Interpreting the Bible

Tommie Kidd and Gerald McDermott try to salvage providential history. Of course, such an exercise is dangerous:

Over-readings of God’s providence were relatively easy targets of ridicule for the new skeptics and deists of the eighteenth century. For them, Edwards’ kind of interpretation raised obvious questions with no easy answers. Does an absence of drought or worms mean that people are without sin? What did it mean when non-Christians around the world enjoyed abundant harvests, and heavily Christian regions went without? And what of Matthew 5:45’s statement that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”? Many traditional Christians abandoned close providential readings of current events because, with all due respect to Edwards, those interpretations are easier to defend when no one is asking difficult questions about them.

But we lose something without it:

Yet Gerald McDermott suggests that we also lost good things when we gave up on providential readings of history. Christians certainly believe that God is the Lord of history, and that all things have meaning and purpose within God’s economy. No ruler comes to power, and no nation falls, without God’s sovereign permission. Providential interpretations of a nation’s suffering and turmoil remind us that we stand under universal moral standards. No matter how powerful and wealthy, no nation (perhaps especially those with high rates of professed Christian faith) can expect to provoke God forever with no consequences.

We didn’t already have those assertions from simply reading the Bible? And if we read the Bible and cogitated on its status as God’s word, we might notice that God is the one who interprets history, which is what happens in the pages of Holy Writ — something happens, and we learn its meaning from the apostles and prophets. When things happen and God doesn’t interpret, why would we ever think we have the capacity to fill the void?

Even so, Kidd will not relent:

The most appropriate occasions when we can make modest assertions about God’s historical interventions are when we detect dynamics of reaping and sowing. For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 was clearly connected to irresponsible practices and products, like the infamous “credit default swaps.” At a minimum, we can say that in 2008, God let our nation reap what we had sown financially. We are still trying to recover from the disaster that ensued.

Well, knowing that you reap what you sow is something that farmers understand without the aid of providential history. The challenge for arguments like Kidd’s is the dark side of providential history (and the fall more generally). If God let the nation reap what the banks had sown, isn’t it also the case that God let the banks sow?

Are providentialists really up to tackling the problem of evil? I don’t think so.

All Men Know that Women Are More Pious

That’s what makes Tim Challies’ brief for spiritual zeal and all things earnest all the more mystifying:

A number of times I have spoken to a woman and heard her admit that she essentially drafts behind her husband. She takes comfort in her husband’s spiritual strength and discipline but neglects her own. She goes to church when he is around but is quick to bail when he is not. She allows him to carry the load when it comes to teaching and training the children, when it comes to reading and praying with them. She doesn’t only allow him to take the lead (as, indeed, he should) but uses his leadership as a quiet excuse to not put in much effort of her own. She finds that the family is in good shape spiritually but admits that this is far more because she rides in his draft than that she is full-out pursuing the Lord. If he stopped putting in the effort, she would have little strength of her own.

Maybe Challies is simply channeling men’s historic discomfort with women taking the lead, as Jill Lepore reports:

The debate about a female prince advanced all kinds of political ideas, not least the rule of law, the mixed nature of the English constitution, and the sovereignty of the people. It also inaugurated an era of topsy-turvy play in everything from Elizabethan drama and French carnival to German woodcuts, as the brilliant historian Natalie Zemon Davis argued in a 1975 essay called “Women on Top.” Davis wrote that the fascination with female rule came at a time when men were asserting new claims over women’s bodies and their property. In 1651, in “The Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes wrote about Amazons to support his claim that “whereas some have attributed the dominion to the man only, as being of the more excellent sex; they misreckon in it,” which is why it’s important that laws exist, to grant man that dominion. In 1680, in “Patriarcha,” Sir Robert Filmer located the origins of all political authority in Adam’s rule. Meanwhile, some theorists who imagined a state of nature, a time before the rise of a political order, became convinced that America, before Columbus, had been a “gynæocracy,” as one French writer called it. But the chief consequence of this debate was the Lockean idea that men, born equal, create political society, to which women do not belong; women exist only in the family, where they are ruled by men. Hence, in 1776, Abigail Adams urged her husband, in a letter, to “remember the ladies” in the nation’s “new Code of Laws,” which he most emphatically did not. “Depend upon it,” he wrote back, “we know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”

Male headship and female piety may explain why human flourishing is as plausible as w-w.

