Mencken, the Prophet

On the eve of that “Great” War, H. L. Mencken saw where vice crusaders were headed:

In the midst of all our torquernadan crusading, how is it that no moralist has dedicated himself to the extinction of the cigarette, that coffin nail, that debauchery, that father of crime? Elsewhere in this fair land it has been dealt staggering licks by the chemically pure. In Kansas, Iowa and Missouri the children in the public schools are taught to fear and abominate it; in Nebraska, Michigan and Alabama there are hot campaigns against it; in Indiana its sale is forbidden by law. But here in Baltimore not a single voice in raised against it. Our moralists are the most virulent in Christendom–their ardor, indeed, is often far more Mohammedan than Christian–and yet I have not heard a word from them about the licentious and diabolical cigarette.

Certainly this cannot be due to ignorance of its deadliness. It is a matter of common knowledge, indeed, that the cigarette is one of the most insidious of all agents of sin. The boy who inhales its noxious fumes today will be a drunkard tomorrow and a murderer next week. The woman who smokes cigarettes is sinister and unspeakable–a dangerous companion for the young. The man who pursues the corrupting vice is a shifty, blear-eyed rascal, with the complexion of a bilious jonquil and a liver that plots treasons. All criminals smoke cigarettes. So do all paranoics. It is the unanimous pet and comfort of felons condemned to be hanged.

On the medical side the evidence against it is irrefutable and overwhelming. In Dr. Osler’s great work on “The Principles and Practices of Medicine” (lib. XIV, fol. 324) there is the direct statement that the cigarette is one of the most potent causative agents in influenza, cancer, diphtheria, ophthalmia, beri-beri and senile dementia. Dr. Osler there describes an experiment with guinea pigs made by Prof. Dr. Hugo Bierfisch, of Leipzig. Two sets of guinea pigs, one of which had been trained to smoke cigarettes and the other of which had been kept pure, were exposed to virulent cultures of the bacillus typhosus. The virtuous guineas at once leaped out of the window, but the cigarette smokers, besotted by nicotine, snouted the fatal germs and at once fell into convulsions. By next morning all of them save one were dead of arterio-sclerosis, and that one was a babbling maniac. . . .

And all this medical evidence is amply supported by the statistics of our prisons and almshouses. Of the 226 murderers confined in Sing Sing prison between January 1, 1900, and December 31, 1910, no less than 207 ascribed their downfall to cigarettes. Of the 1,987 forgers imprisoned at the same place during the same time 1,562 blamed cigarettes. From Charleston Prison, near Boston, come reports that are even more impressive. Every one of the yeggmen now serving time there is a cigarette fiend. The late Dr. Clarence Richeson was another. Dr. Harvey H. Crippen, hanged in London for the murder of his wife, smoked 15 packages a day. Johann Hoch, the celebrated Chicago murderer, went to the gallows with a cigarette in his mouth and a glass of fake Plisener in his hand.

Did God Rest In One Day?

Volume four of the Nicotine Theological Journal is now available at the back issues page. Here is a whiff, from the April number:

. . . [Morton] Smith’s study of John Murray is an example of how sabbatarian-creation logic fails. Murray understood as well as anyone the importance of creation for Sabbath-keeping: “The weekly sabbath is based on divine example,” he wrote in Principles of Conduct. “The divine mode of procedure in creation determines one of the basic cycles by which human life here on earth is regulated, namely, the weekly cycle.”

LET US CONCEDE, FOR argument’s sake, that Smith is right about Murray, and that the Scotsman “seem[ed] to have held to the 24-hour creation days.” (Smith acknowledges that this is not “expressly stated” in Murray.) So the world was created in 144 hours, according to Murray. Then what happened? “And he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he made.” But how long was the seventh day? Murray is very clear that that day was not twenty four hours. Here is more from Principles of Conduct: “In the realm of God’s activity in creating the heavens and the earth there were six days of creative activity and one day of rest. There is the strongest presumption in favor of the interpretation that this seventh day is not one that terminated at a certain point in history, but that the whole period of time subsequent to the end of the sixth day is the Sabbath rest alluded to in Genesis 2:2.”

