Thinking is a Many Splendored Thing

There is thinking like a historian:

we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. …

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Only once students “understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique.” Thinking historically is understanding someone else, maybe even being ready to forgive, or withhold judgment.

This could be the gospel compared to the law of thinking like a Christian. When you do that you pretty much go into righteous indignation (as in “they will know we are Christians by what we condemn”):

It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

Neither of these ways of think is political (Bill McClay on vandalism):

the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order.

Almost thirty years of integrating faith and learning and Christians still struggle with thought.

Timely, Timeless, and Weekly

After pondering why pastors (and even parachurch leaders) feel the necessity to comment on contemporary affairs — and whether this is connected to civil religion or pious nationalism — I was curious to see what the gospel allies have been writing about the pandemic.

One problem for people who are in the business of teaching and defending enduring truths like those from a book over two millennia old is that commentary on current affairs can be dated oh so quickly, even in a piece that initially seemed so brilliant:

3. What Decisions Do We Need to Make?
[Note this update from Crouch: As of the President and federal health officials’ afternoon press conference on 16 March 2020, this advice, which was intended for leaders making decisions on or immediately after12 March 2020, is obsolete, though still helpful both for modeling how Christians might make such decisions and in helping us comply with existing restrictions (e.g., in places where gatherings of up to ten are allowed). I will not be updating it further. All leaders should obey both the requirements and the requests of public officials at every level.]

Groups of less than ten people can meet together with minimal risk, provided that
*no one present is sick or has any reason to think they have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2,
*shared surfaces are disinfected before and after the meeting
*everyone washes their hands thoroughly (more than 20 seconds) upon arrival and upon returning to their home
*food and drink are served individually
*as much distance as possible is maintained between members of different households and their belongings.

Another oddity is the tacit admission that Christians are so poorly read that they need to go to a parachurch website for knowledge about a topic that almost everyone is talking about 24/7. Don’t believers actually know where to go for information about the world they share in common with non-believers? Or do they need that knowledge to come from reliable sources (and only Christian sources are reliable)? This piece has good material, but it also comes across paternalistically, like we need to spoon feed this stuff to you kids out there:

The use of the terms endemic, outbreak, epidemic, and pandemic do not denote the severity, or how serious the condition has become. For instance, influenza (flu) is endemic to the United States, though the severity changes from year to year. The severity of the flu in 2019–2020 is classified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as being “high.” According to CDC estimates, from October 1, 2019, through February 15, 2020, there have been 29 million to 41 million flu illnesses, 13 million to 19 million flu medical visits, 280,000 to 500,000 flu hospitalizations, and 16,000 to 41,000 flu deaths.

In contrast, the COVID-19 has (as of February 24, 2020), resulted in 51,838 currently infected patients (40,271 in mild condition; 11,567 in serious condition), 25,271 recovered cases, and 2,698 deaths. It’s currently unclear what level of severity we should expect if COVID-19 becomes a pandemic.

Two other important terms are containment and mitigation. Containment is measures taken to slow the spread of a condition, usually for the purpose of making preparations before it becomes an epidemic or pandemic. As applied to COVID-19, containment has included measures taken to slow the spread of the virus (a somewhat achievable goal) rather than intended to stop the complete spread of the disease (which may not be achievable, at least in the short term). Mitigation is efforts to reduce the severity or seriousness of the condition. In a pandemic, mitigation strategies may include a variety of approaches, from encouraging handwashing to the creation of new vaccines.

So what are Christians to do? Why can’t they have Sundays for a word from the Lord, fellowship of the saints, and rest from this world in anticipation of the eternal rest to come? Machen sure seemed to understand this:

Remember this, at least — the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as minsters of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give — the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (Selected Shorter Writings, 205)

The other six days, let the experts have their say and let the saints figure out — in consultation with friends, parents, cousins, teachers, colleagues — which experts to follow. Is that too secular?

Proportional Meanness

This is inspired by trying to calculate the sweepstakes for Christians criticizing Christians. As much as Calvinists may suffer from a reputation for orneriness, some of the folks on the progressive side of evangelicalism have a pretty low threshold for deviation from progressive evangelical norms.

