First Evangelicalism, Now W-w, but Still Hope for U.S.A.

Thabiti Anyabwile concludes his interaction with agitated Southern Baptists over social justice by making some odd concessions. If race relations started to unravel big eva in 2014, with a major goose from the 2016 election, it now looks like racism is making Neo-Calvinist w-w diagnosis look like nonsense.

How? Anyabwile faults Tom Ascol’s evidence for the influence of critical race theory (aka cultural Marxism) in evangelical circles as insufficient or anecdotal:

Sometimes people note a correlation or a suspicion and pronounce with certainty that a movement or an infiltration is there. I think that’s largely what’s happening when people claim a “movement” exists. Some look at the number of followers on Twitter or the number of returns on a search as “evidence.” But raw numbers tell us nothing about whether those Twitter followers agree with the one they follow or whether the followers were even purchased. Raw numbers of “hits” on searches tell us nothing about whether the content of the hits were for or against the subject searched.

The entire discussion is being built on an inadequate evidentiary approach. We have a low bar that actually breaks the rules of evidence in most every field, and it proves too much.

It used to be in New Calvinist and Neo-Calvinist circles that w-w was sufficient to spot a problem. You did not need to rise to the level of a movement to show that an idea or practice was sinful or destructive. Now, Anyabwile wants Ascol to show the institutional apparatus seemingly if he is going to prove that critical race theory is present in evangelicalism. Would that also mean that we need evidence of a movement to prove that sexual infidelity is making some gains in American society and the church?

Oddly, though, Anyabwile concedes that critical race theory is behind one of Truth Table’s hosts’ recent comments:

On the first point, consider Tom’s listing of Ekemini Uwan’s comments at the Sparrow Conference. He offers it as proof of secular social-justice ideologies infiltrating evangelical spaces. It’s true that Ekemini’s comments have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT. She uses “whiteness” not as a reference to skin color or even race but to a social ideology rooted in power and greed. But that’s a view at least as old as Frederick Douglass’s writing, well before CRT/IS, cultural Marxism, or today’s social-justice trends.

As long as Frederick Douglass argued that way, the ideas must be okay. So much for Abraham Kuyper.

But Anyabwile leaves room for hope. He argues that just because the founders of the SBC held slaves, we do not throw out their entire theology:

Tom leads an organization called “Founders Ministries.” It’s a reference to the theology and ministries of the founders of the SBC. Founders is dedicated to calling the convention back to the theological commitments (doctrines of grace) of those founders, among whom were men like Basil Manly Jr, who owned 40 slaves. Manley would not be the only early leader of the convention who owned slaves. In fact, the convention was formed following a split on the question of slave owning. You could say the SBC was the pro-slavery denomination. Its flagship seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently issued a report documenting that institution’s history on the question of slavery and racism. The report indicates that the seminary’s founding faculty—James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams—all held slaves and, in some cases, actively defended the practice. Yet such men are cited in books and sermons as heroes of the convention and of evangelicalism.

Now, here’s the question: Are we to attribute all the beliefs and commitments of the founding leaders of the SBC and Southern Seminary to Tom as a leader of “Founders Ministries”? If a person expresses indebtedness to Boyce, Broadus, Manly, or Williams for their writing on some subject, are we to attribute to that person anything or everything we find repugnant in Boyce and company or their writings on that subject? I would answer an emphatic “No” to both questions.

By way of analogy, the same point applies to Americans who defend and memorialize the American Founding. Just because Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin owned slaves, we do not reject all that they did, especially the institutions and political rationales they left behind.

If Anyabwile is willing to entertain that sort of sifting of the American past, he needs to write a letter to the New York Times (and maybe send an email message to Jemar Tisby).

Fascism and Modern Roman Catholic Societies

Can anyone point to an example of a society that went with the Protestant side of the Reformation producing a fascist government? Donald Trump does not count because the U.S. has yet to adopt a fascist government (that is, if you don’t read the paleo-conservatives on Abraham Lincoln).

