Some Matters Should Really Stay in the Closet

Full and unequivocal equality for Petra fans? I don’t think so:

My best friend became a loser right around age 14. I had hopped a Greyhound from Hamilton to the far side of Toronto to spend a weekend with Paul. We sat down to do what boys that age do—probably something destructive—and he popped a new tape into his stereo. “These guys are Christians.” I scoffed. “They’re called Petra. The album is Beyond Belief.” I laughed. What a weakling. It really was beyond belief. He and I used to listen to Duran Duran together. Bon Jovi. Guns N’ Roses. And now we were going to listen to this tripe? Come on. Plus they can’t actually be Christians. Not good Christians, anyway. They play electric guitar! They’ve got long hair, for pity’s sake!

I endured it for the weekend, though I’m sure I griped and complained all the while. Or maybe I played along—I don’t exactly remember. But I do remember that moments before I left for home I scrounged up a blank tape and copied just one song—just one song to take home to my friends so we could laugh together. I ended up with the first song on the second side: “Underground.” Then I went home.

Sure enough, I played it for my friends and we laughed. After all, we were Reformed and baptized and catechized—we didn’t need Christian rock. Christian rock was for Arminians or Pentecostals or Baptists—weaklings all of them. It certainly wasn’t for the likes of us.

I played it for some more friends. I played it for my family. I kept playing it until I realized I was playing it for me. This song was saying something to me. At some point I had started to hear the lyrics—to really hear them. I realized “Underground” was a song about professing Christ instead of denying him, of being bold instead of intimidated. That was strong, not weak. Was I willing to stand for Christ? Or was I a weakling? Uh oh.

“Mom! Can you take me to the Christian bookstore?”

I bought the album and listened to the rest of the songs. It started with “Armed and Dangerous,” a song about relying upon God, then went to “I Am on the Rock,” a proclamation of confidence in God. “Creed” was simply The Apostle’s Creed set to music, “Beyond Belief” was about current and future hope, while “Love” was an adaptation of 1 Corinthians 13. And that was just side 1. I listened to it until I wore it out. I listened to it on my ghetto blaster, in my parent’s minivan, on my awesome walkman—whenever and wherever I could. I listened until I knew every one of John’s words, every one of Louie’s beats, every one of Bob’s solos.

I listened until I became a Christian.* Late one night I caught a glimpse of the ugly depravity of my heart side by side with the heart-stopping holiness of God. (A night, as it happens, when I was also reading a Frank Peretti book, but that’s a story for another day.) I was undone. I was redone. I was reborn. All of that parenting and Bible-reading and sermonizing and catechizing had done its work in me, but somehow it was just waiting for one more thing—for news of the warm and personal relationship with God that Petra kept singing about.

I could respond with my own encounter with Iron Butterfly and In A Gadda Da Vida (BABY!!), but as I (mmmmeeeeeeEEEEEE) say, some thing are best left in our private selves, divorced from our public identities.

Historians Against Trump (sort of)

The study of the past is supposed to be good for nurturing empathy. I (mmmmeeeeEEEE) personally think history is good for preventing celebratory dances after scoring a touchdown. History teaches what it feels like to have been here before — which is how players who score touchdowns might want to act.

Today’s homily on history:

“History offers a critical perspective on the present and satisfies a natural longing most people have to situate themselves in a larger context and stream of time,” they write. And “a historical consciousness fosters perspective taking and empathy.”

In the wake of a recent spate of police shootings, historian John Fea reflected on history and empathy. The study of history isn’t just about learning facts, Fea pointed out. It’s really about fostering empathy. Fea included a powerful quote from Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis: “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

Okay. I’m agreeable.

But then why doesn’t this ever seem to apply to Donald Trump? Shouldn’t historians, because they have seen this stuff before, not be surprised or outraged by Trump? Might they even imagine through empathy what it feels like to find Trump attractive? Not saying I do, mind you. I just like to point out how one-sided his opponents can be and how they don’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Like this?

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Fair enough. But when oh when will that point also be used against Hillary who seems to have a little trouble with the truth?

The people are calling. Historical understanding doesn’t seem to be answering.

Was Francis Schaeffer an Intellectual?

The latest comment in the very Protestant discussion of why we don’t have Christian intellectuals anymore like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray comes from Jake Meador on the merits of Francis Schaeffer who even attracted a story from Time magazine (though he did not make it on to the cover).

