When to Feel Empathy

The Gospel Coalition continues in the mold of George H. W. Bush by trying to find a kinder, gentler, evangelicalism. This time it is remembering the anxiety of women with unwanted pregnancies:

Women facing an unplanned pregnancy often have very reasonable, here-and-now fears. They may fear the loss of financial stability—or the loss of the ability to ever reach it. They may fear the loss of an already teetering status quo in which every available ounce of food is already consumed at home—perhaps by other children they’re already parenting. Pregnant women may lose a job, or they may not get the job they were hoping for. They may fear a violent boyfriend or father.

They may even fear pregnancy itself, which is often full of terrifying sickness, physical pain, loss of emotional control, and embarrassing bodily problems. All of these fears are real and oft-cited at crisis-pregnancy centers the country over. A common theme weaves through most of them: the fear of other people.

Evil often begets more evil. While many who support so-called abortion rights believe they’re serving needy women, they’re overlooking one critical reality: Women are often brought—reluctantly—to the abortion doctor. These women are compelled toward abortion not by their own empowering, my-body-is-my-own sense of autonomy, but by another person seeking control. Angry boyfriends, angry husbands, angry mothers, angry employers—these are so often the wind at the back of an abortion-minded woman.

Women may fear something else, too: adoption. Though morally clear, the thought is often experientially vague: It seems, or feels, much less repugnant to have a hidden medical procedure in the first weeks of pregnancy than to consciously hand over a smiling, babbling baby to a woman whose body never knew him or her. It’s cognitive dissonance, sure, but it’s a real—and understandable—fear.

This logic is not wrong. But it is peculiar the way that progressive evangelicals decide on which issues to project toughness, and on which ones to strike the pose of nice.

Imagine if John Fea had written this way about the fears of evangelicals who voted for Trump.

Imagine if Jemar Tisby had written this way about the OPC shooter in Poway.

And imagine if Joe Carter had written this way about kinism.

Lots of talk in the last five years about confirmation bias. I don’t think we have had enough of a conversation about reading between the lines and noticing agendas.

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Border Patrol with Big Green Letters

Joe Carter wants us to be cautious about attributing “cultural Marxism” to AN NEE BODEE!!

Over the past decade online culture and political tribalism have combined to bring ideas once relegated to the margins into the mainstream. We can add the tendency of politicized terms to be used in ways that have one or more connotations for a non-tribalized audience and quite another for those committed to tribalism.

A prime example is the term “cultural Marxism,” which is included in Earnest’s grievances for which “every Jew is responsible.” … When those on the political right make claims about the people at the Frankfurt School conspired to bring down Western culture or equate cultural Marxism with multiculturalism, they are—whether they recognize it or not—using the redefined and racialized meaning given by Lind.*** Of course most Christians who uses terms like cultural Marxism are not kinist. Many of them are merely repeating a term they heard used by fellow Christians and are unaware of the anti-Semitic and racialist origin. Yet it’s disconcerting when conservative Christians use language that originated from a racist worldview perpetuated by anti-Semites.****

. . .Because the term CM has become tainted its continued use by Christians undermines our ability to warn about the dangers of concepts like Critical Theory. We should invent a new term or use words already commonly accepted to refer to the concepts we are discussing. Doing so will help us to be better communicate what intend in a loving manner.

At Tablet Magazine, Alexander Zubatov is not so sure:

A short tour through some notable landmarks should suffice to show how 19th-century Marxism evolved into 20th-century “cultural Marxism” and the culture war of our present day: . . .

It is a short step from Gramsci’s “hegemony” to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of “patriarchy,” “heteronormativity,” “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” “white fragility” and “whiteness.” It is a short step from his and Marcuse’s reconceptualization of the role of radical intellectuals to our sensationalized and politicized media outlets playing the part of a self-styled progressive vanguard riling up the allegedly oppressed and turning their incoherent rage loose on the rest of us. …It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion — precisely the kinds of judgments that the high ideals of liberal universalism and the foremost thinkers of the Civil Rights Era thought to be foul plays in the game. And it is a short step from this collection of reductive and simplistic conceptions of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” to public shaming, forced resignations and all manner of institutional and corporate policy dictated by enraged Twitter mobs, the sexual McCarthyism of #MeToo’s excesses, and the incessant, resounding, comically misdirected and increasingly hollow cries of “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobe,” “Islamophobe,” “transphobe” and more that have yet to be invented to demonize all those with whom the brittle hordes partaking in such calumnies happen to disagree.

