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?

The Berny Option

Human flourishing Bernard of Cluny style:

Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,
Beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not, what joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.

They stand, those halls of Zion, all jubilant with song,
And bright with many an angel, and all the martyr throng;
The Prince is ever in them, the daylight is serene.
The pastures of the blessèd are decked in glorious sheen.

There is the throne of David, and there, from care released,
The shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast;
And they, who with their Leader, have conquered in the fight,
Forever and forever are clad in robes of white.

O sweet and blessèd country, the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessèd country, that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest,
Who art, with God the Father, and Spirit, ever blessed.

Brief life is here our portion, brief sorrow, short lived care;
The life that knows no ending, the tearless life, is there.
O happy retribution! Short toil, eternal rest;
For mortals and for sinners, a mansion with the blest.

That we should look, poor wanderers, to have our home on high!
That worms should seek for dwellings beyond the starry sky!
And now we fight the battle, but then shall wear the crown
Of full and everlasting, and passionless renown.

And how we watch and struggle, and now we live in hope,
And Zion in her anguish with Babylon must cope;
But he whom now we trust in shall then be seen and known,
And they that know and see Him shall have Him for their own.

For thee, O dear, dear country, mine eyes their vigils keep;
For very love, beholding, thy happy name, they weep:
The mention of thy glory is unction to the breast,
And medicine in sickness, and love, and life, and rest.

O one, O only mansion! O paradise of joy!
Where tears are ever banished, and smiles have no alloy;
The cross is all thy splendor, the Crucified thy praise,
His laud and benediction thy ransomed people raise.

Jerusalem the glorious! Glory of the elect!
O dear and future vision that eager hearts expect!
Even now by faith I see thee, even here thy walls discern;
To thee my thoughts are kindled, and strive, and pant, and yearn.
(Jerusalem the Golden, 1146)

BenOp There, Done That

Alan Jacobs explains why Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is unobjectionable:

The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.

1. The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.

2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.

3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.

From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.

Jacobs doesn’t understand why anyone would dissent. I largely agree, though I have to admit I’m not willing to give up on HBO or Phil Hendrie just yet. At the same time, I understand that certain — ahem — television shows and Phil’s humor may not be appropriate for children.

The dissent is not with the specifics of Rod’s BenOp. The dissent is with Dreher’s (and Jacob’s) sense of discovery. Some Christians for a long time have thought about American society, the necessity of alternative institutions, and the problem of passing on the faith in ways that Dreher seems only now (after Obergefell) to have recognized. The dissent also includes some frustration over people like Rod ignoring those earlier forms of opting out of the cultural mainstream. For a long time, the mainline Protestant churches, which is where I believe Rod started his Christian journey, thought the fears of fundamentalists about the wider society were delusional, based on conspiratorial thinking or worse. Only once the good taste of mainline church life needed to reckon with homosexual clergy and marriage did conservatives in mainline churches begin to entertain the sort of thoughts that fundamentalists (and some ethnic Protestants) had sixty years (or more) earlier. Even at Jacobs’ former institution (Wheaton College) and probably at his current one (Baylor), fundamentalism is/was something to be avoided. Why? It was separatist, sometimes even — trigger warning — double separatist. But now, not separating is a bad thing? Hello. The train left the station.

Will naming such cultural segregation after a saint and linking it to a moral philosopher (Alasdair MacIntyre) make fundamentalism look more attractive? Probably. But I’d like Dreher to acknowledge those saints who came in between Monte Cassino and After Virtue. They were ahead of this time even if coming after Benedict.

A Gospel for the King Penguin

This is how providence works. The same morning that I finish an article by Jonathan Franzen on his trip to Antarctica (and birding), I finish an interview that Ken Myers did with Norman Wirzba. The latter is trying to help Christians think wholistically about creation and has written a book about (in part) about the language we use. If we call the world out there “creation” instead of “nature,” will we think about it differently, more in relation to the creator? And then, what happens if we remember that Jesus is not merely savior but also creator? Doesn’t that invite thinking of Jesus as savior of creation? At one point, Wirzba even spoke of a gospel for non-human creatures.

