Transformationalize This

Michael Oakeshott on culture (from Alan Jacobs):

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

And the holy urbanists actually think they are up to taking every thought captive? They may have bought that bridge in Brooklyn.

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House of Cards vs. Game of Thrones

Lots of discussion lately about watching sin in movies and television series.  The reason appears to be the new season of Game of Thrones.  That genre interests me not at all so I haven’t seen any of it, and I’ve only watched one episode of House of Cards (more of the original).  Too many episodes of West Wing and Friday Night Lights still to see. (And now there’s Hinterland.)

After watching last night with colleagues and students in the German literature department Run Lola Run, I started wondering again about viewing sin on the screen.  Kevin DeYoung and Nick Batzig argue for caution when watching movies with nudity and sex.  Even Katelyn Beaty finds her inner Nashville Statement when it comes to watching programs that include rape scenes.

But what about Lola and Manni from Run Lola Run? Here we have a guy entangled with drug dealers (likely) needing to pay them their money after having lost it on a subway.  And we have his girlfriend who robs a bank to help her man.  And we have a viewer (me) rooting them on.  Should I have worried about breaking the ninth commandment?

And is it more heinous to watch a movie that portrays violations of the seventh commandment compared to one that depicts breaking the ninth commandment?

Is the Larger Catechism of any help?

Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.

It looks like what qualifies as more aggravating than something else has a lot to do with the person offended and the time of the offense. Watching a show of a disreputable nature on the Lord’s Day might be worse than seeing it on Wednesday night (as long as your not skipping prayer meeting, of course). And if you watch something the king thinks you shouldn’t see, that carries more weight than — sorry Kevin — your PCA pastor.

But what about point three — the nature of the offense? There it sure looks like stealing from a bank to pay your re-election campaign staff is more heinous than simply stealing from a bank. But maybe I’m wrong. I also see nothing from the catechism to suggest that sexual sins are more heinous than fiscal or false words.

If that’s true, it looks like a lot of people obsess about what is simply looking at entertainment serious art. Whatever might these people make of Michelangelo’s David? A fig leaf, please!!

Malcolm X with a Joni Eareckson Tada Finish

The incident in Charlottesville gave Jemar Tisby another chance in the op-ed section of the Washington Post. No one could disagree with Mr. Tisby’s estimate that this protest was an instance of white supremacy or that it is ugly and a threat to public order and the rule of law.

But I do wonder if Mr. Tisby lost his nerve when speaking to a national audience. For instance, in an earlier post last spring about another incident in Charlottesville, he wrote this at his own blog:

As much as city leaders sought to gain support for removing Confederate monuments and symbols, they never had complete consensus. Officials in New Orleans kept the date and time of the monument removals secret for fear of reprisals from their opponents. The Confederate flag came down in South Carolina in the middle of vocal defiance of the decision. Yet come down they did.

In the church as in the world, the time is always right to do right. Racism is sin. Leaders should not take a gradual approach to killing racism just like they should not take a gradual approach to killing any other sin. Nor should they think it necessary to build a consensus to combat this sin. True leadership initiates righteous changes even when they are unpopular with those being led.

That is the kind of radicalism that Charles Finney took to Oberlin College. If it’s sin, you break with it immediately. Any delay is even more sin. It is even in the ballpark of the sort of radicalism that Malcolm X promoted. If you have a system that is so brutally and obviously bad, you need to blow it up or leave it. That was part of X’s appeal — he advocated black nationalism and black separatism, and given the nature of Jim Crow and police brutality, you could understand why.

But at the Post, Mr. Tisby backed away from that sort of radicalism and admitted that we will always have racists with us:

Let’s also be clear that we can’t really end white supremacy. In the Christian view, racism is a sin, and sin cannot be completely eradicated on this side of eternity. But we are called to fight against sin in all its forms, so we should expect positive change in our churches and society at large as we fight against it.

So how do we fight white supremacy without taking Malcolm X’s path? Cue Joni Eareckson Tada:

1. Admit the American church was built on white supremacy.
From the Colonial era to the present day, white churches have helped build a society that privileges whiteness and denigrates blackness. In light of the white church’s involvement in creating and maintaining white supremacy, white pastors can presume that their churches are already part of the problem, intentionally or not.

