markets. That difference between medieval and modern is pesky for those who embrace one of the most modern nations on earth.

Then today at The American Conservative, the man who likely decided to run Schmitz’s piece, Michael Warren Davis, another convert, wrote positively about the Puritans’ settlement in North America and their influence on the founding. He quotes John Wintrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and then writes:

This is the high ideal that lies at the heart of our nation’s founding: not wealth or strength or freedom, but charity. This is the divine purpose for which America was founded: that we might love as ought to love.

Love her, too, while you’re at it. Love America the way we mortals can only love when we’ve grown old enough to accept that our mother is flawed, as we are. Love her all the more because she won’t be around forever.

From the woodlands of Maine to the mountains of Virginia, from the golden shores of California to the black sands of Hawaii, from the lakes of Michigan to the endless ranges of Kansas—every last one of us has a chance to be as wise as Greeks, as virtuous as Romans, as cultured as Englishmen, and as loving as Christians. That’s worth celebrating.

Again, what a great development to have Roman Catholics praising — of all people — Puritans on the occasion of America’s birthday. Might they also recommend the Puritans’ teaching and worship to anyone struggling with the way the bishops have been conducting their affairs during abuse scandal? If not, if Protestants still need to get right with the Vatican to have an awesome Christianity, then Davis should add that the bishops were also wrong for a long time about political liberty (as in “error has no rights,” a phrase used by top Vatican officials against John Courtney Murray as late as the 1950s).

But then comes a mild corrective from yet another convert, Chad Pecknold, again from the webpages of the Catholic Herald where Davis works. Pecknold is not so convinced that Puritans were a healthy influence on the United States’ political culture of liberty:

[Tocqueville] cites approvingly Cotton Mather’s discussion of “holy liberty” in Magnalia Christi Americana. Tocqueville is struck by how this “holy liberty” is freedom for goodness, for truth, for justice, for God. In this sense, what makes Puritan liberty different from the liberty of 1789 is precisely that it is not liberty “for secular purpose,” but for holy purpose. Where France divorced liberty from religion, the Puritans united “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”

This seed, this germ, Tocqueville writes, is “the key to nearly the whole book.” So the Puritan seed was dispersed, fragmented, and scattered. Its children could favor different aspects of the originating spirit. It could combine with other species, if you will, and yet American diversity would always have this common root. Yet Tocqueville also sees something profoundly unstable in the Puritan seed — it is sectarian, and not “the whole.” The Puritan seed lacks a unifying principle, and cannot supply the American people with a stable, common creed.

In one of his more Catholic insights, Tocqueville believes the Puritan seed is made to be divided, to be diversified through a great plurality — yet moving in two directions. Tocqueville writes, “our descendants will increasingly divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and others embracing the Church of Rome.”

Tocqueville is no Augustine for America, but he does have an important insight into American polarization. In the end, he thinks one part of America will view liberty as the flight from Christianity, and the other will see that a culture of freedom requires its full embrace.

See what he did there? On the one hand, Pecknold thinks Tocqueville recognized that the Puritans provided an unstable foundation for a nation — to much sectarianism — though it is odd that when Puritans were more doctrinally sane as opposed to their Congregationalist successors, they supported the American founding with vigor. Of late, Congregationalists have been willing to live with Jeremiah Wright as one of their pastors in good standing.

On the other hand, Pecknold, by a magic trick only rivaled by Doug Henning, makes Roman Catholics, the ones with the “full embrace” of Christianity, as the true successors to the Puritans who united the “spirit of liberty with the spirit of religion.”

It seems fairly plausible to conclude that Roman Catholics ponder the American founding more than Matthew 16:18-19. On the upside, it sure beats running the Fourth of July through Abraham Lincoln.

The Missional Church in Free Fall?

It started well seemingly with Tim Keller:

what makes a small group missional? A missional small group is not necessarily one that is doing some kind of specific evangelism program (though that is to be encouraged). Rather, (1) if its members love and talk positively about the city/neighborhood, (2) if they speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor with disdainful and embattled verbiage, (3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the people of the culture, (4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature, art and thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and critically, (5) if they exhibit deep concern for the poor, generosity with their money, purity and respect with regard to the opposite sex, and humility toward people of other races and cultures, and (6) if they do not bash other Christians and churches—then seekers and nonbelieving people will be invited and will come and stay as they explore spiritual issues.