This is not meant to tar Rome with the fascist brush (mainly), but it is to ponder what Michael Walzer wrote about liberalism and the “art of separation.” Peter Meilaender summarized it this way (from a golden oldie):

The “separation of civil society and political community creates the sphere of economic competition and free enterprise, the market in commodities, labor, and capital” (Walzer 1984, 316). It is true, of course, that “market freedom entails certain risks for consumers,” but, as Walzer points out, “so does religious freedom” (Walzer 1984, 316). Similarly, the “abolition of dynastic government separates family and state” and in this way creates the possibility for people to pursue careers according to their talents, opening up the “sphere of office and then the freedom to compete for bureaucratic and professional place, to lay claim to a vocation, apply for an appointment, develop a specialty, and so on” (Walzer 1984, 316-17). Finally, Walzer writes, the same process, by separating “public and private life” (Walzer 1984, 317), enables new forms of domestic intimacy that are profoundly important to most of us. In the privacy of our homes we become free to pursue “a very wide range of interests and activities…: reading books, talking politics, keeping a journal, teaching what we know to our children, cultivating (or, for that matter, neglecting) our gardens” (Walzer 1984, 317). Raising our own chickens, we might add, or not raising them! “Our homes are our castles, and there we are free from official surveillance” (Walzer 1984, 317).

The virtue of Walzer’s analysis is to correct the one-sided portrayal of modernity as a story of decay, fragmentation, and alienation, the loss of a pre-modern, pre-liberal Eden. The story of modernity is also one of increasing richness and diversity, of freedom and pluralism, of a world in which, to borrow a line from C. S. Lewis, “Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time” (Lewis 2003, 281). Lewis was not describing the spheres of society—family, work, church, state, and so on—but his point is analogous to Walzer’s. As he writes in the preface to The Great Divorce, “life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection” (Lewis 2001, viii). A new, richer, and redeemed form of community will one day arise—can arise—only as the outcome of that increasing process of differentiation.

Indeed, Christians are especially well placed to understand the characteristic forms of modernity not simply as examples of fragmentation and loss but rather of differentiation and enrichment, as a process in which the various spheres of society gradually become more and more themselves and less and less something else.

In contrast to differentiation and separation, Roman Catholics — perhaps thanks to the neo-medievalism that lurks in all nostalgia for Christendom — prefer integration, hence the current appeal of integralism. David Frum picked up on this in his poignant piece about D-Day. At the end of the war:

France did enter Germany as a victor. French armies, supplied by the United States, subordinate to U.S. command, were stood up in 1944–45. France was allotted an occupation zone in Germany and awarded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Italy was not even invited to join the United Nations until 1955.) Allied officialdom agreed to believe de Gaulle’s story that the France that fought Nazi Germany was the only real France.

But everyone understood the story was not true. The French military defeat in 1940 had torn apart social wounds dating back decades and longer. Conservative and Catholic France reinterpreted the battles of 1940 as a debacle only of the liberal and secular France that had held the upper hand since the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 and especially since the Dreyfus affair that began in 1894. When the reactionary French writer Charles Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment for collaboration, he supposedly replied, “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.”

Most French business leaders and civil servants collaborated out of opportunism or necessity. The Germans held hundreds of thousands of captured French soldiers as hostages for years after 1940. But more than a few leading French people, including many intellectuals and churchmen, collaborated out of a species of conviction. A French cardinal led the recruitment of French volunteers to fight alongside the Germans in Russia in 1941. “How can I, in a moment so decisive, refuse to approve the common noble enterprise directed by Germany, dedicated to liberate Russia from the bonds that have held it for the last twenty-five years, suffocating its old human and Christian traditions, to free France, Europe, and the world from the most pernicious and most sanguinary monster that mankind has ever known, to raise the peoples above their narrow interests, and to establish among them a holy fraternity revived from the time of the Christian Middle Ages?” Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart wrote, in his endorsement of the Anti-Bolshevik Legion.

Frum then notices the anti-liberalism that lurked in those French who wanted a return to throne and altar (some differentiation but not the Anglo-American separation of powers):

The loss of the war against Germany enabled such people to launch a much more congenial culture war at home, to purge France of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the slogan of 1789, and establish in its place “work, family, fatherland,” the slogan of Vichy. Since 1905, France had been defined as a secular state. The Catholic Church had been reduced to one sect among others: Protestant, Jewish, even Muslim. (In 1920, the French government had subsidized the building of a grand mosque in thanks for the First World War service of Muslim troops. The great military cemetery near Verdun has a special section for Muslim soldiers, their graves angled away from the others in order to face Mecca.)