Whatever the merits of phrases like cultural Marxism, I do find it peculiar that Joe Carter has not objected to pet categories by the Gospel Allies’ most celebrated members.

For instance, is Christian hedonism a very good way to describe sanctification?

What about Gospel Ecosystem? Why wouldn’t something like — well — church or communion work? And what’s up with using organic metaphors for urban locales? (Wendell would not approve.)

Can we produce a gospel city movement? No. A movement is the result of two sets of factors. Take for example, a garden. A garden flourishes because of the skill and diligence of the gardener and the condition of the soil and the weather. The first set of factors—-gardening—-is the way we humanly contribute to the movement. This encompasses a self-sustaining, naturally growing set of ministries and networks, which we will look at in more detail below.

If we “should invent a new term or use words already commonly accepted to refer to the concepts we are discussing,” why are some celebrity pastors immune?

What Transformed Churches Used to Look Like

Over at Front Porch Republic I posted some reflections on the urge for contemporary Christians to hope for and try to implement “radical” Christianity. It strikes me that such radicalism is at the heart of #woke Christians’ deep and abiding resentment of the fall’s effects on human institutions, not to mention its influence on humans.

Roger Olson is also surprised by the turn that some evangelicals are taking in their awakened state. And he also remembers what used to characterize a transformed Christian culture. Hint, it was not radical:

“The Christianity of my youth is gone; I don’t find it anywhere.” I have thought that to myself but been afraid to say it to anyone. I had to agree with him. We both grew up in and began our ministries within the “heart” of American conservative Protestant, evangelical Christianity. We both have taught at several Christian institutions of higher education and we both have traveled much—speaking to Christian audiences both inside and outside of churches. We have both written books published by evangelical Christian publishers. We both have our finger on the “pulse” of contemporary American evangelical Protestant Christianity and we both grew up in and began our ministries in what that used to be. We are both dismayed at how it has changed.

We were not talking about “drums on the platform used during worship.” We were not talking about styles of dress or hair or anything like that. We were talking about substance.

We both know what evangelical Protestant Christianity was like in terms of substance in the middle of the twentieth century—in America. We both know what it is like now. And to us, at least, the change of substance is so radical that we have trouble recognizing contemporary evangelical Protestant Christianity in America as in continuity with the religious form of life we both grew up in and began our ministries in.

Let me explain….

It’s actually difficult to know where to begin! Almost everything has changed substantially. But what I mean by “substantially” will only be revealed by my examples.

First, church was extended family; people knew each other and were involved in each other’s lives. There was no notion of “personal privacy” if you were a member of the church—except in the bathroom and (normally) bedroom. When the church was large, the Sunday School class was your extended family. If you were a member or regular attended and missed two Sundays in a row without explanation you could expect a visit from a pastor or Sunday School teacher. I could go on, but that should give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

Second, and following from “first,” home visitation was a big part of a pastor’s job. If the church was large this might be delegated to Sunday School teachers or others (e.g., elders or deacons). Also, hospital visitation was expected of pastors—even if they could not get to everyone every week (due to the size of the church and the city).

Third, evangelism and missions were central to church life. People had missionaries’ pictures at home and prayed for them as well as supported them financially. Many churches had “missionary barrels” where people put non-perishable items to send “overseas” for the missionaries. When the missionaries came “home on furlough” they traveled around speaking in churches and were expected to talk about conversions and church planting and building. “Transformative initiatives” were not enough; “winning lost souls to Jesus” was the common language and it was expected.

Following as part of “third” is that all evangelical churches had programs for training members to witness and evangelize. Everyone was expected to witness to their neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, etc.

Fourth, the worship space was treated as a place for reverence and respect. It was not “the auditorium” but “the sanctuary” and drinking beverages and eating food was absolutely forbidden. Every church had “ushers” part of whose job it was to speak to people who were not showing proper reverence and respect for the worship space—not so much because it was considered especially “holy” or “sacred” but because munching food and gulping beverages was distracting to others and just not proper during worship.

Fifth, most of the work of the church was performed by volunteer lay people instead of paid staff people. It was expected that every member would volunteer part of his or her time to do something for the church. Anyone who didn’t was considered a backslidden person in need of correction or even excommunication. There were excommunicated people who attended regularly, but they were not allowed to hold any positions of leadership and were the subjects of much prayer and visitation.