I suspect most people who write critically about others, in venues other than book reviews, have some sense of the critique’s degree of importance. How much of a threat is the person about whom you are posting or writing a stand-alone article? Part of the calculation behind criticism is actually preventing the spread of error or harm. But another side of it — and does it take only someone who believes in total depravity (or has seen The Wire)? — is what notoriety and even recognition an author might receive writing the piece. If it is an easy dismissal, one where most people agree — like Donald Trump is a moral cretin, then you need to add value to have your criticism taken seriously and distinguish your perspective from the herd. But if it requires some work to see the problem in the person under scrutiny, then what you gain potentially by criticizing is a reputation for being smart or clever — thinking outside the box. In which case, if Jonathan Merritt criticizes Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today magazine, he will need to work fairly hard since Galli has received lots of praise for writing an op-ed in favor of Trump’s impeachment (those were the days!). To take on Galli could hurt your own standing. But if someone writes about the frivolity and potential danger of Joel Osteen, you don’t have to work all that hard.

Then the question will be where you publish. If you want to impress editors in D.C. or New York, chances are you can’t simply contend against religious celebrities who may be very popular but are not very well known or very interesting to cosmopolitan readers. You may want to rail against Osteen, but editors at The Atlantic or New Yorker will be right to ask why should we or our readers care? If you want to write for a rank-and-file conservative Protestant outlet, you may not have to work as hard since editors may have trouble finding good copy. But you also need to be careful that editors or readers of the publication may like the person you are criticizing. If so you need to write your critique in a way that is plausible even to the admirers of the person you intend to correct.

That seems to leave three layers of calculus: 1) how big or famous is the person you are criticizing? 2) how national or parochial is the publication to which you are submitting your critique? 3) how do you rate in comparison to either the object of criticism or the authors who write regularly for the publication?

If you are a big fish in a small pond and go after an obvious target, say someone like Carl Trueman writing a critical piece of the atheist Sam Harris for New Horizons, then you may have misfired. Who among New Horizons’ readers needs to be schooled in the dangers of atheism.

But if you are a smaller fish in a bigger pond, say a professor at Westminster Seminary writing a critical estimate of Karl Barth for Theology Today, then you need to walk carefully since the editors and readership are inclined to be partial to Barth.

And if you are a big fish writing in a big pond about a little fish, say Stanley Hauerwas writing at First Things about the impoverished theology of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, you probably won’t do it. You would be wasting your own learning on someone outside the ranks of professional theology. And even if the readers of First Things regularly publish what your submit, you may not want to waste your capital on a subject that is of little concern to the editors or readers of the journal. You start to publish too many pieces on thinkers, writers, or pastors that are not in your league, you may drop down from the Premier League to the Football League.

So why is it that evangelicals who are minor figures in the national pantheon of thought leaders and public intellectuals don’t see how large or obvious the subtext is when they hammer away at the religious celebrities that secular or Christian progressives find so easy to mock? It is not even a question of loyalty to your tribe however thin the ties may be within tribal evangelicalism. It is a question of thoughtfulness. If you want to impress your cultural superiors, do you really take on subjects that are virtually defenseless (other than having standing from celebrity)?

On the other side of the relationship, why do secular editors publish criticisms from evangelical journalists and academics of pastors and Protestant celebrities about whom none of their readers actually care? Maybe it is a way of “otherizing” the religious whackos and allowing yourself and your readers the chance to feel superior to the religious unwashed. That’s not terribly clever or difficult, though it likely explains the logic behind click-bait. But why evangelical journalists or academics ever want to be used that way is a mystery. I hope they are washing more than their hands (early and often).

Taking Every Fluid Ounce Captive

Churches have specific associations with bodies of water. This Lutheran Church Missouri Synod writer claims the Mississippi (but I wonder if Mark Twain would let him not to mention what Lutherans in Germany might think about rivers in the United States):

A lot of evangelicals are swimming these days. They’re slipping on their metaphorical fins and masks and churning their way across bodies of water to emerge on the other shore as members of a different faith community. Those that move from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism are said to swim the Tiber; those that become Orthodox swim the Bosporus.