Vichy put an end to all that. The defeat of France by Germany was ideologically reinterpreted as a victory of “deep France” over a shallow liberal metropolitan veneer. Subjugation was reinterpreted by Vichy ideologues as redemption. Enmity was shifted from the occupying Germans to the liberal commercial “Anglo-Saxons.” Vichy propagandists produced cartoons in which Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Popeye were depicted dropping bombs on France at the behest of Jewish masters.

The point is not that DeGaulle but that the Roman Catholic urge for order and unity often manifests itself in a certain kind of anti-liberalism.

And so integralism returns (and don’t forget the appeal of integration to those neo-Calvinists who bang the gong hard for the Lordship of Christ over every square inch without thinking very hard about sphere sovereignty.

Apparently Calvin Did Not Receive the Neo-Calvinist Memo

Calls for a transformational, wholistic, and cosmic redemption do not die. In fact, whenever sin is readily apparent in the news, the need for a solution (or at least a response) from Christians generally involves an appeal to the gospel. What else do believers have? (Short answer: as created beings, they have a lot more — just think of all the subjects in a university or college course catalog and imagine saying after reading all that “the gospel is always the only answer to human hardship.”)

Here’s one way of talking about Cosmic Redemptive Christianity:

CRC is a redemptive-historical view of the gospel. Tim Keller’s definition of the gospel is a great example. He defines it this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” The difference is subtle but overwhelming in its implication for the black experience in America.

The key phrase here is “restores the creation.” [Great Commission Christianity] sadly does not include creation, the kingdom, or redemption as a necessary part of the gospel. Leaving out “creation” explains why GCC struggled to encourage Christian involvement in social issues.

I’d define the gospel by saying it is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos.

Here’s another:

As such, this Gospel message is indeed anemic as it does not properly answer to the nature of mankind, nor the restoration of all that is the image of God in man. If man as the image of God includes not only soul, righteousness, and immortality, but also his physical nature, his social relations, and even his proper habitation, then the message of redemption—i.e., renewal “after the image of him that created him”—must of necessity be, in Bradley’s words, “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos”; that is, something like “Cosmic Redemption Christianity.”

If the message of redemption includes anything less, then man is not being restored by the Gospel; but if we take seriously all that it means to be made in the image and likeness of the Triune God, then we must likewise take seriously all that is included in man’s redemption, and craft our mission and message accordingly.

Talk about setting expectations high.

That’s not exactly what Paul told the church in Corinth (who had a fair amount of troubles — wealth gap, incest, imperial injustice):

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5)

That’s a tad dualistic for some inclined to a cosmic gospel. But Calvin lays it on thick in his commentary on this passage:

The body, such as we now have it, he calls a house of tabernacle For as tabernacles [512] are constructed, for a temporary purpose, of slight materials, and without any firm foundation, and then shortly afterwards are thrown down, or fall of their own accord, so the mortal body is given to men as a frail hut, [513] to be inhabited by them for a few days. The same metaphor is made use of, also, by Peter in his Second Epistle, (2 Peter 1:13, 14,) and by Job, (Job 4:19,) when he calls it a house of clay. He places in contrast with this a building of perpetual duration. It is not certain, whether he means by this term a state of blessed immortality, which awaits believers after death, or the incorruptible and glorious body, such as it will be after the resurrection. In whichever of these senses it is taken, it will not be unsuitable; though I prefer to understand it as meaning, that the blessed condition of the soul after death is the commencement of this building, and the glory of the final resurrection is the consummation of it. . . .

As, however, it is natural for all animals to desire existence, how can it be, that believers are willing to cease to exist? The Apostle solves this question, when he says, that believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life. At the same time, the words express more than this. For he admits, that we have naturally an aversion to the quitting of this life, considered in itself, as no one willingly allows himself to be striped of his garments. Afterwards, however, he adds, that the natural horror of death is overcome by confidence; [515] as an individual will, without any reluctance, throw away a coarse, dirty, threadbare, and, in one word, tattered garment, with the view of his being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one.

Farther, he explains the metaphor by saying — that what is mortal may be destroyed [516] by life. For as flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, (1 Corinthians 15:50,) it is necessary, that what is corruptible in our nature should perish, in order that we may be thoroughly renewed, and restored to a state of perfection. On this account, our body is called a prison, in which we are confined.

Calvin could be wrong, though saying that about holy writ may take a little more chutzpah. Maybe Reformed Protestants misunderstood the gospel until Tim Keller started planting a church in New York City.