From these citations we are forced to conclude that for Murray a literal six-plus-one creation sequence was unnecessary for the establishment of a literal six-plus-one Sabbath-keeping sequence. However symbolic God’s days were, Murray saw that creation was still revealed in such a way as to establish the weekly Sabbath as a creation ordinance. So the logic of Sabbath-creationism collapses. And if the seventh day is not literal, why do the first six days have to be?

Although Smith’s essay claims to survey American Presbyterian thought on creation, including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, it is largely focused on recent PCA debates, and he neglects OPC reflection on the matter except to speculate on the views of Murray and Cornelius Van Til. This is unfortunate because he omits the 1968 resolution of the OPC’s Presbytery of Southern California (comprised of Murray’s and Van Til’s students), which we believe has not been surpassed as a summary of the biblical and confessional teaching on creation. We republish those eight affirmations in hopes that they will gain a greater reading:

1. The one true and living God existed alone in eternity, and beside Him there was no matter, energy, space or time.

2. The one true and living God, according to His Sovereign decree, determined to create, or make of nothing, the world and all things therein, whether visible or invisible.

3. God performed His creative work in six days. (We recognize different interpretations of the word “day” and do not feel that one interpretation is to be insisted upon to the exclusion of others.)

4. That no part of the universe nor any creature in it came into being by chance or by any power other than that of the Sovereign God.

5. That God created man, male and female, after His own image, and as God’s image bearer man possesses an immortal soul. Thus man is distinct from all other earthly creatures even though his body is composed of the elements of his environment.

6. That when God created man, it was God’s inbreathing that constituted man a living creature, and thus God did not impress His image upon some pre-existing living creature.

7. That the entire human family has descended from the first human pair, and, with the one exception of Christ, this descent has been by ordinary generation.

8. That man, when created by God, was holy. Then God entered into a covenant of works with the one man Adam. In the covenant Adam represented his posterity, and thus when he violated the requirement, all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him and fell with him into an estate of sin.

CONTEMPORARY CRITICS OF these affirmations might charge them with sanctioning a “poetic” creation account. If so, it bears noting that, contrary to the slippery-slope fears of the Sabbath-creationists, neither Murray’s eternal Sabbath nor the presbytery’s interpretive openness have cultivated in the OPC, thirty years later, a “poetic Sabbath,” that is, observable decline in Sabbath-keeping. The lesson to be drawn, it seems, is this: if Sabbath-breaking is the ultimate concern of the watchdogs from Taylors, South Carolina, they had better look for causes elsewhere than in one’s interpretation of the days of Genesis one and two.

William Hayward Wilson

No Assembly Required

Another batch of back issues from the Nicotine Theological Journal has been posted. The July 1999 issue proves just how cutting edge the NTJ is. Well before Keller or Piper were debating multi-site congregations, other technologically driven pastors were conceiving of an entirely different understanding of gathering with the saints and angels. Here is an excerpt:

“I will tell of thy name to my brethren,” David vows to God in Psalm 22. “In the midst of the assembly I will praise thee. From thee comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.” David understands that redemption has consequences. His praise must not be private or domestic, but it must be public, in the presence of fellow God-fearers. Not until we worship solemnly with the saints do we express adequately our gratitude to God for our deliverance.

Unlike the psalmist, evangelical Christians today seem terribly confused as to why they are to gather for worship. Consider this metaphor, popularized by Chuck Swindoll. Worship is still important, we are assured, and it is as vital for the church today as the huddle is for a football team, for in both cases that is where the players gather together to learn the plays. The flaw in this metaphor is obvious. The huddle is not the action in football. It is the lull in the action, a moment so uneventful that the well-conditioned TV viewer can use it to race to replenish his beer. So to compare worship to a football huddle is to encourage the mistaken notion that the real world is “out there,” and that the church gathered for worship is somehow something less.

