The New Calvinist Safe Space

I let it go and then Aquila Report picked up Tim Challies’ recommendations for how to find good books. In the context of debates about safe spaces on university campuses and some students’ desire to avoid the dark and less encouraging parts of human existence, Challies’ advice sounds familiar:

Who wrote you? Familiarize yourself with trustworthy authors. As a reader you should have your list of favorites, the short list of people you regard as especially influential and trustworthy. I believe there is a lot of value in tracking a few authors through the course of their career and reading—or at least considering—every one of their books. This is difficult with an R.C. Sproul since if you begin today you are 100 books behind, but much easier with younger authors who have a shorter list of works. Don’t know where to begin? Then ask a friend or pastor. Or ask me. I’d try people like H.B. Charles Jr., Kevin DeYoung, Gloria Furman, Russell Moore, Andy Naselli, Barnabas Piper, or Jen Wilkin—people like that. They have each written a few books but not so many that you’ll need to spend two years catching up, and they are all likely to write quite a few more. Find “your” authors and read what they write. But then also track who endorses their books, who speaks at conferences with them, and so on. Start to look for connections.

Who published you? You should familiarize yourself with Christian publishers and learn which of them are especially trustworthy. There are quite a lot of excellent publishers whose books may vary by quality and secondary theological issues but which will never fall outside the conservative Evangelical stream. Learn to trust these ones. Among them are Banner of Truth, Christian Focus, Crossway, Evangelical Press, Matthias Media, P&R, Reformation Heritage, Reformation Trust, The Good Book Company, (and, I hope, Cruciform Press since I was involved in founding it). If they publish it, you can be quite confident in it. Other publishers publish a much wider range of titles and, depending on the company, the imprint, or the department, their titles may range from very good to quite concerning or from very good to outright heretical. For these you will need to exercise a bit more caution. Here I refer to IVP, Eerdmans, Multnomah, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, as well as the faith or Christian imprints of large mainstream publishers (Harper Collins, Penguin, and so on).

Two troubling aspects of this counsel stand out. One, it assumes that Christians are readers who only look for books that agree with their own outlook. This is a big difference between New Calvinists and Neo-Calvinists. The latter read widely, try to learn from the best scholars in a variety of fields, and have confidence that challenging reading material will not destroy a reader’s faith. In other words, Neo-Calvinists understand the merits of the Pulitzer Prize. New Calvinists cultivate a safe space shelf of books.

The other problem is this: Challies’ advice explains how the Gospel Coalition and celebrity pastors happen, or Jen Hatmaker for that matter. Readers who want trustworthy authors and publishers, and learn to associate certain names with edifying material, are not going to be critical or discerning of the books on the safe-space shelf. Instead of iron sharpening iron it’s pillow softening pillow. And it does become an echo chamber that is so far removed from the mainstream that I’m surprised Tim Keller is part of the enterprise. He seems to aspire to Big Apple relevance but has a following in a pietistic ghetto, or TKNY’s urbanism should scare off those who seek reassuring authors and publishers.

I give New Calvinists credit for not portraying themselves as the smartest Christians in the room, though their attachment to Jonathan Edwards shows a bit of intellectual ambition. But how in the world are Christians going to operate in a world where the most respected newspapers, magazines, and publishers are places where believers will not tread for fear of being challenged? And people think the Left is responsible for the polarization of our society. Challies provides just one more way for Christians to isolate themselves.

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43 thoughts on “The New Calvinist Safe Space

  1. Affinity for Edwards may belie a certain intellectual ambition, but surely the New Cals affinity for memes, images, charts, infographics, and graphic quotes points to a basic, pandering shallowness aka evangelical pragmatism.

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  2. Instead of iron sharpening iron it’s pillow softening pillow.

    Amen DG. Oh wait, you weren’t talking about a few here. 

    (A different) Dan says: Ding!