Or maybe, people who think about Great Commission Christianity are not shocked by sin and its consequences in this life because they look for a time and place when suffering will completely end. Meanwhile, the Cosmic Redemptive Christianity advocates are the ones who expect heaven to come down to earth and are endlessly frustrated if not enraged when it doesn’t happen.

Back in the Day When Some Were Planting PCA Congregations in NYC (and others were joining the PCA)

It was not an innocent time. Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine, wrote a book about cultural antagonisms in the United States, The Culture of Complaint. David Denby, a movie critic for New York magazine, reviewed it for the New Republic. It doesn’t sound like much has changed (except that sensitivities have escalated):

For years liberal intellectuals in this country have sounded sickly and confused. half convinced that their privileged position has disqualified them from criticizing any less powerful group, afraid of asserting what might be seen as an advantage. Something like academic Afrocentrism may be largely nonsense, but how many have the stomach to attack it? How many have the courage to say that gay artists whose lives have become nightmarish from the fear of AIDS are not necessarily better painters or sculptors? Putting it in pragmatic terms: Is making such points worth the risk of sounding like Hilton Kramer? Even if you can avoid such a ghastly outcome, the task requires a relish for combat and a willingness to hit an open target—a sort of herculean insensitivity.

Enter the bull in the shopping mall. Hughes was born in Australia but has lived in America and written art criticism for Time since 1970. He combines the curiosity and the ambitious learning of a scholar (he has written distinguished books on Australia and Barcelona) and the ready indignation and sense of timing of a great journalist. He is a controversialist, a public intellectual. The book, written in 1992, as the political tide was turning, is implicitly addressed to liberals: You are the conscience of a great country. Why be so frightened? Hughes offers a guide for the perplexed, a moral and intellectual compass for those who want to remain liberals in this culture without giving up their standards, their education, their sense of what matters. Brandishing bis sword, be charges in, laying about on all sides. He ridicules the American touchiness, the querulous tone of grievance. He talks tough to self-pitying artists, to academics, to black intellectuals and ideologues, to politicians.

So even when today it might seem like times were better just as Bill Clinton was coming into the White House, America was divided and Americans were sensitive. In New York City, Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins.

More Denby:

The widespread and unstoppable confusion of formal equality (which is obtainable through law) with equality of power and gifts (which is unobtainable) has led to a kind of Tocquevillian nightmare, a culture of self-pity and envious accusation. In the art world, for instance, the overproduction of artists caused by the runaway art market of the ’80s and the general lowering of standards leads anyone not actually celebrated by the media to designate himself an aggrieved party. “What are your ‘standards’ but further oppression?” the victim demands. The “you” that figures in so much paranoid-accusatory rhetoric is, of course, the white heterosexual male, whose “standards,” a mere construction, are assumed to be inherently corrupted by power. Second, the exacerbation of the differences among us, and the cynically calculated omission of what is held in common, leads to a grim spirit of intolerance—declarations of “cultural war” on the right and calls for separatism on the African-American left. Ideology annihilates the compromises necessary to keep the country going. . . .

Hughes fears no man or woman, but most liberals shrink from hurting anyone’s feelings. That is why James Wolcott was being disingenuous when, in the course of defending Rush Limbaugh recently in The New Yorker, he called on liberals to stop whining and “lean into the microphone.” In other words, get your own demagogues, bullies and wits. But as Wolcott surely knows. American liberals have committed themselves to abandoning the narcissism of the tribe; they are committed to respecting every group in the country. If conservatives have been making most of the jokes in recent years, that’s because it’s so much easier for them. For the liberal, everyone matters. That is the American glory and the American horror.

The point of this trip down memory lane is not to try to explain Trump, though with cultural conditions like this in the early 1990s, only a few years after Ronald Reagan helped a lot of Americans to see morning in America again, it is hard not to think that little emerged in the nation’s cultural, political, and religious institutions to offer some check on what Denby himself recognized as nonsense. The gatekeepers — universities, media, journalism — only seemed to guard the gates against those who thought it was impossible not to hurt someone’s feelings. Even Jesus did that.