That’s when the jaws clenched and the pace (of the constitutional) quickened. I understand the appeal of thinking about creation in broader terms so that Christians might care about the environment. Heck, I’ve read and still admire Wendell Berry and believe that I should try to live in a way that shows some respect for the created order. But that prevents me from venerating or sacralizing it, the classic way that pietists try to make something more important or permanent than it really is. If we can turn a cause into something holy or sacred or redemptive, then we must support it. If it is great instead of merely good, then not to support it is wrong, wicked, undesirable.

Here’s where Franzen came in as the conversation partner Myers and Wirzba need to have. The birds he adores, king penguins, survive by eating krill:

Krill are pinkie-size, pinkie-colored crustaceans. Estimating the total amount of them in the Antarctic is difficult, but a frequently cited figure, five hundred million metric tons, could make the species the world’s largest repository of animal biomass. Unfortunately for penguins, many countries consider krill good eating, both for humans (the taste is said to be acquirable) and especially for farm fish and livestock. Currently, the total reported annual take of krill is less than half a million tons, with Norway leading the list of harvesters. China, however, has announced its intention to increase its harvest to as much as two million tons a year, and has begun building the ships needed to do it. As the chairman of China’s National Agricultural Development Group has explained, “Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”

So what would Wirzba propose as the gospel for krill? How does Jesus or his followers “save” krill?

One way that Franzen suggests is by humans being less fertile (which poses a few problems for Christians — Roman and Protestant — who believe the chief function of marriage is reproduction):

It’s true that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children. It may also be true that nothing can stop the logic of human priority: if people want meat and there are krill for the taking, krill will be taken. It may even be true that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic: They, too, are our children. They, too, deserve our care.

And yet to imagine a world without young people is to imagine living on a Lindblad ship forever. My godmother had had a life like that, after her only child was killed. I remember the half-mad smile with which she once confided to me the dollar value of her Wedgwood china. But Fran had been nutty even before Gail died; she’d been obsessed with a biological replica of herself. Life is precarious, and you can crush it by holding on too tightly, or you can love it the way my godfather did. Walt lost his daughter, his war buddies, his wife, and my mother, but he never stopped improvising. I see him at a piano in South Florida, flashing his big smile while he banged out old show tunes and the widows at his complex danced. Even in a world of dying, new loves continue to be born.

The article makes perfect sense of the references to Franzen’s uncle here, a person who left the author enough money to splurge on a cruise to the South Pole and endure a long trip with very few young people (as the slide show on the last night of the cruise revealed).

The article also makes sense of a tragic dimension to creation that Wirzba’s inspiration neglects altogether. What if Darwin was right? What if nature is red in tooth and claw? And what if God created and sustained the world to run that way, not in a theistic evolution way, but in a way where critters survive on other critters? Even in a vegetarian world, plants die, humans cut down trees for warmth, and carnivores still eat critters. A gospel of creation does not fix that fundamental problem of survival. Granted, I’ve not read Wirzba’s books (reviews are here and here). But once again I am struck by the way people in the name of Christ blur fundamental distinctions (ecclesiastical-civil, sacred-secular, human-natural, redemption-creation) seemingly to transcend the very creatureliness they recommend.

How Does Reform Happen?

Megan Hill defends praying for big toes, and then goes a step too far:

When we pray together as the church, we should regularly and deliberately pray for the God-directed mission of the church: the advance of the kingdom, the strengthening of the body, and the exaltation of Christ.

But it is no mark of holiness to disparage the small and sometimes immature requests of those who are also in the body. As people who are being built up together into Christ who is the head, we have good reasons–kingdom reasons!–to sometimes pray together for dead birds and ill aunts and next-door neighbors who have had bad news.

It may not be a mark of holiness, but to reform a church you have to break some eggs (and wound some egos). Imagine if Luther and Calvin had thought criticizing the veneration of saints were marks of unholiness.

So why not make an argument based on Scripture or wisdom, rather than questioning the holiness of those who question the oddities of small group prayer?

