Both Cannot Be True

On the one hand, preaching the Bible is haahht:

According to a new study by Gallup, the hottest thing at church today is not the worship and not the pastor. It’s not the smoke and lights and it’s not the hip and relevant youth programs. It’s not even the organic, fair trade coffee at the cafe. The hottest thing at church today is the preaching. Not only is it the preaching, but a very specific form of it—preaching based on the Bible.

On the other hand, Americans who go to church wouldn’t know a Bible if you threw it at them:

Over half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible, according to findings released Tuesday (April 26) by LifeWay Research.

“Most Americans don’t know first-hand the overall story of the Bible—because they rarely pick it up,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.”

Only 11 percent of survey respondents said they have read all of the Bible. Even less (9 percent) have read all of the Bible multiple times.

Stop making sense.

What Princeton Seminary Could Learn from the Pentagon

Peter Berger notices a sector of American religiosity where true inclusion and diversity reigns — the military chaplaincy:

One particularly interesting development is that the military chaplaincy, in its Protestant group, is increasingly filled with Evangelicals, who feel more at home in the military than among largely liberal mainline clergy, whose concerns over gender and multiculturalism Evangelicals don’t resonate with. Some years ago I presided over a seminar dealing with whatever issues members of the seminar were concerned about. One of the seminar students was an Evangelical Air Force chaplain. This was the issue she wanted to think through: She served on a small base in the Arctic where she was the only Protestant chaplain. Of course she was not expected to perform religious services that did not agree with her own beliefs. But she was expected to facilitate services for any group of Air Force personnel. A group of Air Force women wanted to perform the rituals of Wicca, which defines itself as a modernized version of the old witches’ Sabbath. How, she asked, could she help organize a worship service of the devil without betraying the core of her Christian faith? I tried to convince her that the devil part was not to be taken seriously, that Wicca was a rather harmless form of nature worship—dancing naked in the moonlight and showing respect for menstrual blood. She said that the way I spoke about this showed I did not take the religious beliefs of this group seriously. I’m afraid she was quite right. In the end she had no choice unless she wanted to resign from the chaplaincy—so the would-be witches did their thing as facilitated by a nonsectarian Evangelical minister. (Religious freedom bears strange fruit, including the struggle of conscience of an Evangelical pastor ordered to go against her conscience by her commanding officer.)

Here’s the thing: if NAPARC communions and the PCUSA wonder about the fit between Tim Keller and a liberal Presbyterian seminary, why are those same NAPARC communions willing to send their pastors off to work not only with ordained women but even witches? I keep asking. I’m still not hearing many answers.

Curmudgeonly Evangelicals?

Old Life is not the only place where the dissatisfied express their dissatisfaction. Evangelical scholars are weighing in on Francis Fitzgerald’s new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. If Barry Hankins thinks Fitzgerald neglects evangelicalism’s religious character, Randy Balmer faults her for not noticing evangelicals’ progressive politics:

FitzGerald recounts the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Con­cern in November 1973, but then progressive evangelicals drop almost entirely from the narrative until the waning years of the George W. Bush administration. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher, the nation’s first avowed born-again president and a progressive evangelical, receives only scattered mention—far less, for example, than Phyllis Schlafly or even Herb Titus, a truly fringe figure. The chapter on George W. Bush, the nation’s second born-again president, by contrast, consumes more than a hundred pages.

FitzGerald renders the inner workings of the religious right in granular detail. We hear, for example, about James Dob­son’s tantrums and Richard Land’s partisan harangues, but only brief and belated reference to Sojourners magazine’s Call to Renewal or the effort of Red Letter Christians to emphasize the social teachings of Jesus. The author commendably plunges into the works of Rousas John Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, but the writings of Jim Wallis receive no comparable midrash. Shane Claiborne, a “rock star” among younger evangelicals and a radical (not progressive) evangelical, merits only a single reference.

The problem that Balmer fails to notice is that Christian progressives (evangelical or not) are in decline:

If the religious right has a single lesson to offer the left, it’s that churches make excellent incubators for political movements. With the decline of unions, progressive organizing has been left with a vacuum to fill. Left-leaning congregations could provide much-needed organizational apparatus that would be particularly important in local and off-year elections — the type of contests Democrats have struggled with in recent years.