That was 2001.

Then Kevin DeYoung raised objections even while trying not to offend the missionally minded:

(1) I am concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended using the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term “social justice” when I think “love your neighbor” is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think being “a faithful presence in the world” is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do. Or, sometimes well meaning Christians talk about “building the kingdom” when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We’d do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people they build the kingdom.

(2) I am concerned that in our new found missional zeal we sometimes put hard “oughts” on Christians where there should be inviting “cans.” You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say “ought” you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems we are being disobedient. It would be better to invite individual Christians in keeping with their gifts and calling to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for “not caring.”

(3) I am concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

That was 2010.

Now comes Mark Galli with even more criticism (the fourth column in a series):

But it turns out that the church is not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world. If you are passionate about feeding the hungry, for example, churches can help here and there. But if you really want to make a difference, really cut the numbers of the hungry and malnourished, it’s better to give your time to a government or nonprofit agency that specializes in such things.

The same is true whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, drug abuse, exploitation of labor, environmental degradation, and so forth. The church as church can make a donation, organize a committee, sponsor a food pantry, but it cannot really make a significant, lasting impact. It is not set up to do that. In fact, it has many other really important jobs to do.

It is called, for example, more than anything, to provide a time and place for the public worship of God and for people to participate in the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper—to meet God as we glorify him. It is also called to teach children, youth, and adults about who God is, as well as the shape and nature of the Christian life. It is a place where Christians gather to receive mutual encouragement and prayer. It’s the place where we learn to live into our destiny, to be holy and blameless in love, to the praise of God’s glory.

Galli adds that it is harder for a church to be simply a church than it is to be missional (even if the former is likely a lot less expensive):

But if you want to do something that is really hard, and if you want to push yourself to the limits, if you want to be constantly tested by love, if you want to live into your ultimate destiny—if you want to learn to be holy and blameless in love before God—there is no better place to do that than in the local church.

Many of us today rightly note the great defects in the church, most of which boil down to its superficiality. Because the church thinks it has to be missional, that it has to be a place where the world feels comfortable, it has dumbed down the preaching and the worship, so that in many quarters we have ended up with a common-denominator Christianity. It goes down easy, which is why it attracts so many and why many churches are growing. But it is a meal designed to stunt the growth of the people of God. And it is a way of church life that eventually burns people out, where people become exhausted trying to make the world a better place.

What if instead the church was a sanctuary, a place of rest and healing and life, where the fellowship of believers lived together in love, where we just learn to be holy and blameless in love before God? And what if, having encountered afresh some sort of beatific vision, we go out from church in our vocations and ministries, serving the unchurched neighbor and, by God’s grace, make a difference in their world?

You’d have thought Galli read Machen. You might have also thought that someone who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary had read Machen.

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And You Wonder Why Reform Doesn’t Happen

The Vatican has a long tradition of bishops covering for bishops:

Francis was compelled to remove Tebartz-van-Elst in October 2013 due to public backlash against his spending an estimated $42 million on remodeling his diocesan center and residence, including $1.1 million for garden landscaping and even $22,000 for a bathtub.

Originally, the Vatican said the Bling Bishop was being granted a temporary sabbatical outside the diocese. That “temporary” measure became permanent in March 2014, at a time when the Vatican was trying to negotiate an agreement under which Tebartz-van Elst would not be sued by the Limburg diocese in an effort to recoup its losses over the construction projects.

The question then became what to do with him since Tebartz-van-Elst was only 54 at the time of his exile, a full two decades short of the usual retirement age for Catholic bishops of 75.

In the end, Tebartz-van-Elst was brought to Rome and given a new gig as a “delegate for catechesis” in the Council for New Evangelization. Although his appointment is a matter of public record – it’s even on his Wikipedia page – the Vatican understandably made no effort to broadcast it, leaving even seasoned clergy a bit surprised to see him today taking charge of Roman meetings.

Given that the main complaint against Tebartz-van-Elst in Limburg was that his regal spending habits were “unevangelical,” at odds with the witness of Jesus in the Gospels (not to mention Francis in the papacy) and thereby driving people away from the faith, many observers would likely find his present assignment as a top Vatican official for evangelization not just a little bit jarring.