As bad as that is, far worse yet is the increasingly popular conviction that Christians can engage the world with a no-huddle offense. As far as assembling together, more and more are encouraged merely to phone it in. This is not entirely new. As early as the 1950s, dial-a-prayer services were as popular as phoning for the time or the weather or for movie announcements. In a 1964 article in Christianity Today, many pastors were extolling the efficiency of this automated ministry. Said one, it was the only way he could talk to 200 people a day. What is more, his church could minister this way to people at two in the morning without waking up the pastor. Beyond efficiency, its popularity owed to parishioners enjoying anonymity without feeling lonely.

AND THEN CAME THE INTERNET. Any surfer knows that religious communities are thriving in cyberspace. We visited one recently, the First Church of Cyberspace (found at “”). Characteristic of an age that cannot distinguish between profession and self-promotion, the website opens not with a description of its beliefs but with positive comments from recent visitors. Guest book kudos come from Baptist, Presbyterian, and Universalist circles, from as far away as Germany and Japan. Much of the enthusiasm is brief and to the point: “Wow!” or “Cool!” Perhaps what impresses visitors most is the non-fundamentalist character of First Church. From the church’s home page, the surfer is but a couple of hyperlinks from what is euphemistically described as “Adult Christianity.”

OF COURSE, A CYBERCHURCH IS admittedly unconventional, and that is its great advantage, boast its afficionados. One church website designer has claimed that “all elements of congregational life can be experienced through the Internet,” including the sacraments (don’t ask). And all the while – and here is the real virtue – it is in the “real world.” By contrast, a church gathered traditionally is mired in the past, with members who are missing the action. We know of one Presbyterian megachurch that recently appointed to its large staff a “Minister of Technology.” This minister is urging his church to make room for technology, lest it become “too painfully obvious that we have become completely irrelevant.” (He omits the other painful reality of ecclesiastical technophobia: that ministers of technology will find themselves unemployed.)

This then is the church in the technological age – no assembly required. We can forgo the gathering, because technology has conquered the restraints of time and space. One megachurch in Central Florida is explicitly making this claim. Recently this church changed its name from a “Community Church” to “a Church Distributed,” because it had discovered a “new form” of the church (which will eventually become the norm, it predicts). . . .

One Size Doesn't Fit All Christians

More archived issues of the Nicotine Theological Journal have been uploaded to the Back Issues page. One of those (April 1998) includes a piece entitled “Sectarians All.” (Again, beware the anomalies included in transferring from WordPerfect to PDF.) Herewith an excerpt:

SUPPOSE A HISTORY PROFESSOR at an evangelical liberal arts college were teaching a course on American church history. His course did not follow the world religions approach but instead covered the religious traditions most numerous and most influential in America (though those are not synonymous) and so slanted the course to Protestants, Catholics and Jews. For the final exam the professor asked students to describe the teaching and practice of the average observant Catholic before Vatican II. If a student answered the question by ignoring Roman Catholic worship (the Mass), customs (fish on Fridays) , institutions (parochial schools), and teaching on justification, but answered instead with a description of an Irish immigrant in Boston who bucked the repressive pedagogy of local nuns, complained about never understanding the Mass, then went to Boston University, joined InterVarsity, attended Park Street Church, and read his Protestant Bible daily during his “quiet time,” should the professor give the student a passing grade? Such an answer would not be surprising given the historic anti-Catholic bias among Anglo-American Protestants. But wouldn’t the professor be delinquent in his duties as a professor of history to approve such an answer? In other words, is it possible for a Protestant to hold that a Catholic is “good” even if he believes his practices idolatrous?

