What would He Think of Machen?

This is about the reporter who has had many fruitful interactions with Tim Keller:

The late writer Christopher Hitchens had what you might call an intellectual jumper cable routine: he would wake up in the morning, open the New York Times, read its front page motto “All the News Fit to Print,” and allow that hackneyed boast to enrage him into carrying out his polemical duties. Lately I’ve found myself accidentally mimicking Hitchens, but with the Washington Post, which since Trump’s election has been running with the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” So long as that shamelessly self-aggrandizing, wokeness-overdosed, low-rent Dashboard Confessional refrain-cum-greasy fortune cookie slip remains the ethos of my local paper, it’ll only take one cup of coffee to wake me up, thanks.

This week, though, it’s the Times that’s got my goat, probably because, unlike the Post, I read as much of it as possible every morning (for its excellent foreign coverage, not its masthead). Last week the Gray Lady published a column by op-ed page fixture Nicholas Kristof, the Tom Bergeron of liberal internationalism, titled “Trump’s Threat to Democracy.” Kristof cites two political science academics at Harvard who list four omens as to whether a “political leader is a dangerous authoritarian”: he “shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules,” “denies the legitimacy of opponents,” “tolerates violence,” and “shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.” “Donald Trump,” the profs ruefully announce, “met them all.” And then the clincher: “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.”

Come again?

That timespan easily covers Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, during which the mildly anti-civil liberty policy of rounding up 120,000 Japanese Americans and interning them in camps was implemented. But you don’t even need to go back that far to refute Kristof’s professors: events still in the public memory can provide. The George W. Bush administration instituted a surveillance regime that stretched the Fourth Amendment into cellophane, and then tried to browbeat a hospitalized (and possibly addled) John Ashcroft into granting it his approval; it allowed prisoners to be indefinitely detained and tortured, and even mulled using the military against terrorism suspects on U.S. soil. Barack Obama assassinated American citizens with drones, invoked the Espionage Act to spy on reporter James Rosen, launched a war against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi without congressional authorization, and set a record for the most Freedom of Information Act requests denied in American history. Bush and Obama didn’t just “show some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media,” to use the academics’ soupy words; they rammed right through them with the brunt power of the federal government.

With friends like these. . .

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The Dilemma

On the one hand, Roman Catholicism is nothing without the papacy:

There is nothing more distinctly Catholic than the papacy. While just about every other Catholic belief can be found in at least some other Christian denominations, our beliefs about the papacy are unique. Nobody else believes that the bishop of Rome has jurisdiction over the entire Church or that he can infallibly define dogmas; only we do. As a result, these doctrines are essentially what make us Catholic rather than Protestant or Orthodox, so they are extremely important for us.

In addition to the papacy, you need the magisterium:

There is agreement among all Christians that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. But since this Word is conveyed in human language, it does not have the evidence (quoad se—in itself) that the Protestants want to attribute to it. Rather, there is need for a human interpretation on the part of the teachers of the faith whose authority comes from the Holy Spirit. Toward those who hear the Word of God, these teachers represent God’s own authority, making use of human words and decisions (quoad nos—to us). The task of authoritative teaching and governing cannot be left solely to the individual believer who in his or her conscience comes to accept a certain truth. After all, revelation has been entrusted to the Church as a whole. Therefore, the Magisterium is an essential part of the Church’s mission. Only with the help of the living magisterium of the pope and the bishops can the Word of God be passed on in its integrity to the faithful and to all the people of all times and places.

On the other hand, you endure clericalism:

Clericalism affects the whole church. It has been accepted and even lauded by clergy as if it is an anticipation of the Kingdom yet to come. Its hold on us rests comfortably in the symbolic imagination of Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches of the East, at once their charm and their curse. That structure must be radically reviewed and reformed if the faith and hope and healthy life of the church are to be revived. As a Quaker colleague once put it to me: “What American adult wants to belong to a church in which he is treated as a child?” Clericalism infects the other Christian churches to a lesser degree and variously, but the Roman Church has simply collapsed under its weight.