Yet the the religious left has never faced more serious challenges. Religious progressives are fighting for relevance at a time when secular voters are becoming an increasingly crucial part of the Democratic coalition, and their political clout is only going to grow. Recent work suggests that secular voters are often uncomfortable with religiously infused political appeals, which could hurt the prospects of creating a secular-religious coalition. Progressives have always celebrated the big-tent nature of their movement, but religious liberals who once operated in the center ring may now have to come to terms with working outside the spotlight.

Since we live in a democracy, numbers matter? If we want an aristocracy of the few, the virtuous, the woke, fine. But that means giving up all that idealism about the equality of all people.

Don’t forget to notice also that the problem for Balmer with evangelicals is not Hankin’s complaint — that they are too political. Instead, the evangelical error is having the wrong politics. That would be an amusing exegetical show to find the Democratic (or Republican) platform in the pages of Holy Writ.

United Statesist Christianity

We need a new name for Christianity in the United States. The contributors to this podcast at Christianity Today are still lamenting the turnout of white evangelicals for Donald Trump and so one of them called for more attention to what it means to be evangelical. Are you kidding? We’ve had almost four decades of scholarship on evangelicalism, and at least three of chanting the integration of faith and learning, and we still don’t know what evangelical is? Please.

Then comes the objection to calling Lee Stroebel, whose new film is drawing attention to the Bill Hybels-spawned apologist, a fundamentalist.

A note or two about Strobel, the legal-affairs journalist. He did his undergraduate degree at a top j-school, the University of Missouri, and then went to Yale University to get his law degree. That gives some clues as to his approach to research and writing.

Strobel converted to Christianity in 1981 and, after a few years, went into ministry – becoming a “teaching pastor” at the world famous Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburbs.

Now, WIllow Creek – led by the Rev. Bill Hybels – has for decades been known as, literally, a globel hub for the “seeker friendly” school of mainstream (some would say somewhat “progressive”) evangelicalism. Hybels, of course, became a major news-media figure in the 1990s through his writings and his role as one of the “spiritual advisors” and private pastors to President Bill Clinton.

Willow Creek is not a fundamentalist church.

From there, Strobel went west and for several years served as a writer in residence and teaching pastor at Saddleback Community Church, founded and led by the Rev. Rick “The Purpose Driven Life” Warren. In addition to writing one of the bestselling books in the history of Planet Earth, Warren has also received quite a bit of news-media attention through his high-profile dialogues with President Barack Obama, both during Obama’s first White House campaign and in the years afterwards.

Saddleback is not a fundamentalist church.

Fair points. I don’t think Stroebel is a fundamentalist either. But evangelical is increasingly meaningless even among Protestants who haven’t read (hades!, heard of) Deconstructing Evangelicalism.

So why not simply identify Christianity in the United States according to the degree to which its adherents adapt their faith (or pick and choose) to national norms? (Do remember that in 1899 Leo XIII identified Americanism as a heresy.) Once upon a time, Protestants came to North American and tried to transmit the version of Protestantism (works for Roman Catholics and Jews also) they brought to a New World setting. Some confessional Protestants still do this and triangulate their ministry in the U.S. according to precedents set in Europe whether at the time of the Reformation or when specific episodes upset national churches (think Scotland, England, Netherlands, Germany). Presbyterians in NAPARC still live with a foot (or – ahem – toe nail) in Old World Protestantism even as they have repudiated (except for the Covenanters) the political structures that animated their European predecessors.

But then along came awakenings and parachurch associations and increasingly Protestantism in the U.S. was known less for the fingerprints of its European origins than for those innovators (Whitefield and Moody) or structures (American Bible Society or National Association of Evangelicals) who were as independent of Old World Protestantism as their nation was of the United Kingdom. Once freed from European constraints, American Christianity used markets, earnestness, activism, and relevance as the basis for Christian identity. Evangelicalism was the kinder gentler version of fundamentalism. But neither showed the slightest bit of deference to the churches that came out of the Reformation.

Now, even the labels fundamentalist and evangelical make little difference. The gatekeepers won’t stand at the gate and even if they did the gateway has no wall to make the gate functional. Anyone can be a Christian on their own terms, with celebrities and parachurch agencies gaining the most imitators. But those instances of fame collect no dues, make no demands, and provide no institutional support. It’s like belonging to Red Sox Nation. Wear your bumper sticker. Listen to your Tim Keller sermon (now on sale for $1,500). Got to the next Gospel Coalition conference. You have Jesus in your heart and United Statesist Christianity has lots of proprietors to make your heart burn.