In reality, however, no one probably should be surprised. There’s a long tradition of clerics in disgrace in their homelands ending up in Rome, but in the Francis era they sometimes wind up in jobs that almost seem a private papal satire.

Most famously, there’s the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Argentina, who resigned his post heading the Diocese of Oran in August 2017 amid accusations of abuse of power and “strange behavior” (charges of sexual abuse of adult seminarians came later). The rap sheet against Zanchetta also features charges of financial misconduct, including selling a building belonging to the diocese for $800,000 without going through the proper channels and leaving the transaction off the diocesan books.

Despite that, Francis in 2017 not only brought Zanchetta to Rome but named him Assessor to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican’s financial powerhouse which oversees both the Holy See’s investment portfolio and its real estate holdings in Italy and around the world.

Once again, it’s hard to imagine a Vatican gig (other, perhaps, than with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors) that would seem more ironic given the baggage Zanchetta carried.

Another fitting for-instance is Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò, who was forced to resign as the Vatican’s communications czar in March 2018 after attempting to pass off a doctored letter by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI as the real thing and getting caught. For presiding over such a PR fiasco, Francis moved Viganò to a different post – not as prefect of the Dicastery for Communications but its “assessor,” meaning to this day he’s still in a position to shape the communications operation.

Further back in time, there’s Monsignor Mario Salvatore Battista Ricca, who was confirmed by Francis as prelate of the Vatican Bank in 2013 despite revelations in the Italian media that during his previous service as a papal diplomat in Uruguay, he’d been involved in a couple of scandalous situations involving homosexual activity – one in which Battista Ricca was apparently beaten up after leaving a gay bar, and another in which he was trapped in an elevator at the papal embassy in Montevideo with a young man and had to be rescued by the fire department.

Despite that, Francis confirmed Battista Ricca in a sensitive post at an institution which, at the time, was also trying to shake off a well-earned reputation for scandal.

Of course, Francis presumably knows more about these situations than any of the rest of us, and he may well have perfectly valid reasons for appointing or confirming such officials to the posts they currently hold.

However, it’s hard not to wish there was a “Simpsons” for the Vatican – because, let’s face it, the Bling Bishop in charge of evangelization probably would be the basis for one hell of a Halloween episode.

Some aspects of church life don’t change. They develop. (Not even mainline Protestants have this kind of chutzpah.)

Had Hoped to See this in Dallas while at General Assembly

But Rain Bomb 2019 meant we could only circle First Park on its side streets. Here’s why it is intriguing:

The one constant about World’s Fairs and Expositions—from Chicago’s White City to the several Expositions Universelles in Paris to the New York World’s Fair of 1939—is that you cannot in any meaningful sense go to see them. It’s not merely that the midways are empty, Buffalo Bill dead, the dancing girls clothed, and “Forbidden Tibet” forbidden. The physical imprint of almost every single exposition of the golden age from the 1870s to the 1930s has been almost completely effaced, with remnants typically constituting one or two relics and some landscaping.

There are very few exceptions. But your best bet for immersion today is in Dallas’s Fair Park, a stunning time capsule from 1936 with 26 buildings remaining from the Texas Centennial Exhibition. Fair Park has been and remains the host of the Texas State Fair since 1886, so a spectacle persists every fall for three weeks. Many decades later, the difficult problem is what to do with these stellar grounds the other 11 months of the year. And the question is how Dallas can enliven this huge urban monument today—even as there is no question that the 1936 legacy of Texas should be both celebrated and preserved.

Though Fair Park’s landmark exhibition was not technically a “World” exposition, it drew on a very considerable range of national and international talent, and lived up to Texas’s reputation for gigantism in all of the best ways. As Jim Parsons and David Bush write in their book, Fair Park Deco: “In 1936, most of the United States knew little about Texas. If Americans thought of the state at all, they probably imagined it as a vast frontier filled with cowboys and oil wells. Centennial publicists, armed with a $500,000 allocation from Austin, were perfectly happy to use those misconceptions to their advantage, spinning them into decidedly sentimental symbols of the Lone Star State.”

But what if fairs were meant to exist only during the event itself (sort of like General Assembly)?

