Theology of the Cross or Glory?

Where do you put a guide to domestic duties?

A few years ago, 2013, a gift was received from Mrs. Robert (Renata) Voeltz — a 1951 “Your Household Guide” sponsored by the Ladies Aid Society of Our Saviors Lutheran Church. This book contained 1,001 helpful household hints selected from several hundred home recipe books of Walsworth Bros., located in Marceline, Missouri, distributed throughout the nation…. It was a wealth of information. For instance, baking, birthstones and flowers, canning, children’s section, cooking, business laws, federal old age benefits. Then, freezing, gardening, health and accident, holidays, insects and kitchen measures. Going on…laundry, paints, picnics, postal rates, presidents of the U.S., sewing, state capitals, time savers and wedding anniversaries.

These were only “hints:” For even consistency when making a pie crust, add water with a clothes sprinkler.” (Clothes sprinkler?? Perhaps a thing of the past.) To see whether old yeast was still good, put it in warm water with a teaspoon of sugar, stir. If it foams in 10 minutes, use it right away. Place an egg in a pan of water — if fresh, it will turn on its side; a few days old, it will tilt upwards; if stale it will stand on end; if very old it will float! Rub scissors with butter to cut up marshmallows. Sprinkle talcum powder into new shoes, they will seem much more comfortable when new. Onions will not make your eyes water if scalding water is poured over them before they are peeled. Boil potato or carrot peelings in the teakettle to remove lime. When scalding a chicken, add one cup soda to the boiling water — the feathers will come off easier and the flesh will be clean and white.

Postal rates? First Class – 3 cents for each ounce. Postal cards – 1 cent each. Second Class – newspapers – 1 cent per two ounces. Third Class – 2 cents for each two ounces; Fourth Class – Parcel Post – must weigh eight ounces.

Sponsors of the book? Full pages: Home Federal Savings & Loan, three offices, savings accounts insured up to $10,000, home loans, convenient monthly payments. Distel & Co.: Furniture, funeral services, ambulance; service within the reach of all, day and night phones. Rendahl & Highum: Feed, seed, grain. Burgess & Sons, Inc.: Lumber, building materials, Clech quality coal, paint and hardware, big enough to accommodate, small enough to appreciate.

Half pages: Kvale’s IGA Store; Kehrberg’s Our Own Hardware, Sears Roebuck & Co. “Shop at Sears & Save.” Biel Implement Co. – Oliver and Minnesota machinery and repairs. One third page: Nash Cafe, Valley Dry Cleaners, Stickan’s Ben Franklin, Webster & Kohn N.J.C. Pure Foods; McConnell Electric; Sward-Kemp Drug; Sande’s Implement – Allis Chalmers and New Idea farm equipment and Studebaker cars; Root River Oil Station – Shell gas and oil; Art’s Husky Station – Goodyear tires; Clifford Walker’s D-X Station – home and auto supplies; Denny’s Cafe – home baked pastries.

As cultural Christianity goes, this seems harmless, even appealing. I’m still not seeing much gospel or cross.

Jamie Smith’s Bait and Switch

I was afraid that neo-Calvinism’s refusal to distinguish the sacred and secular would go here — that is, to a defense of civil religion. Jamie Smith’s latest editorial does just that.

Mind you, he is aware of the defective versions of civil religion, especially the one that has sent U.S. soldiers “to die face down in the muck of Vietnam” (thank you, Walter Sobchak):

civil religion is what we get when we divinize the civitas, when devotion to “the nation” trumps other allegiances and inspires a fervor and passion that is nothing short of religious. David Gelernter names this in his 2007 book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Walter McDougall’s more recent book The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, which Robert Joustra reviews in this issue, identifies the same problem in its subtitle: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. In McDougall’s argument, civil religion carries the usual whiff of irrationality: the hard-nosed rationality of national interests is compromised because of vaunted values and misguided mythologies.

But Smith still thinks civil religion is salvageable.