The good thing about United Statesist Christianity is that it allows its adherents to revel in exceptionalism. If America is a great nation, United Statesist Christianity is no less exceptional. Instead of a Pretty Good Awakening, United Statesist Christianity puts the Great back in Great Awakening.

Machen’s Warrior Mother

Another difference between New Calvinists and Reformed Protestants — sentimentality. Tim Challies does his best to present J. Gresham Machen as — we used to call them mama’s boys — the godly Christian son:

Because Gresham was a lifelong bachelor, his mother would remain the closest woman in his life until her death in 1931. This was the most grievous event he had experienced, for no one had held him in greater esteem than his mother. No one had been so unswervingly loyal to him. Perhaps no one had been so impacted by him. She once wrote to him: “I cannot half express to you my pride and profound joy in your work. You have handled in a very able manner the most important problem of the age, and you have given voice to my own sentiments far better than I could myself.” On the day the family laid her to rest, Gresham wrote, “My mother seems—to me at least—to have been the wisest and best human being I ever knew.”

God used Minnie’s powerful intellect and warm kindness to raise up a man who would benefit generations of Christians by his stalwart defense of the faith. And he continues to use such mothers to this day. Mothers, as you struggle to instruct your children in the Word and in sound doctrine, learn from Minnie that your labor is setting a strong foundation for years to come. As you strive to show steadfast love to your faltering children, learn from Minnie that God often uses such compassion to draw his children back to himself. Through your training and your tenderness, you are displaying the love of the Father.

Minnie had been her son’s first teacher and, with her husband, the one who led him to Christ. “Without what I got from you and Mother,” he would tell his father, “I should long since have given up all thoughts of religion or of a moral life. . . . The only thing that enables me to get any benefit out of my opportunities here is the continual presence with me in spirit of you and Mother and the Christian teaching which you have given me.” At his time of deepest need, she had comforted him with love and counseled him with the Word of God. She had remained loyal to him in that crisis and through every other controversy he endured. In his greatest and most enduring work, Christianity and Liberalism, it is fitting that its opening page bears this simple dedication: “To my mother.”

Tender. Warm. Kind. Compassion. Love. Loyalty. Those are all appealing words and they no doubt capture some of the relationship that Machen had with his mother, Mary Gresham.

But that portrait of the close relationship of mother and son (which those skeptical of Machen’s virtues have used to raise questions about his sexuality) doesn’t prepare New Calvinist admirers for the Warrior Children side of Machen. And to keep the spread sheets properly balanced, the New Calvinists (at least) need to remember how John Frame described the less than appealing side of Machen’s controversial proclivities:

The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a “true Presbyterian church” they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.

One slogan of the Machen movement was “truth before friendship.” We should laud their intention to act according to principle without compromise. But the biblical balance is “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We must not speak the truth without thinking of the effect of our formulations on our fellow Christians, even our opponents. That balance was not characteristic of the Machen movement.

Fighting for the sake of contention is one thing. Fighting for a Reformed church according to the word is another. Many of Machen’s warrior children think they fight for the sake of God’s word. New Calvinists tend to be skeptical, as Frame is, about the extent of battle fronts. They even call Old Calvinists mean and ornery.

As long as New Calvinists also know that Machen had critics who called him mean and ornery, they might avoid sentimentalizing Machen. If they want to sanitize him, they need to explain how Minnie Machen ever let her son become such a controversialist.

Between Tim and Carl — The NAPARC Dilemma

Rod Dreher calls attention to one NAPARC pastor who is not thrilled with current ecclesiastical options and so curious about — wait for it — The Benedict Option:

Meanwhile younger evangelicals are busy recapitulating the 20th century church’s fatal embrace of theological liberalism. As long as it’s packaged in an emotionally compelling way, their elders can be induced to swallow it as well, as “The Shack” easily demonstrates.