Denby even received confirmation of Hughes’ observations when he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University:

The queasiness and prissy-mouthed grayness are often produced by the highest motives. During a year spent at Columbia attending classes with first- and second-year students, I saw many a promising discussion of social issues dry up at the border of genuine disagreement. As soon as a student actually said anything, he or she would be greeted with the comment (from another student), “That may be true from your point of view …,” the implication being that a point of view is not a strength but a weakness. Students quickly learn to stay away from anything that might betray a social judgment. The conservative students retreat into a grouchy silence and probably listen to Limbaugh in the dorms. The liberals take up a right-minded droning politeness; they learn that the only safe thing to do is to attack “power.”

They were, of course, only imitating their betters. The post-structuralist jargon, it turns out, serves all too well to reinforce liberal squeamishness. According to the recent academic orthodoxy (and Columbia is far less orthodox in these matters than many other schools), as soon as you write or speak you are in danger of allowing language, which encodes the structures of power, to do your thinking for you. In practice, any kind of vivid or concrete speech—any-thing personal, physical, evocative, active — “privileges” one point of view or another. (A graduate student in English upbraided me tor saying that a female student with long hair had long hair. Even though I was describing a specific student, the description was “a limiting stereotype.”)

Denby and Hughes also noticed that race-consciousness was pronounced, though an Afrocentrism that celebrated the continent seems to have found an outlet in affirmations of black pride:

After acknowledging the racism inherent in many nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of Africa, Hughes goes through the claims of Afrocentrism and dismisses them. And so with the Afrocentrist version of slavery. After insisting that no history of slavery written before about 1960 can be quite trusted to tell the truth about black cultural history, he shreds the Afrocentrist insistence that Europe was solely responsible for the slave trade, filling in the large role played before and after the European dominated slave trade by Muslim slave traders and by African tribes themselves. And he dispels the notion of an African Eden, either of the past or the present, to which African Americans can return.

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Afrocentrism may strive without being fully believed. At Columbia, in the wake of a rampaging, nonsensical lecture by Professor Leonard Jeffries of City College, I noticed that even some of the brightest African-American students to whom I talked were unwilling to dismiss the stuff out of hand. They half-believed in it, perhaps as a way of maintaining self-respect. They may have been heading, most of them, into mainstream academic and professional careers, but by talking Afrocentrism they were not selling out to whitey. (“The Bull in the Shopping Mall,” The New Republic, May 10, 1993)

These discussions of cultural markers, race, and history were not present in NAPARC churches in 1993. But in ways that seem to contradict the logic of cultural transformation, the church is often downstream from universities and journalists.

Thinking Christianly or Thinking Historically

Sometimes w-w’s collide and this is a problem for neo-Calvinists who think that integrating faith and learning is possible. What makes it especially hard to integrate one’s personal religious convictions and professional expertise is that being an expert usually means putting aside personal beliefs as much as possible in order to achieve some level of impartiality. This is not simply a question of hiding one’s faith under a bushel but also trying not to be subject to racial, nationalist, class, and gender prejudices. Of course, it never happens perfectly. But the idea of science — even historical science — is to resist personal bias. A Christian’s plea, “to live is Christ, to die is gain,” is not exactly impartial.

John Fea recently has uncovered, though I think intentionally, the challenge of being a Christian and/or doing history. In the wake of the recent news that Gordon College is doing away with a history major, he wrote this:

The skills and ways of thinking that one learns from the study of history are not something that can happen in a few courses as part of an “integrated major” like Politics-Philosophy-History. In over two decades of teaching at Christian liberal arts institutions I can attest to the fact that a historical way of seeing the world–one informed by contextual thinking, the understanding of contingency, the complexity of the human experience, a grasp of causality and change over time–is something that is cultivated through a deep dive into the discipline. You can’t come to an interdisciplinary or “integrated” conversation without grounding in a discipline.

I can’t stress the formation piece here enough–especially at a Christian college in the liberal arts tradition. (I don’t care if it is evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant, etc.) Research universities and big regional public institutions are sometimes different animals since faculty do not often have the sustained engagement with undergraduates.

How are we forming our Christian students intellectually if we don’t give them the opportunity to dive into a particular discipline–a particular way of seeing the world with its own set of thinking skills?

Even if conducted at an evangelical institutions, the skills of thinking historically are different from thinking Christianly, and the same goes for other academic disciplines. That also means that simply being regenerate, or having a Christian w-w, does not guarantee a historical awareness. (Though, knowing the difference in redemptive history before and after Christ’s first advent is a start.) I am not certain that a student needs to major in history to think historically. Where I teach out two course history sequence in the core curriculum gives students some awareness of historical methods and sensibility — at least that is the design. Even so, a Christian historian like Fea senses that he has a higher loyalty (in the hyphenated world we inhabit) to history than to Christianity.