Sixth, Sunday was set aside as a time to be in church—morning and evening—and afternoons were devoted to rest, reading, visiting “folks” in their homes, etc. Normally, television was turned off on Sunday (unless possibly for religious programming in the morning while the family got ready for church or in the afternoon after the usually abundant Sunday noon dinner). People who did not spend most of Sunday at church were considered unspiritual and not given any kind of leadership in the church. (Of course exceptions were made for people who were for whatever reason not able to spend most of the day in church.)

Seventh, if a person attended church often (e.g.,with a “loved one”) but did not show any sign of interest in growing spiritually, he or she would be talked to and eventually asked to stop attending—if he or she was living a “sinful life.” That’s because children and youth would possibly assume that the person’s sinful lifestyle was acceptable.

Eighth, every evangelical church had occasional revivals—“protracted meetings” where people came every night of the week to hear music and preaching that was not “ordinary.” The focus was on both evangelism (“Bring your friends!”) and re-dedication or new consecration to the Lord. “Deeper life” or “higher life” was a major focus of evangelical churches with retreats, seminars, workshops, etc., that people were expected to attend.

Ninth, churches that “shut down” programs for the summer or for holidays were considered unspiritual. Summer, for example, was one of the most active times for evangelical churches with Vacation Bible Schools, “Backyard childrens’ clubs,” “Camps” and “Mission Trips”—usually to visit missionaries “on the field” in the countries where they were working for the Lord. Of course, only some people could go on these, but when the people who did go returned everyone was expected to come and listen to their stories about the missionaries and the people they were evangelizing and view their slides.

Tenth, every evangelical church had at least “Wednesday Bible Study” that usually met in the evening for at least an hour and any church member who did not attend was considered less than fully committed.

Eleventh, when evangelical Christians gathered for social fellowship with each other, whether in homes or at restaurants, wherever, they talked about “What Jesus is doing,” what they were learning from the Bible, reading Christian literature, their favorite radio preacher, or something spiritual and not only sports or politics or the weather. If they gathered in a home on Sunday afternoon, for example, they watched Billy Graham or Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard or some other evangelical Christian program (not football). Of course there were exceptions, but these fellowship gatherings of evangelical believers in homes were common and much of the “talk” was about religion, faith, God’s work in people’s lives, etc.

Twelfth, evangelical Christians had fairly high standards about entertainment. Many did not attend movies in movie theaters. If they did, they were highly selective about what ones they would attend (and let their children attend). Along with that, modesty in dress was expected—of both males and females. Most evangelical churches did not permit “mixed bathing” (boys and girls swimming together at camps or “lock ins” at the YMCA or YWCA). Young people were encouraged to listen only to Christian music on the local Christian radio station. Often they were given notes to take to school saying that they were not permitted to dance. Alternatives to “prom” were routinely planned by churches and local evangelical ministers’ associations. Such alternatives included (mostly) banquets to celebrate the coming commencement.

Thirteenth, Sunday sermons were expected to convict congregants and visitors of sin and “backsliding” and call them to new repentance and greater involvement in spiritual practices such as daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer and witnessing to the unsaved.

This was what I experienced as a yute. And it also explains why I found Reformed Protestantism more appealing and reassuring. I would certainly in my confessional and two-kingdom Protestant self construe church life and personal piety differently that Olson does.

At the same time, that older kind of evangelicalism (or fundamentalism) was earnestly otherworldly and congregational.

As much as the anti-liberal Christians out there, from Rod Dreher to Adrian Vermuele and N. T. Wright want to reject secularism and modern social forms, they don’t seem to have a place for the fairly thick glue of older congregational life and worship. Instead, they seem to prefer that the nation-state take on the attributes of a congregation (without of course all of the earnest striving to avoid worldliness). Meanwhile, the voices for social justice also seem not to notice how the protests and outrage distract from higher responsibilities (because more eternal) of fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. Again, part of the explanation seems to be an expectation that the world conform to the church or that the eschaton be immanentized.

I am not sure how to conclude other than to say, what the heck happened?