2. Confess and repent of past sins.
Many congregations were formed in a fit of “white flight” from cities. Many Christian schools, particularly in the South, were explicitly created to preserve racial segregation in an era of court-ordered desegregation. Christians and church leaders must ask themselves how much they have acknowledged their own history. Have they gone through their church records and rulings to tell the full story of how their church, community, or denomination has cooperated with white supremacy? A failure to face white supremacy in the past will lead to a failure to confront it in the present.

3. Commit to responding to white supremacy with the vigor that the problem requires.
When we examine the history of race and the American church, the story is often worse than we expect. The church hasn’t simply gone along with white supremacy — it has assembled and established it. If white Christians have historically been so intentional about building up barriers between the races, then they will have to be just as intentional to bring them down.

4.Listen to black people.
We’ve been saying all along that a Charlottesville could easily happen. For years, the alt-right and white nationalists have employed the Bible to justify their racism, in public online. But many white Christians have never heard of the alt-right, much less been equipped to filter their messages biblically. We kept trying to tell them that this obsession with the Confederacy and its cultural artifacts sabotaged efforts at racial unity.

In addition to the fourth point, which is an implicit pitch for Mr. Tisby’s podcast, this is advice right out of a w-w play book — take every thought captive. It’s all about thinking and making personal resolutions.

But imagine telling that to Germans living in the 1930s under the tyranny of National Socialism. When evil is so institutionalized and so oppressive, as Mr. Tisby has long argued, do you simply commit to do things differently? Or do you actually think that Malcolm X had a point? You overturn the system or get out and form a separate nation? Mr. Tisby’s recommendations strike me as the equivalent of what I hear about climate change. What do I do? I feel badly and commit to do better, even when the entire food distribution system and development of town life in the U.S. is predicated on the use of fossil fuel.

In other words, Mr. Tisby’s recommendations are sort of like saying don’t trust the system but don’t forget to work with the system. Glenn Greenwald spotted the flaw in this logic when he went after those who complained about the ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville’s white supremacists’ rights to assembly and free speech:

. . . the contradiction embedded in this anti-free-speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU here, it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.

Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?

Greenwald’s question is one I’d like to hear Mr. Tisby answer. If the United States was founded by racists, prolonged its racism through slavery and Jim Crow, and now continues that racism in policies of mass incarceration executed by Republicans — and there is validity to this understanding of U.S. history, I’m not saying it’s wrong — then why continue the United States? Why obey the laws of the U.S.? Why submit to police? Why not instead rebel and bring down such an oppressive regime?

Is it because the next regime will also be a sinful one that has its own oppressive bugs (not features)? In which case, is the argument that sin is structural really self-defeating? It certainly gets attention and inspires outrage. It also gives you a platform that will never go away because you’ll always have a system to oppose. But at a certain point, the protest looks like only pious advice unless it counters the unjust structure not with a commitment to do better but an alternative structure.

Keller and Princeton – Another Perspective

Protoprotestant is a fellow who — I think — once commented here and had some brush with the NAPARC world. He blogs at The Pilgrim Underground and The Pilgrim Path/Proto-Protestantism. I’m not sure I can locate his outlook, but he is usually worth reading. Certainly not predictable.

Recently he commented on the dance performance at Redeemer NYC in ways agreeable to many confessional Presbyterians. But before going there, ProtoProtestant’s memories of and reflections on Princeton Seminary are useful for situating his Presbyterian convictions. After a recent visit to Princeton he reflected on his own spiritual pilgrimage over a twenty-year period after his first visit to the seminary town:

Standing in front of Charles Hodge’s house I couldn’t help but think of his approach to Systematic Theology and his struggles to combat Darwinism. While the latter was indeed admirable and right, his unwitting embrace of Enlightenment categories had all but fettered his own hands. I see him as a tragic figure, trying to hold something together and yet incapable, not even fully understanding what is happening.