The envisioned good of a diverse, pluralistic, yet civil society that liberal democracies hope for is not a generic vision. It has a particular history—rooted in Christianity—and demands particular virtues. In short, the very project of a well-functioning, pluralistic, liberal society depends on the formative power of tradition-specific, “illiberal,” non-democratic communities that can inculcate virtues of hope, respect for dignity, commitment to truth, and more. Families, synagogues, churches, mosques embed their members in a Story that makes such virtues “make sense.” These non-political spheres of society cultivate people who become the sorts of citizens who know how to be patient and forgiving precisely because they believe in something beyond the state.

See what he did there? Civil society in liberal democracies owes its existence to Christianity. In those societies synagogues, churches, and mosques embed citizens in “a Story.” They become patient and forgiving.

Christianity did that? Or was it the Enlightenment (which owes its existence in part to medieval and early modern Europe). Maybe by using the indefinite article in “a Story” you can get away with blurring churches, synagogues and mosques into one happy, fuzzy, gentle, and kind civil society. But that is certainly not the experience of most western societies where Christians ran things and established their churches.

Smith really pours it on when he leads the following cheer:

But one of the by-products of a healthy church forming citizens of kingdom come is that they are then sent into the earthly city with Christlike virtues that also contribute to the common good. We might miss this because it doesn’t primarily play itself out on a national scale; rather, it is enacted at the parish level, in a thousand different neighbourhoods. There we also find Christians, Jews, and Muslims collaborating for the sake of the vulnerable, the lonely, and the marginalized while also nourishing the virtue incubators we call families.

Well, in point of fact, when Christians go into public with a comprehensive w-w they have to be especially aware that they are not like Jews or Muslims. Pot down the w-w gauge and perhaps you have less conviction about being distinct from those people who do not profess Christ. But I don’t know how Smith gets the Chamber of Commerce view of Christianity’s civil nature from Christ’s own words:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:34-35)

That explanation of the antithesis is what makes Abraham Kuyper’s pillarization of Dutch society so intriguing. The Netherlands was not the American melting pot (or even the Canadian multicultural stew). It was a series of religious subgroups that kept to themselves the way that states’ rights advocates in the United States thought about relations between local and federal government.

But if Christians want a seat at the table of a liberal international order that preserves democracy from autocracy, Smith does a pretty good impersonation of 1950s mainline Protestantism.

Is Tim Keller Leaving the PCA for the OPC?

His latest post for the Co-Allies suggests he may:

The earliest Christians were widely ridiculed, especially by cultural elites, were excluded from circles of influence and business, and were often persecuted and put to death. Hurtado says Roman authorities were uniquely hostile to them, compared to other religious groups. . . .

The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities; today Christians are again being seen exclusive and a threat to the social order because we will not honor all identities.

Yet the early church thrived in that situation. Why?

One reason was that Christians were ridiculed as too exclusive and different. And yet many were drawn to Christianity because it was different. If a religion isn’t different from the surrounding culture—if it doesn’t critique and offer an alternative to it—it dies because it’s seen as unnecessary. . . .

The early church surely looked like it was on the “wrong side of history,” but instead it changed history with a dogged adherence to the biblical gospel. That should be our aspiration as well.

When you read those estimates of the early church, do you think more of the PCA or the OPC?

By the way, Keller leaves out one of the biggest factors in the early church’s “success”: the conversion of the emperor. In 300 roughly 10 percent of the empire’s population was Christian. By 350 that number rose to 55 percent.

Now all Pastor Keller needs to do is convert his fellow New Yorker, Mr. Trump. But I’m not sure how appealing a religion ridiculed by cultural elites and that is excluded from circles of influence and business will be. I am not even sure Pastor Keller’s experience proves that kind of Christianity “works.”

Do Southern Baptists Need a Pope of Public Policy?