Why Michelle Higgins Appeals to Evangelicals

Samuel James wrote a piece a few weeks back about the overlapping convictions of social justice warriors and evangelicals (of a Reformedish variety). The link is morality:

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I almost never heard any progressive or non-Christian make a moral case against a film or actor. Critics lauded such movies as American Beauty even as we grumpy fundies were aghast at its deviant themes and explicit sexuality. Fast-forward to 2019: The Me Too movement has chewed up Kevin Spacey, his movie, and his Best Actor Oscar and spit them all out. There’s an air (or pretense?) of spiritual enlightenment in contemporary pop culture. It’s in the sacramental language about inclusivity, in the hounding of sinners and heretics such as Kevin Hart and Henry Cavill, in the somber gender homily of a razor-company commercial.

If 2019 were all you knew of American pop culture, you’d never guess that some of the same institutions now lecturing on the need for more female leadership had financial interests in the porn industry just a few years ago. You’d never guess that “shock comedy” was a hugely lucrative business until very recently, with its bluest punchlines often coming at the expense not of sensitive liberal consciences but of Christians and conservatives. And you’d certainly be surprised to hear the marketing departments that sold their products by associating them with sex now bemoan toxic masculinity.

The idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard seems a novel one to the social-justice generation. It was a given in my childhood. My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.

The rising generation of students is coming to this same realization but without the help of religion’s spiritual insight. The modern campus culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative Evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if SJWism and religious fundamentalism are both expressions of a dissatisfaction with the decadence of modernity: its mindless consumerism, its divorce of virtue from culture, and its kowtowing to profit and power?

While James is looking at the convergence between secular social justice warriors and #woke evangelicals, he misses something that is much more basic, namely, eschatology. Whether you believe that history has a “right side” or you think that improvement in society has some bearing on the return of Christ, you likely are of the conviction that life here on earth mirrors some form of cosmic justice. And from where I sit, that puts you in the immanentize-the-eschaton school of social reform. How utopians come up with an eschaton to immanentize is a true mystery. But not believing in heaven, hell, judgment day, or God has not prevented many on the left from thinking an end to inequality, suffering, poverty, illness, war is possible — even immanent.

In which case, the fundamental divide in U.S. politics and religion is between the Augustinians (liturgicals) and the millennialists (pietists whether secular or born-again). Robert Swierenga’s description of nineteenth-century “ethnoreligious political behavior” remains astute even for our time:

The liturgical churches (such as Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and various Lutheran synods) were credally based, sacerdotal, hierarchical, nonmillennial, and particularistic. These ecclesiasticals were ever vigilant against state encroachment on their churches, parochial schools, and the moral lives of their members. God’s kingdom was other-worldly, and human programs of conversion or social reform could not usher in the millennium. God would restore this inscrutable, fallen world in His own good time and in His own mighty power.

The pietists (Baptists, Methodists, Disciples, Congregationalists, Quakers) were New Testament-oriented, antiritualist, congregational in governance, active in parachurch organizations, and committed to individual conversion and societal reform in order to usher in the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. Pietists did not compartmentalize religion and civil government. Right belief and right behavior were two sides of the same spiritual coin. The liturgical excommunicated heretics, the pietists expelled or shunned sinners. (Religion and American Politics, 151-52)

He left out Presbyterians because they were sort of stuck in the middle, with some Old Schoolers entering the ranks of liturgicals and some siding with the clean-up-America New School.

Since James works for Crossway, I wonder if he should have written more about the links between #woke African-American evangelicals and The Gospel Coalition. And if he had read Swierenga, maybe all the recommendations of Advent and Lent at The Gospel Coalition could turn those evangelicals into liturgicals — those Protestants that compartmentalize faith and politics. If the liturgical calendar would get evangelicals to back away from social reform, then make the church calendar go.

What Happened to Preaching?

For some evangelicals, the options in worship are either the sacraments or the gifts of the Spirit:

This Sunday, thousands of believers will enter a sanctuary in which all eyes are drawn to the table near the front. They will brush past a baptismal font as they find a seat, sing hymns and recite prayers that have sustained believers for centuries, confess that they believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and receive bread and wine. Spiritual gifts, however—with the exception of teaching—are unlikely to make an appearance. An occurrence of prophecy or healing would be very surprising, if not unprecedented. Tongue-speaking would result in either a baffled silence or an embarrassed cough.