When I think of his son AA Hodge I cannot help but recall the rationalist nature of his theology and the great lack of wisdom and insight with regard to society and Christianity. An advocate of what I would identify as imperialist missionary work and the kind of Sacralist doctrine at odds with the New Testament, AA Hodge is a breath of fresh air to Dominionists and the Theonomists who still haunt the halls of American Presbyterianism. At one time his name was hallowed to me. Today, even though a volume or two of his writings remain on my shelf, he is not one that I would esteem.

Of course BB Warfield was the ‘Lion of Princeton’, the great defender of Calvinistic Orthodoxy in the late 19th and early 20th century. An author of many fine works Warfield was nevertheless inept when it came to defending Scripture in the face of Modernism. This statement will astonish many for they view him as ‘the great defender’ of Scripture in the face of Modernism. But they say this failing to understand his capitulation and compromise. Unwittingly, Warfield laid the groundwork for today’s Evangelical laxity with regard to Scripture and the collapse of Biblical authority.

. . . Princeton, so hampered by faulty philosophically dependent Evidentialist Apologetics proved weak and began to collapse in the face of Higher Criticism and the Scientific Revolution. Warfield was himself weak on the question of evolution.

Though not buried there I could not help but think of J Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary and the figure most associated with the genesis of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). I was once a member of that denomination and would certainly never have anything to do with it again. That said, I cannot but to a certain extent admire Machen and (to a degree) those that went with him. His work on Christianity and Liberalism still holds a place of honour on the shelf. Though authored almost a century ago, the fundamental issues have not changed in the least. It is still a relevant and worthwhile book.

Some merit here, but clearly not an Old Life perspective.

So consider how Tim Keller looks to Protestants like this fellow:

So much for the Regulative Principle….so much for the Sufficiency of Scripture…. these doctrines aren’t even on the horizon for most ‘Reformed’ people anymore. They pay lip service to them but in actuality reject them. Keller, the PCA’s celebrity pastor has led the charge. A Dominionist cut from modern cloth, he’s a man very much at home with the world. When you believe that heaven will look something like Manhattan (investment bankers and all)… then the filth of Broadway, the Theatre District and Lincoln Centre will also be part of it.

In fact Keller’s Church, ‘Redeemer’ PCA is apropos. He believes that all of culture can be redeemed. To put it differently, all of culture can be sanctified and made holy. You must understand this if you wish to grasp why men in tights are dancing around during a worship service. Ballet is being made holy… this is (to Keller) a foretaste of heaven.

Of course this is in addition to the jazz or reggae services they host. It’s a big package. In reality it’s the same worldly gospel of the Prosperity folks but less tacky. It’s for the refined and sophisticated people of the Upper West Side.

Keller is a big deal in Reformed circles and he’s done rather well for himself. I abandoned the Reformed label years ago but even then I realised, if Keller, Piper, Mohler et al. are the Reformed ‘stalwarts’ of the 21st century then the 20th century Calvinist revival will be short lived indeed.

Old Lifers and Old School Presbyterians are not the only ones who see.

The optics!

Presbyterians Who Don’t Want to Be

David Robertson gives away his tell when he responds to criticism for dedicating children. He thinks that critics strain at gnats while swallowing camels — the camel being a market model of ministry:

At the risk of overgeneralization it seems to me that there is a Scottish/UK version of Presbyterianism that seeks (but does not often practice) visible church unity and does not accept the ‘market place’ mentality that Paul mentions. On the other hand in the US, the land of 1,000 denominations, there is a much greater market place mentality with the pros (greater initiatives, freedom etc.) and cons (disunity, less church discipline etc.). It seems sad to me that even as the number of Christians in the US declines, the number of Presbyterian denominations will probably increase – all owning allegiance to a Confession of Faith which was set up to prevent that happening!