Reasons for their aquatic activities vary. Some like the art and architecture associated with the ancient faiths. Some like the ceremonial aspects–the liturgies, the veneration of icons, the Eucharist. Some like the history that oozes from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, a history that travels through great saints of yesteryear–through Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus–but goes largely forgotten in contemporary evangelicalism. . . .

But evangelicals interested in “swimming” to a different tradition should consider traversing a body of water much closer to home: the Mississippi River, on which is located St. Louis, Missouri, and the headquarters of the premier conservative Lutheran church body in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

This raises at least one question: what body of water should Presbyterians identify with for their denominational affiliation?

American Presbyterians would likely claim the Delaware River since the first presbytery and General Assembly met in Philadelphia. But the Chesapeake might also apply since some of the earliest congregations settled by Ulster Presbyterians were in Maryland.

European Presbyterians, if the look to Geneva, probably invoke Lake Geneva.

The Scots likely think about the Firth of Forth (I was thinking it was a Fifth) given the estuary’s proximity to Edinburgh.

The Irish? They may have the hardest time attracting converts if crossing the North Sea is necessary for being a Presbyterian in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure swimming the Belfast Lough is any less challenging.

Mencken Day 2019: Minorites in the U.S.

From Prejudices, Third Series:

Worse, a minority not only has no more inalienable rights in the United States; it is not even lawfully entitled to be heard. This was well established by the case of the Socialists elected to the New York Assembly. What the voters who elected these Socialists asked for was simply the privilege of choosing spokesmen to voice their doctrines in a perfectly lawful and peaceable manner,—nothing more. This privilege was denied them. In precisely the same way, the present national House of Representatives, which happens to be Republican in complexion, might expel all of its Democratic members. The voters who elected them would have no redress. If the same men were elected again, or other men of the same views, they might be expelled again. More, it would apparently be perfectly constitutional for the majority in Congress to pass a statute denying the use of the mails to the minority—that is, for the Republicans to bar all Democratic papers from the mails. I do not toy with mere theories. The thing has actually been done in the case of the Socialists. Under the present law, indeed—upheld by the Supreme Court—the Postmaster-General, without any further authority from Congress, might deny the mails to all Democrats. Or to all Catholics. Or to all single-taxers. Or to all violoncellists.

Yet more, a citizen who happens to belong to a minority is not even safe in his person: he may be put into prison, and for very long periods, for the simple offense of differing from the majority. This happened, it will be recalled, in the case of Debs. Debs by no means advised citizens subject to military duty, in time of war, to evade that duty, as the newspapers of the time alleged. On the contrary, he advised them to meet and discharge that duty. All he did was to say that, even in time of war, he was against war—that he regarded it as a barbarous method of settling disputes between nations. For thus differing from the majority on a question of mere theory he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The case of the three young Russians arrested in New York was even more curious. These poor idiots were jailed for the almost incredible crime of circulating purely academic protests against making war upon a country with which the United States was legally at peace, to wit, Russia. For this preposterous offense two of them were sent to prison for fifteen years, and one, a girl, for ten years, and the Supreme Court upheld their convictions. Here was a plain case of proscription and punishment for a mere opinion. There was absolutely no contention that the protest of the three prisoners could have any practical result—that it might, for example, destroy the morale of American soldiers 6,000 miles away, and cut off from all communication with the United States. The three victims were ordered to be punished in that appalling manner simply because they ventured to criticise an executive usurpation which happened, at the moment, to have the support of public opinion, and particularly of the then President of the United States and of the holders of Russian government securities.

