Can Fairy Tales Do More than the Holy Spirit?

As much as I live and breathe and have my being in conservative circles in the United States, I cannot understand how conservatives who are Christians can write so cheerfully about virtue and what it takes to cultivate it:

Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium of this kind of moral education. This is the education of character.

The Greek word for character literally means an impression. Moral character is an impression stamped upon the self. Character is defined by its orientation, consistency, and constancy. Today we often equate freedom with morality and goodness. But this is naïve because freedom is transcendent and the precondition of choice itself. Depending upon his character, an individual will be drawn toward either goodness or wickedness. Moral and immoral behavior is freedom enacted either for good or for ill.

The great fairy tales and children’s fantasy stories attractively depict character and virtue. In these stories, the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. These stories make us face the unvarnished truth about ourselves while compelling us to consider what kind of people we want to be.

Calvinists have a problem with this, obviously, since they put the T in Total Depravity. But shouldn’t any Christian who considers himself Augustinian or any theist who believes in the fall (recorded in the not so fair tale of Genesis)? Can’t we at least, if you’re not going to talk about effectual calling, reserve some space for baptism and the sacraments more generally?

Or, are we supposed to conclude that a kid reared on Beauty and the Beast has as much a shot at virtue as the one who’s baptized? If that’s the case, then why is cult so much the bedrock of culture?

If Princeton Refuses to Award a PCA Pastor, Why is Redeemer NYC Awarding a Liberal Congregationalist?

Word on the street has it that Redeemer Presbyterian Church has given Marilynne Robinson its first Commission of Faith and Work. Doesn’t Robinson know that Tim Keller is kind of toxic? Has she no sense of solidarity with her mainline Protestant women and LBGT+ ministers and church members? (Or, didn’t Princeton’s president know that Keller was about to approve an award to Robinson?)

Better question: why is a church whose officers subscribe the Confession of Faith and Catechisms recognizing a woman who sometimes preaches and whose theological reflections, while thoughtful, hardly line up with the PCA’s confessional teaching?

Here’s the explanation:

The commission aims to address the tide of uncertainty that the humanities now face with distinctly Christian support. Historically, in times of uncertainty and transition, the humanities have provided reminders of hope and grace to combat our fear and doubt. They center us in the miracle of the Imago Dei, sounding the peal of God’s presence in our lives. As Robinson so wisely states in one of her many erudite essays: “I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.”

The logic is that the humanities are on the ropes. The humanities need support from Christians. The humanities need such support because they testify to God’s “presence in our lives.”

Imagine the testimony to God’s presence if a pastor proclaimed that Jesus Christ died for sinners. Why clutter the gospel with the valuable though limited insights of the humanities?

Humanities are valuable. So are the social and natural sciences. But the humanities are not divinity — duh. The church doesn’t gain status by hanging out with celebrity writers. It reduces God’s saving power to human aspirations.

Which novelist can say she does 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)

Postscript: Do humanists of this sort need the support of a confessional Presbyterian church?

Do you believe in sin?

Well, it depends how you define the word. The way I would read Genesis is a phenomenon . . . what it describes is a human predisposition to what amounts to self-defeat — to be given a wonderful planet and find yourself destroying it. Or, to have a wonderful civilization and then engage yourself aggressively in ways that destroy your civilization and another besides. If you look at human history or practically any human biography, it’s very hard to say that people don’t incline toward harmful and self-destructive acts, whether they intend to or not.

You are talking about sin on a large scale as you talk about it now. What about cheating on your wife?

Definite sin. A big 10. I think that in a certain way I was perhaps taught that the Ten Commandments are like a lot of the law of Moses in the sense that they name as transgressions things that you might not derive by reason as being transgressive — things like keeping the Sabbath or not making idols. These are markers in reality that are divine in their origins in the sense that human beings might not necessarily have come up with them.

Aside from that, one of the things that is true of the Bible certainly — in the case like David, for example — is that people do things that are utterly prohibitive to them, evil even. And I am speaking here of David arranging the death of Uriah so he could marry Bathsheba. And yet, there is always a huge variable at play — how does God respond to this and the difference of what we could measure as projected transgressions, the difference between that and the same thing as seen through the eyes of love or grace. These are very different things.

So I believe in sin in the sense that people do harm. I believe in grace in the sense that we cannot make final judgments about the meaning or the effect of what we do.