Identity Economics

I thought that neo-Calvinism was supposed to do away with the sacred-secular distinction that led fundamentalists to produce the Christian Yellow Pages — you know, the phone book that allowed Christian consumers to buy goods and services from Christian providers of goods and services. Well, even in the hipster land of urban Protestantism, the logic of every square inch only extends to redeemed businesses. Bethany explains:

But we also believe that God is working in areas beyond literature, academia, and journalism. In fact, as our Theological Vision for Ministry makes clear, we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do everything—from teaching to plumbing to accounting. “Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions.”

This Christmas, our faith and work channel—Every Square Inch—wants to celebrate products made by companies founded by Christian entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs, they created something from nothing and, along the way, have given people jobs, contributed to the economy, engaged in ethical business practices, been generous with their neighbors, and expressed the creativity of God.

This guide isn’t comprehensive. There are thousands of outstanding Christian-led companies, and I welcome your suggestions in the comments. Also, each company featured makes many products, not just the ones below, so I encourage you to explore. These items are simply “my favorite things.” I hope you that enjoy the guide and—even if you don’t find anything in it—that you’re encouraged to see God at work.

Aside from projecting a kind of insularity that conflicts with Redeemer NYC’s cosmopolitanism, Bethany fails to explain how exactly non-Christians fail to give people jobs, contribute to the economy, engage in ethical business practices, be generous to neighbors, and express the creativity of God. That sacred-secular distinction might come in handy and let Christians recognize the creational norms that govern not just sanctified but all human existence.

Maybe the explanation for Christians’ superiority is that only Christians can create “something from nothing.” If so, Bethany doesn’t understand ex nihilo or the omnipotence of God (where are TGC’s theological editors?). She also does not seem to agree with President Obama. Bethany appears to have us believe that Christian entrepreneurs “did build that.”

How Red State.

Not All, Just Some of the Bible

So 8 out of 10 Americans believe that “following the Bible’s teachings would be good for American society.”

And Daniel Darling and Andrew Walker argue that Americans should follow the same divine law that Christians do:

Imagine we took the same approach with a different issue—say, crime—that some do with marriage and family policy. What if our approach toward murder or theft was as laissez-faire? Why should we expect our neighbors not to murder? Why should we think non-Christians will act like believers and obey the sixth commandment? But if the home of one of these advocates were broken into by an unbelieving neighbor, they would call upon the local, God-ordained authorities, and accusing the thief of violating a fundamental principle of justice that all of our consciences know to be true: It is unjust to steal. Stealing is a violation not only of God’s revealed law, but also of the basic concept of justice that is written on the heart of every person. If our unbelieving neighbor steals from us, we don’t excuse their behavior because they don’t follow a Christian code of ethics. We simply expect them not to steal.

All Christians, if they are honest, hope non-Christians think and act like Christians—whether in maintaining a just and well-ordered society or when approaching issues like human trafficking, abortion, racial justice, child poverty, and other pressing issues. We fight for laws that reflect what we believe to be true about human dignity and human flourishing. Why? Because principles of morality are not limited to or binding on only Christians.

Of course, the authors skirt the first table of the Decalogue and what those commandments might mean for Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Jews, not to mention agnostics and atheists.

My complaint is that the advocates of the-Bible-is-good-for-what-ails-the-United-States is that they are overwhelmingly selective. What if all Americans followed Peter’s teaching at the end of his second encyclical epistle:

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

On the one hand, that solves the problem of Christian busy bodies and transformationalists. Chill.

On the other hand, Peter seems to have a remedy for climate change. Burn, baby, burn.

Or maybe we just let the Bible do what it was supposed to do.