Or does he?

At other times, Fea has described himself as a Christian historian:

As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags. I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does. I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach. As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it. This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.

I am an evangelical Christian. That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.

In this case, Fea senses that his Christian faith separates him from historians in the guild of professional history. This is not exactly a full-bore affirmation of the neo-Calvinist notion that faith changes the way we conduct our scholarship. Fea has actually registered some dissent to the neo-Calvinist understanding of history by saying that w-w has been “enormously fruitful” but is not where he lands as a self-consciously Christian historian. Instead, he prefers the notion of vocation as an organizing principle for Christian historians. And yet, Fea does think that faith makes him different from unbelieving historians.

One area where Christian and non-Christian historians agree, is this:

I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas. I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently. I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues. I wonder about my place in the mix.

That was in May of 2017. Since then, as I have often argued, Fea has not been free from applying a political or moralistic outlook to his understanding of political and religious history.

I wonder what happened. I sure hope it isn’t that he got #woke for Jesus.

Kuyper in the Minor Leagues with Machen

Oliver O’Donovan, a favorite political theologian of many Protestants who may not be comfortable with Stanley Hauerwas’ anti-establishmentarian outlook but also want an alternative to the Religious Right (and won’t even consider the spirituality of the church), has a review of Abraham Kuyper and the returns are not good:

Kuyper’s manner is self-consciously didactic. He seems to speak from a pulpit with a Bible in hand and a congregation to wag a finger at. He luxuriates in general social observations rounded up with peremptorily declared conclusions, which can sometimes seem very arbitrary. Exaggerated oppositions, over-­compartmentalized classifications, silence on what others are thinking or saying (except where they can be dismissed with a wave of the hand)—these are the weaknesses that belong to his communicative strategy. And most trying of all is his confidence that whatever he says is proved at the bar of Scripture, though what he finds in a text and what he makes of a text are rarely distinguishable. The paths of argument are circuitous, and what appears to be firmly settled at one point may turn out to be surprisingly open to qualification later. All that, if we will read Kuyper, we must bear with patience. But if we will let him lead us by the paths of his own choosing, and alert us to the spiritual and cultural challenges he discerns, we shall find ourselves inducted into a vision of the world that deeply impressed its first readers. The list of interesting and distinguished twentieth-century figures who confessed a debt to Kuyper’s influence speaks for itself.

Kooky but influential. Isn’t that true of Donald Trump? This may explain why Jamie Smith spends much more time interacting with O’Dovovan than Kuyper.

And for those Kuyperians who look down on Old School Presbyterianism, O’Donovan’s estimate of Kuyper is even less kind — though it suggests spirituality of the church thinkers may need to spend more time with the former Dutch Prime Minister:

While insisting that Christ’s kingship must not be spiritualized, Kuyper says that it must not be politicized, either. For while his dominion has everything to do with public cultural endeavor in science, agriculture, poetry, education, and music, it has nothing to do with civil government (paradoxically the sphere of Kuyper’s own public endeavors!). In this way, Kuyper saves the face of a Reformed tradition that assigns the civil state to God the Father’s care, the Church to the care of the Son.

Is not the idea of a heavenly “king” without political authority a bad case of “spiritualizing” (a harsher term might be “mythicizing”)? It raises problems enough for the traditional political analogies, on which much of Kuyper’s rhetoric depends. It deprives him of the use of some of the most fruitful biblical material for reflecting on authority, that of the Hebrew kings. It raises problems for his own programmatic boast that there is “not a square inch . . . over which Christ does not say ‘Mine!’” And it raises problems for Christian politics itself, ambiguously placed among the spheres of Christian service.

And that is exactly where O’Donovan needs to pay attention to Kuyper and those outside ecclesiastical establishments like the Church of England. The Hebrew kings were good — well not really — for their time but when Jesus came the Hebrew monarchy took a different form, one in which the Son of David could say with a straight face, “my kingdom is not of this world.” At the same time, the Gospels present lots of material for thinking about political authority in relation to Christ — how he interacts with government officials, with Jewish authorities, how he answers questions about political rule or instructs his disciples (like telling Peter, “put the sword away”), how he went into exile during the slaughter of the innocents, how he submitted to Roman execution, how he claims all authority in the Great Commission.

