The Limits of W-w

Like I say, transformationalism is good on inspiration but not so good on transformation. Jim Bratt gave a peak behind the curtain of neo-Calvinist culture in the U.S. in his last post before heading to China on a Fulbright (happy trails, Jim):

Boy, do we need that now. I’m thinking of the death this past week of Tim LaHaye. The span of tomfoolery he pumped out in the name of Christianity has created lasting disrepute for the faith. The creation “science.” The “end-times” irresponsibility, compounded of self-pity, blaming others, and a certain cultural idolatry. All of it redolent of the John Birch Society swamp from which he first slithered. Still, it’s the sort of religious fantasy you can expect to hit the American best-seller list. The death that really strikes home for me is the moral nadir of Mr. Family Values, “Dr.” James Dobson. His endorsement of Donald Trump puts paid to any pretense that the ethics and politics he pushed, lo, these many years have come to anything but authoritarian nationalism with a particular macho strut. For that is Trump. Dobson’s worse for covering it with smarmy God-talk.

I say this hits home for me because back when I was on a denominational committee studying the future of the CRC’s magazine, The Banner, we were given some research stats of readership habits and opinion. James Dobson turned out to be the CRC’s #1 rated authority on current events. Charles Colson was its #1 theologian. The Fraud and the Felon atop the Calvinist hit parade. Two minor sins in that revelation somehow stuck out for me. Dobson, a member of the Church of the Nazarene. Read rank Armininian. Colson, invoking the name of Kuyper as he bullied along.

All this, I mused, was the price of that “Americanization” to which the CRC, as an immigrant church, had been long pushed to accede. Well, nationalist mush compounded by militancy turns out to be the bitter fruit of that process. And so it is today.

I don’t pretend that Kuyper ever represented more than a small fraction of Dutch people claiming a Reformed commitment. Ditto, in Dutch-American Reformed circles, for The Forum, The Journal, or Perspectives. But these magazines have fought hard and punched way above their weight because of that magic formula that Kuyper caught, and taught. And it’s worth carrying on their mission, worth trying to maintain cultural, political, and theological integrity above the open sewer into which white-American Christianism has descended.

I bring this up not to delight in the sufferings of neo-Calvinists, nor to take a shot at Jim on his way out of the blogosphere. Bratt, it must be said, is honest about the state of neo-Calvinism and properly annoyed at its abuses.

I do refer to this to remind those would-be Kuyperians that the neo-Calvinist project is a lot harder than it sounds. Take every thought captive. Christ is Lord of every square inch. Television (and plumbing) redeemed. Integration of faith and learning. New York City as a tipping point for global revival. Bratt’s own account of the CRC is a ready warning that even with all the infrastructure of neo-Calvinist culture — church, school, catechesis, denominational magazine, world-and-life bleep, you are a poor match for mass culture in a liberal capitalist democracy.

Take every though captive? More like, kid yourself that you are large and in charge.

I truly admire the grit and determination of Dutch-American Calvinists. They are one of the true success stories of transplanting a distinct form of Old World Calvinism to the New World. They were BenOp Calvinists before the Benedict Option became hip.

But as all immigrant groups know, leaving the ghetto for the suburbs is part of the American dream. So for w-w to happen you may need to hunker down in the ghetto (or if Amish on the farm or if Benedictine in the monastery). But if you are going to live and move and have your being as a citizen of a modern nation state, chances are many of your square inches will be taken captive.

And if you want a theological rationale or explanation for that, for being part of the mainstream society but not, learn, live, and love 2k. The water’s warm.

Doom and Gloom

First the gloom:

. . . the American experiment in limited government requires that the citizenry and those who hold public office honor certain moral virtues and respect the institutions that are crucial for a society to rightly function. Yet, we now find ourselves in a situation where the three leading candidates for president show little to no respect for such institutions in their articulations of public policy.

More:

The central principle of my decision is that Donald Trump is palpably unfit for the office of the President, and unworthy of the vote of anyone who dares think that the name of Christ still must have some salience for our public and political life. Since I posted my original essay on the matter, events have done nothing to dissuade me of this stance: if anything, they have further confirmed it.