According to some, there is nothing to be done about the crisis because the clergy-lay distinction is a matter of the divine will; in other words, “It’s Tradition, a very, very, very old Tradition!” Or could it be that there is something that can and ought to be done that is so radical and church-embracing, so chilling, that it is beyond clerical contemplation? If indeed clericalism is the problem, then the solution is the elimination of that division between clerical and lay Catholics. I am not opposed to leadership, to authority, to structure, to ministry, even to its three-tiered Roman Catholic articulation, but I am opposed to its sacrality and its sanctification. I suppose I am now advocating anti-clericalism, an instinct almost as old as clericalism itself, a historical protest against what the priesthood has done to the church (and a lot for the church, it must be said) through nearly two millennia. Can we count on the clergy to eliminate clericalism? Or the bishops? Or the pope? Not likely! They may badmouth it on occasion, much to their credit. But undo it? Never.

Protestants did not fix this, but they did localize church government. The downside for Protestants is a lack of unity. The upside is not having to act like the apostles’ successors know how to interpret the Bible better than you (as long as you know Greek and Hebrew).

Sin vs. Flourishing

This week’s Mubi selection prompted a viewing of Brighton Rock, an allegedly classic British film noir based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name.

Pinkie Brown is a small-town hoodlum whose gang runs a protection racket based at Brighton race course. When Pinkie murders a journalist called Fred Hale whom he believes is responsible for the death of a fellow gang-member, the police believe it to be suicide. This doesn’t convince Ida Arnold, who was with Fred just before he died, and she sets out to find the truth. She comes across naive waitress Rose, who can prove that Fred was murdered. In an attempt to keep Rose quiet Pinkie marries her. But with his gang beginning to doubt his ability, and his rivals taking over his business, Pinkie starts to become more desperate and violent. (from IMDB)

The Roman Catholic aspect of the movie was striking. Pinkie seems to know that God exists and will exact a penalty for his life of crime. His wife, Rose, is a Roman Catholic like Pinkie and also has a strong sense of right and wrong even while aiding and abetting her criminal husband. (Yes, the Roman Catholic version of antinomianism — think Mafia dons and whiskey priests — comes to mind.) Here is one description of Greene’s novel and his characters:

All of Greene’s novels were written after his conversion to Catholicism and a religious sense pervades most of them. However, Catholicism was not a vital ingredient in his fiction until Brighton Rock (1938) in which it was developed with a Manichean rigor. . . . In Brighton Rock, for example. Pinkie, the seventeen-year-old Catholic punk, seems possessed by evil and, therefore, in his own eyes—and in those of many of Greene’s readers—capable of being condemned to hell. Brighton Rock is easily classified as a religious novel. But Greene has commented in recent years that Pinkie’s actions were conditioned by the social circumstances in which he had been born and he could not, therefore, be guilty of mortal sin. . . .

[Greene] says, “I don’t believe in hell. I never have believed in hell. . . . They say God is mercy … so it’s contradictory.” (Many years earlier Greene wrote in Lawless Roads, a work of non-fiction: “One began to believe in heaven because one believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell one could picture with a certain intimacy.” This view is quite close to that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, except that Pinkie had difficulty in making the leap to a belief in heaven. Still, as Greene noted, one shouldn’t expect unchanging constancy in a writer.)

Greene was, obviously, all over the place when it came to faith. An excerpt from one of his books, which included an interview on faith, suggests he was not in step with the trads, the rads, or the trad-rads:

I don’t like the term ”sin”: It’s redolent of a child’s catechism. The term has always stuck in my throat, because of the Catholic distinction between ”mortal” and ”venial” sin. The latter is often so trivial as not even to deserve the name of sin. As for mortal sin, I find the idea difficult to accept because it must by definition be committed in defiance of God. I doubt whether a man making love to a woman ever does so with the intention of defying God! I always remember the example of a Dominican priest who found his life in Europe too easy and left for Africa, where he lived for years in a hut made out of old tin cans, only to discover that he was suffering from the sin of pride. He came back to England and confided to a friend that during all this time of hearing the confessions of the faithful, he had never come across a single mortal sin. In other words, for him, mortal sin didn’t exist. The word ”mortal” presupposes a fear of hell, which I find meaningless. This being the case, I fear that I’m a Protestant in the bosom of the church.