A majority of the great fairs of yesteryear were intrinsically evanescent, built to be destroyed, with many of the most seemingly opulent sharing a material foundation of staff, a compound containing some cement, but much larger amounts of plaster of Paris, often strengthened by fibers or literal sackcloth. It wouldn’t last, and was torn down before it would decay in Paris in 1878 and 1889, Chicago in 1893, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, and elsewhere. This was relative material luxury; later fairs such as Chicago’s Century of Progress were built largely out of plywood—possibly not much progress!

Fair Park was an exception, building structures out of more durable materials. Some were subsequently demolished and many decayed greatly. Much of the art adorning these buildings was painted over. Despite a number of much larger threats over time, the considerable majority survived and restoration efforts beginning in the early 1980s have restored many of their original 1936 features.

Part of the trouble is that, for all of the varied urban sobriquets applied to large expositions and fairs, from Chicago’s White City to Buffalo’s Rainbow City (a common nickname for The Pan-American Exposition of 1901) and onwards, they’ve more often been a vision of fantasy urbanism than the real thing, even beyond their temporary construction. Sometimes their sites are highly central, such as Paris’s Champ de Mars, but more often they are located in fairgrounds or used as schemes to improve or create parkland on the urban periphery. Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is not exactly well connected to its surroundings. Balboa Park in San Diego, host of the California-Pacific International Exhibition (and the most substantial surviving complex in the U.S. beyond Fair Park), consisted of a simulacrum of a dense urban core in the middle of a park.

Even better connected events, such as the World’s Columbian Exhibition, share a highly anti-urban feature: ticket gates. Walkable and visually appealing urban landscapes behind gates, poorly connected to any street grid, is the story of, well, Disneyland: it’s no surprise that Walt’s father, Elias Disney, worked as a carpenter on the World’s Columbian Exposition. Walt visited others and constructed attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Is this part of a by-gone era of urban life and recreation, or will thee Holy Urbanists have a plan to be in the city, for the city?

Other examples of this type of built environment are relatively rare. Balboa Park in San Diego has a more robust set of tenant institutions, including the city’s main art museum, natural history museum, and science center (with a total of 16 museums) but struggles with some similar issues. Exposition Park in Los Angeles, which is a somewhat smaller version of the same with stronger resident institutions, houses Los Angeles’s major league soccer team, their principal Natural History Museum and Science Center, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and will soon be host to George Lucas’s Museum of Narrative Art.

More recent exposition grounds suffer from fewer preservation burdens but similar difficulties just staying tenanted and busy. Hemisfair Park in San Antonio has a number of unused pavilions and has built a hotel and is adding apartments and commercial space. At the site of the 1962 World’s Fair of Space Needle fame, the Seattle Center grounds are relatively vibrant, but some spaces sit empty and unused.

Many of these spaces are of a scale that echoes Jane Jacobs’s criticism of another megaproject, Lincoln Center, as an unnatural isolation of culture from ordinary activity of the city—though the scale of these fairgrounds can make Lincoln Center look positively modest. In any case, when cultural facilities are spread across the urban fabric, they are obviously more easily integrated with their surroundings or repurposed. There is no arguing with a fundamentally unique treasure such as Fair Park, however, and we can only hope that it devises a formula for success.

Fair Park draws widespread plaudits as an institution not merely academically but personally important to the citizens of North Texas. As Willis Winters observes, the place is “so central to our city. My first college football game, my first professional football game, my first opera, my first symphony visit, my first fair—all were at Fair Park. It’s been so important to my life and so important to many residents of this city.”

(By the way, The American Conservative excels in its reporting on new urbanism, architecture, and localism.)

Fascism and Modern Roman Catholic Societies

Can anyone point to an example of a society that went with the Protestant side of the Reformation producing a fascist government? Donald Trump does not count because the U.S. has yet to adopt a fascist government (that is, if you don’t read the paleo-conservatives on Abraham Lincoln).