Now some doom:

From elite critical theory in the lecture theaters of the Ivy Leagues to the rampant epidemic of pornography on so many computer screens, we live in world that seeks to detach and isolate the present from any accountability to past or future. Ours is the era of the sempiternal orgiast, the true hero of our time.

Is the reason for such despair an application of end-times standards to between-the-times times. Here‘s an example applied not to politics or culture but (Christian, mind you) books:

I find it difficult to read books by authors who have disgraced and disqualified themselves. Depending on the kind of immorality he displayed, I may even get rid of his books. We of all generations are so blessed by good books that I see little reason to even consider ones written by leaders who have made a trainwreck of their ministries. I can’t think of a single category of book that needs the work of a fallen author. There are other great books on leadership, other ones on marriage, on prayer and suffering and Christian living. I do not need to rely on the books of those who have justly been removed from ministry.

Imagine what does for someone who enjoys Mencken.

Lest readers let doom and gloom pave the way for a bummer weekend, here’s a reason for keeping hope alive:

White Christian traditionalists do not see Jews and Muslims as allies, Inazu said, and non-Christians and non-whites are not engaged in the cultural conflict, even if they agree with traditional morality. But they are not aligned with the liberal/left on these issues either, Inazu claimed. To be more successful, religious liberty efforts need to be made with many groups, with sensitivity to their outlook.

If white Protestants can figure out a way to look at society as less an extension of the church than as a shared space with people who aren’t white and Protestant, they might actually find political and cultural standards to hold them over until that great day.

Making Special Ordinary

If the Corinthian Christians got in trouble for turning the Lord’s Supper into a feast, what happens when you turn the sacrament into a cultural mandate? Peter Leithart may be working too hard to justify transformationalism:

Not only on the Lord’s day, but every day: We offer our works to God in worship, specifically with an act of thanksgiving. When we bring bread and wine – and, by implication, everything we make and do – before the Lord, we do it with thanksgiving. This is remarkable: After all, we made the bread and wine. And yet we thank God for them. We thank Him for the products of our hands, because even the things we make – even our works – are His gifts to us. Paul says that thanksgiving is an act of consecration: Every created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; because it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer. When we give thanks for what we have made, we are consecrating the works of our hands to God. And having given thanks at the table, we are trained to live lives of continuous Eucharist, continual thanksgiving, giving thanks, as Paul says, for all things at all times.

A lesson learned from John Frame: everyday is holy. All activities are worship.

We bring what we have made to God. But He doesn’t take it from us. We bring what we have to God, and He shares it with us. And so the things we make become means of communion with God.

Isn’t this a recipe for idolatry? Math, auto repair, fishing are “means of communion”? So we don’t have to gather with the saints on the Lord’s Day for worship?

The Eucharist is the way the world ought to be: Raw creation cultivated to grain and grapes. Cultivated creation brought to its fulfillment by cooking. Cooked creation enjoyed in the presence of God. Cooked created enjoyed together, by a community of worshipers. Cooked creation given in praise and received with thanksgiving. The final end of all things is the marriage supper of the lamb, and in the Lord’s Supper we anticipate that final feast, the feast that is the culmination of all creation. History is heading toward a wedding and eternal wedding reception, and our lives are to be spent readying the world for the wedding feast, a wedding feast that we are already enjoying now.

Wouldn’t it be better to say the wedding supper of the lamb is the culmination of redemption? After all, not everyone invited to the wedding accepts. All creatures won’t be at the wedding reception.

In the Eucharist, we bring creation to its fulfillment. We transform the creation into things useful and enjoyable for us, and we give thanks.

And so the Supper Supper reveals us to ourselves. This is what we are created to do: To be priests and kings, ruling the earth, transforming it from glory to glory, and joining it all in one great Eucharistic banquet.

At the Lord’s Supper, where we remember Christ’s death for our sins, we are impressed by how powerful and creative we are?

Yikes.

Dr. Leithart has his problems, but in this case he needs Christian editors who can tell the difference between cult and culture.