Vatican officials worried about Greene’s views (and especially the adultery that supplied material for his novels). But they gave him a long leash because England was Protestant and it wouldn’t look good to crack down on Roman Catholic novelists with so many Protestants watching:

Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, according to expert opinion, are to be considered the two major living English novelists: being Catholic they do credit to Rome’s faith, and they do credit to it in a country that is of Protestant civilization and culture. How can Rome be gruff and cruel? They are the successors of Chesterton and Belloc and, like them, rather than attempting to convert the small fry, strive to influence superior intelligences and the spirit of the age in a manner favorable to Catholicism. Their level, unlike that of a Bruce Marshall, is not that of average I.Q.s or, like the clergy in general, that of uneducated readers or pure professionals. Their level is the higher intelligentsia in the contemporary world which they sway and influence towards Rome …

All of this is fascinating, but what is striking about Greene’s novels (and the movies based on them), along with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is that the point of becoming Roman Catholic is not to flourish as a human being or civilizationally. The believing characters like Rose, and the defiant non-practicing ones like Pinkie, do not look at Christianity as a way to live the good life. Theirs is a world haunted by moral choices and a God who judges them. Heaven and hell give meaning, not flourishing.

Thread 1.1

(A series on the history of Calvinism)

Fourteen years after the sausage-eating incident in Zurich, on May 25, 1535, the citizens of Geneva pledged to Alive according to the Law of the Gospel and the Word of God, and to abolish all Papal abuses. The apparent orderliness and consensus of that expression of popular sovereignty in Geneva could not hide the turmoil by which the Reformation had come to a city that, although not part of the Swiss confederacy, would soon rival Zurich for leadership among Reformed Protestants. For the better part of a decade, the citizens of Geneva had been trying to gain independence from the House of Savoy. To do this Geneva needed the support of nearby Swiss cities, Fribourg and Bern. When political autonomy of the 1520s led to religious reforms in the 1530s, political rivalries turned ugly. Fribourg officials, who were Roman Catholic, used the death of one of their citizens during a religious riot in Geneva in 1533 to pressure the Genevans back into the fold of Rome. But thanks to friendly relations with the Protestant Bern, Geneva resisted Fribourg=s intimidation. In turn, Geneva sponsored two public debates between Protestant and Roman Catholic representatives, one in January, 1534, the second in June, 1535. Both led to riots. They also increased Geneva=s resolve for political independence and the prerogative to establish the city’s religious identity. By the time that Geneva=s citizens vowed to submit to the word of God in the spring of 1535, the city had withstood intimidation from both Fribourg and Bern, and had informed its Roman Catholic clergy that they either needed to convert to Protestantism or leave.

Remember the Paradigm

It feels like Old Life is on the cutting edge of commentary on Roman Catholicism. First, Edgardo Mortara surfaced last week for some at First Things and The American Conservative. Old Life was there and did that four years ago.

Now comes word that the pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin (so much for the spirituality of the church), thinks Pope Francis is tapping a paradigm shift in Roman Catholicism:

“At the end of the day, what resulted from Amoris Laetitia is a new paradigm that Pope Francis is carrying forward with wisdom, with prudence, and also with patience,” said Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and effectively the most senior figure in the Church after the pope himself.

“Probably, the difficulties that came up [around the document] and that still exist in the Church, beyond certain aspects of its content, are due precisely to this change of attitude that the pope is asking of us,” Parolin said.

“It’s a paradigm change, and the text itself insists on this, that’s what is asked of us – this new spirit, this new approach! … Every change always brings difficulties, but these difficulties have to be dealt with and faced with commitment,” Parolin said.

Old Life was on paradigms a good five years ago.

But the bigger issue is whether Bryan Cross’ paradigm has caught up to his Holy Father.