This is not meant to tar Rome with the fascist brush (mainly), but it is to ponder what Michael Walzer wrote about liberalism and the “art of separation.” Peter Meilaender summarized it this way (from a golden oldie):

The “separation of civil society and political community creates the sphere of economic competition and free enterprise, the market in commodities, labor, and capital” (Walzer 1984, 316). It is true, of course, that “market freedom entails certain risks for consumers,” but, as Walzer points out, “so does religious freedom” (Walzer 1984, 316). Similarly, the “abolition of dynastic government separates family and state” and in this way creates the possibility for people to pursue careers according to their talents, opening up the “sphere of office and then the freedom to compete for bureaucratic and professional place, to lay claim to a vocation, apply for an appointment, develop a specialty, and so on” (Walzer 1984, 316-17). Finally, Walzer writes, the same process, by separating “public and private life” (Walzer 1984, 317), enables new forms of domestic intimacy that are profoundly important to most of us. In the privacy of our homes we become free to pursue “a very wide range of interests and activities…: reading books, talking politics, keeping a journal, teaching what we know to our children, cultivating (or, for that matter, neglecting) our gardens” (Walzer 1984, 317). Raising our own chickens, we might add, or not raising them! “Our homes are our castles, and there we are free from official surveillance” (Walzer 1984, 317).

The virtue of Walzer’s analysis is to correct the one-sided portrayal of modernity as a story of decay, fragmentation, and alienation, the loss of a pre-modern, pre-liberal Eden. The story of modernity is also one of increasing richness and diversity, of freedom and pluralism, of a world in which, to borrow a line from C. S. Lewis, “Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time” (Lewis 2003, 281). Lewis was not describing the spheres of society—family, work, church, state, and so on—but his point is analogous to Walzer’s. As he writes in the preface to The Great Divorce, “life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection” (Lewis 2001, viii). A new, richer, and redeemed form of community will one day arise—can arise—only as the outcome of that increasing process of differentiation.

Indeed, Christians are especially well placed to understand the characteristic forms of modernity not simply as examples of fragmentation and loss but rather of differentiation and enrichment, as a process in which the various spheres of society gradually become more and more themselves and less and less something else.

In contrast to differentiation and separation, Roman Catholics — perhaps thanks to the neo-medievalism that lurks in all nostalgia for Christendom — prefer integration, hence the current appeal of integralism. David Frum picked up on this in his poignant piece about D-Day. At the end of the war:

France did enter Germany as a victor. French armies, supplied by the United States, subordinate to U.S. command, were stood up in 1944–45. France was allotted an occupation zone in Germany and awarded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Italy was not even invited to join the United Nations until 1955.) Allied officialdom agreed to believe de Gaulle’s story that the France that fought Nazi Germany was the only real France.

But everyone understood the story was not true. The French military defeat in 1940 had torn apart social wounds dating back decades and longer. Conservative and Catholic France reinterpreted the battles of 1940 as a debacle only of the liberal and secular France that had held the upper hand since the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 and especially since the Dreyfus affair that began in 1894. When the reactionary French writer Charles Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment for collaboration, he supposedly replied, “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.”

Most French business leaders and civil servants collaborated out of opportunism or necessity. The Germans held hundreds of thousands of captured French soldiers as hostages for years after 1940. But more than a few leading French people, including many intellectuals and churchmen, collaborated out of a species of conviction. A French cardinal led the recruitment of French volunteers to fight alongside the Germans in Russia in 1941. “How can I, in a moment so decisive, refuse to approve the common noble enterprise directed by Germany, dedicated to liberate Russia from the bonds that have held it for the last twenty-five years, suffocating its old human and Christian traditions, to free France, Europe, and the world from the most pernicious and most sanguinary monster that mankind has ever known, to raise the peoples above their narrow interests, and to establish among them a holy fraternity revived from the time of the Christian Middle Ages?” Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart wrote, in his endorsement of the Anti-Bolshevik Legion.

Frum then notices the anti-liberalism that lurked in those French who wanted a return to throne and altar (some differentiation but not the Anglo-American separation of powers):

The loss of the war against Germany enabled such people to launch a much more congenial culture war at home, to purge France of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the slogan of 1789, and establish in its place “work, family, fatherland,” the slogan of Vichy. Since 1905, France had been defined as a secular state. The Catholic Church had been reduced to one sect among others: Protestant, Jewish, even Muslim. (In 1920, the French government had subsidized the building of a grand mosque in thanks for the First World War service of Muslim troops. The great military cemetery near Verdun has a special section for Muslim soldiers, their graves angled away from the others in order to face Mecca.)

Vichy put an end to all that. The defeat of France by Germany was ideologically reinterpreted as a victory of “deep France” over a shallow liberal metropolitan veneer. Subjugation was reinterpreted by Vichy ideologues as redemption. Enmity was shifted from the occupying Germans to the liberal commercial “Anglo-Saxons.” Vichy propagandists produced cartoons in which Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Popeye were depicted dropping bombs on France at the behest of Jewish masters.