When Hebrews Weren’t Funny

The post title takes inspiration from a recent documentary we saw about Greatest Generation Jewish comics and what made Jewish Americans funny. What’s not funny is the way that Joseph Pearce leaves the Israelites and the Old Testament out of his attempt to pull Christianity out of the pagan philosophical hat:

Classical paganism brought forth the golden age of philosophy in which giants, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, mused upon the meaning of the cosmos and the meaning of life within it. This pagan philosophy, once she had been impregnated with the truths revealed by the Bridegroom, brought forth a new generation of Christian philosophy, her children including such giants as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

It would be a sin of omission, however, to celebrate the golden age of pagan philosophy without also celebrating the golden age of pagan literature, which, preceding the philosophical golden age by several centuries, brought forth the genius of Homer, whose creative brilliance is unsurpassed in the whole history of human letters, with the possible and arguable exception of Dante and Shakespeare.

But if Jesus and Paul are more important to understanding Christianity than philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas, then isn’t the Jewish background to the Word incarnate (who was Jewish) and the apostles (who were also Jewish) way more important to the church and the gospel than anything Plato or Aristotle read. After all, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems not to have received the memo about the Greeks as forerunners of the gospel:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

And,

“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”

And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1 ESV)

By the way, all those quotes in Hebrews 1 are not from the Loeb Classical Library.

Of course, if you want a religion that is civilizational in scope, and one ready to underwrite Europe (read Christendom), then leaving out the Hebrews and writing in the Greeks and Romans makes sense. But if you take special revelation seriously, you may want to do a little more with the Hebrews than Pearce does.

Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple, then you may want to spend more time with the Hebrews than the Greeks. If you want a pagan inflected version of Christianity, that’s on you.

Why Christians Shouldn’t See Christian Movies

Here’s one reason:

The glaring problem with God’s Not Dead, and most other films made for and marketed at the “faith audience,” is that instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead.

God’s Not Dead enlists an army of straw men (the evil atheist professor who will fail a student for refusing to sign a paper agreeing that God is dead, the evil atheist boyfriend who abandons his girlfriend as soon as she announces her terminal illness, the evil Muslim father who kicks his daughter out of the home for converting, the evil liberal ambush journalist with a bumper sticker on her car that reads “I love evolution”) then burns them in effigy. The movie isn’t content to merely convert our main antagonist, effectively forcing him to grovel before his 18-year-old student. It also trots in a deus ex machina and kills him off. (Spoiler, sorry.)

I can look past characters created by writers who have only heard about liberals and secularists on talk radio. But every non-Christian character in the movie, and so many others, “hates God” (direct quote). They believe or hope the Almighty has kicked the can, and do so for deeply personal reasons. They’re all secretly miserable, every last one. I believe in the power of representation enough to know that God’s Not Dead insidiously shapes the imaginations of the audience, especially if their daily lives don’t bring them into contact with people who don’t believe the way they do. And that’s true for many (and not just Christians).

Rarely do I even recognize myself or my family and friends in Christian movie characters. Left Behind, a faith-based film in which virtually all the Christian characters are weirdly portrayed as nutjobs, is a great example. And the God-fearing characters in God’s Not Dead seem like decent people, even if Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson co-star in a dash of ill-conceived product placement. But I believe we’re all in the same strange family of misfits. Which is why I get twitchy with the “faith audience” designation. The implication is that, if you’re not in that audience, you’re… what? The doubt audience? The unbelief audience?

The Coen brothers, however, gave a better reason in their latest, “Hail, Caesar”:

All of this means, however, that the Bible-Blockbuster religion depicted on the screen is going to be in significant ways distinct from actual Christian religion (or, in the relevant parts of Ben-Hur and the whole of the Ten Commandments, from actual Jewish religion). Hollywood owners, executives, and directors can sincerely believe that such Bible-Blockbuster religion is a unifying and salutary thing to portray for the nation, and more importantly, they can know that it is a very profitable thing to portray. But in the Coens’ telling, the problem is that Bible-Blockbuster religion cannot but be deceptive, hypocritical, and at the deepest level, faithless. Many of the key actors and many of the key film-makers will not believe in the relevant actual religions, and any serious believers that are on the set may either disagree with the religion that is being depicted, or disagree with one another about its correct interpretation. On the doctrinal level, it is only going to fully work for those who are in the vague sense believers but who have decided not to look into doctrine or the pages of scripture very much. On the dramatic level, it is going to involve actors, writers, and image-makers imitating a faith that many of them don’t have, and which is itself perhaps impossible to depict.

