The Limits of W-w

Like I say, transformationalism is good on inspiration but not so good on transformation. Jim Bratt gave a peak behind the curtain of neo-Calvinist culture in the U.S. in his last post before heading to China on a Fulbright (happy trails, Jim):

Boy, do we need that now. I’m thinking of the death this past week of Tim LaHaye. The span of tomfoolery he pumped out in the name of Christianity has created lasting disrepute for the faith. The creation “science.” The “end-times” irresponsibility, compounded of self-pity, blaming others, and a certain cultural idolatry. All of it redolent of the John Birch Society swamp from which he first slithered. Still, it’s the sort of religious fantasy you can expect to hit the American best-seller list. The death that really strikes home for me is the moral nadir of Mr. Family Values, “Dr.” James Dobson. His endorsement of Donald Trump puts paid to any pretense that the ethics and politics he pushed, lo, these many years have come to anything but authoritarian nationalism with a particular macho strut. For that is Trump. Dobson’s worse for covering it with smarmy God-talk.

I say this hits home for me because back when I was on a denominational committee studying the future of the CRC’s magazine, The Banner, we were given some research stats of readership habits and opinion. James Dobson turned out to be the CRC’s #1 rated authority on current events. Charles Colson was its #1 theologian. The Fraud and the Felon atop the Calvinist hit parade. Two minor sins in that revelation somehow stuck out for me. Dobson, a member of the Church of the Nazarene. Read rank Armininian. Colson, invoking the name of Kuyper as he bullied along.

All this, I mused, was the price of that “Americanization” to which the CRC, as an immigrant church, had been long pushed to accede. Well, nationalist mush compounded by militancy turns out to be the bitter fruit of that process. And so it is today.

I don’t pretend that Kuyper ever represented more than a small fraction of Dutch people claiming a Reformed commitment. Ditto, in Dutch-American Reformed circles, for The Forum, The Journal, or Perspectives. But these magazines have fought hard and punched way above their weight because of that magic formula that Kuyper caught, and taught. And it’s worth carrying on their mission, worth trying to maintain cultural, political, and theological integrity above the open sewer into which white-American Christianism has descended.

I bring this up not to delight in the sufferings of neo-Calvinists, nor to take a shot at Jim on his way out of the blogosphere. Bratt, it must be said, is honest about the state of neo-Calvinism and properly annoyed at its abuses.

I do refer to this to remind those would-be Kuyperians that the neo-Calvinist project is a lot harder than it sounds. Take every thought captive. Christ is Lord of every square inch. Television (and plumbing) redeemed. Integration of faith and learning. New York City as a tipping point for global revival. Bratt’s own account of the CRC is a ready warning that even with all the infrastructure of neo-Calvinist culture — church, school, catechesis, denominational magazine, world-and-life bleep, you are a poor match for mass culture in a liberal capitalist democracy.

Take every though captive? More like, kid yourself that you are large and in charge.

I truly admire the grit and determination of Dutch-American Calvinists. They are one of the true success stories of transplanting a distinct form of Old World Calvinism to the New World. They were BenOp Calvinists before the Benedict Option became hip.

But as all immigrant groups know, leaving the ghetto for the suburbs is part of the American dream. So for w-w to happen you may need to hunker down in the ghetto (or if Amish on the farm or if Benedictine in the monastery). But if you are going to live and move and have your being as a citizen of a modern nation state, chances are many of your square inches will be taken captive.

And if you want a theological rationale or explanation for that, for being part of the mainstream society but not, learn, live, and love 2k. The water’s warm.

Beaver Cleaver Was Lost in His Trespasses and Sins

Trigger warning to self: you’ve engaged Carl Trueman critically before and it did not go well. So be careful, be very careful.

The reason for bringing up Dr. Trueman again, even if ever so gingerly, has to do with his recent evaluation of Rusty Reno’s new book about prospect for a Christian society. Trueman writes:

I simply am not convinced that change can be achieved on any significant scale. The causes of the modern malaise are complicated, and their solution must be equally elaborate. For example, as George Grant and David Schindler have shown, technology brings with it a different view of reality from that of traditional Christianity. This mindset is now deeply embedded in our world. The entertainment industry mediates much of what is taken for reality and grips the moral imagination of the masses. The globalized economy has transformed communities and community expectations in ways we have yet to fathom. To borrow that hackneyed but poetic phrase from Marx, all that is solid melts into air. Zygmunt Bauman’s argument, that we live in a time when even the most longstanding and reliable social structures are in permanent flux, seems to me compelling. It must be accounted for by any hope that depends upon the solidity of concepts or institutions from the past. How does one reform or recapture or rebuild that which has been robbed of solid existence?