The point is not that DeGaulle but that the Roman Catholic urge for order and unity often manifests itself in a certain kind of anti-liberalism.

And so integralism returns (and don’t forget the appeal of integration to those neo-Calvinists who bang the gong hard for the Lordship of Christ over every square inch without thinking very hard about sphere sovereignty.

You Don’t Have to Untuck Your Shirt (partially) to Follow the OPC

First, it was Christianity Today taking a page from the spirituality of the church.

Second, it was the PCA opening the way to be Presbyterian and not evangelical by leaving the National Association of Evangelicals.

Now comes a review of Jake Meador’s new book which seems to stress aspects of Reformed piety that have long been hallmarks of Orthodox Presbyterian expectations. Meador’s case is for ordinary piety (with no reference to shirt-tails apparently):

Meador argues for a Christian culture in which the faithful desire “a simple life of work and prayer in a particular place among a beloved people” (22). They delight in the created gifts of God and the ordinary means of grace in the church, the preached Word of God, and the blessed sacrament. For readers familiar with the arguments for good work, community, and the practice of Sabbath, Meador adds to the conversation a rich archive of Reformed theology, in particular excerpts from John Calvin’s Bible commentaries. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, one of the themes that arose during the Reformation was “the affirmation of ordinary life.” Meador draws from this theme to make his case for ordinary piety.

He even promotes observing the Lord’s Day:

Meador is interested in the teachings and practices that help us journey toward the Eternal City. For example, he suggests we practice Sabbath: on Sunday we can rest from exploitive economies we don’t admire but in which we are inevitably complicit. Preparing for the week ahead, we seek to return to the rhythms of a world sustained by divine love rather than human effort. For Meador, Sabbath also means attending public worship and perhaps going back to the two-service model in which the evening service would function as a time for theological rigor and catechesis. Churches tend to use the morning sermon to invigorate rather than instruct in the faith. The evening service could help Christians recover traditions of theology that would give them the confidence to understand and practice their religion in the world. In this and other instances, Meador strikes a balance between countercultural practices and recovering the traditional patterns of church life.

Holy moly.

The worry from here is an apparently ecumenical approach which could well turn into eclectic piety:

Even among Anabaptists who argue for a strong separation from the state, there is an emphasis on a life shared in common that runs “with the grain of the universe,” the phrase Hauerwas draws from Yoder for the title of his published Gifford lectures. Meador believes that these Protestant sources, coupled with the social ethics of the Catholic church, can help American evangelicals reorient the church: rather than just being an institution for individual fulfillment, the church ought to act as Christ’s body and minister to the wounds in American society at large, including those inflicted by economic inequality and racial injustice.

From my perspective, evangelicals have for so long lacked any rigor or discipline (which usually comes with confessions, church polity, and liturgy) that recommending other sources will only contribute to the phenomenon of boutique congregationalism. Some will be Hybelsian, others Hauerwasian, and still other’s sacramentalian.

Maybe lacking awareness of one’s shirt-tails has its advantages.

Rob Bell as Drag Queen

Talk about click bait. But if a drag queen could provoke Sorhab Ahmari to go digitally postal on David French-ism, the once-upon-a-time emergent church poster boy seems to have prompted Christianity Today’s editor, Mark Galli, to question the logic of the missional church:

I was interviewing Rob Bell for Christianity Today about his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He wrote something in the book that surprised me (imagine that, Rob Bell saying something surprising). So I asked him to clarify himself: “What to you is the purpose of the church?”

“The purpose of the church,” he replied, “is to make the world a better place.” That’s what he had said in the book, and that’s the statement that puzzled me. I frankly couldn’t believe he had said that in front of God and everybody. But as I thought about it, I realized that Bell had expressed precisely the current zeitgeist of the American church. I was less concerned about Bell than I was about the church.

Galli goes on to link Bell’s view first to Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel (without mentioning cultural Marxism!) and then to Leslie Newbiggin who has inspired a certain Presbyterian church in mid-town Manhattan:

Wilbert Shenk’s summary of Newbigin is what many of his readers have taken away:

… we are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose. … Mission is often treated as a stepchild or, even worse, in some cases an orphan. That is to say, traditional ecclesiology has had no place for mission. Yet the church was instituted by Jesus Christ to be a sign of God’s reign and the means of witnessing to that reign throughout the world. The church that refuses to accept its missionary purpose is a deformed church. … We are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose in relation to modern Western culture.