Time‘s description of Schaeffer, however, tells us something about how things had changed during the 12 years between Niebuhr’s cover and Schaeffer’s. In 1960, Time presents Schaeffer as a missionary to the intellectuals, which he no doubt was. But this assumes that Christianity needs missionaries to the intellectuals because the intellectuals are no longer Christian. What had been conflict within the intellectual community 13 years before when they reported on CS Lewis has become an attempt to witness to the intellectual community by 1960. This suggests, in one sense, that Jacobs is right—the Christian public intellectual is dead by 1960, which is why Schaeffer was needed.

I wasn’t reading Time in 1960 but fifteen years later I was reading Schaeffer and the better description of the apologist is not as missionary to intellectuals but missionary to would-be intellectuals. That is, Schaeffer was great for kids who had lost their faith and wanted to talk about the films of Bergman or the novels of Camus. Schaeffer was even more effective for young believers like me for taking the lid off subjects not so much forbidden as ignored. All of a sudden, Schaeffer seemed to make it possible for evangelicals who were so culturally marginal never to have heard of C.S. Lewis to entertain ideas about the arts and sciences, movies and trees, and even politics (DOH! That’s where it all breaks down). In other words, Schaeffer inspired as neo-Calvinists so often do. But when it came to the contents of his arguments, chances are that intellectuals weren’t impressed because Christian professors (who might qualify as intellectuals), the ones who grew up inspired by Schaeffer (like mmmeeeEEEE) weren’t so impressed with the scholarship that underwrote Schaeffer’s arguments.

I myself am not so troubled by the loss of Christian intellectuals because having read Niebuhr and Murray (for a current project) I can’t say that their arguments stand up so well. Whose do? Not many. But what Niebuhr and Murray may have gained in public recognition, they may have lost in faithfulness to their traditions. Niebuhr was by many confessional Protestants’ lights a liberal Protestant. And Roman Catholics today still wonder if Murray sold out Roman Catholic teaching to American political norms. And for what it’s worth, a 2k Protestant is happy to take guidance from non-Christian intellectuals on public life. To insist that public life needs Christian input is a soft, even fluffy, version of a theonomic desire for Christians running things, or at least a Eusebian desire to be part of the establishment.

Meador ends by likening Schaeffer to Tim Keller:

Of course, it’s not all so bleak as that. If we wish to go in the direction Jacobs is outlining and try to identify publicly recognized Christians translating the faith into terms the public square can understand while remaining orthodox, there are some examples.

You could easily argue that both Tim Keller and Russell Moore are doing that well in their own ways. Keller’s Reason for God was a best-seller and he lives in and pastors a church in Manhattan. Moore, meanwhile, has been in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post and is deeply engaged in many of the pressing social questions of the day, particularly on issues of racism and sexuality. . . .

Valuable as their work is (and I have enormous respect and gratitude for both men!), the best either can hope to achieve on a cultural level is helping to move us away from apocalypse and toward cultural dhimmitude. That isn’t meant as a criticism of either man, to be clear, nor is it to underscore the work they are doing. There are many people who have met Jesus thanks to the ministry of Keller and we should never forget how significant that is.

Bringing people to Christ is not the same as being a missionary to intellectuals. For that reason it may be useful to remember the review that Bruce Kuklick, an accomplished intellectual historian of Protestant background but agnostic outlook, wrote on Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in the Fall 2008 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal:

The editors of the NTJ asked me to review this book. Readers have heralded it, he said, as a sophisticated body blow to secularism, but maybe the author is only talking to the already converted. What did I think?

Keller serves as the astoundingly successful pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. Presbyterian readers of NTJ will forgive me if I say he reminds me of a latter-day Henry Ward Beecher, an effective exponent of Christian ideas to a prosperous northeastern urban audience looking for guidance in the modern world. The book exemplifies the more or less systematic exposition of Reformed Protestantism that Keller’s sermons present, and that he promotes in his ministry.

But no matter what the blurbs from Publishers Weekly and New York magazine tell us, Keller writes not as a thinker but as a clergyman. The book is not designed for careful, logical scrutiny, and going to church differs from sitting in a philosophy seminar. As Keller describes his parishioners, they are good people, sometimes in some mild distress, most often decayed Protestants looking for counsel. But they are not interested in honing their cognitive skills by taking a course in The Critique of Pure Reason or reading David Hume on religion, or even emotionally mastering Kierkegaard on faith or Karl Barth on Pauline Christianity. Their frequent social locus in the American Christian tradition means that Keller does not have to start from scratch with them. The book supposes a basic familiarity with Protestant ideas and the notion that western Christianity has something exceptional going for it. Keller is not exactly preaching to the choir, but he is not lecturing in an international classroom to people with serious intellectual doubts, nor is he straining for truth. Keep Beecher front and center.