Thousands of other believers will enter a very different worship space, in which all eyes are drawn to the stage. They will expect, and frequently experience, a meeting in which people practice the laying on of hands, spontaneous prayer, anointing with oil, prophecy, languages, healing, and any number of the other spiritual gifts described in the New Testament. But there will probably be no corporate confession, no creed, no psalms, and no shared liturgy. If the Lord’s Supper is celebrated at all, it will appear on collapsible tables, transition quickly into the next part of the service, and take no more time than the announcements.

There are, in other words, churches that are eucharistic and churches that are charismatic (as well as a good many churches that are neither). So it is interesting that the New Testament church about whose corporate worship we know the most, namely the church in Corinth, was both. The Corinthians were apparently unaware that those two strands of Christian worship were incompatible, and they happily (if somewhat erratically) pursued sacramental and spiritual gifts at the same time. Neither did Paul regard this as strange or problematic; in fact, he encouraged them to continue celebrating Communion together (1 Cor. 11:23–6) and to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (14:1). Paul, in that sense, wanted the church to be “eucharismatic”—and that invitation extends to us as well.

Once upon a time, critics accused Protestants of being logocentric because the placed so much emphasis on the Word. In fact, you could blame Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for Protestants’ emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Word:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Charismatics and sacramentalists don’t seem to be drawn to wisdom but are looking for signs, for tangible, visible, physical manifestations of God’s presence. That wasn’t how Paul understood either his ministry or the one he passed on to Timothy.

No matter what you think of Paul, can’t writers for the evangelical magazine of record remember that some Protestants still make a big deal of the Bible in worship?

Social Justice circa 2009

If you read some people, you might get the impression that the gospel and social justice are synonymous. But words change meanings, even if some people have trouble understanding that a reference to “race” in the 1930s is not the same as one in the 1880s or the 1980s.

Consider how only a decade ago, the Gospel Allies were talking about social justice in ways that no one could use after Michael Brown, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter. For instance, Kevin DeYoung wrote a series on social justice in Scripture that found almost no reference to race. Here is how he summarized it last year (even!):

Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.

So for simplicity sake, let’s take biblical “social justice” to mean something like “treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable.” If that’s what we mean, is social justice a gospel issue?

Even Thabiti Anyabwile seemed to be persuaded:

We seem to put social justice at odds with gospel proclamation. Many today don’t think these can easily coexist. They think that to fight for justice as the Christian church inevitably means the abandonment of the gospel. They may be correct. For since the Civil Rights Movement, the gospel has been thoroughly confused by too many in the African American church with liberation and justice itself.

To be sure, Anyabwile went on to question those who make too strong a contrast between the gospel and social justice:

to preach the gospel and have no concern and take no action in the cause of justice is as much an abandonment of the gospel as mistaken the gospel. How can a faithful gospel preacher preach the gospel before slaves and never wince at the gross barbarity of that peculiar institution? How can a man claim to live the gospel with fellow brothers in Christ and yet uphold laws that disenfranchise, marginalize, and oppress those same brothers?

Well, what exactly counts as taking action? Is it tweeting? Writing a post for a parachurch website? Calling a legislature? Standing outside an office with a placard?

What also is “upholding” laws that disenfranchise? If someone says nothing are they guilty of upholding existing laws? Or is it a case of speaking out or “taking action” against some laws but not others?

Abandonment of the gospel is a tad strong for a condition — “taking no action” — that is so arbitrary and inexact.

At the same time, once upon a time Anyabwile fully endorsed DeYoung’s point that Christians should stop using the phrase social justice:

Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!

Not even John MacArthur and fellow signers went that far.

Something changed between 2009 and 2019. It could be that history clarified all the ambiguity (even if it did not change what the Bible — a fixed set of texts — says. Or it could be people have changed their minds. If Ferguson is the turning point, it sure would help to hear some reflection on ways in which a country that has persistently practiced racism only in 2014 became so egregious that now some people had to build up word counts and twitter followers.

W-w Giveth, W-w Taketh Away, Short Live W-w

Tim Carney’s piece on Trump-voting evangelicals is getting a lot of play and for good reason. He looks at churches outside the urban, suburban bubble, the ones that Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition try to own. And he finds that evangelicalism is not nearly as monolithic as scholars and evangelical leaders have said. He may even give reasons for abandoning evangelicalism altogether.