In England there are hardly any Presbyterians and yet we have at least two denominations committed to the WCF. In Scotland the situation is embarrassingly worse. I feel bad that the Free Church has to exist. Because of the apostasy of the Church of Scotland, I think we do have to, but I would much prefer that we didn’t. At one point I was even part of a delegation from the Free Church that met with the C of S and looked at whether and how we could reunite. But it is even more shameful to me that after a lifetime devoted to evangelism in a declining church in a decaying culture, instead of the churches which adhere to the WCF uniting together we have further divided. In my time in ministry in Scotland we have even seen four new Presbyterian denominations, all adhering to the WCF, come into being. The Associated Presbyterians, the Free Church Continuing, International Presbyterian Church and Covenant Fellowship. We talk about church unity but actions speak louder than words. My hope and prayer is that one day the Free Church will cease to exist (that will certainly come true in heaven!). I would be even more radical than that – I would prefer to work in organizational unity with Baptists and others – not just networking but pooling resources and genuinely being the one Church of Jesus Christ.

Notice that he wishes the Free Church did not exist and that he would prefer to minister with Baptists. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Scotland, I suppose, like the United States is a free country (Free Church in a Free Country). But I’m not sure how confessional or Presbyterian that attitude is. It does explain Robertson’s attachment to Tim Keller. It also suggests a certain kind of naivete. Does Robertson really think that TKNY is not part of a market model, or that Keller has not become a brand? Either way, why be a Presbyterian when you could just as easily minister with Baptists?

Robertson may also explain why Keller appeals to pastors in small, out of the way, denominations (perhaps unintentionally):

When evangelicals in the Church of Scotland decided that enough was enough and began to leave – they of course looked for a Confessional Presbyterian Church that was faithful to the Bible. For doctrinal and practical reasons most could not join the Reformed Presbyterians, the APC, the Free Church Continuing or the Free Presbyterians – amongst other reasons they were exclusive psalmody. That basically left the Free Church. Now there may be theological reasons why some ex C of S ministers and congregations could not join the Free Church (e.g. those who had women elders and wanted to retain them), but what of those who subscribe to the WCF, are complementarian and Presbyterian? Many have joined but an equal number haven’t – why? Some of it may be the Free Churches own fault – not being welcoming enough etc., but is that the real or adequate reason?

I think that it is the religious market place that Paul so rightly complains about which kicks in here. The reasons are not doctrinal and theological but social, personal and historical. Some had an aversion to the Free Church because of past experience (love remembers no wrongs?), image or misunderstandings about our positions. I have heard others though express things in terms of what I could only call social and class snobbery. We are perceived as not sophisticated enough, too Highland, too working class. I recall a C of S man having what I can only describe as a ‘coming out’ dinner in his home – where he invited his middle class friends to a dinner at which he introduced myself and a couple of others from the church and then announced he was attending the Free Church. It was as though he had announced he was gay! In fact he probably would have got a more favourable response! That attitude may be extreme but in a more modified form it is still there. Is not wanting to be called ‘Wee Free’ a sufficient reason for setting up yet another denomination?

This part of Robertson’s post was intriguing if only because in the United States, conservatives in the PCA seem to have a similar aversion to the OPC — not sophisticated, too tacky, ugly buildings on the wrong side of the beltway. But instead of identifying with communions of like faith, practice, and awkwardness, Robertson instead regards Keller as the right kind of American Presbyterian.

This may make sense since with all of the writing for newspapers and speaking in public that Robertson does, he may regard himself as a kind of public intellectual after the fashion of Keller. He is certainly akin to Keller in the way in which denominational attachments rest lightly on his ministerial shoulders:

The parish and pastoral approach is one that I prefer. We are not engaging in the religious market place (ironically those who take the purist/polemical approach are much more likely to do that), but we are seeking to reach out to every one in the community where we are based. (I realize of course that most of us would claim that is what we are doing and I should also point out that I think that is what Paul’s church is doing in Ealing – I’m talking about the wider issue here – not having a subtle dig – I don’t do subtle!). This means that our primary identity is not that we are a Free Church, or a Reformed church, or the church with the best preaching in Dundee, or David Robertson’s church or any other claim we might foolishly want to make. We are a church of Jesus Christ.