Let me give one extended example, which is to me is decisive, and decisive about a fundamental issue. Toward the end of the volume Keller takes up the question of miracles, and in particular the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Keller, and I think for any good Christian, Jesus had really to have been dead and to have come back to life. What is it to believe such a thing? Keller, it seems to me, simply does not deliberate perceptively here. He begins by telling us what he thinks stands in the way of such belief: the presumption that miracles never happen, an outlook that “short circuits” our investigation. But, he argues next, we can’t elucidate everything else that took place later after the resurrection unless we acknowledge the miracle of the resurrection itself. How do we account for all the witnesses? How do we explain the entirely unexpected series of events? How do we come to grips with a brand new set of commitments and a hitherto unthinkable point of view – not foretold or expected by any ancient culture – except on the hypothesis that the resurrection is true? Perhaps more important, how are we to understand the explosive expansion of this new Christian world view? It only could have triumphed if people were transformed by their engagement with some extraordinary truths. Big things, Keller concludes, can only be caused by big things.

Can we accept this approach? In considering whether we are to believe in a miraculous event, we need to recall two factors. First we look at the evidence in favor of an event’s occurring, usually the credibility of testimony. Second we consider the unusualness of the event that the evidence requires us to accept as occurring. The stranger the event, the stronger must be the evidence that it has occurred. A miracle overthrows what I call “laws of nature.” They are propositions about our universal experience, the regularity of our sense perception, that enable us to predict with confidence the occurrence of one event after the occurrence of another. People don’t walk on water, change water to wine, or rise from the dead. If you jump off a bridge, you fall into water; if you have club soda in a can, the twelve ounces of it will come out into a cup; if someone dies, the body decays. We must weigh what is more likely to be false when it is said that a miracle has occurred. Is the testimony mistaken or has a law of nature been abrogated?

To allow for the possibility of miracles, we need only be open to experience. A law of nature cannot proscribe miracles; all it need do is to warn us of their rarity and of what is involved in asserting that they have come about. That is, sufficient testimony might overthrow a prima facie overriding adherence to a law of nature, and the regularity of experience. We can imagine scenarios where we would be obliged to believe that laws of nature have been violated, that something inexplicable in ordinary natural terms has occurred.

But reports of religious miracles have a notorious unreliability – even the Roman Catholic Church tells us that. In all times and places, we have had interested and credulous observers eager to persuade others of the veracity of their peculiar convictions. Provincial self-serving witnesses have repeatedly tried to impose ridiculous stories on our stock of ideas. Over and over religious miracles have come to be rejected. Again and again we find the quality of testimony suspect and never near to meeting the standards of credibility needed to overthrow a natural law. In fact, uniformity exists in the failings themselves: when someone proclaims a religious miracle, we regularly find biased testifiers, a lack of subsidiary evidence, suspicious circumstances. We have available far simpler explanations, and so on.

Put it another way: if we accept the miracles of Jesus, we have good reason to accept others that have more or less indistinguishable support. For example, Keller needs to think about how his privileged supernatural events compare with those promoted by the Mormons. If you already believe Jesus is a special guy, the resurrection is easy to swallow. But if you don’t have that belief in the first place, I don’t see how you make Jesus’ supernatural doings unique. I have two choices: between rejecting religious miracles and accepting the legitimacy of laws of nature; or accepting a lot of the miracles and rejecting laws of nature. We have Jesus arising from the dead, Muhammad touring heaven and hell with Gabriel, and Moroni delivering the golden tablets.

You pay a high price by believing in the Christian miraculous, and are on a slippery slope. You can’t rule out the miracles of any of the “major” religions. You also give license to the existence of zombies and vampires, who are after all, let us remember, first cousins to the resurrection. You are on your way to an environment populated by demons, ghosts, and weird apparitions; bleeding statues, the blind seeing, pictures flying from walls, and devils being exorcised; oracles, dreams with the force of predictions, the dead walking, or talking to us; dolls with pins stuck in them. And god knows what else. You give credence to a world where any sort of unnaturally caused events might occur. Our experience then does not much guide us. We can’t reason much about matters of fact, since we would have a universe in which at any moment we could not rely on the evidence of our senses and not have much of an inkling of how events hooked up.