LET’S TAKE ANOTHER EXAMPLE. This one from real life. J.I. Packer was one of the original Protestant signers of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” the first statement (1994) that called for a joint mission of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in a limited number of endeavors. In an article he wrote explaining his decision (Christianity Today, Dec. 12, 1994), Packer applied the very language of “good Catholic” to those with whom Protestants ought to cooperate. Now Packer does not spell out exactly what such a good Catholic looks like. But the reasons he gives for not being able to become a Roman Catholic are helpful. For instance, Rome has a “flawed” understanding of the church, its sacramental theology “cuts across” the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, the “Mary cult,” the doctrine of purgatory, and the “disbursing” of indulgences all “damp down” biblical teaching about assurance of salvation. What is more, papal claims to infallibility make the “self-correction” of the church impossible. So the communion of Rome is still “unacceptable” to Packer. But the Catholics who are willing to sign a declaration with Packer, despite his reservations and objections, are “good” Catholics. These Catholics most likely are ones who do not observe the faith in ways that Packer deems flawed or, at least, are not strict about them. Ironically, then, Packer’s assessment of Catholicism should fail to earn an A-grade on an undergraduate American church history final exam but is supposed to be persuasive to evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics as the first step in ecumenicity.

WHY DOESN’T SUCH AN understanding of Roman Catholicism earn the strong rebukes of condescension and paternalism? Isn’t Packer saying, in effect, that a good Catholic is one who has given up distinctively Catholic teachings and practice? What is more, why isn’t Packer criticized for harboring the kind of anti-Catholic sentiments that used to inform America’s progressive reformers who desired the assimilation of all immigrants to the United States into WASP culture? Liberal Protestants have a long history of including Roman Catholics at their gatherings and institutions who resemble themselves, that is, believers who have given up the more particular aspects of their tradition in order to fit in to American Protestant norms. That kind of treatment used to be called “illiberal” by Roman Catholics, such as when John Gilmary Shea in the 1880s accused the Puritan tradition of being “narrow-minded, tyrannical, and intolerant” of those who “refused to submit to their ruling.” But now, thanks to the wonders of modern ecumenism, Roman Catholics who are not concerned about Rome’s historic teachings and practices are considered “good.”

Still Smokin'

In an effort to make back issues of the Nicotine Theological Journal available on-line, readers may be interested to see that volume one of the journal glorified newsletter has been added to our page of back issues. (Please beware that the PDF versions will not capture the original layout in WordPerfect.) To tempt readers to take a gander, here is an excerpt from the lead article, “Calvinism, Ethnicity, and Smoke,” from issue number 2.

Old School Presbyterians who grew up within or on the edges of American evangelicalism — we write autobiographically — generally came to regard the Christian Reformed Church with awe for her robust expressions of Reformed piety. To be sure, Dutch-American Calvinists were never completely spared the piety of fundamentalism. But it was always a fundamentalism with a difference. While they may have frowned on such worldly amusements as card-playing or the theater or the dance hall, they continued to drink and smoke. “Sin came from the heart, not the environment,” they generally insisted, and they were usually right. So when you walked into the Calvin College coffee shop twenty years ago, it was not coffee that you smelled, but the pervasive scent of burning tobacco. Then there was the habit of the elders of the Wheaton CRC who smoked on the church lawn after Sunday morning worship, conveniently applying a jolt of nicotine to bus loads of stunned evangelical college students who were returning from church and knew next to nothing about Dutch ways, let alone Calvinism.

This brazen dismissal of artificial morality seemed so, well, healthy. For between puffs these elders could readily produce sound and sophisticated theological arguments on Christian liberty, the true nature of Christian virtue, and serving God in all walks of life. Yes, healthy, and more than a bit intimidating. Mark Noll well described the shock of seeing professing Christians smoke for the first time in his life, when he traveled to Calvin College as a Wheaton basketball player for his team’s annual “ritualistic slaughter.”

SUCH NICOTINE-STAINED PIETY, however, rapidly seems to be becoming a thing of the past. Visiting teams no longer suffer the effects of second-hand smoke on their travels to Grand Rapids. Recently the oldest college of the CRC held a “Great Calvin Smoke-Out.” Anti-smoking support groups have been launched, and smoking is now prohibited in all buildings on campus. (Though our spies report that some faculty are quietly practicing civil disobedience in the privacy of their offices.)

The new CRC morality was on graphic display in the January 6, 1997 issue of the Banner. In its “Worldwide” news column, the Banner reported on the combined efforts of the American Cancer Society and the National Jewish Outreach Program to encourage Jews in converting Saturdays into “Smoke-Free Sabbaths.” We are not persuaded that the pleasures of smoking are forbidden on the Lord’s Day. Still we would pause to commend the Banner at least for recognizing the increasingly quaint principle that some things are inappropriate on the Sabbath.