Two Districts, One Nation

Maggie Jordan, one of the characters in Newsroom, says in one episode during Season Two that “The country is divided into people who like sex and people who are utterly creeped out by it. I’m one of the sex people.” As creepy as that description might be for those celebrity pastors who write books about how enjoyable sex is (read TKNY), the statement seems pretty accurate. Chances are most Americans agree about economic matters. Differences might emerge about tax rates but hardly anyone (except Pope Francis) is questioning consumerism and the benefits of buying. Most Americans agree on foreign policy. They might question a foreign war here or there. But a hegemonic United States is desirable across the aisle as is applause for American soldiers. No one disagrees about English as the nation’s language. No one questions the Constitution, though interpretations vary. No one seriously objects to the NFL.

But on sex we differ. In fact, the most contested aspects of political life surround either giving more freedom to sex (and reducing its consequences) or trying to put restraints on it. Make the left grant unlimited access to guns the way they seem to think about sex and make the right apply its logic about guns to sex and you might have a united country.

By the way, America’s sexual exceptionalism is not the most flattering aspect of national history. Until the 1960s pretty much every important thinker recognized that restraint in sexual matters was important. Whether Aristotle was telling Greeks not to imitate animals (who do enjoy unrestrained access to sex and its consequences), or Romans were advocating restraint of the baser passions, or Christians were arguing for chastity, pretty much all the major civilizational food groups disapproved of easy access to sex. Not so post sexual-revolution America.

Aren’t we great pretty good?

But here’s the solution. Why don’t we create two districts in the United States, one where people who like sex live and one where people who are creeped out about live. Let’s let (easier for me now that I’m in the Great Pretty Good Lakes region the sexy people have the Northeast and the West Coast, and we’ll give them Illinois and Minnesota for those afraid of hurricanes and tsunamis. The rest of the country will live and move and have their being in the unsexy district. In the latter, states will be free to pass laws against abortion, adultery, same-sex marriage, and pornography (which doesn’t include HBO). Both districts will still participate in the federal government. But the national government will recognize this fundamental divide in American character and respect the boundaries of the Sexy and Unsexy Districts.

Of course, the pro-unionists in the nation won’t hear of this because such a proposal the sort of thing that the South proposed with the creation of the Confederacy. And if you make an idol out of national union — please don’t weigh in on Northern Ireland or Israel, then — then I understand this proposal makes no sense. There goes the meaning of Abraham Lincoln. EEE GADS!

But if you are a federalist, then this idea should have some appeal. At the basis of federalism was the idea of granting real power to local authorities while participating in certain common endeavors for the good of the larger whole. This is what Protestants even tried to achieve with the — wait for it — Federal Council of Churches; a federation that granted powers to the member denominations while finding ways to cooperate on common projects, like transforming the United States into a Christian nation. Federalism is a great way to allow for serious differences in a country. If you only have nationalism, then winner takes all. DOUBLE EEE GADS!!

The real defect in this proposal is that the unsexy Americans who live in the Northeast and the West Coast (and Lake Wobegone) will have to move to unsexy territories. But that’s a heck of a lot better than becoming a refugee — think Syria. The same goes for the sexy people who live in South Carolina and Utah. They will have to relocate. But they will be able to keep their portfolio, won’t need to learn a new language, and can use the same currency. The also won’t have to convert to metric or Celsius.

The advantage in such a scheme is that over the course of a generation or two, we might actually see which is a better way to organize a society. Maybe sexy America will prove itself better in the long run, but where they will get new generations to replace the old is anyone’s guess. And maybe unsexy America will prove itself incapable of anything culturally or financially interesting. But the history of the human race until 1965 suggests otherwise. If unsexy America could produce H. L. Mencken, how bad can being creeped out by sex be?

Pro-Business, Pro-Life

Imagine yourself the owner of an aluminum ladder company. What do you do once every home owner in the United States owns a ladder? You go after renters. But what happens when that market is saturated? You better hope the ladders fail and need to be replaced. Or you buy another company, like one that makes cookies, and hope for profits on that product. (Or so I imagine how business people think.)

But imagine also hearing the Brit Hume commentary about abortion and the Planned Parenthood videos. You learn there that 55 million human lives have been taken through abortion. And you begin to think of all those customers who might have needed an aluminum ladder.