As I just noted, Newbigin’s theology is larger than this, but this is what has made a great impact on evangelical leaders. Perhaps the prime example is what’s called the missional movement. As with most movements, the very term itself is in dispute and comes to us in many colors. It is often combined with a fresh appreciation of kingdom theology, an attempt to let Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God become the hub of the wheel of our theology. We needn’t deny the many flavors of missional, or its obvious strengths, to grasp that for many pastors and theologians, the purpose of the church can be summarized like this (from a church blog I happened upon):

After Jesus was resurrected and after he had spent significant time schooling the nascent church, as He Himself had been sent, He sent His church on a mission, and sent the Holy Spirit to empower them for that task until the end of time, to the very ends of the earth. As Jesus was sent, and as the Spirit was sent, in like manner, the church has been sent. Therefore, the church exists missionally, sent by the triune God to carry out the mission of making disciples of all nations. Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world, as a sign and proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Given my travels and readings especially in the evangelical subculture, this strikes me as a near-perfect summary of an evangelically orthodox expression of much missional thinking today. For all its inspirational value—and this is not to be denied nor denigrated—in the end, it reduces the purpose of the church in the same way as does Rauschenbusch: “Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world.”

Let the reader answer: how is this any different from Redeemer’s mission statement?

The Redeemer family of churches and ministries exist to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if the editor of Christianity Today is thinking that missional Protestantism has set priorities for the church that are more transformational (and worldly) than they are doxological and evangelistic, someone in the home office may want to call a meeting.

Meanwhile, confessional Protestants who know how to distinguish between the church and the world (and have been doing so since at least the Second Pretty Good Awakening) did not need Rob Bell to understand what Galli has discovered.

If You Go From Progressive to Backward, Can You Still Be Ahead of Your Time?

The quotation from Francis Schaeffer (from 1968 even!!) has been circulating among those who want to listen to make the world safe for the sorts of discussions that went into the Revoice Conference. Jake Meador invoked Schaeffer four years ago to defend Karen Swallow Prior:

…consider the great American evangelist Francis Schaeffer whose writing on homosexuality (available in his collected letters) anticipated many of today’s debates.

Schaeffer, writing in 1968 (!) made the now-common distinction between what he called “homophiles” and homosexuals, arguing that it is possible to be same-sex attracted without falling into sin and that it is the acting on that attraction which is sinful. (Again, he wrote this in 1968.)

In one of his letters he refers to “the mistake that the orthodox people have made” and defines that as saying that “homophile tendencies are sin in themselves, even if there is no homosexual practice. Therefore the homophile tends to be pushed out of human life (and especially orthodox church life) even if he does not practice homosexuality. This, I believe, is both cruel and wrong.”

Then Scott Sauls chimed in on the eve of the PCA’s General Assembly:

Former PCA minister, Francis Schaeffer, offers a helpful perspective on this. Schaeffer wrote, “The mistake…that the orthodox people have made…is [to say] that homophile tendencies are sin in themselves, even if there is no homosexual practice. Therefore, the homophile tends to be pushed out of human life (and especially orthodox church life) even if he does not practice homosexuality. This, I believe, is both cruel and wrong.”

I read both pieces scratching my head because by 1980 Schaeffer was the inspiration behind the Moral Majority and his critique of American decadence during the so-called culture wars was hardly so polite about challenges to the family and public standards of decency. Take for instance this quotation that Michael Brown used to notice how prophetic Schaeffer was:

Sadly, many did suppose that this trend towards humanism would not affect “our own little projects, lives, and churches.” Now that we are in a pitched battle with the secular gods of the age, we have realized that our complacency is not only threatening our generation but also the generations to come. Is it too late to affect a positive change?

Even in 1984, long before the vast majority of Christian leaders were considering gay and lesbian issues, he asked, “When a San Francisco Orthodox Presbyterian congregation can be dragged into court for breaking the law against discrimination because it dismissed an avowed, practicing homosexual as an organist, can we be so deaf as not to hear all the warning bells?”