    Ding, Mr Dan? You mean to –
    “familiarize yourself with trustworthy authors-the short list of people you regard as especially influential and trustworthy.”
    “familiarize yourself with Christian publishers and learn which of them are especially trustworthy.”

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  3. Ali, the Ding was for this “Challies provides just one more way for Christians to isolate themselves.”‘ Was in a hurry, no time for any extended discussion, or expression of wonderment as to why Calvinists of any description are scared of books. Thought that was the province of us dumb Baptists.

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  4. This is particularly interesting to me as an author. I just published a book on Michelangelo with Chicago Review Press so I am not going to please every follower of this list. I’ll see what comes of it.

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  5. What is being advocated by Challies–the end of his name, like the name Phillies, indicates there is more than one of him–is simply an example of authoritarianism. I know some who follow Keller independent of Challies’ advice. They only look to trusted Christian authors to understand the world around them. They are insular and confident in what they think they know. But I should add that this dependence on authoritarianism extends past the people mentioned in this blogpost. Itt’s a battle that most religiously conservative Christians either fight against or surrender to.

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  6. We all do this all the time. Challies seems a little to cautious, yes, but really…we can’t expect all lay people to have the discernment of academics. Nothing wrong with gravitating towards what you like. And you have to have some road guards unless you have a rich family to pay for leave time while you convalesce and recuperate from wipeouts. As for Eerdmans and IVP, he is quite right, and it is more than a little a shame that houses formerly of strong orthodox credentials have so diluted their output with religious multiculturalism.

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  7. “…we can’t expect all lay people to have the discernment of academics.”

    This reasoning has always baffled. First, there are non-academics who have discernment (some even more than academics). Second, why indulge the low standard and let bubble-making go? Why not instead raise the standard among the faithful of whatever background to pursue discernment? it’s like saying that because a child likes the shallow end he should be allowed to stay there as long as he wants instead of being encouraged to graduate to the deep end. After a while, doesn’t a grown man look pretty silly flopping around in his water wings? Plus what Paul says about milk and meat.

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  8. Zrim,

    Ding, ding, ding. And as a rule, I would say modern academics, at least in the liberal arts, have less discernment than non-academics.

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  9. Zrim and Joe, it brings to mind the tension between the pietist’s paradigm of the conversion narrative vs. the confessional/biblical paradigm of discipleship. Or, even Calvin’s idea of being ‘converted’ through the course of one’s life.

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  10. Zrim,

    I see your point, but I don’t find the opposing view so baffling. There are laypeople in the pews, particularly those coming out of shallow evangelicalism, who could use the help of being pointed in the right direction when reading theology. I certainly benefited at some point many years ago from pastors, friends, blogs (the Confessional Outhouse anyone?) etc., who implicitly or explicitly made suggestions. That’s not quite the same thing as creating a safe space for people to indulge their intellectual laziness.

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  11. Biblical support for pillow softening pillow?

    Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens the face his neighbor,” is almost universally seen as positive. Some view this maxim as an example of “tough love,” others as a rewording of a verse earlier in this passage, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6).

    There is little evidence, however, for these interpretations, which appear to reflect modern connotations of “sharpness.”

    In fact, the biblical evidence for parts of a face that are “sharp” suggests a more negative reading, for sharp eyes or a sharp tongue show an intent to do violence or bring about destruction. The usage of the LXX’s verb for “sharpen” (παροξύνω) elsewhere confirms this interpretation.

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  12. mboss, I’m not talking about helping a child get his feet wet in the shallow end. That makes sense. I mean staying put there over time because the deep end has perceived dangers, which is what Challies’ type of advice (which is ubiquitous) comes across as. It’s coddling and pietistic.

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  13. @Darryl,
    Thanks for the link. That’s interesting. I wonder how many idioms in Proverbs and other wisdom literature we take for granted and yet get exactly wrong. Maybe there is a place for scholarship in exegesis after all!