But Carney also opens a window on those Protestants where neo-Calvinist influence has had the longest shelf-life. In some cases, the results should hearten the redeemers of every square inch:

Trump’s single worst county in all of Iowa—far worse than Polk County (where Des Moines is) or Story County (home to Iowa State), or Johnson County (University of Iowa)—was Sioux County. Trump finished fourth place there, behind Ben Carson. Ted Cruz won every precinct of Sioux County.

Sioux is home to Orange City and Sioux Center, and it is the Dutchest county in America. Dutch ancestry is probably one of the best proxies the Census has for religious attendance.

Jordan Helming, a transplant whom I met at a Jeb Bush rally in Sioux Center, was astounded by the religiosity of the place, including the sheer number of churches. “There are 19 of them in this town—a town of 7,000 has 19 churches.”

Different strains of Reformed Christianity dominate in this overwhelmingly Dutch county, from austere old-world Calvinism (“the frozen chosen” they call themselves) to more evangelical flavors. Attendance (often twice on Sundays) is high, and the churches build strong community bonds.

“You care about your neighbors,” Helming explained, “you care about your environment, but you also take care of it yourself—don’t rely on the government.”

Carney does not mention that these Iowans also selected Steve King to represent them in the House of Representatives.

Reinforcing that uncomfortable detail are Carney’s tabulations of Michigan’s voting habits:

Back in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, analysts saw the GOP electorate in two categories: (a) establishment Republicans or (b) Evangelicals. The Establishment types voted for Mitt Romney or John McCain in 2008, and the “evangelical vote” went for Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.

It turns out we were all oversimplifying things. That supposedly “evangelical vote” was a combination of two electorates: (1) the evangelical vote and (2) the rural populist vote. The 2016 primaries illuminated this distinction.

In Michigan, for instance, 2012 saw Romney carry the stretch of the state from Ann Arbor to Detroit, while Santorum won most of the rest of the state. Four years later, it was much more complex: Kasich won Ann Arbor, Trump won Detroit and most of the rural counties, while Cruz dominated in the handful of counties around Holland and Grand Rapids, where the Dutch Reformed church dominates.

Cruz would likely be better than Trump. But why don’t Christian Reformed institutions own up to being oh so Republican? You’d never know from reading the Banner, Reformed Journal, Pro Rege, or In All Things. If the leaders of Evangelicalism, Inc. could be so out of touch with non-urban Protestants, are the professors and pastors in the Christian Reformed and Reformed Church of America world all that connected?

If You Worry about Pompeo, Why Not Pope Francis?

The Guardian has a story that should trouble 2kers. It’s about the influence of evangelicals, holding office, mind you, and responsible for foreign policy in the Middle East:

In his speech at the American University in Cairo, Pompeo said that in his state department office: “I keep a Bible open on my desk to remind me of God and his word, and the truth.”

The secretary of state’s primary message in Cairo was that the US was ready once more to embrace conservative Middle Eastern regimes, no matter how repressive, if they made common cause against Iran.

His second message was religious. In his visit to Egypt, he came across as much as a preacher as a diplomat. He talked about “America’s innate goodness” and marveled at a newly built cathedral as “a stunning testament to the Lord’s hand”.

The desire to erase Barack Obama’s legacy, Donald Trump’s instinctive embrace of autocrats, and the private interests of the Trump Organisation have all been analysed as driving forces behind the administration’s foreign policy.

The gravitational pull of white evangelicals has been less visible. But it could have far-reaching policy consequences. Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo both cite evangelical theology as a powerful motivating force.

Just as he did in Cairo, Pompeo called on the congregation of a Kansan megachurch three years ago to join a fight of good against evil.

“We will continue to fight these battles,” the then congressman said at the Summit church in Wichita. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight.”

This is not good on two counts. First, it mixes the church and the state. Second, it uses bad theology for one of the mix’s ingredients. Good for Julian Borger to catch this.

But what about when the Vatican does the same thing (but without the Word of God)?

Though the week between Christmas and New Year’s is traditionally a fairly slow period on the Vatican beat, this is the Pope Francis era, when tradition and a Euro will buy you a cup of cappuccino in a Roman café.

Thus it’s entirely fitting that arguably one of the Vatican’s most important diplomatic encounters of 2018 came the day after Christmas, when Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, met Iraqi President Barham Salih in Baghdad.

During the meeting, Salih extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the Iraqi city of Ur, the Biblical city of Abraham, for an interreligious summit. It’s a trip that St. John Paul II desperately wanted to make in 2000, during a jubilee year pilgrimage to sites associated with salvation history, but the security situation at the time made such a trip impossible.