This is the way of pietists, to claim the high ground and act as if denominational particularities are inconsequential in comparison to vision, mission, or devotion. What happens, though, when Robertson or Keller need to explain why another church, say the Church of Scotland or the PCUSA or the Methodists are not quite up to the status of “the church of Jesus Christ”? At that point, don’t arguments about purity and polemics and doctrine kick in?

And what happens when Robertson or Keller receive funds from Presbyterian sources that were given precisely to uphold Free Church and Reformed convictions? Don’t you have to explain the way you are going to use the funds? You will use them for generic Christian purposes, not for Presbyterian ones only?

That is the sort of equivocation that captured the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. before the Free Church and the PCA formed separate communions. Such a separate status is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s why we have evangelicals. But evangelicals presenting as Presbyterian? That’s why we have The Gospel Coalition.

Why Do Celebrity Pastors Stumble Over “Thus Saith the Lord”?

I am not sure why Eugene Peterson’s flip-flop on gay marriage is such a big deal. But (all about mmmmmeeeeEEE) I’m not in the habit of taking my cues any more from popular Christian authors or personalities. That could be age, temperament (naysayer), or wisdom — and in the right combination separating those traits may be redundant. But I continue to be surprised by what catches on among evangelicals who fret (even if I don’t want to come across as being above it all).

While following some of the reactions, I came across responses from Tim Keller, John Stott, and Sam Allberry. Since Stott is deceased, I should have known that these would not be direct reactions to Peterson. What caught my eye was the link to a review by Keller — can you believe it? There on display is the same affliction that got Peterson into trouble in the first place — namely, failing to minister God’s word and telling us instead about thoughts and reflections based on a lot of stuff you’ve read.

What is especially noteworthy about Keller’s handling of such a controversial subject as homosexuality if he is going to maintain his New York City profile is his ability to quote authors (other than the prophets and apostles).

First some of the debate about homosexuality in church history and antiquity:

These arguments were first asserted in the 1980s by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs. Vines, Wilson and others are essentially repopularizing them. However, they do not seem to be aware that the great preponderance of the best historical scholarship since the 1980s — by the full spectrum of secular, liberal and conservative researchers — has rejected that assertion. Here are two examples.

Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity. Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.

For comparisons of homosexuality to slavery Keller can take you to more scholarly literature:

But historians such as Mark Noll (America’s God, 2005 and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 2006) have shown the 19th century position some people took that the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus. Most Protestants in Canada and Britain (and many in the northern U.S. states) condemned it as being wholly against the Scripture. Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God, 2003) points out that the Catholic church also came out early against the African slave trade. David L. Chappell in his history of the Civil Rights Movement (A Stone of Hope, 2003) went further. He proves that even before the Supreme Court decisions of the mid-50s, almost no one was promoting the slender and forced biblical justifications for racial superiority and segregation. Even otherwise racist theologians and ministers could not find a basis for white supremacy in the Bible.

He even uses awareness of 19th century debates about slavery to take a swipe at Southern Presbyterians:

During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the Scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila — they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible — across diverse cultures and times — ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it is hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.

What are those cultural spectacles? The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe “you have to be yourself,” that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.

As if the Bible supported abolitionists or anti-slavery arguments were immune to “modern western culture’s narratives about the human life.” Sometimes Keller wades into scholarly material superficially so that it agrees with him, but I digress. (Funny how when I bring the Bible into the history seminar it doesn’t gain me any credibility.)

Then you have Keller appealing to more academics to critique these modern “narratives”:

These narratives have been well analyzed by scholars such as Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. They are beliefs about the nature of reality that are not self-evident to most societies and they carry no more empirical proof than any other religious beliefs. They are also filled with inconsistencies and problems. Both Vines and Wilson largely assume these cultural narratives. It is these faith assumptions about identity and freedom that make the straightforward reading of the biblical texts seem so wrong to them. They are the underlying reason for their views, but they are never identified or discussed.

Maybe this is impressive to David Brooks and other columnists and reporters at the Times, but wasn’t Keller called to minister God’s word? Where is Moses, Jesus, or Paul? Nothing wrong inherently with being aware of some of the scholarly and public intellectual literature. But can’t you give us a “thus saith the Lord” pastor Tim?