So the Bible-Blockbuster is going to have to primarily make faith seem to be a matter of melodramatic emotional inspiration, which from another angle, is a matter of manipulation. Hollywood magic, used…well, used for what? Not simply for escapist entertainment, but for more firmly setting the religion of America?

Carl Eric Scott admits that he feels awkward laughing at Jesus through the Coen’s smart alecky ways and tries to answer this here. But if Scott were truly a 2k Protestant, he’d know that he wasn’t laughing at Jesus in “Hail, Caesar.” He was only laughing at Hollywood trying to capitalize on Jesus. And if Alissa Wilkinson watched more Coen Brothers’ movies, she’d know not to go to Christian movies. What’s the point?

From Cult to Culture

How to get around the Bible:

The priesthood in the Old Testament was a bloody business. On the eve of the Exodus, God commands the Israelites to slaughter lambs and paint the doorposts with blood in preparation for the Angel-of-Death Passover. The sacrificial rituals by Old Testament priests included the butchering of lambs and goats.

In the Book of Leviticus we see the priests slaughtering a goat for purposes of atonement and, after the laying of hands, the release or escape of a companion goat into the desert, carrying with him the sins of the people. This is where the word “scapegoat” came from. (In response to the Protestant denial of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the Church inserted the “laying on of hands” gesture over the bread and wine before the Consecration to remind us that Christ is the sacrificial “scapegoat” of our sins.)

A significant teaching of the Book of Hebrews is that, in Christ, the old priesthood has come to an end. It is no longer necessary for priests to enter into the Temple again and again to offer their bloody sacrifices in atonement for the sins of the people. Why? Because Christ – the Lamb of God – suffered and died, once and for all, for our redemption and salvation. Thus there is no need for repetition of the bloody sacrifices of old.

But why then do we offer the Sacrifice of the Mass every day, throughout the world and throughout history? At first glance, it seems to be a violation of the teachings of the Book of Hebrews. But remember, the Mass is an unbloody sacrifice. Through the Mass we participate here and now in that single bloody sacrifice of Christ – and we also mystically participate in His glorious Resurrection. The key word is “participation” not “repetition.” We do not repeat the Sacrifice. We enter into the one Sacrifice during Mass. It is as if we reach into the heavens (Pope Benedict uses the term “celestial liturgy”) and find ourselves at the foot of the Cross in history – then, finally, encountering the risen Christ.

Why can’t the regeneration of the Holy Spirit do the same thing? And if believers are temples of the Holy Spirit, they have the transforming power of God all the time, even when they cross the street.

But what about transforming culture? The Mass does that too.

This is why the Mass as a ritual cult is so essential. We truly, mysteriously and mystically enter into the sacred events of our salvation. In Communion with Christ, we are transformed and sent forth into the world. And through us our culture is transformed because of our participation in the cult of the Mass.

Imagine simply following the apostles. No more sacramental meat. Assimilation to the Empire.

Why Expect Mid-Westerns to Transcend Time and Place?

If other folks are products of their environment, why should the faculty and administration at Wheaton College be any different? Alan Jacobs, though, thinks that Wheaton College is provincial (and implicitly that non-white evangelicals coming through graduate school and advanced degrees hold on to their inherited culture):

I believe — I have good reason to believe — that Wheaton really, truly, seriously wants to have a faculty and student body that is more reflective of the ethnic and cultural range of worldwide evangelical Christianity. But I also saw, during my twenty-nine years on the Wheaton faculty and several years as director of the Faculty Faith and Learning program, far too many situations in which non-white faculty members were treated, if not with outright suspicion, then at least with bemusement and puzzlement, because they did not express themselves in ways that matched the cultural practices of white midwestern evangelicalism.

Heck, if the Vatican curia can’t escape the cultural blinders that come with Rome, why would we expect little old Wheaton to do so much better? I mean, with all the efforts to make Christianity of late into a cultural project, all of a sudden we’re going to expect Christians through regeneration and sanctification to act like this world is not their home, but they’re just a passin’ through? As if that pietist outlook was not the product of time and place?