There was no immediate word from the Vatican whether Francis intends to accept the invitation, although there has been some media buzz about an outing coming as early as February. Doing so would be entirely consistent with his penchant for visiting both the peripheries of the world and also conflict zones.

Parolin was accompanied in the Dec. 26 meeting by the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, the largest of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome in the country, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako. That was an important signal, in part underlining that the Vatican isn’t interested in pursuing a parallel diplomatic track with Baghdad that doesn’t prioritize the concerns of the local church.

(That’s a real concern, given the fact that critics insist the Vatican has done precisely the opposite in some other parts of the world, including China and Russia.)

According to a statement afterwards from the Iraqi president’s office, Salih and Parolin discussed the importance of different religions working together to combat extremist ideology “that does not reflect the beliefs and values of our divine messages and social norms.”

The statement also said the two leaders discussed the situation facing Christians in Iraq, talking “a great deal” about how to maintain their presence in the country and to assist in rebuilding their homes, businesses and places of worship in the wake of devastation caused by ISIS and other extremist Islamic forces.

Is it because the Vatican has been engaged in foreign policy for a millennium, compared to evangelicals who have only been at it maybe 30 years tops, that allows reporters to take Bishops’ influence on temporal rulers for granted?

Or are evangelicals scarier because with the executive branch of the U.S. federal government they have more power than the pope?

If so, that’s true audacity.

What the Gospel Co-Allies Could Learn from Non-Christian Movies

Jared Wilson (not at TGC website) makes some good points about the poor quality of Christian movies:

Christian movies are not made by artists but propagandists.

I don’t mean that these projects aren’t carried about by people who know what they’re doing with cameras, lighting, etc. The visual quality of Christian movies has definitely increased over the last decade. The caliber of talent on both sides of the camera has increased, as well. So when I say Christian movies aren’t made by artists, I don’t mean they aren’t made by people who are good at their jobs. What I mean is that they are made by people who don’t really know what the job ought to be.

I tracked this shift most notably in Christian writing (fiction) about 20 years ago. We always wondered why there weren’t any more C.S. Lewises or G.K. Chestertons around. The truth is, there were — they just weren’t writing for the Christian market, because that market does not want art that communciates truth but art that is being used by a message. And there’s a difference. It is the difference between art and propaganda.

Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art, because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme — the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something — and then the story is crafted around that message. This is true even when the story is something based on a real-life incident. Delving into the depths of human character and motivation is subservient to getting the message across. This is why so much of the dialogue in Christian movies violates the classic writing proverb, “Show, don’t tell.”

Wilson makes several other good points about Christian movies’ lameness.

The thing is, someone could make similar points about the content at TGC, whether current events, movie reviews, or even discussions of Christianity. The problem with the Christian intellectual bright web is that the Christianity or w-w on view is mainly about uplift and rooting for the good guys, that is, the celebrity pastors who sometimes leave their own parachurch platforms to perform occasional services for TGC.

A basic problem is an inability to regard non-Christians as confronting real life situations that believers also face, or portraying Christians as people with similar problems to non-Christians — juggling multiple loyalties, avoiding temptation, maintaining integrity, or even looking up to people without faith for insights into the human condition. Is it possible, for instance, for a Christian to render a non-Christian as a charming, likable, even wise person? I understand the challenges that non-believers have in portraying Christians as anything other than two-dimensional figures. That’s because Christians have such trouble admitting that they are both human and spiritual, justified and unsanctified. But is it so hard to portray human existence apart from Christ as a compelling story from which Christians can learn how to participate in all those parts of experience that are not obviously religious? If it is hard — and it is — it is because the victorious Christian living, teaching, and defending that TGC advocates is one where Christians are sanctified across all parts of ordinary life. Christians do Christian music, holy child-rearing, sanctified plumbing, and spiritual goat breeding. If everything has to have Christian significance, you are going to miss a lot of life.