I don’t expect Keller to deal with this sort of complicated chain of reasoning in his sermons, or even in The Reason for God. Nor do I expect him to be convinced by this group of arguments, however telling they are once one has discarded the veil of conventional respect for our regional Protestant traditions. But in writing his book, he is trying to do more than offer comfort — he is supposed to be sketching a rational account of matters, and his chapter on miracles should not convince anyone who is perplexed by fundamentals. He never takes a hard look at this issue, or others like it.

Undoubtedly I am making too heavy a demand on this volume. But Presbyterians who want to go after skeptics need to keep in mind the different social roles of the Beechers and Kellers of this world and a Machen.

That doesn’t undermine the value of Keller’s work. But intellectual life is a whole lot more demanding than getting noticed by Time magazine or the New York Times.

How the World Might Have Changed if the Apostles Had Religious Liberty

I don’t want to deny that it’s a tough world out there for believers. Have to worry about the flesh, the devil, and the world. So having also to keep an eye on California state legislators can make Christian piety a real challenge.

Still, the U.S. Christian tendency to play the persecution card doesn’t make sense of the greatness of American society (no need for Trump). In case Old Life readers did not know, the California legislature was proposing to expand the rights of LBGT students in ways that would have compromised restrictions that Christian institutions placed on their students, faculty, and staff.

And now the good great news. Enough people in California and elsewhere lobbied the California legislature to remove the controversial provisions of the bill:

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is removing a provision of his bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. Instead, he will press forward with the amended bill that would still require such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.

“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara said.

“I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further,” the senator said. He said the requirement for schools to report expulsions based on morality codes to the state Commission on Student Aid will give him information on how common such cases are.

The senator said he will pursue other legislation next year, possibly including the provision dropped Wednesday.

Lara’s decision came after a half-dozen universities formed a new committee called the Assn. of Faith Based Institutions and contributed $350,000.

The group has flooded the districts of members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, including Chairwoman Lorena S. Gonzalez (D-San Diego), with mailers saying the bill violates religious freedoms and urging voters to contact their Assembly person.

“Stop state control of private education,” says one mailer to Gonzalez’s constituents. Her committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

The institutions include Azusa Pacific University, Point Loma Nazarene University and William Jessup University.

After Lara’s announcement, the universities released a letter to the Senator that said “Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from “oppose unless amended” to `support.’ “

What makes democracy great is that it can reverse falling sky.

When Fundamentalists Do It, It’s not Sexy

It in this case is separatism. Back in grad school days the historiographical truism about evangelical Protestantism was that they were not separatists. Fundamentalists were. And so, evangelicals were good (broad minded) and fundamentalists were bad (intolerant). The dividing line was particularly the question of whether conservative Protestants could cooperate with the mainline (read liberal) Protestant denominations. When Billy Graham did reach out to mainline Protestants during his 1957 New York City Crusade (hee hee), fundamentalists like Bob Jones (harumph) broke with Graham’s evangelism. Thus you have separatism and the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. The latter is an evangelical who is angry. Or, an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham (thank you George Marsden).

You wouldn’t know it, but separatism is rearing its poorly groomed head again and its not fundamentalists’ fault. Consider the following forms of separatism. First, the Benedict Option (as stated by Ken Myers):

The recovery of the culture of the people of God will make us look profoundly different from our neighbors. In a post-Christian society, all faithful people begin to look a little Amish. But we must remember that we are always against the world for the world.

Bob Jones didn’t withdrawal either. He didn’t even look Amish.

Then consider the academy’s moralism in the case of Yale professor, Thomas Pogge, allegedly guilty of sexually harassing female students:

To some students, responding means boycotting Pogge’s classes. A closed Facebook group called Students Against Pogge asks supporters to stand in solidarity with Lopez Aguilar “and the other foreign women of color targeted by [Pogge] by, at a minimum, not taking any of his classes in the fall.” The page notes that it’s also “a place to brainstorm other means of pressuring the university into making student voices heard and removing Pogge from the classroom,” according to the popular philosophy blog Daily Nous.

Other academics have said they won’t participate in conferences where Pogge is present. Most controversially, some professors have said that responding means eliminating Pogge from their syllabi.