What could possibly go wrong? A communion appoints an officer to represent members’ views within the corridors of the most powerful nation on God’s glowing earth. And all the members — who are Protestants, mind you and not used to submitting to church hierarchy — are going to agree with all that the officer says or the agency he leads? Heck, even in the little old OPC where the stakes are considerably lower than the Southern Baptist Convention, you cannot get church members to agree with the editor of New Horizons magazine.

So why are so many people concerned and surprised that Southern Baptists are challenging Russell Moore at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission? Funny the way president-elect Trump winds people up.

I (all about me) have nothing against what Dr. Moore seems to be doing. I do suspect sometimes that he’s trying to soften the edge of the religious right in a way that Tim Keller tries to make Christianity less objectionable. Maybe Aaron Sorkin and David Simon have poisoned me to suspect that public statements always come through spinners and handlers who are looking at polls and access to power or gatekeepers. But some of Dr. Moore’s recent statements do seem to have more the fingerprints of building coalitions than those of “thus, saith the Lord” or even, “this is what Southern Baptists believe, gosh darn it.”

Here’s the problem. Moore heads an agency whose mission more Kuyperian than Williamsian (think Roger Williams):

The ERLC exists to articulate every priority and every agenda item in terms of where it fits in seeking the kingdom of God in this era, in order to equip churches to stand before the watching world with the sort of quiet confidence that characterized Jesus.

The kingdom is an “already” present reality (within the life of the church) but also a “not yet” future hope (as we await the coming of Jesus). This kingdom come includes not just worship, but righteousness (ethics), freedom (religious liberty), communion (society), authority (politics), and “the glory and honor of the nations” (culture). Seeking first the kingdom of God should not dampen our concern for ethics but should instead heighten it. After all, the priorities of the King must become the priorities of his kingdom colony, the church. Therefore, the kingdom of God sets both the content of our concern and the tone with which we speak.

That’s pretty broad. Southern Baptists might want to take note that Kuyperians and 2kers disagree about the nature of the kingdom (or kingdoms), so Christ as king is hardly a consensus building affirmation. Worse, hardly clear is the understanding that such a view of God’s kingdom emerges organically from Baptist theology and experience. As dissenters for a long time in England and low on the list of Anglo-American Protestants, some might be surprised to see Southern Baptists doing their impersonation of Puritans or their descendants, the United Church of Christ. Once up a time, Southern Baptists (I’ve heard) saved string so they could send foreign missionaries to India.

So this presence in the capitol of the world’s most powerful nation seems out of character for those little old Southern Baptists.

But if you are going to enter that environment as an ambassador of the Southern Baptist Convention, please don’t tell us you are doing so in a non-partisan way:

There is no more effective evangelical leader than Moore. Under his leadership the ERLC has grown in reach and influence, hosting numerous seminars on a variety of issues with policy-making attendees from both sides of the aisle. Additionally, the ERLC plays a vital role in a number of conservative coalitions. I have witnessed House and Senate leadership offices ask for Moore to personally participate in various events to lend legitimacy and gravitas.

Too often evangelical leaders get pigeonholed into partisan identities. This is not the case with Moore. Both parties see him as a leader transcending partisan divide and stereotypes. This is because Moore and his team balance speaking truth to power while achieving real policy victories.

Being Southern Baptist is non-partisan? This is the affliction that haunts American Protestantism. We somewhere along the line — think the Second Glorious Awakening (if the Brits can have a Glorious Revolution . . . ) — believed that Protestantism is a public faith. It is the religion of the United States. That didn’t work out real well for Roman Catholics or Jews or Mormons. But it had its moments and gave the United States a measure of national identity and spiritual overtones to reasons for fighting tyranny and authoritarianism. That conviction also hollowed out the gospel from the mainline churches. Access to power became something to protect lest the offense of the gospel and calls to repentance offend. The irony is that this mainline Protestant agenda for a Christian nation left the mainline churches without a voice once they questioned America for being too white, male, anti-Communist, Christian, and hetero. The mainline lost both the nation (it was never Christian but sexist and racist) and their place at the table (do mainline pastors even have access to the boards of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton?).