That is why The Big Kahuna is such a great movie. Of course, we may no longer watch it because it stars Kevin Spacey among others. Plus, it has at least 20 f-bombs. But it also portrays the haplessness of an evangelical engineer who works with worldly salesmen and turns out not to be a reliable colleague because he (Bob, played by Peter Facinelli) is so eager to evangelize on the job. The movie, to its credit, treats this evangelical as a real life human being. When he says that it’s more important to follow Jesus than sell an industrial lubricant (at a business convention), you actually see Bob’s dilemma. It is not a ridiculous riddle. But the evangelical also lacks character, as Danny DeVito’s character points out, because Bob doesn’t see how his desire to serve the Lord has blinded him to poor performance on the job, or a distance from co-workers. Bob sees himself in two dimensions because his piety tells him to view himself that way.

It is a smart movie from which Christians and non-Christians can see the way life doesn’t proceed in straight lines.

If TGC wants Christians to make better movies, they should produce better content.

Forget the Optics, Try the Acoustics

Why is it when reading Tim Keller you (okay I) get the sense that he is above it all. This interview in 2008 in First Things (Oldlife.org did not begin until 2009) captures Keller’s sense of his own exceptionalism. When asked if Redeemer is a megachurch, well, no, it’s better than that:

I found that if you define megachurch as anything over two thousand people, then yes, then we are. But here’s four ways in which we’re not a megachurch, or we don’t do things people associate with megachurches. One is, we do no advertising or publicity of any sort, except I’m trying to get the book out there so people read it and have their lives changed by it, but Redeemer’s never advertised or publicized. And the reason is, if a person walks in off the street just because they’ve heard about Redeemer through advertising, and they have questions or they want to get involved, there’s almost no way to do it unless you have all kinds of complicated programs, places where they can go. But if they come with a friend who already goes there, their questions are answered naturally, the next steps happen organically, the connections they want to make happen naturally . . . We do not want a crowd of spectators. We want a community.

Secondly, we do almost no technology. We don’t have laser-light shows, we don’t have Jumbotrons, we don’t have overheard projectors, we don’t have screens. We don’t have anything like that. Thirdly, we have a lot of classical music, chamber music¯we are not hip at all. We don’t go out of our way to be hip.

There’s praise music in the evening services.

Yeah, but it’s jazz. It’s toned down. It’s much more New York. It’s certainly not your typical evangelical contemporary music. We actually pound into people that we’re not here to meet your needs but to serve the city. So we pound that into them, that we’re not a consumer place, that we’re not here to meet your needs but to serve the city.

Not an ordinary megachurch, but one with class. No CCM but Jazz. No Jumbotrons but ballet.

And what about being Presbyterian? Again, that’s a tad confining for Redeemer’s grander efforts:

Do you ever see a point at which Redeemer’s mission, which is transdenominational, if not nondenominational, is inhibited by being a member of a specific denomination? Would it be easier to do what you do if you were not connected to the Presbyterian Church in America?

Maybe a little. Because, when you’re part of a denomination, you’ve got to have some constitution, some structure, that you hold with everybody else. The larger a church gets, the more unique it gets, and it would always be a little easier, I suppose, if we didn’t have any¯like, for example, how we do elections. We have to get a quorum of our members. When our constitution was built, no one was thinking about a church that held five services on a Sunday, at three locations. So the problem is to get a quorum of our congregation, we don’t actually have a quorum of our congregation at any one service. So where do we hold an election for our services? And the answer is, we choose the largest one and we just hope people come. So it’s a bit of a struggle to get a quorum, because our constitution is set up for a traditional church in a small town. Its not set up for multi-site churches, it’s not set up for churches that don’t have their own buildings. And if we were an independent church, we’d just do it our own way. But we think it’s very very important to be part of the connection. We think for accountability it’s important, for tradition it’s important. So we just put up with it.

Even though you’re helping to plant non-Presbyterian churches?

Yes, because I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that sounds¯I’m not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. It’s much more complicated than that. Even though there’s something to that. We all know that certain cultures seem to have more of an affinity toward a certain kind of Christian tradition than others, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that at all. I would just say that I only know that God seems to use all these kinds of churches to reach the whole breadth of humanity, and so that’s why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And we’ve done about a hundred in the New York area, where we’ve helped people. It’s very important to us.

Presbyterianism is a brand that’s distinct from Baptist and Pentecostal. Then again, Redeemer is a brand unto itself. If I were in the PCA I wouldn’t take much heart from having the NYC congregation in the denomination because it is the Lebron James of contemporary Protestantism.

I wonder if Keller considers how he comes across. It sure sounds like none of the rules, contemporary church, Presbyterianism, celebrity, marketing, apply to Keller and Redeemer. They are bigger and better.