James Sterba, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, for example, told The Huffington Post that he’s no longer including Pogge’s work in exams for graduate students. “You don’t need him,” Sterba said. “He carries too much baggage — he doesn’t have to be cited anymore. … He’s a negative image and we don’t need that. Maybe if he was Einstein we’d have to cite him, but he’s not.”

That sounds like shunning.

But fundamentalists still bear the burden of separatism:

Thus, by the mid to late 1950s, the heirs of anti-modernist “second phase” fundamentalism were divided. An organization such as the American Council of Churches and separatists such as Rice and Jones Sr. and Jr. understood themselves as continuing in the historic line of militant, anti-modernist fundamentalism with a new emphasis on ecclesiastical separation. On the other hand, more open-minded heirs of second-phase fundamentalists, who would lead the neo-evangelical surge, sought to return to the era associated with the nineteenth-century evangelical scholarship of The Fundamentals.

On the verge of the tumultuous sixties, the fundamentalist movement had become deeply divided. Those who affiliated with the positive agenda of the non-separatist faction took the name neo-evangelical (eventually simply evangelical) and the separatists militantly clung to the label fundamentalist. Neo-evangelicals often repudiated the term fundamentalist, and fundamentalists did the same with the neo-evangelical moniker.

What if separatism is basic to what all humans do? We identify with some things and reject others. None of us are tolerant all the way down. We are all fundamentalists.

Is It the Economy or Social Media?

I (all about me) like it when discussions of spiritual matters include material causes. Calvinism isn’t just an idea (or five of them), but it is a form of western Christian that emerged at a specific time and place and its social location is part of Reformed Protestantism’s DNA (ever heard someone complain that Calvinism is too white, male, and suburban?). George Whitefield was not merely an evangelist but a person who had theatrical training and could really punch “Mesopotamia” so that the women fainted (which made the children cry).

So when Carl Trueman complained about the economic factors that contribute to the creation of an elite group of pastors and theologians who have an outsized influence in Protestant circles thanks to finances, I liked the point. If you can show that someone’s authority has at least something to do with their material standing rather than divine unction, then you have reason to follow your gut and take them with less seriousness.

But here’s the thing: if you look at the finances, the influence is disproportionate. Here are some sample numbers (gleaned primarily from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Guidestar):

2015 Mission to the World (PCA): $65 million+ revenues; $54 million+ expenses

2014 Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: $287k+ revenues; $187k+ expenses

2015 Gospel Coalition: $2.6 million+ revenues; $2.2 million+ expenses

2015 Good News Publishing (Crossway, parent company [?] of Gospel Coalition): $17 million+ revenues; $15 million+ expenses

2014 Committee on Foreign Missions (OPC) budget: $1.6 million+

Judging by the wealth, CBMW’s influence is breathtaking (if you follow that sort of thing).

Also, judging by the numbers, the PCA’s foreign missionaries should be the topic of every other blog post by the folks who spin mortification.

I agree with Carl when he says:

My earlier questions — ‘How did these men get to such positions of far-reaching influence? Who appointed them to speak for me? How do we get rid of them if they go astray?’ – are the pertinent ones.

But since social media is cheap and the way these days to create a brand and gain a following, perhaps the better question is why Mission to the World and the OPC’s Committee on Foreign Missions aren’t creating a blog with regular contributions from their personnel.

Imagine This Much Concern About Joel Osteen

When faith is so important to social order and national identity, political woes become spiritual crises:

Many of the evangelical leaders who have endorsed Trump have done so due to fears about what the American church’s future will be in a post-Obergefell America. Will religious liberty for Christian business owners be protected? Will state-level abortion restrictions be done away with? Will Christian universities and seminaries continue to exist? Will Christian parents have the freedom to give their children a Christian education?

All of these concerns are completely valid. Both Matt and myself have been abundantly clear on that point for some time now. We really are facing something of a doomsday scenario in American Christianity.

But freedom to worship or preach the Bible is chopped liver? Even freedom to stigmatize bad preachers?

I could turn out to be wrong and even more foolish than I already appear, but Christians really need to show their faith and take a breath about this election. I remember while studying at L’Abri during the 1976 presidential contest Francis Schaeffer talking about the choice between Jimmy Carter (bad) and Gerald Ford (good) in Manichean terms. I also remember not being convinced.

But the land of the free and home of the brave has a way of turning believers apocalyptic.