Winter 2012 NTJ

The print publication that preceded has been out of circulation for some time. But the Nicotine Theological Journal returns to the world of the living with the Winter 2012 issue. If features two separate reflections by Baptist-turned-Presbyterian baby boomers on their parents and church life of their youth, an assessment of Presbyterian church growth, a review of Carl Trueman’s Republocrat, and a reprint of an post at Oldlife about the development of doctrine.

This issue also explains plans for future publication. The idea is that existing subscribers will receive hard copies for the next year by mail. All others will have access to Portable Document Formats of the NTJ through Once the next issue is out (Summer 2013), the NTJ will be available only on-line as a pdf. All readers will be able to access these files for a modest price through PayPal.

This material is too good to give away. At least, that was the consensus of the editors at our last meeting.

Muslims Have Their Scarves, Christians Their Sandwiches

Political religion takes different forms. For political Islam, a women wearing a head scarf is a symbol of devotion and of defiance against western secularism. For American Christians, it looks like eating a chicken sandwich is a signal of a citizen’s belief, morality, and politics.

All of a sudden, biting into a fried chicken sandwich has become a political statement.

Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain known for putting faith ahead of profits by closing on Sundays, is standing firm in its opposition to gay marriage after touching off a furor earlier this month.

Gay rights groups have called for a boycott, the Jim Henson Co. pulled its Muppet toys from kids’ meals, and politicians in Boston and Chicago told the chain it is not welcome there.

Across the Bible Belt, where most of the 1,600 restaurants are situated, Christian conservatives have thrown their support behind the Atlanta-based company, promising to buy chicken sandwiches and waffle fries next week on “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”

The rest of the news story is here.

As theatrical as the controversy over Chick-fil-A may be (and the company may actually do well from the adverse publicity which is still publicity), one point stands out, though by now it may be a little stale. According to this news story, the mayors of Boston and Chicago have said that Chick-fil-A is unwelcome in those cities. According to Rahm Emanuel, “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.” The mayor likely said this thinking that he was taking a courageous stand for diversity and tolerance. But he was also expressing great intolerance in the name of diversity and tolerance.

That may be the intellectual hobgoblin that haunts everyone living in a liberal democracy, though usually only libertarians see that tolerance means toleration even for groups or persons whose views are nutty or objectionable. But it is odd that bright people like Emanuel don’t see that they are erecting a form of intellectual orthodoxy that is just as inflexible as anything the Religious Right might construct.

What Emanuel also fails to see is truth that Thomas Jefferson recognized as basic to living in a free republic. The president’s line about the irrelevance of religion would seem to apply here: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Does Chick-fil-A actually hurt Emanuel or other residents of Chicago just because the owner objects to gay marriage? Ideas are supposed to be freely held in America, as long as they don’t hurt others. (Hurt feelings don’t count since we all face people, ideas, and acts in the United States that don’t empower and affirm us.) Since Chick-fil-A provides a service that many use, and creates jobs that produce tax-payers, why does Emanuel actually care about Dan Cathy’s ideas?

Yes, liberals can be hypocritical. But so are conservatives. What’s surprising is that liberals can be as dumb as (they think) their political opposition.

Postscript: Matthew Lee Anderson makes a good point when he distinguishes “tolerant” (i.e., liberal) from “intolerant” (i.e. Religious Right) consumer boycotts. The latter objects to specific products, the former to ideas. So it’s not the chicken sandwich that offends, but the ideas of the guy who makes it. Perfectionism lives.

Of Choice Meats and Good Cigars

Our friendly interlocutor, Zrim, took a dose of exception to the recent post here about drinking and smoking with Mike Horton – not with Mark Dever. He makes the plausible point that many Reformed types have graduated from a fundamentalist piety to the full-orbed one of smoking, drinking, and maybe even cussing, as part of the cage-phase of becoming Reformed.