What got me thinking along these free-market lines was Rod Dreher’s posting of an American creed that goes out of its way to deride capitalism:

We believe in one Market,
Objective and Free,
maker of assets and security,
of all that is prosperous and possible.
We believe in the one true force, the Invisible Hand,
the Logic of the Market,
eternally co-existing with the Market,
regent of riches, assurance of efficiency,
trumpeter of technology, power behind politics.
Through him all transactions are made.
For us and for our prosperity
he gives value to all money
and enables all commerce;
by the power of the American Dream
he becomes incarnate in the hearts of all free men.
For our sake he guarantees the equitability of all commerce,
he re-assures all the laborers,
emboldens all the entrepreneurs,
and casts aside all the idle.
He ensures all debts will ultimately be repaid.
He is revealed in glory in America but his kingdom has no end nor boundary.
We believe in the American Dream, the hope and giver of the life abundant,
who proceeds from the Market and who with the Invisible Hand is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through Adam Smith and his economists.
We believe in one holy and universal Spirit of Growth.
We acknowledge the cost and risk of our choices.
We look for the extension of credit,
and the affluent life that is certain to come. Amen.

Dreher’s friend, the one who wrote the creed, explains that “consumerism and its underlying philosophy is as big of a cultural hurdle to serious Christian’s life as liberal sexual norms.”

It can be. But why isn’t consumerism also a friend of the unborn when you recognize how many potential consumers have been eliminated from the check-out line?

Unencumbered by W-w

Noah Millman is not merely on one roll, he’s on four. See below.

But his writing on contemporary events leads me again to ponder whether Christians are limited (dumber?) when it comes to non-spiritual subjects precisely because Scripture and church dogma establish limits that block creative and critical thought. (The 2k solution, by the way, is to say that Christians have great liberty where the Bible is silent.) I know Millman is a Jewish-American, but I suspect he is not bound the way Reformed Protestants are by divine revelation and faith-community officers.

And it is the sense of needing to run every piece of analysis or op-ed (“take every thought captive”) through the prism of w-w that winds up limiting the ability of Christians to interact thoughtfully in the wider world. If we/they simply looked at matters as regular human beings or as Americans or as bankers, would we be able to see the world the way Millman does? (My answer is, I hope so.)

But to their credit, Christians are attached to the Bible and to church teaching in ways that show great love for the truths of special revelation. That is something that is likely in short supply among those who only use their smarts to assess the world. T

So here is a quick summary of Millman’s recent w-w-free insights. On Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si:

To my reading, the encyclical starts with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, human beings lived in relative harmony with the environment, because we understood our place within creation. But with the advent of modernity, we have lost sight of that place, both in terms of our proper humility and in terms of our proper responsibility for good stewardship. And the devastating consequences for humanity and the non-human world are all around us. Modernity cannot really be repaired from within; it must be re-founded on a proper moral basis, such that the fruits of the earth are properly shared and exploitation of both the human and non-human world is no longer the basis of our world economy.

I call this a fairy tale because there’s no evidence offered that the pre-modern history is at all true. That is to say, there’s no evidence that medieval Europeans, or the cultures of Africa or the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, avoided exploiting their environment to the best of their ability. And this is to say nothing of the cultures of Asia, from China to India to the Fertile Crescent, which were much more systematic and effective at maximizing their exploitation of the local environment, and which consequently lived closer to the Malthusian edge.

Would that Roman Catholics were not so prone to root, root, root for the home team or for Protestants (like all about meEEEE) to be so suspicious.

On the Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage:

My (partial) defense of Kennedy’s opinion begins with the following thought experiment. Imagine that Loving had been decided the opposite way, upholding miscegenation statutes, and that, in response, an amendment to the Constitution had been passed with the following wording:

The family being the fundamental basis of society, the right to matrimony shall not be infringed.

The passage of this amendment would surely have overturned miscegenation statutes nationally – as it would have been intended to do. It would also have made it clear that prisoners, the mentally handicapped, the carriers of genetic diseases – that none of these can be denied access to matrimony. How, though, would it be applied today in the context of same-sex marriage? How should it be applied?