Lots of biblical material there but I am betting it does not add up to Christendom, whether the Roman or Anglican version.

City Transformed

Is this what Tim Keller and the redeemers of culture had in mind?

Grand Rapids, Michigan, was one of the first cities to go in for the complete redevelopment of its downtown area using Title III money from the 1949 Housing Act as amended in 1954. In 1959, Grand Rapids invited to town John Paul Jones, a planning consultant from the New York firm of Ebasco. He blew in with lots of energy and big ideas for the complete reconstruction of downtowns using federal funds to cover two thirds of the cost. In July of that year, he proposed more than a million square feet of government office space and 13,500 new parking ramp spaces. Retail and residential uses were no longer part of the picture. They were separated out. In August of 1960, the citizens of Grand Rapid were sold on the plan to revitalize the downtown. They approved a 1.75 mill property tax hike to the pay the city’s share of the redevelopment costs. In September of that year, Jones was appointed the new planning director of Grand Rapids, and soon the wrecking balls and bulldozers went to work, taking down all the buildings in a forty-acre, twenty- two-block area. The Richardsonian Romanesque city hall andKent County buildings were reduced to rubble. Sleek office towers were built on huge superblocks, creating a sterile urban environment that few would visit unless they worked for a bank, were called for jury duty, or wanted to contest a utility bill. The promised revitalization of the downtown did not happen. After 6 pm, the place is a ghost town.

Sometimes architecture does matter more than words.

So You Don’t like Cultural Marxism, How Does Social Gospel Work Then?

Carl Trueman is not convinced that #woke Christians are cultural Marxists. That is to give them too much credit:

Christians enamored with social transformation and who bristle at any notion that the gospel is more to do with things above than things below, would do well to ask whether they’re allowing the tastes of this culture-is-always-political world to intrude inappropriately on their own theology. To deny the pre-political, to focus on institutions, to condemn anyone whose church isn’t constantly addressing the latest fad of the 24-hour news cycle as somehow sinning—that is to mimic the world’s values, the world’s practices, and the world’s cheap outrage. In fact, calling that kind of behavior cultural Marxism is to flatter it far too highly, implying a sophistication that half-baked cheap shots simply do not possess.

I’m not so sure that some of the current “social” ministry among social justice Christians is distinct from cultural Marxism. After all, Trueman’s essay concedes that Marx has won:

We live in Marx’s world—a world where the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political. Silence in today’s climate on any issue by anybody in any institution is unacceptable, for to take no political stand on anything in our world is in fact to take a political stand—a stand for the status quo.

Heck, cultural Marxism may be simply the air we breath, even another lever in the systemic powers that oppress, a force on the order of climate change. Who can withstand that great intellectual tsunami?

But if we must abandon the charge of cultural Marxism, that’s fine. Another is just as handy and even more accurate. It is the Social Gospel. Washington Gladden was the granddaddy of social ministry and he wrote many books and essays about the Social Gospel.

Does this sound familiar?

Every department of human life – the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry, national politics, international relations – will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences. When we are bidden to seek first the kingdom of God, we are bidden to set our hearts on this great commission; to keep this always before us as the object of our endeavors; to be satisfied with nothing less than this. The complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. (Applied Christianity 1894)

If only Gladden had used the adverb, gospelly.

Transformationalism and Foreign Policy

Why does the language of cultural engagement for Christians come from the terms used to describe U.S. relations with other nations? Notice what Damon Linker writes about President Trump’s “engagement” with North Korea:

Peace is nearly always better than war. Talking is nearly always better than silence. Engagement is nearly always better than enforced isolation. We don’t know quite what might come from Trump’s strange, seemingly arbitrary affection for Kim Jong Un. But the early signs, especially concerning relations between the North and South, are encouraging. Might the conflict be brought to an official end? Could the two countries establish something approaching normal diplomatic relations? Might American troops, or at least the lion’s share of them, be able to return home after nearly seven decades? Every one of those possible consequences of our negotiations with the North would be an improvement over the longstanding status quo.

This may explain why two-kingdoms comes across odd. If the choice is between engagement and isolation — “forced isolation” even — then of course, choose engagement.