When Hebrews Weren’t Funny

The post title takes inspiration from a recent documentary we saw about Greatest Generation Jewish comics and what made Jewish Americans funny. What’s not funny is the way that Joseph Pearce leaves the Israelites and the Old Testament out of his attempt to pull Christianity out of the pagan philosophical hat:

Classical paganism brought forth the golden age of philosophy in which giants, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, mused upon the meaning of the cosmos and the meaning of life within it. This pagan philosophy, once she had been impregnated with the truths revealed by the Bridegroom, brought forth a new generation of Christian philosophy, her children including such giants as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

It would be a sin of omission, however, to celebrate the golden age of pagan philosophy without also celebrating the golden age of pagan literature, which, preceding the philosophical golden age by several centuries, brought forth the genius of Homer, whose creative brilliance is unsurpassed in the whole history of human letters, with the possible and arguable exception of Dante and Shakespeare.

But if Jesus and Paul are more important to understanding Christianity than philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas, then isn’t the Jewish background to the Word incarnate (who was Jewish) and the apostles (who were also Jewish) way more important to the church and the gospel than anything Plato or Aristotle read. After all, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems not to have received the memo about the Greeks as forerunners of the gospel:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”


“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”

And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1 ESV)

By the way, all those quotes in Hebrews 1 are not from the Loeb Classical Library.

Of course, if you want a religion that is civilizational in scope, and one ready to underwrite Europe (read Christendom), then leaving out the Hebrews and writing in the Greeks and Romans makes sense. But if you take special revelation seriously, you may want to do a little more with the Hebrews than Pearce does.

Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple, then you may want to spend more time with the Hebrews than the Greeks. If you want a pagan inflected version of Christianity, that’s on you.

The Puritan Fetish

Why do Reformed Protestants think appealing to the Puritans settles it?

Why does Patrick Ramsey think John Ball’s view of justification is significant?

While denying the Roman Catholic doctrine that love is the life and soul of justifying faith, John Ball (1585-1640) strenuously affirmed that justifying faith cannot be without love. Faith and love are distinct graces which are “infused together” by the Holy Spirt at regeneration and “the exercise of faith and love be inseparably conjoined (Treatise of Faith, 45-46).” Where there is justifying faith there is love: “As light and heat in the Sun be inseparable, so is faith and love, being knit together in a sure bond by the Holy Ghost (pg. 38).

If faith and love are distinct yet inseparable, so it is sometimes argued, “then Faith alone doth not justify (pg. 56).” The presence of love at the moment of justification implies that it is along with faith a co-instrument of justification. Ball responded to this objection by appealing to a common turn of phrase regarding the role of faith in justification: faith alone justifies but the faith which justifies is not alone. Or as it stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”

And why does William Evans think the Puritans founded America (tell that to the Virginians)?

America was founded by Puritans. They viewed themselves as in covenant with God, as a new Israel. They thought that the covenant promises made to Israel applied quite literally to them. They thought that if Americans were obedient God would bless our land, just as he blessed ancient Israel. That’s why many American Christians love to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This is where American exceptionalism, our notion of America as a special, chosen nation originates from.

But if Evans is right about the amillennialism, why don’t we abandon the Puritans (who were a tad preoccupied with being a chosen people)?

The point should be clear to us now—with the coming of the Messiah, the notion of the “promised land” is christologically defined. The promise of “land” is fulfilled concretely in Christ, who rules over the world as God’s kingdom, and his people. A principle of redemptive history is that when God takes something away, he replaces it with something much, much better.

All this should be a warning to us not to identify the Promised Land with any particular nation, or particular piece of real estate. The covenant promises of God regarding land do not apply to America as a nation in covenant with God, or as some sort of new Israel. God’s plans are not going down the tube because of America’s present unfaithfulness. We know that ultimate individual and collective transformation are God’s work that will not be completed until Christ comes again, and that, while real (albeit provisional) successes are at times realized today, this eschatological horizon implies that the ministry of the church is not going to usher in the millennium.