It must be obvious, viewing such leading cases critically—and hundreds like them might be cited—that the old rights of the free American, so carefully laid down by the Bill of Rights, are now worth nothing. Bit by bit, Congress and the State Legislatures have invaded and nullified them, and to-day they are so flimsy that no lawyer not insane would attempt to defend his client by bringing them up. Imagine trying to defend a man denied the use of the mails by the Postmaster-General, without hearing or even formal notice, on the ground that the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech! The very catchpolls in the courtroom would snicker. I say that the legislative arm is primarily responsible for this gradual enslavement of the Americano; the truth is, of course, that the executive and judicial arms are responsible to a scarcely less degree. Our law has not kept pace with the development of our bureaucracy; there is no machinery provided for curbing its excesses. In Prussia, in the old days, there were special courts for the purpose, and a citizen oppressed by the police or by any other public official could get relief and redress. The guilty functionary could be fined, mulcted in damages, demoted, cashiered, or even jailed. But in the United States to-day there are no such tribunals. A citizen attacked by the Postmaster-General simply has no redress whatever; the courts have refused, over and over again, to interfere save in cases of obvious fraud. Nor is there, it would seem, any remedy for the unconstitutional acts of Prohibition agents. Some time ago, when Senator Stanley, of Kentucky, tried to have a law passed forbidding them to break into a citizen’s house in violation of the Bill of Rights, the Prohibitionists mustered up their serfs in the Senate against him, and he was voted down.

Imagine if Reformed Protestants were a minority.

A Federal Department of Sanctification?

Pastor Anyabwile is back to the pursuit of social justice with a series of posts, the most recent of which renders those not active in opposition to racism as complicit with previous generations’ sins:

The actual debate is about the extent to which the sins of previous generations still mark this generation, and, if so, whether people today will acknowledge and repent of it. What is in dispute is whether a mere claim to not being guilty of certain sins constitutes either repentance or innocence when the sins in view actually require active opposition and when we may be unaware of some sins (Ps. 19:12; 1 Cor. 4:4). The life the gospel produces ought to be actively anti-racist, anti-oppression, anti-family destruction, and so on.

How could Anyabwile leave out sexism and misogyny, or climate change? How can any American stand on that great day of judgment for sins covered in the national press?

One of his posts includes the point, not very controversial, that the gospel involves renovation of the Christian’s moral life:

…historically and at present we have an evangelical Christian church generally failing at the ethical half of the faith. That failure results from little teaching and inadequate understanding of gospel ethics, especially as it relates to the practice of justice on a range of issues.

The conservative and Reformed evangelical church receives a heavy dose of gospel doctrine (appropriately so) but not nearly enough discipleship in gospel duty. Its witness is being hurt by the latter (duty), not the former (doctrine). Or, to use Paul’s words to Timothy, there’s need for the church to “closely watch its life and doctrine.”

The social justice “debate” appears to me as a kind of spiritual and intellectual dissonance caused by some quarters of the church awakening to the ethical demands of God while other quarters resist that awakening or perceived excesses in it. From my vantage point, Christians pursuing justice are attempting to hold together evangel and ethic in renewed ways as they apply biblical texts and appropriate history. (I stress Christians here because I am not defending and am not a part of the large number of non-Christian things traveling beneath the banner of “social justice.”) To put it simply: Some Christians are trying to grow in their understanding and pursuit of Bible- and gospel-informed justice, while some other Christians are invested in protecting the gospel from threats they believe they see. My critique of the latter is that they appear to be severing evangel from ethic.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: ethics is not justice. Ethics may not even be sanctification. But if social justice and supporting reform of the criminal justice system (which is desirable) is a form of sanctification, the good pastor has engaged in some serious baiting and switching.

Truth be told, the United States has a Department of Justice that is involved in much more than ethics:

To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.

Of course, recent controversies, from Russia to Missouri, have shown how flawed the execution of justice can be. But that’s the nature of society and justice in a fallen world. Heck, not even sanctification is entire in this life for the individual Christian.

So why does Pastor Anyabwile continue to talk about social justice in ways that indicate he is a Christian nationalist, that is, someone who thinks the United States should meet, not Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon norms for social life, but Christian ones?

Why not separate the church from the federal government and talk about ways to eliminate racism from national institutions on political grounds, rather than trying to turn political reform into the third use of the law?