The answer hinges on the question of what marriage is. At the time of the passage of the amendment, it’s true, only a few would have argued that it encompassed same-sex unions. But in 2015 a great many people thought it did, and many states had come to express that view in their laws (whether prompted by the state-level judiciary or not). Once such a view is current, it becomes necessary for the Court to decide whether or not it is correct – because it is necessary to determine whether the definition of marriage restricting it to unions between men and women is, in fact, an infringement on a fundamental right. This is particularly the case when states have undertaken explicitly to define marriage as exclusively a male-female bond, and not merely done so implicitly.

That’s basically the situation the Court found itself in if it took the Loving precedent seriously. Loving clearly established the right to marry as fundamental, pre-political, and central to the Declaration of Independence’s concept of the “pursuit of happiness.” Note that there is nothing traditional about this idea. Traditionally, marriage was a matter better arranged by your parents than by you, and love was something you hoped would grow within and sustain happiness in marriage as opposed to marriage’s origin. Traditionally and cross-culturally, regulation or prohibition of exogamy has been more the rule than the exception. Loving certainly didn’t invent the idea of the love match, but it did raise it to the level of Constitutional principle.

Millman recognizes that it was the U.S. Supreme Court, not the General Assembly of the OPC, that decided this case, and that certain judicial precedents were in place. In other words, he didn’t have to worry about the Bible or about the Book of Church Order in trying to make sense of the Court’s logic. Can Christians do that? Should they?

On the Greek referendum and debt crisis:

The metropole (Brussels/Berlin) demands terms for renegotiation of Greece’s debt that leave Greece politically and economically utterly subservient to said metropole. The Greeks demand more favorable terms that allow their economy to grow again and have some measure of independence.

The Greeks have suffered far more from austerity than the American colonists did under British taxation. And the British metropole had at least as much reason to accuse us of ingratitude: its taxes were imposed to pay for a war waged on the colonists’ behalf, and the British were rather as disinclined as the German bankers are to have the relationship with the crown treated by the colonists as a blank check.

And, as with the American colonies, the remedy is either independence or genuine representation at the metropole. Either the EU needs to remedy its democratic deficit, creating political organs as powerful and responsive to the people as the ECB is to the imperatives of finance, or it needs to shrink from an empire to a club of like-minded states with already synchronized economies.

Of course, most evangelical and Reformed Protestants don’t care Eastern Orthodox Greece (talk about the limiting effects of w-w), but Millman reminds Americans (and perhaps the Scots) about the value of independence. Was it merely coincidence that the Greeks voted no only a day after the Fourth of July? I don’t think so!

Finally, Millman raises more good questions about the so-called Benedict Option:

Dreher’s surprise, honestly, feels to me just an index of alienation. Same-sex marriage is accepted as normal by a substantial majority of Americans now. How could it possibly be outrageous to learn that a sitting Supreme Court Justice is comfortable performing same-sex weddings in a jurisdiction where such weddings are legal? Wouldn’t it be more surprising if none of the sitting Justices held the same opinion as 60% of Americans?

But that’s not really the point I want to make. Dreher’s instinct, clearly, was that Ginsburg’s action was “outrageous.” That is to say: it provoked him to outrage. Now, I have to seriously ask this: is this feeling, of outrage, likely to be salved, or exacerbated by the pursuit of the Benedict Option?

The culture is going to go on, after all, doing whatever it does, and people all over the country will continue to produce Dreherbait, some of it far more obviously outrageous than Ruth Bader Ginsburg performing a legal wedding ceremony. (The article on quasi-Saudi-sounding practices of Manhattan’s upper financial echelons is a good recent example – and whadaya know, it turns out pricey Manhattan divorce lawyers say they’ve never heard of such a thing as a “wife bonus.”) But isn’t the collection of such stories, well, isn’t it kind of obsessing over precisely the parts of our culture that the whole point of the Benedict Option is to turn away from, in favor of a focus on one’s own community, and its spiritual development?

So I have to ask: is one of the strictures of the Benedict Option going to be to stop pursuing outrage porn? And if it isn’t – why isn’t it?

“Outrage porn.” Brilliant.

Make me smart like this guy.