Maybe not Audacious, but Supreme

Look ma, an argument against the imperial Supreme Court without the crutches of w-w (trigger warning – not written by a Protestant):

Brown is the most important decision ever rendered by the United States Supreme Court. Its significance lies much less in its impact on the civil rights movement, which was indirect at most, than in establishing the idea that the judicial branch holds a monopoly on constitutional interpretation. Though controversial in 1954, the Segregation Cases (as Brown was initially called) are today almost universally regarded as the epitome of judicial wisdom and courage. Because the Supreme Court did what is considered so obviously right when the rest of the political system would not, it came to be considered preeminent among the three branches of the federal government.

It is still living off the moral capital acquired in Brown. Three years after that decision, the Court, enforcing the desegregation of Little Rock High School in Arkansas, went so far as to assert that its interpretation of the Constitution was the Constitution, the “supreme law of the land.” In 1992, the majority wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

The American people’s belief in themselves . . . as a people who aspire to live according to the rule of law is not readily separable from their understanding of the Court invested with the authority to decide their constitutional cases and speak before all others for their constitutional ideals.

In other words, the rule of law depends on the rule of judges. The American people and their elected officials have largely acquiesced in this usurpation. Public opinion polls show that the Court is near the top of institutions that Americans trust—way above Congress and the media, behind only the police, the military, and small business.

See? It is possible to reach politically conservative positions without resorting to theology or the Bible. In fact, theologians and pastors who write about politics as theologians and pastors usually let theology and the Bible get in the way of the Constitution.

What If Redeemer NYC Were Big Enough?

Some big changes at the most influential PCA congregation IN THE WORLD!

Here is the text of yesterday’s announcement:

The Center for Faith & Work (CFW) is pleased to announce the newest phase of its fifteen-year history as its staff joins Redeemer City to City (CTC) and continues to serve the Redeemer churches and New York City, while over time broadening its reach to global cities.

“Redeemer is changing with CFW because Redeemer is now not one church, it’s a family of three churches, which means it’s immediately looking outward to bless the whole city,” says Redeemer’s founding pastor Tim Keller. “Redeemer has become centrifugal; that is, it’s starting to push out to start new churches and help others start new churches. And so Redeemer is actually looking outwards, just like CFW will be looking outward, beyond Redeemer. They’re both making the same change at the same time. If CFW stays locked in Redeemer alone, then I don’t think a lot of its wisdom will be as available to the world. This is why now is the optimal time to do this.”

So apparently, Redeemer NYC is too New York to be of use to the rest of the world, unlike Redeemer CTC which is apparently global in orientation and structure. Do the folks who are New York Presbyterians really mean to imply that understandings of vocation in New York are parochial and cannot work in other parts of the world, unless integrated into a global organization? Since Tim Keller recently explained his worries about nationalism, what must he make of metropolitanism, something like the hyping of the Big Apple above the needs and realities of the rest of the world?

As the announcement explains:

Throughout its existence, CFW has encountered New Yorkers of all backgrounds facing a decidedly more global vocational culture. In our quickly changing world, the need for new tools, curriculum, and communities that help Christians wisely and meaningfully bring their faith to bear at work, across all spheres, is paramount.

City to City provides a developed network and infrastructure to strengthen CFW in its three-fold aim of equipping, connecting, and mobilizing Christians around the world in faith and work integration. City to City ensures a centralized effort towards that global expansion, while continuing a close and collaborative relationship with the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches.

So being a Christian banker in Beijing is decidedly different from banking on Wall Street?

Aside from vocation, this announcement raises questions about organizational footprint of Redeemer’s operations and Keller’s alliances. Are we really supposed to believe that Redeemer NYC — whichever congregation — was too inflexible a platform for the Center for Faith & Work? When did ecclesiology or administrative restrictions prevent Redeemer NYC from expanding its reach, or starting new programs? Heck, I suspect the PCA’s Mission to the World could have incorporated the work that the Center does if New York’s administrators had decided to work with PCA missionaries and their offices in different parts of the world? Is the Center’s activity really so special that the PCA’s structures can’t handle it? After all, the reading list available at the Center’s website is very, oh so very neo-Calvinist, with Al Wolter’s Creation Regained occupying the “advanced” understanding of vocation:

Few contemporary books have been cited as often by those who are writing about taking up callings and vocations faithfully. This this serious little book walks us through the key Biblical themes of the goodness of creation, the seriousness of the fall into sin, the decisive redemption gained by Christ, and the implications of working out the promised hope for a creation-wide restoration. With the keen eye of a philosopher and the passion of a Bible scholar, Wolter’s offers one of the definitive, concise books about a Christian worldview. One of the most important books for those of us in CFW and highly recommended to understand a uniquely Christian view of cultural and vocational engagement.