Brown also found this, even from as early as 1968:

Consider this insight from his book The God Who Is There, published in 1968.

He wrote, “But much modern homosexuality is an expression of the current denial of antithesis. It has led in this case to an obliteration of the distinction between man and woman. So the male and the female as complementary partners are finished.”

Yes, Schaeffer saw this 50 years ago, one year before the Stonewall Riots and the rise of the militant gay revolution, and long before the push for same-sex “marriage.”

Schaeffer may be wrong. He may be right. But quoting him should not resemble the way Roman Catholics pick and choose among papal assertions. I mean, remember when Barack Obama said he was opposed to gay marriage?

White Supremacy Paves the Way for Asian-Americans (go figure)

While Thabiti Anyabwile claims Bradly Mason as an authority on systemic racism, he might want to pay attention to the situation in New York City public schools (as explained by Andrew Sullivan):

If I were to put a time capsule in the ground to alert future generations what it was like to live in 2019, I think I’d include two simple documents: a video and transcript of one of Donald J. Trump’s deranged and unnerving rallies, and a chart used by the New York City schools system to train all its administrators, principals, and supervisors. The chart’s title is “White Supremacy Culture” and you can take a look at it here.

Back in the day (about five years ago, actually), if you thought of “white supremacy culture” you might have imagined, say, depictions of brutal slavery, crackpot theories of a master race, photographs of burning crosses on lawns, terrifying images of lynchings, or “whites only” signs, or a video of the Charlottesville neo-fascists. You know what I mean. And I think I’d be glad that public schools were educating employees about America’s original sin.

But that, of course, is not what “white supremacy” has come to mean among woke elites in 2019. And the chart, which is taken from a tome called Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups, explains what the term now means. Namely: “being results oriented and diminishing an otherwise-sound process which does not produce measurable results”; “seeing things in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, black or white”; “individualism”; “worship of the written word”; an overemphasis on “politeness”; “perfectionism”; “focusing only on the bottom line.” Now, if I were to give this material every benefit of the doubt, I’d note it’s perfectly reasonable to attempt to mitigate some kinds of obsessive conduct, excessive self-criticism, or distorted perspective among kids. We all know that perfectionism can lead to misery (tell me about it), that short-term thinking can be counterproductive, or that students need to have interpersonal skills as well as mastery of the written material. I’ve no doubt principals and administrators get this. But why on earth is this connected in some way to resisting “whiteness”?

But what this document clearly does is much more than that. It seems to me that it finds some essential features of success in America (or anywhere else, for that matter) as somehow racially problematic. And so a major school system is effectively telling principals and administrators not to expect the very best of their mainly minority students, not to reward individual effort, or mastery of written English, to instruct students that there are no binary choices between right or wrong, and to banish from their minds any notion of objective truth. The problem with objectivity, it seems, is that it “can lead to the belief that there is an ultimate truth, and that alternative viewpoints or emotions are bad. It’s even inherent in ‘the belief that there is an objective truth.’” This is not just bad education, it’s an assault on the very principles that buttress Western civilization.

Worse than this, the ideology equates excellence in objective tests with not just whiteness (whatever that is) but white supremacy. And it does this in a school district with enormous racial diversity. It’s hard not to infer that it is an official endorsement — by the schools chancellor no less — of the damaging canard that studying hard in school, doing your homework, and striving for excellence is “acting white.” And this is despite the fact that the ethnic group that is succeeding the most by traditional standards of excellence in New York City’s schools are Asian-Americans. (They comprise 74 percent of students at Stuyvesant High School, because Stuyvesant doesn’t admit students on any other metric than test scores.) Funny, isn’t it, how “white supremacy culture” ends up empowering nonwhites. I’m not sure real white supremacists would be down with that.

I’m often told that the social-justice left’s assault on individuality, meritocracy, and achievement is a figment of my imagination, or only true in isolated pockets of super-woke academia. But here is one of the largest school systems in the country imposing this ideology on its most important employees, mandating lessons in “whiteness,” allegedly firing women solely because they are white, and indoctrinating an entire generation into associating the virtues of objective truth, academic excellence, and reason with the worst kind of bigotry.

Notice that we have elites in Reformedish evangelical circles, those who want to do for Protestant churches what public school officials are doing in New York’s school systems.

How did it possibly happen that in the microscopic world of conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches we could have our very own elites?