Being A Woke Christian is Biting Off More than You Can Chew

I have already wondered how you can throw around the phrase, white normativity, and not also need to add heternormativity to your Christian activism. But Andrew Sullivan, a man who is gay, married, Roman Catholic, and identifies as conservative, also gives reason for thinking that woke evangelicals and Reformed Protestants are playing with fire if they think they can hold on to doctrinal normativity while berating white normativity and remain silent (or not) about heteronormativity.

First, without even using the phrase, “cultural Marxism,” Sullivan explains why some Americans find the Left, and their woke evangelical supporters, scary (yes, it may be okay to be afraid):

A conservative who becomes fixated on the contemporary left’s attempt to transform traditional society, and who views its zeal in remaking America as an existential crisis, can decide that in this war, there can be no neutrality or passivity or compromise. It is not enough to resist, slow, query, or even mock the nostrums of the left; it is essential that they be attacked — and forcefully. If the left is engaged in a project of social engineering, the right should do the same: abandon liberal democratic moderation and join the fray.

I confess I’m tempted by this, especially since the left seems to have decided that the forces behind Trump’s election represented not an aberration, but the essence of America, unchanged since slavery. To watch this version of the left capture all of higher education and the mainstream media, to see the increasing fury and ambition of its proponents, could make a reactionary of nearly anyone who’s not onboard with this radical project.

Of course, Sullivan is not ready to join the OPC or to sign the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. He recognizes a difference between supporting Trump as the embodiment of American norms and seeing Trump as a hedge on the Left’s attempt to remake the nation (even while breaking things):

This, it strikes me, is one core divide on the right: between those who see the social, cultural, and demographic changes of the last few decades as requiring an assault and reversal, and those who seek to reform its excesses, manage its unintended consequences, but otherwise live with it. Anton is a reactionary; I’m a conservative. I’m older than Anton but am obviously far more comfortable in a multicultural world, and see many of the changes of the last few decades as welcome and overdue: the triumph of women in education and the workplace; the integration of gays and lesbians; the emergence of a thriving black middle class; the relaxation of sexual repression; the growing interdependence of Western democracies; the pushback against male sexual harassment and assault.

Yes, a conservative is worried about the scale and pace of change, its unintended consequences, and its excesses, but he’s still comfortable with change. Nothing is ever fixed. No nation stays the same. Culture mutates and mashes things up. And in America, change has always been a motor engine in a restless continent.

But you are not a white racist Christian nationalist supremacist misogynist sinner (where do you put guns?) if you don’t agree with the ladies or men of color who host certain podcasts:

In a new essay, Anton explains his view of the world: “What happens when transformative efforts bump up against permanent and natural limits? Nature tends to bump back. The Leftist response is always to blame nature; or, to be more specific, to blame men; or to be even more specific, to blame certain men.” To be even more specific, cis white straight men.

But what are “permanent and natural limits” to transformation? Here are a couple: humanity’s deep-seated tribalism and the natural differences between men and women. It seems to me that you can push against these basic features of human nature, you can do all you can to counter the human preference for an in-group over an out-group, you can create a structure where women can have fully equal opportunities — but you will never eradicate these deeper realities.

The left is correct that Americans are racist and sexist; but so are all humans. The question is whether, at this point in time, America has adequately managed to contain, ameliorate, and discourage these deeply human traits. I’d say that by any reasonable standards in history or the contemporary world, America is a miracle of multiracial and multicultural harmony. There’s more to do and accomplish, but the standard should be what’s doable within the framework of human nature, not perfection.

Sullivan’s point about the Left blaming nature is what seems to be missing from the self-awareness of woke Protestants. They may agree and receive inspiration from opposing racial and gender hierarchies. But for the Left, these antagonism stem from a willingness to overturn nature. That is a line that Christians should not cross if they want to continue to believe in the God who created humans as male and female, and creatures as feline and canine. You start to argue that to achieve equality we need to do away with natural distinctions and you are going to have trouble with the creator God.