But why would language from the world of politics determine how Christians think about “culture” (scare quotes for an awfully squishy word)? “Be not conformed to this world” sounds awfully restrictive. “Set your mind on things above” sounds a tad otherworldly. “Do not love the world or the things in the world” sounds way too fundamentalist. “As sojourners and exiles… abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” sounds ascetic.

But what? Relevance is working so well?

The Sweet Spot of Reformedish Kingdom Theology (or why 2k looks R)

At World Magazine, Scott Allen knows that the Social Gospel and contemporary Social Justice Gospel are problems:

Advocates of the social gospel believed the church should be engaged in the culture, fighting against injustice and working to uplift the impoverished and downtrodden—all admirable goals. The problem was they unwittingly allowed secular assumptions to inform their theology of cultural engagement. Their profoundly un-Biblical mindset is nicely captured in this quote from social gospel advocate, journalist Horace Greeley:

“The heart of man is not depraved … his passions do not prompt to wrong doing, and do not therefore by their actions, produce evil. Evil flows only from social [inequality]. Give [people] full scope, free play, a perfect and complete development, and universal happiness must be the result. … Create a new form of Society in which this shall be possible … then you will have the perfect Society; then you will have the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Similar problems bedevil today’s social justice warriors.

Today, evangelical advocates of social justice similarly want to fight against injustice and engage in the culture. But like the earlier social gospel advocates, they too have unwittingly allowed their theology of justice to be contaminated, this time by un-Biblical postmodern and neo-Marxist ideas, leading a group of evangelicals to come together in opposition to this view.

The conflict has been simmering for some time but is now out in the open with the release of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel supported by John MacArthur, Douglas Wilson, Voddie Baucham, and others.

The statement’s authors are concerned that the social justice movement in the broader culture has crept into the church. Social justice is the preferred descriptor of a movement on the far left that even left-leaning culture watchers such as Jonathan Haidt, Camille Paglia, and Jordan Peterson now identify as a pseudo-religion. This false religion now dominates the humanities departments of universities in the United States, as well as the entertainment and media industries, and increasingly the board rooms of major corporations like Google and Nike. It works hand in glove with the sexual revolution, as it shares the same ideological roots in Romanticism, postmodernism, and Marxism. It has no place for such essential Biblical virtues as grace, mercy, and forgiveness, replacing these with grievance, offense, incivility, and retribution. Its branches are political correctness, identity politics, multiculturalism, and intersectionality. It is incompatible with the United States’ constitutional, republican form of government, and such fundamental goods as due process. Its bitter fruit is the breakdown of civil society.

So what about letting the church be the church or looking to the spirituality of the church as an alternative? Not gonna happen.

Rather than calling the church back to an orthodox Biblical approach to justice and cultural engagement, Johnson and others like him appear to be making the same mistakes as the earlier fundamentalists. They are calling into question the importance of cultural engagement and justice ministry as a distraction and a second-tier activity. The problem with social justice is not its passion to engage the culture and fight for justice. The problem is all the un-Biblical ideology that comes packed in the social justice Trojan horse.

We should not repeat this tragic mistake again. The crying need today, as it was in the early 20th century, is to recover a Biblical, orthodox approach to justice and cultural engagement championed by Wilberforce, Carey, and Carmichael. Un-Biblical ideas have to be exposed and rejected, replaced by a uniquely Christian and Biblical approach to social and cultural transformation that is gospel-centered, and known for its grace, forgiveness, and civility. One that treats all people as unique individuals, not mouthpieces of identity groups. One that understands that evil is rooted in fallen human hearts, and not in capitalism, white supremacy, or the patriarchy. One that sees people as free, responsible, accountable moral agents and not as victims or oppressors.

Nowhere does Allen actually make a biblical case for cultural engagement, apparently the key notion for maintaining the church’s influence. Of course, the best way to read and study the Bible is not by going to a Bible-on-line website and doing a word search. But this is our world. And a quick search for “engage” at the ESV website (I know, awfully close to Gospel Allies’ bunkers) yields only three results, one of which includes the end of Philippians 1:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For cit has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

What if being culturally engaged was not about being on the right side of social and political reforms, with the banner of Christ held high, but about suffering through and enduring an evil age (Gal 1:4). I understand that when Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19), he sounded a tad fundamentalist. But if Jesus can sound that way, why can’t those who profess to follow him?