Granted, the neo-Calvinists never took root in NYC after the English displaced the Dutch colonists about two-thirds into the seventeenth century. But what is distinctly global about a set of readings that come largely from Christian Reformed writers living in North America and published Dutch-American editors in Grand Rapids?

And what about The Gospel Coalition? Is it parachurch chopped liver? Don’t the Allies have branches all over the world? If Redeemer can partner with TGC on The New City Catechism (TGC has a link at it’s menu page), why can’t the Center for Faith & Work collaborate with the Coalition in it’s own Faith & Work work?

The word that comes to mind is marvelous. But the marvel experienced here is that anyone in Presbyterian ministry has time for all of these structural niceties even when the bells and whistles of Presbyterian polity don’t seem to be all that important.

The 600 Pound Modern Gorilla in the Church

This review of Jamie Smith’s new book, Awaiting the King, got me thinking about Smith’s understanding of cultural liturgies. Here are some quotes from the book in the review:

There is something political at stake in our worship and something religious at stake in our politics. (3)

Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics. (54)

The church’s worship does not “become” political when it is translated into policy or hooked to partisan agendas. The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent. (59–60)

[I]t is equally important that we see Christian worship as political in nature—not in the sense of being “partisan” or tied to “earthly city” special interest groups, but insofar as it is the enactment of a public ritual centered on an ascended King. (53)

Jonathan Leeman rephrases Smith this way:

Your trip to the mall, your Monday Night Football party, your standing for the national anthem both express your worship, identity, and morality and also shape them, for better or worse. You’re not just a “thinking thing,” you’re a desiring and a loving thing, and these various cultural practices shape your desiring and your loving, like the liturgies at church.

What Smith wants us to take away from the book, then, is more awareness concerning how the world’s liturgies affect and shape our worship and politics, and then to center our political life around the church’s liturgies. Doing so will cause us to take a more ambivalent posture toward public engagement.

What I don’t understand is how women’s ordination escapes Smith’s close reading of cultural liturgies. Is the ordination of women a way of resisting modernity or a capitulation to it? If watching football on Sunday afternoons is part of a liturgical tradition that undermines the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, why isn’t the ordination of women a sign of the church’s capitulation to individualism and egalitarianism? In terms of cultural tropes, after all, women’s ordination closer to shopping at Walmart than it is to supporting the mom and pop shop on Main St.

You don’t need to interpret women’s ordination in terms of orthodoxy or heterodoxy as Smith argued:

Now, no one for a second can deny that such views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church. The weight of Scripture, tradition, and perhaps even “natural law” have sustained these views and beliefs for millennia. And one could argue that the silence on such matters in, say, Machen or The Fundamentals only reflects what was taken for granted, not what was unimportant. Certainly. And just because they are not matters of creedal definition doesn’t mean they are matters of indifference. The creeds don’t say anything about Christian nonviolence, for example, but that hardly means Christians are therefore free to adopt any posture or position they want if they follow the Prince of Peace.

But it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective “orthodox” is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as “heretics” and unbelievers. If “orthodox” becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to “us” in order to exclude “them.”

Precisely so. So if you depart from the historic position of the church on ordination, how are you sufficiently worried about cultural liturgies that promote ideas and expectations that make God’s people like the larger society? And if you believe that part of Protestant orthodoxy involves the sufficiency of Scripture, how do you go against clear biblical teaching on ordination and say you are committed to conciliar orthodoxy? How for that matter, are you going to be a reliable ally in disputes about matters of conciliar orthodoxy? The CRC may still confess the Canons of Dort, but will it refuse membership in ecumenical organizations that include Arminians?