Christendom Exceptionalism

Not sure what Peter Leithart is working on, but recent posts on medieval and early modern Europe have shed new light on the claims that exalt Christendom and blame Protestantism for ushering in a disordered, licentious modernity.

Just how united was Christendom, you ask? Not much:

In a 1971 essay, H.G. Koenigsberger challenged the notion that the Reformation broke up a unified Europe. He criticizes historians and social scientists for assuming a norm of unity: “We have assumed that the theological and ecclesiastical unity of Catholic Christendom was its natural condition and that, in consequence, the Reformation was a dramatic break in this condition which ran counter to all previous Christian experience and which, in a sense, destroyed the natural order of things.”

Much of the essay presents an analysis of the kind of unity that existed in pre-Reformation Europe. Koenigsberger poses the question this way: “For the thousand years of the Middle Ages, Christendom and its institutions remained obstinately divided, and Christians remained distressingly prone to engage in deadly wars with each other. Why was it that only the Church survived as a unified institution?”

His first answer is sardonic: “it did not do so. Throughout the Middle Ages there existed Christian churches in Africa and Asia which were never in communion with Rome at all.”

The more elaborate answer answer is that “medieval unity, insofar as it existed, was a function of an economically poor society. The small surpluses of production of any given area would not be wanted in the adjoining area, which was probably producing the same commodities, but rather in much more distant areas. Medieval trade was, therefore, small in volume but covered large distances.”

Craft skills were specialized and scarce, and thus craftsmen had to be mobile: “Bell founding was a highly skilled and specialized craft. After a master founder had cast the three or four, or even six or eight, bells for the church of a small town, he would have to move on, for there would be no further work for him in this town nor, very likely, in the neighbouring towns. It was the same with all other skills, from the cathedral builder to the learned scholar, from the forger of fine weapons . . . . Different areas of Europe might advance in certain skills, as Flanders did in the weaving of fine cloth; but no single area of Europe could support all of the skills which European society required. Only the whole of Europe could do this.”

Cultural unity thus depended on a “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services. This upper crust was international in education, attitudes, and often, physical mobility; for this was the only way it could function.” Cultural unity depended on a low rate of entry into this upper crust. European unity was a unity of the “1%.”

Sounds like modern America. Substitute media elites, policy wonks, federal government workers, Ivy League professors, and Hollywood types for “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services” and you an American exceptionalist unity that rivals Christendom’s.

That means, the Reformation was not a break with the past but a fulfillment of medieval Europe:

Signs of centrifugal forces are evident throughout the centuries leading up to the Reformation – reforming movements within the church, sometimes breaking free into independent movements; rival papacies, with kings taking sides, anticipating the anti-papalism of their sixteenth-century Protestant counterparts. The conciliar movement tried to arrest this process but “the defeat of this movement, and the subsequent concentration of papal energies on Italian power politics made it virtually impossible for the Church to adapt itself to the changing conditions of European Society.”

Koenigsberger acknowledges that the Reformation broke the camel’s back, but sees it as the culmination of several centuries of mounting instability. He identifies two factors that made the sixteenth century decisive in this process: “the increasing political tension between the monarchies and the papacy over the question of the control of the institution of the Church and its personnel in the different countries of Europe; and the spread of the printing presses, which made the Bible available to the Christian laity and thus undermined the claim of the Church to act as the indispensable intermediary between God and man.”

Now if we reboot those arguments about the Reformation as the forerunner of 1776, we have lines of continuity between Roman Catholicism and Americanism.

The Whig historians will set us free!

So You Want Christian Law but Not Shari’a?

Don’t forge that Christians can be as threatening to non-Christians as Muslims to Christians (and we’re barely talking about Old Testament law):

So with all other great movements in malignant morals. For example, that of the Lord’s Day Alliance. There are plenty of members of the alliance, I venture to opine, who devote at least a part of Sunday to recreation–perhaps automobiling, or piano-playing, or gastronomy, or novel-reading, or the beating of children. But that doesn’t take anything from their noble passion to destroy and prohibit the recreations of the common people. That doesn’t detract from their gallant effort to make the average man’s Sunday a day of tedium and horror, of sullenness and gloom. That doesn’t make the less laudable their vicious and violent attack upon the poor fellows who go to Back River on their one day of rest to sit under the trees and drink a few bottles of beer and hear a happy song or two and get a breath of fresh air.