The solution to Dr. Moore’s woes is to close down ERLC and let the Southern Baptist Convention be a church that is fully Baptist (whether particular or general). We have public policy agencies for matters like religious liberty, marriage, civil society, and human dignity. Sometimes even the Democrats and Republicans consider those matters. Not to mention that the Roman Catholic Church has a far greater reach than Southern Baptists.

Let the church not be non-partisan, earnest, well-meaning, tolerant, or humanitarian. Let Southern Baptists be Southern and Baptist. (Or be really Kuyperian and form an Anti-Secularist Political Party.)

Why the Adjective “Christian” before Intellectual Might be Offputting

Michael Lind notices how odd intellectuals are and includes this observation:

The mere phrases “Aryan science” and “Jewish science” or “socialist scholarship” and “bourgeois scholarship” should send chills down the spine. Furthermore, many successful academics study, teach, and live in different countries in the course of their careers.

So why are Christians tone deaf to the consequences of modifying academic life with the adjective “Christian”? If Jewish science doesn’t make sense, will “Christian intellectual” make the medicine go down?

Alan Jacobs will not relent:

The notion that the intellectual resources of Christianity might be useful in reflecting on politics — or technology, or the arts, or engineering, or war, or climate change — and useful not only to Christians but to everyone — that’s a long-lost notion indeed. We generally assume that on any given issue of social import there might be a socialist take, or a feminist take, or a take rooted in the experience of a particular ethnic identity, that we’d benefit from hearing; but a Christian take? Not typically one of the options. There are no prominent Christian intellectuals addressing whatever happens to concern the body politic in a distinctively Christian way and for a general audience.

Jacobs assumes (along with comprensivalists like neo-Calvinists and anti-modern Roman Catholics) that Christianity has something distinct to say about modern society. The Bible is a pretty important piece of Christian reflection and its teachings about modern society seem to be minor. Jacobs also forgets that modernity is in part a reaction against Christians having too much to say for too long about politics, the arts, and war. All of a sudden moderns are supposed to forget 1100 years of western history?

The idea that Christians need to find a new way to find a seat at liberalism’s table is also anachronistic:

So it seems to me that Christians can either look for ways to get back to that table or accept their exile from it and make the best of the possibilities that exile affords. (Learning to be dissidents rather than intellectuals.) But the claim that Christians really are comfortably seated at liberalism’s table seems to be an unsustainable one.

The way to the table is the one that Jacobs and other academics have chosen — graduate school, advanced research, a Ph.D., and a teaching post. All along the way believing scholars need to negotiate the claims of science/academics and personal faith/divine revelation. To make it through to the Ph.D., land a job, and publish books with academic presses is to be prepared to sit at liberalism’s table. Gaining a seat requires a notable contribution.

I don’t think Jacobs means this, but he seems to imply that Christianity and intellectual life are so at odds that Christians really should not go to graduate school (which is why I have always thought that neo-Calvinism is theonomy lite). But the way to expertise, which is what generally counts for being an intellectual, is not through Christianity. The West tried that an moved on.

Newsflash: My Parents were Right

The world is not a safe place.

Even the University of Chicago agrees with Ellen and Jay Hart:

Looking for safe spaces on campus or trigger warnings on a syllabus?

Incoming students at the University of Chicago have been warned they won’t find either in Hyde Park.

They all received a letter recently from John Ellison, dean of students, which went beyond the usual platitudes of such letters and made several points about what he called one of Chicago’s “defining characteristics,” which he said was “our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” Ellison said civility and respect are “vital to all of us,” and people should never be harassed. But he added, “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

To that end, he wrote, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

What I (mmmeeeeEEEE) can’t fathom is parents rearing children to expect that the world will be safe. I thought this was the age of the helicopter parent, the one who is always worried about something going wrong. Or is it that helicopter parents have been so successful in keeping their children from danger that the kids really do think the world is a safe place, and if it is not something’s wrong?

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.