I generally agree.

But where I push (not shove) back is with the idea that modernity alone has these problems. Ever since the fall, it seems to me, the possibilities of pursuing lives of holiness and passing on the faith have been hard. Just remember what Paul warned Timothy about the “last days”:

understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 3:1-8)

Was Paul predicting a time when Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche would dominate understandings of human nature and the created order, or was he talking about life in the Roman Empire circa 60 AD? My understanding is that he was talking about life in the Mediterranean world then.

So why do Christians believe modernity is so much worse than any other time? Well, it sure seems that Roman Catholics have a certain nostalgia for the Christian society of medieval Europe, neo-Calvinists for the Christian society of the Kuyperian era of Dutch history, evangelicals in the U.S. for the First Pretty Good Awakening that of course led up to the Christian founding of the United States. Here Protestants want to recalculate critiques of modernity since Kuyper and George Whitefield both fall on the modern side of the divide between medieval and modern periods. In other words, Protestant critiques of modernity play into the hands of certain Roman Catholic apologetics (even if nostalgia for the flourishing of the Middle Ages seldom extends to the Crusades or the Inquisition).

But surely anyone with eyes and ears has to admit that we are living in worse times than 1950s American when Ward and June Cleaver reared Wally and the Beave. I have eyes and ears. I will concede that the 2010s are worse than the 1950s, though I did live through 1968 and that was not a good time. But on a scale of fallen humanity, are modern or contemporary times really worse than what Noah lived through, or Lot, or Jeremiah, or our Lord himself? Doesn’t the fall mean we always live in desperate times?

The point here is not that people who believe in original sin should be relativists when it comes to assessing the way humans live together or proposing ways that are better for a common life together and for the proclamation of the gospel. But I think it is a mistake to cultivate the notion that human flourishing is possible whether by putting in place the right policies or institutions, or by thinking about the past a certain way. I know Dr. Trueman knows this. But it sounds like he thinks we are living through one of the worst times in human existence. No matter how pleasant and reassuring Beaver Cleaver’s America was, it was not the new heavens and new earth. When sin abounds, it’s not a good time. The Cleavers were certainly flourishing as we now count such living, but they were also drowning in sin (and never in church). Shouldn’t that perspective inform the way we view the West post-Foucault?

When Calvinists Impersonate Muslims

Why does this description of Islam sound familiar?

So I think ISIS is a wakeup call for all Muslims, especially Islamists who see no problem in mixing religion with politics. You want sharia? You want Islam to “conquer” and “dominate”? This is what you get. And when you say, “No, no, that is not real Islam,” you easily become the “apostate” of the “real Islam” that the other guys believe in.

Look at how this works for 2k and neo-Calvinism:

So I think ISIS theonomy is a wakeup call for all Muslims Calvinists, especially Islamists transformationalists who see no problem in mixing religion with politics. You want sharia the Bible? You want Islam Christ to “conquer” and “dominate” every square inch? This is what you get. And when you say, “No, no, that is not real Islam Calvinism,” you 2 kingdoms easily become the “apostate” of the “real Islam Calvinism” that the other guys believe in.

Every Square Inch of MmmmeeeeEEEEEEE

The politics of identity continue to haunt. Are you gay? Straight? Muslim? Man? Man trapped in a female body? Evangelical? Reformed Protestant? How’s a nation supposed to handle so many personal identities yearning to breathe free?

Ra’fat Aldajani offers this advice for Muslims:

The first objective is embracing being American. Too often we confuse being American with an erosion or rejection of our native culture and mores. It is quite the contrary. America is the land of immigrants, a melting pot of many diverse cultures and peoples, all contributing to what makes this country unique and strong.

Assimilation means developing a hybrid of what is good from our mother countries (family values, importance of education, respect for elders) and our adopted home (democracy, justice, rule of law) and engaging in every aspect of American life as Muslim Americans, rather than retreating defensively into our own culturally fenced-off communities.

Of course, the problem with assimilation is that it leads to liberal Protestantism where the nation’s social crises matter more than biblical teaching (also think PCA). If the nation tips toward equal rights for women, who are we mainline Presbyterians to deny the office of elder to women?

So the question for reconciling personal and national identity is where you put the qualifier.

If you are an American Christian, then national identity trumps religious loyalty.

If you are a Christian American, then your religious identity trumps patriotism.

And if you are simply present as Christian (or LBGT), and leave out any reference to the government whose laws you follow at least when you check out at the grocery store or drive a car, then you are a different order of person.