Within the more conservative strains of Reformed and Lutheran Protestantism there are other problematic dynamics. I have many Lutheran friends, but I’ll stick to generalizing about the Reformed. There is a spectrum in the PCA, for instance. The disciples of Tim Keller are almost as ready to give away the store in the name of reaching the culture as the mainstream evangelicals are, and there is a small but significant number of these Young Turks who are busy trying to combine AngloCatholicism and hipster feminism into a small enough package to smuggle into the PCA. On the other extreme are the Confessionalist Conservatives (with whom I mostly identify, tho less and less) many of whom seem to be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Carl Trueman’s denomination is chock full of these. The focus here is on doctrine in an increasingly nuanced form, but it’s not particularly connected to real life most of the time. They tend to build small, unattractive churches full of Christians with advanced degrees in physics or engineering. They love doctrinal controversy, not because they love controversy, but because they love debating ideas. But regular people have no desire to follow the subtle arguments and hate the atmosphere of conflict coupled with a lack of any recognizably pleasing social interaction, so they run away pretty quickly. At my worst, I could easily fall into these pitfalls (indeed, I have) but the Lord is graciously restraining me and reshaping me, and by grace I am better than I was.

Pastor Brian, as he identifies himself in Rod’s comment boxes, should add that an important help to his dismissal of Keller’s giving away the story is the doctrinal zeal for which Carl Trueman’s Asperger Presbyterians are known.

But missing from this pastor’s dilemma is a recognition that the politics of identity (think race and gender) are leaving Tim Keller without a secure legacy in the PCA. Could it be that Keller is too white for the Leadership and Diversity Resource (talk about an Orwellian title) of the PCA?

When Wy Plummer invited one African-American seminarian to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see a multiethnic PCA congregation, he had no idea the weekend would turn into an annual event attracting hundreds of men and women in Reformed denominations.

The event is now called Leadership and Development Resource (LDR), a weekend for African -Americans to see that they have a place in Reformed denominations. Since blacks are usually the minority in a PCA church, many feel as though they need to hide their ethnic culture in order to fit in at church, Plummer said. . . .

Now Plummer works with Tisby and Michelle Higgins to organize the annual gatherings. As LDR attracts more people, Higgins wants to equip teams to host regional LDR gatherings.

Plummer believes that LDR is playing a key role in creating diversity in the PCA. It gives Reformed African-American leaders the chance to address a national audience. For whites who attend, it is a place to learn about how African-Americans preach, pray, and worship.

If the OPC is getting too much doctrinal precision (haven’t heard that one before), has the PCA been getting too much Keller? Then again, the PCA establishment has to know that if push comes to shove and they have too choose between Tim and Kathy Keller or Jemar Tisby and Michelle Higgins, they’ll choose New York City over Chattanooga.

These days, though, you never know.

You Can’t Claim the Reformation and the First Gross (think German) Awakening

While the Gospel Allies put on the mantle of Luther — LUTHER!!! (that antinomian, beer drinking, potty mouth) — they should really be reading Garry Wills on the problem with evangelicalism. As I’ve been trying to say for some time, revivalism is antithetical to reformation. The church (as in reform the church) matters to Luther and Calvin. The parachurch is at the heart of revivals and the Gospel Coalition. To that end, consider the following:

Evangelicalism tends to break out of any single denomination—think of the preachers from various bodies at Cane Ridge. It is fissiparous even in its most favorable environments—think of Methodism branching into the Disciples of Christ, the Holiness Movement, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Whitefield, it should be remembered, was an ordained Anglican.) Evangelicalism is a style—Mark Noll calls it a “value system.” It can affect even some “high church” bodies or members. There are Pentecostalists among Roman Catholics. (Phyllis Schlafly, it should be remembered, was a Catholic, as Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are. Bannon showed his allegiance in his 2014 Skype address to the Institute for Human Dignity at the Vatican.)

Given this description of evangelical style, two things should be noticed. America is, or likes to think of itself as, a “do-it-yourself democracy.” Many of the traits I have been listing are ones Americans will fancy themselves as embodying (or wanting to). People who hit the sawdust trail are working a kind of do-it-yourself salvation. The credentialing by the people is what all presidents claim. No wonder Noll thinks of evangelical religion (despite its roots in Wesley’s England) as native to America, as giving America its most recognizable God. Calvin said God “elects” his chosen ones. In America we choose to elect our leaders. The crowd credentials the preacher. Historians rightly observe that our national political conventions have borrowed elements from revivals.

The Allies should be especially mindful, as the crowds gather this week that “crowds credential preachers.”