The Anti-Cigarette League follows the examples of these elder lodges of chemical purity. It does not ask its members to stop smoking themselves; it merely asks them to advocate laws putting heavy penalties upon smoking by others. Its funds will be divided fairly into two parts. One part I shall keep myself, as a modest recompense for my laborious shaking down of the pious. The other part will be devoted to the propaganda. Rabble-rousers will be supplied to Sunday-schools and Chautauquas. Horrible examples will be exhibited to trembling children. Eminent cigarette manufacturers will be denounced by name. Candidates for public office will be browbeaten into line. Literature will be distributed showing that the cigarette is the mother and father of crime, that every cigarette smoker is a potential pirate and murderer, that all the sorrows of the world are caused by the abhorrent coffin-nail.

So You Want the Magistrate to Enforce both Tables of the Law?

Does that make you more extreme than a Muslim? It very well may, according to Aaron Rock-Singer (you can’t make up a name like that).

On the one hand, Shari’a law admitted a diversity of mechanisms for enforcement:

Historically, Muslims understood the Shariʿa as a broad framework within which one could live a proper Islamic life. The Shariʿa represented a comprehensive ethical system, the bulk of which was not understood as law in the sense of regulations that state authorities must enforce. Instead, acts were divided into five categories: obligatory, recommended, neutral, disapproved, and forbidden. Crucially, it was only those acts that fell into the category of “forbidden” that were to be enforced by the state. Put differently, prior to the last 200 years, the obligations set forth by the Shariʿa, though they were obligatory for Muslims, neither assumed nor depended on enforcement by state authorities.

That’s an intriguing point if only because ecclesiastical authorities won’t enforce the Fourth Commandment (Third for the Roman Catholic slackers).

On the other hand, the insistence that civil authorities enforce Shari’a was a function of the West’s brilliant diplomatic hegemony:

With the onset of colonial rule, British and French officials made a momentous decision to implement foreign legal codes while limiting religious law to questions of personal status such as marriage and divorce. While Islamists today recall this moment as decisive because it limited the role of Shariʿa, just as important is the shift that they do not mention: that it codified the Shariʿa. In the place of the relative flexibility and accommodation to local diversity exercised by judges who were tied to local communities, state-appointed graduates of modern law schools, with little knowledge of over a millennium of Islamic legal scholarship, now interpreted a code of Islamic law. Crucially, however, legal codes were not solely a colonial imposition: in the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire introduced a legal code, based on the dominant Sunni legal school in that area (Hanafism) in an attempt to formalize and define a civil legal code throughout the empire.

As Middle Eastern states gained independence over the first half of the 20th century, new secularist elites, like colonial officials, restricted the Shariʿa to family law. Notwithstanding their opposition to colonial rule, they were no more interested than their colonial predecessors in empowering Muslim scholars to interpret the Shariʿa. Instead, these new elites wanted to reshape the legal system to their own liking and in terms that they understood. Looking abroad, they saw the combination of military, political, and economic power that had enabled colonial rulers to take control of their countries, and sought to use law as a tool to expand the reach of their newly independent states. The appeal of a powerfully interventionist state would only grow as the United States and Soviet Union vied for Cold War supremacy.

In the shadow of a codified family law, powerful post-colonial states, and Cold War ideological contestation, Islamists began to argue that Shariʿa was central to state power.

The good news for folks worried that behind every Muslim is the Islamic equivalent of [insert name of favorite theonomist here], most Muslims are content with a separation of civil and religious law (in good 2k fashion, mind you):

A community whose roots go back to early migration between 1875 and 1912 from Greater Syria (an area that included what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine), Muslim American ranks grew following World War I following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Between 1947 and 1960, Muslims increasingly arrived not only from the Middle East, but also from Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the Soviet Union. The past 40 years, in turn, have seen, once again, substantial immigration from the Middle East.

The American Muslim community is, as a 2007 Pew survey puts it, “Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” In this vein, American Muslims have, by and large, sought to live according to their religious obligations through a set of daily practices that bear little resemblance to the specter of “Creeping Shariʿazation.” Whether by securing permits to build mosques, observing dietary laws through Halal butcheries and restaurants, or buying shares in Islamic finance companies that allow them to purchase homes or pay for higher education while avoiding interest-bearing loans, American Muslims today work within the American legal system and live devout lives. And like members of so many other religious and ethnic minorities, Muslims have set up a number of political advocacy organizations. There is no evidence, however, that American Muslim organizations have ever attempted to replace the American constitution with an Islamic legal code.

America, the beautiful.

When Did Christians Forget their Jewish Roots?