One last point from Sullivan that shows how woke Christians are becoming fundamentalist, but with a real kicker:

This week, I read a Twitter thread that was, in some ways, an almost perfect microcosm of this dynamic. It was by a woke mother of a white teenage son, who followed her son’s online browsing habits. Terrified that her son might become a white supremacist via the internet, she warns: “Here’s an early red flag: if your kid says ‘triggered’ as a joke referring to people being sensitive, he’s already being exposed & on his way. Intervene!” Really? A healthy sense of humor at oversensitivity is a sign of burgeoning white supremacy? Please. More tips for worried moms: “You can also watch political comedy shows with him, like Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj. Talk about what makes their jokes funny — who are the butt of the jokes? Do they ‘punch up’ or down? … Show them that progressive comedy isn’t about being ‘politically correct’ or safe. It’s often about exposing oppressive systems — which is the furthest thing from ‘safe’ or delicate as you can get.”

It reminds me of a fundamentalist mother stalking her son’s online porn habit. Doesn’t she realize that it is exactly this kind of pious, preachy indoctrination about “oppressive systems” that are actually turning some white kids into alt-right fanboys? To my mind, it’s a sign of psychological well-being that these boys are skeptical of their authority figures, that they don’t think their maleness is a problem, and that they enjoy taking the piss out of progressive pabulum. This is what healthy teenage boys do.

More to the point, this kind of scolding is almost always counterproductive. Subject young white boys to critical race and gender theory, tell them that women can have penises, that genetics are irrelevant in understanding human behavior, that borders are racist, or that men are inherently toxic, and you will get a bunch of Jordan Peterson fans by their 20s. Actually, scratch that future tense — they’re here and growing in number.

Many leftists somehow believe that sustained indoctrination will work in abolishing human nature, and when it doesn’t, because it can’t, they demonize those who have failed the various tests of PC purity as inherently wicked. In the end, the alienated and despised see no reason not to gravitate to ever-more extreme positions. They support people and ideas simply because they piss off their indoctrinators. And, in the end, they reelect Trump.

Re-elect Trump or no, you have ideological purity.

Why Not Princess Di, Designated Hitters, Martinis, and Malaysia Flight 370?

Why not a book or set of essays on these topics? Why do Christians instead feel compelled to write books like these?

How should Christians approach important contemporary issues like war, race, creation care, gender, and politics?

Christians in every culture are confronted with social trends and moral questions that can be difficult to navigate. But, the Bible often doesn’t speak directly to such issues. Even when it does, it can be confusing to know how best to apply the biblical teaching.

In Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues authors Joshua D. Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior first offer a broadly accessible framework for cultural engagement and then explore specific hot topics in current Western culture including:

Sexuality
Gender Roles
Human Life and Reproduction Technology
Immigration and Race
Creation and Creature Care
Politics
Work
Arts
War, Weapons, and Capital Punishment
Featuring contributions from over forty top thinkers, proponents of various views on the specific topics present their approaches in their own words, providing readers an opportunity to fairly consider options.

Unique in how it addresses both big-picture questions about cultural engagement and pressing current issues, Cultural Engagement provides a thorough and broad introduction useful for students, professors, pastors, college ministers, and any believer wanting to more effectively exercise their faith in the public square.

Or this?

In his What Are Biblical Values? Collins aims to lay out, as dispassionately as possible, what the Bible actually says on a range of issues in contemporary debate—abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family, the environment, slavery, violence, and social justice.

Collins doesn’t think the Bible gives clear answers to most of these questions. The Bible is internally contradictory, a “running argument” with “conflicting values.” It doesn’t matter anyway: “Biblical values are not normative or acceptable for modern society simply because they are found in the Bible.” They have to be sifted and critiqued, both by comparison of Scripture with Scripture and by “dialogue with modern values,” which represent “clear advances in moral sensitivity.” The Bible contributes to the church’s deliberations, but “its contribution is not necessarily decisive.”