The difficulty we now face is that personal identity absorbs nationality. The nation must be or reflect my identity — it must be Christian, gay, or black. What we need in the era of transgenderism is to recognize that we (citizens of the U.S.) are all personal identities trapped in an American body.

Autonomy and Theonomy Again

If you don’t grant autonomy from religious authority to the political realm (including to political actors to behave in ways different from religious duties), do you wind up with Omar Mateen? Adam Garfinkle thinks so:

… defined properly, there just isn’t very much Islamist ideology. As that term is commonly used in the West, at a minimum an ideology needs to specify: some ideal political economy; some ideal relationship between society, state, and authority; and some ideal relationship between a given society and the world outside it. There is nothing special in these regards about current Islamist thinking. There are a few innovations of note that distinguish it from traditional Islam—the very strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces; the insistence that non-Muslims cannot hold public office; the re-merging of religious and temporal authority in the caliphate—but there are too few and too marginal to create much of a difference from the standard traditional Muslim understanding of the relationship of religion and politics. Hence, for example, the supremacist assumptions of Islamism are also characteristic of mainstream traditional Sunni Islam, making it impossible for us to “message” against it without alienating Sunnis who are not our enemies and who are critical extent and potential allies.

This reflects the key fact that there is nothing specifically ideological—again as we understand the term—about Islamic attitudes about the intersection of religion and politics. Neither Islamist nor Islamic “ideology” is commensurate with any system of Western political ideas. Liberalism as the epitome of the Western way of thinking about politics is based on deeper philosophical currents, but it is not a mere lesser-included case. It has its own weight, its autonomy, its own discourse. The political world is a lesser-included case within Islamist (and Islamic) thinking. It is not autonomous but derivative. It does not have its own credentialed authorities and discourse, only the authorities and discourse of the clergy whose concerns far transcend politics.

Islam, in other words, has little capacity to develop the spirituality of the mosque. Christians who oppose the spirituality of the church should be very careful.

See?

Evidence of Calvinism’s superiority to Lutheranism:

Although it is very capitalist, Switzerland boasts many of the advantages that socialist Scandinavian states are supposed to claim exclusively. Switzerland’s unemployment rate is just 4.5 percent, which is one of the lowest rates in the world. The country’s poverty rate is similarly low (XLS). Those who immigrate to Switzerland have an average employment rate of 76 percent, which is much higher than the European average of 62 percent.

Furthermore, the Swiss educational system is ranked third in the world by the OECD. Only Korea and Japan are ranked higher, which means Switzerland’s educational system is the best in the Western world. Many claim this distinction belongs to Finland, but Finnish schools are in fact ranked 10/37 in math and 4/37 in reading.

Additionally, income inequality and debt are both quite low in Switzerland. This reality persists although Switzerland’s wealthy have the lowest tax burden in the world; the richest decile in the country pays only 20.9 percent of the country’s taxes. Remarkably, even though the tax burden on the wealthy is minimal, Switzerland’s national debt as a percentage of its gross domestic product is lower than Finland’s, Sweden’s, and Denmark’s.

Switzerland is the closest to “paradise” of any European country, yet it remains one of the most capitalist economies on Earth. Its success is a powerful antidote to socialist claims about the benefits of progressive taxation, and all but destroys the assumption that Scandinavia as a bastion of socialism shows that only collectivism can produce success.

This is a test of the Emergency Paleo-Calvinist System. If this had been an actual case of boosterism, you would have been instructed to read Ecclesiastes. This concludes this test of the Emergency Paleo-Calvinist System.

The Abraham Option (or been there, done that)

Kuyper, that is.

Rod Dreher leaves another hint that he has no real feel for the fundamentalist or confessional Protestant world:

That said, I think lots of Christian parents are going to have to make some hard calls now and in the years to come about moving for the sake of educating their children, and raising them in a peer environment where they are more likely to absorb the faith, or at the very least not have their faith leached out of them. Radical times call for radical measures.

Granted, the world of Dutch-American Calvinism is small and so faulting Rod for not knowing the Christian day school phenomenon is misguided. At the same time, when Abraham Kuyper is largely a household name to cultural conservatives in the U.S., you would think that Rod might know something about the tradition of family-run schools and its history that goes back to the 1850s!!!

At the same time, Rod’s proposals for the Benedict Option sound, as I’ve indicated before, like a person who has been part of mainstream churches and identified with the establishment for all of his spiritual life. For those of us who grew up on the other side of the spiritual tracks, whether fundamentalist or ethnic Protestant, we’ve known for a long time that worldliness is a danger and its a besetting sin of establishments, political and ecclesiastical.