Maybe when Constantine tempted them to think that Christendom meant the end of exile and alienation?

But it sure would help if Christian-Americans thought about American society more the way Jewish-Americans do than the way people who used to be the Church of Scotland think.

Imagine if Rod Dreher had grown up not mainline Protestant but Jewish:

Dreher has frequently and sometimes testily responded to critics by saying he’s not calling for anybody to head for the hills. But that’s not what I’m asking about. The Lubavitch hasidim are as “in the world” as any strictly observant Jewish group I can think of. They send shlichim to the four corners of the earth to minister to Jews wherever they may be. They are all about outreach, and they try in a host of ways to meet the people they are reaching out to where they are. And they are certainly making sure that they have something to give the world before they give it — they are ferocious about deeply educating their kids, and traditional Judaism is all about imbuing every single action of every day with the sacred. If you wanted to point to a Benedict Option-like group that had unquestionably not withdrawn into itself and fled for the hills, they’d be a perfect candidate.

But they are also a group apart within a people apart, and they believe themselves to be precisely that. And I can assure you, that has a real impact on how other Jews perceive them and relate to them. I’m curious to know whether that is a dynamic the Benedict Option would inculcate within Christianity, and whether Dreher thinks that would be a problem if it did.

The answer, by the way, to Millman’s question is that Christians who read Peter know that Christianity has a set-apart dynamic:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Pet 2)

And then imagine what it would mean if Christian America was as fantastic an idea as Jewish America:

[Christian traditionalists] are more likely to win space to live according to their consciences to the extent that they are able to convince a majority that includes more liberal Christians and non-Christian believers, as well as outright secularists, that they are not simply biding their time until they are able to storm the public square. In addition, they will have to develop institutions of community life that are relatively low-visibility and that can survive without many forms of official support. The price of inclusion in an increasingly pluralistic society may be some degree of voluntary exclusion from the dominant culture.

There is no doubt that this will be a hard bargain for adherents of traditions that enjoyed such immense authority until recently. . . . The basis for coexistence must be a shared understanding that the Christian America for which some long and that others fear isn’t coming back—not only because it was Christian but also because it involved a level of consensus that is no longer available to us. There are opportunities for believers and nonbelievers alike in this absence.

Why Moderation and Charity Are Overrated

In Jake Meador’s review of Rod Dreher’s BenOp, he makes this passing observation of the NAPARC landscape:

A desire to preserve unity at the cost of clarity and an unwillingness to take a stance is not a solution and, in fact, will probably cause as many to drift as will a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric. Being in the PCA, this is the concern that occupies my mind more as it seems the greater danger in my immediate ecclesial context. I suspect that it is also the greater danger in most Catholic dioceses and many non-denominational evangelical churches.

Even so, a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric will lead some who might otherwise be persuadable to dismiss us. That seems the greater danger in the Southern Baptist Convention, if my read of things is accurate. It is also the greater danger in many reformed microdenominations such as the OPC and CREC, I strongly suspect.

For the record, the books that came out recently about the contemporary cultural bankruptcy had no ties to the micro Reformed denominations. They came from an Eastern Orthodox layman (Dreher), a Roman Catholic archbishop (Chaput), and a Roman Catholic layman (Esolen). Those are churches that have labored under the Christ and culture burden, have tried to make society Christian, and are now showing the effects of that weight.

What has the little old OPC produced about the current crisis (a conference on gay marriage that technical glitches prevented from being recorded?)? Nothing. It is still more or less wedded to J. Gresham Machen’s assessment of the Protestant mainstream and is more or less committed to passing on the faith without the assistance of America’s cultural or political institutions. But when a church simply tries to do what a church is called to do (see 25.3 of the Confession of Faith), it is in danger of showing a lack of restraint and charity?

Not to be missed is the kind of transformationalist vision that has become the PCA’s calling card of late. Perhaps the idea of being a church to the big city is charitable and restrained (though to anyone with half a brain it sure looks delusional to think you can teach Woody Allen’s New Yorkers to become Wheaton’s evangelicals). But from the perspective of the Protestant mainline, the PCA looks downright sectarian.

That may be the single recommendation for Rod Dreher’s book — to provoke those who want a seat at the table (or a mouthful of the Big Apple) to consider what it means to be a stranger and alien. I know Jake Meador already knows this. But sometimes his PCA identity gets in the way of his inner Stanley Hauerwas and he never says “boo” about PCA exceptionalism in the era of Tim Keller.