Some might contend that topics like the best aioli sauce, the merits of the Coens’ Burn After Reading, the right density for residential properties in an urban neighborhood, or the merits of circles rather than four-way stops at intersections don’t rise to the level of significance as climate change or race relations.

But that suggests the headlines are driving Christian cultural “engagement” more than than simply attending to the variety, wonder, mystery, and reality of creation (including the activities of humans). Why is someone less culturally “engaged” when keeping score of the Phillies-Dodgers game than someone else who is watching the Democratic Party’s presidential debates? If all of creation is the theater of God’s providence, why not an egalitarianism of human interests and endeavors?

In which case, Rachel Rae’s cookbook on comfort food is just as good as (if not better than) Redeemer Presbyterian Church NYC’s cookbook. Christians have no corner on cultural engagement. And if the Bible has little to say about even the matters covered in the books above, what’s the point of calling this Christian or engagement?

How Slippery is the Normativity Slope?

I listened to a discussion among Asian-American PCA pastors about race and ethnicity and was surprised to hear the use of “white normativity” as frequently as they did. They object strenuously to white normativity in the church. I wonder about that way of putting it since John Frame and I are both white and yet the differences he and I have about worship have little to do explicitly with being white. I do, by the way, like the idea that Frame’s brief for Contemporary Christian Music has as much white culture attached to it as exclusive psalmody since the old canard about so-called traditional Presbyterian worship was that it was too white, male, European, and suburban (even though none of the Westminster Divines had a clue that Levittown was on the horizon of white cultural normativity).

Here is one example of the use of white normativity from one of the interlocutors’ talks/homilies/speeches:

That leads to a deeper and better informed repentance, does it not? One that names with far greater specificity, repenting of specific sins specifically…one that names with far greater specificity the problem of white cultural normativity and supremacy in the church.

If you wanted to know the instances of white normativity in the church, like too much stuff that white people like, you might be surprised to hear that wealth is an instance of white dominance in the church and a way to repent is for whites to pay ecclesiastical reparations to black and people-of-color congregations. But wait, isn’t currency itself a form of white normativity? Can you really make up for it by relying on it in the way you make up?

Aside from that logical speed bump, the real point here is how do you head down the rhetorical path that relies on intersectional ideas like white normativity and turn off before you arrive at heteronormativity. After all, for the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the systemic nature of injustice does not stop with skin color but runs all the way to sexual identity:

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

This is not some threat about where ideas lead. Some PCA pastors could make a real contribution and explain how to address racial and ethnic inequalities or discrepancies while excluding discussions of sexual orientation, gay marriage, and Christian-family-normativity in general. Since I don’t rely on the arguments that lead someone to detect white normativility and then reject it with contempt, I can’t do the heavy lifting here.

But since the PCA is at a difficult juncture about homosexual identity, some in the communion may want to ponder whether white normativity and heteronormativity tend to pick up speed on the slope of normativity.

Be Careful What You Post or Tweet

I’m in a Wendell Berry frame of mind and here’s something worth considering about ecclesiastical communions as communities and about the effects of social media on trust:

The health of a community depends absolutely on trust. A community knows itself and knows its place in a way that is impossible for a public (a nation, say, or a state). A community does not come together by a covenant, by a conscientious granting of trust. It exists by proximity, by neighborhood; it knows face to face, and it trusts as it knows. It learns, in the course of time and experience what and who can be trusted. It knows that some of its members are untrustworthy, and it can be tolerant, because to know in this matter is to be safe. A community member can be trusted to be untrustworthy and so can be included. (A community can trust its liars to be liars, for example, and so enjoy them.) But if a community withholds trust, it withholds membership. If it cannot trust, it cannot exist.

One of the essential trusts of community life is that which holds marriages and families together. Another trust is that neighbors will help one another. Another is that privacy will be respected, especially the privacy of personal feeling and the privacy of relationships. All these trusts are absolutely essential, and all are somewhat fragile. But the most fragile, the most vulnerable to public invasion, it the trust that protects privacy. And in our time privacy has been the trust that has been most subjected to public invasion. (Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, 161-62)