He writes:

I have found it crowded with more or less two types: ascetic legalists and sophomoric libertarians who used to be ascetic legalists. . . . Then there is the liberty camp. Blowing smoke into the faces of their past, these find true piety to be measured by relative consumption. There seems always something to prove to some phantom somewhere in the individual or collective self, real or imagined. The way an adolescent speaks a bit higher on the phone so her parents know she is fraternizing with the neighborhood bad boy, certain libertarians want the details of their consumption known to their phantoms.

As I have admitted, this is a point that all Reformed Protestants who revel in the strong consciences need to consider.

But from the other side of the aisle comes the Reformed tradition itself. One of the more puzzling features of the original Protestant movement was a concern for eating meat – an act that hardly anyone but the most world-and-life view crazed would regard as essentially religious.. In one of the earliest Reformed creeds, Zwingli’s “Sixty-Seven Articles,” we read that the Christian “is free to eat all foods at any time.” This stemmed from the first outbreak of Protestantism in Zurich, eating sausage on Friday, a day on which Roman Catholics fasted by abstaining from meat. And not very long after Zwingli’s creed came the Tetrapolitan Confession which devoted four chapter to eating – or more precisely, to eating in contrast to fasting. One of the chapters was “Of the Choice of Meats.” The chapter on fasting has this:

When, therefore, we saw very evidently that the chief men in the Church beyond the authority of Scripture assumed this authority so to enjoin fasts as to bind men’s consciences, we allowed consciences to be freed from these snares, but by the Scriptures, and especially Paul’s writings, which with singular earnestness removes these rudiments of the world from the necks of Christians. . . . For if St. Paul (than whom no man at any time taught Christ more certainly) maintains that through Christ we have obtained such liberty in external things that he not only allows no creature the right to burden those who believe in Christ, even with those ceremonies and observances which God himself appointed, and wished in their own time to be profitable, but also denounces as having fallen away from Christ, and that Christ is of none effect to those who suffer themselves to be made servant thereto, what verdict do we think should be passed on those commandments which men have devised of themselves, not only without any oracle, but also without any example worthy of being followed, and which, therefore, are unto most not only beggarly and weak, but also hurtful; not elements – i.e., rudiments of holy discipline – but impediments of true godliness? (Ch. VIII)

One possible point to draw from this difficult prose, as sophomoric as it might appear, is that to have a theological journal, the NTJ, dedicated to the chemical found in tobacco is to bear witness to a prominent streak in the Reformed tradition about the importance of proclaiming and demonstrating Christian liberty. If meat on Friday was the way to expose the tyranny of man-made rules and false teaching in the sixteenth-century church, how much more is tobacco today a way to expose the sacred cows of both believers and citizens in the greatest smoke-free nation on God’s green earth?

Ad Hominem or, How to Read Criticism

Here are a couple hypotheticals. Both have to do with the ways people may take offense selectively.

First, say I am a political theorist who greatly admires the Federalist Papers (which I am not) and the arguments found there about the need for a Constitution that specifies the branches of a new federal government and their powers. If someone came along and said that federalism was the most wicked political notion ever known to man because it violated the divinely ordained rule of monarchs, would I not object because of my federalist convictions? In other words, would it matter to my federalist convictions that the attacker of federalism did not name John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, or James Madison explicitly? Wouldn’t I understand an attack on federalism to include those figures most identified with developing federalist thought (at least in the United States)?

Second, say I am a huge fan of the Coen Brothers’ movies (which I am) and someone comes along and tells me that the Coen brother’s are some of the least gifted and most adolescent of indie American directors who dabble merely in fashionable postmodernism, would I not feel my aesthetic toes trod upon even if this critic of the Coens did not mention their two best movies by name, “Miller’s Crossing” and “Hudsucker Proxy”? I mean, is a general put-down of the Coen brothers easier to take simply because it is general and lacks specifics? Or is the general rejection more sweeping because it lacks specifics that might provide wiggle room for hurt feelings? Continue reading “Ad Hominem or, How to Read Criticism”