Theonomists All

If you thought Calvinists and Muslims had a problem accepting political liberalism, wait til you see this (from a review of American Law from a Catholic Perspective: Through A Clearer Lens):

Over and over again, we see the deep chasm between the Catholic understanding of the human person and the anthropology implied by American liberalism. The difference is stark. The former conceives of each human being as a person—a relational being, in relationship to God and others and dependent on God and others. The latter sees each human being as an individual who can make and fashion his own being and existence autonomously and apart from God and others. God is a valid choice, but he is just that, a choice. The Catholic lawyer cannot help but feel a dissonance between his deepest beliefs and the law he is called to practice each day. American Law from a Catholic Perspective helps to remind readers where their allegiances must lie. The attentive reader can begin to see the ways in which he must work to change American law at its very roots to help it conform to the truth proclaimed by the Church. (Briefly Noted)

Doesn’t “at its very roots” mean radical?

And here I thought 2k was rad.

Machen Death Day 2018

From Samuel J. Allen, “The Last Battle of Dr. Machen,” Presbyterian Guardian, Jan. 23, 1937:

Thursday evening I had a precious visit with him. I prayed with him. After prayer he told me of a vision he had. He said that he thought he had already died. “Sam, it was glorious, it was glorious.” One could see that he had had a vision of heaven. He had already seen his Lord. He ended by saying, “Sam, isn’t the Reformed Faith grand?” This conversation was enough in itself to cause me to dedicate myself anew to propagate the Reformed Faith as God gave grace, wisdom, and strength.

The nurse told me that he was resigned and had repeatedly told her, “Let God’s will be done.”

New Year’s Eve at 11.30 P. M. I called on the nurse who told me that he was doing poorly. In the morning he was very low, but still had a chance. I stayed in the hospital, sometimes outside of his room and sometimes in the room. At rare intervals he would awake. He was fighting for breath. His lungs were fast closing up. One time he was telling Charlie Woodbridge something, and then Paul Woolley. Then the nurse told him that Sam Allen had called. He said, “Fine fellow, Sam. Give him my regards.” Then his eyes saw me and he said, “I’m just about conscious, Sam, just about conscious.” This was the only time I know that his mind wandered even for a minute. This was about 2.00 P. M: Friday. I never dreamed that he would ever regain consciousness again. To my surprise, when I went to his room at 4.00 P. M. with the Rev. E. E. Matteson and the Rev. C. A. Balcom he was conscious and his mind was clear as crystal, and he said, “Sam, old boy, everything is all right.”

I was quite excited at this turn for the better and left the room,not wishing to hurt his chances any. I knew that there was only a very small part of the left lung remaining to breathe through, but I hoped against hope and prayed for a miracle. He was very desirous of seeing his beloved brother, Arthur, and his sister-in-law. He had thought they were coming on the noon train and it was tragic to see his disappointment when they failed to appear. I do not know why he had the idea that they were coming on the noon train, but he surely thought they were. When his brother and his brother’s wife were pulling into Bismarck at 7.45 P. M. this great soul, – this marvelous, cultured, child-like, noble, courageous, Christian leader breathed his last, and his soul went to be with his Lord.

His last words were put down in a very precise way in a message to John Murray, “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ: no hope without it.” His nurse took this message.

When I could finally think after seeing one go whom I loved as much as I loved any human, three Scripture passages come to my mind. Philippians 1: 23, 24-it was indeed better for him to be with Christ and it did seem to me that it was absolutely necessary for him to abide in the flock to continue to lift up our hands; II Samuel 3: 38-a prince and a great man had fallen in Israel, and II Timothy 4: 7-1 have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.

“Dassie” kept telling me that I wasn’t seeing him at his best, but I believe that the Lord gave me the privilege of seeing him at his very, very best. I know that his last few days will always inspire me, for they gave me a picture of a truly humble, courteous, Christian gentleman, and of an indomitable spirit controlled by a passionate desire to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.

Postscript: see also the Dakota Datebook.