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  14. Sean says: brings to mind the tension between the pietist’s paradigm of the conversion narrative vs. the confessional/biblical paradigm of discipleship. Or, even Calvin’s idea of being ‘converted’ through the course of one’s life.

    not sure what you are saying, sean ; no reply necessary since it wasn’t to me; nonetheless, just stating it is perplexing

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  15. Ali, how about experiential vs. discipleship? Or closing the deal(walking an aisle) vs. catechism? These emphasis tend toward contrary means and ends. Excited state vs. sobriety. Emotional commitment vs. deliberate conclusions.

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  16. Ali, how about experiential vs. discipleship? Or closing the deal(walking an aisle) vs. catechism? These emphasis tend toward contrary means and ends. Excited state vs. sobriety. Emotional commitment vs. deliberate conclusions.

    Thanks for the response sean, still not sure completely what you are saying -perhaps you could be more impartial, fair, and clear.
    Anyway, whatever metaphor you might prefer …iron sharpening iron…. pillows softening pillows ….. wounding or kissing, etc, it all agrees that we are in the business of standing firm and striving together for the faith of the gospel and are growing up in the grace and knowledge, in all aspects, into our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, together. Right?

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  17. Ali, it’s confessionalism versus pietism: Jesus the Son at the right hand of God the Father versus in my heart; Jesus as the maker of good things like beer versus Jesus is better than beer; Jesus as Lord and Savior versus my boyfriend and cosmic pal.

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  18. If you read outside the acceptable sources (even listen to NPR), you know that the Genevose Syndrome is no longer in play:

    ” ‘The Witness’ is very much about a story we think we know,” Solomon said in an interview Tuesday morning. “And it’s also a film about the profound effect of a tragedy in a family’s life. It’s such a public event that in many ways it erased Kitty’s life within the family.” Indeed, many of Kitty Genovese’s siblings and their children have put the murder behind them, to the point that one grown niece first found out about the story in her high school class.

    That offers a dichotomy with Bill Genovese, who hasn’t stopped thinking about the killing for 50 years. And it creates an interesting thematic subtext: Is a brutal tragedy something to move on from or hunker down in?

    Even the latter approach here, it must be said, is not one of paralyzing self-pity. Genovese sets about finding the witnesses and their descendants with a detective’s zeal, lending the movie a procedural feel that is both suspenseful and surprising. Without giving away too much, it turns out that many of those newspaper claims were indeed inaccurate; there were responses to Kitty Genovese’s plea, and they took various, in some cases heartening, forms.

    So why apply this to the church?

    It was 4:25 am when the ambulance arrived to take her dead body away, then and only then the people came out.

    While it’s easy to point the finger at these neighbors and say that they were selfish and lazy, I think that this attitude easily creeps into our churches as well. The Genovese Syndrome (a.k.a. The Bystander Effect) is alive and well in our congregations.

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  19. Ali, it’s confessionalism versus pietism: Jesus the Son at the right hand of God the Father versus in my heart; Jesus as the maker of good things like beer versus Jesus is better than beer; Jesus as Lord and Savior versus my boyfriend and cosmic pal.

    Thanks or the proof text opportunity Zrim 🙂

    AND….He is in our hearts, is the maker of all good things to enjoy, and is our friend. 
    -the Lord grant you to be strengthened with power so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, Eph 3:15-17
    -Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above James 1:17
    – No longer do I call you slaves but I have called you friends. John 15: 15

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  20. Ali, there are friends and there is Facebook; there are hearts and there is subjectivism; there are personal testimonies and there are personal histories. Do you know the differences? They’re pretty important.

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  21. Zrim, Ali, there are friends and there is Facebook; there are hearts and there is subjectivism; there are personal testimonies and there are personal histories. Do you know the differences? They’re pretty important.

    huh Zrim? But I’ll agree there are many important things, some for this am….
    1) salvation belongs to the Lord; 2) people can draw near with words and honor God with lip service but have hearts far from Him

    Is that some of what you’re trying to say?

    have a great day

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