When he finally gets around to the Bible, Keller accentuates the positive (the way Mr. Rogers did):

The saddest thing for me as a reader was how, in books on the Bible and sex, Vines and Wilson concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality. Both authors rightly say that the Bible calls for mutual loving relationships in marriage, but it points to far more than that.

In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes which generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N.T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.

That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories — they each see and do things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together.

Gee golly williker. Marriage is just one stroll down the trail of delight (or maybe through Homer Simpson’s Land of Chocolate). Where is the grit of NYC? Where is the complicated character of life in the modern world where we have to make tough choices, or recognize the good and less attractive in all people we meet, and the institutions in which moderns operate? Where is the edge that attracts at least some people like Brother Mouzone or Woody Allen to the Big Apple? The view from Keller’s study is awfully pleasant (and crowded with books other than the Bible).

Meanwhile, Russell Moore made a decent point about Peterson when he compared the evangelical celebrity to Wendell Berry’s own flip-flop on gay marriage:

And now Peterson says he’s willing to walk away from what the Scriptures and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching affirm on the conjugal nature of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman reflecting the mystery of Christ and the church. I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books. I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me. Should I stop reading him, since he has shown a completely contrary view on an important issue of biblical interpretation—and, beyond that, of the very definition of what it means to repent of sin?

This is the same sort of conversation had a few years ago among those of us who’ve been taught much by novelist and poet Wendell Berry when he, too, embraced the zeitgeist on marriage and sexuality. Some said we should throw out our Berry books and never read him again. Others, I’m sure, seeing how much they’d benefited from Berry on place and memory, probably decided to follow him right into this viewpoint. Maybe the same will happen with Peterson now.

True enough, but when Moore says we should not throw Peterson’s books away (who am I to adopt such a move since H. L. Mencken sets on my shelf of worthies right next to Machen — alphabetically anyway), I wonder why Mr. Southern Baptist doesn’t distinguish Peterson as a would-be pastor and theologian from Berry who simply is a writer and farmer. Berry makes no pretension to issue “thus saith the Lord’s” based on his reading of Scripture. Peterson, however, operates in the world of Scripture and theology (and all you usually get — my impression — is “the Lord would be really happy if you might ever consider this and you may also flourish forever and ever”).

If You Can Take Passion Out of Sex

Why do you want to keep it in worship?

Garrett Kell explains that sex is not supposed to be all zowie and pizzazz:

God created sex to be a bond between a husband and wife that strengthens over time. Married couples make love on their honeymoon and after a miscarriage. They make love to conceive children and after they bury them. They make love when bodies are healthy and during battles against cancer. As a husband and wife pursue each other through intimate service, sacrifice, and struggle, God blesses them in a way the world can never know. . . .

That doesn’t mean sex is always enjoyable or easy for married couples. Because marriage is the union of an ever-changing and ever-growing pair of fallen people, we can expect that sexual intimacy to have both sweet and sour days and seasons. That is part of God’s wise design.

He has called a man and a woman to be committed to each other and to make love with each other during every season of life. Lovemaking on a honeymoon may be wonderful or awful. Intimate times are shared when buying a new house or burying a parent. It is pursued when God gives conception, and when he withholds it.

So if sex and passion can be ordinary and even sour, why have New Calvinists insisted that worship much be intense, earnest, deeply heart-felt if it is genuine? If married couples have seasons of less and more vibrant sex, Christians may also experience worship that is true and genuine even if all the religious affections aren’t bubbling.

Or maybe it was a mistake in the first place to introduce the language of passion and hedonism into the realm of piety. The Bible invariably uses agrarian imagery to explain the Christian life. Farms and gardens do not produce the intensity or sound of fireworks. Sure, Spring flowers pop (and they last a lot longer than even the best fireworks display). But even the flowers fade. That’s why we need less passion and more routine in worship.

What married couples do in the boudoir is on them (sheesh).

Only Professionals Have Licenses to Conduct Historical Science

Michael Haykin seems to deny the doctrine of vocation when he argues that every believer needs to be a good historian:

history is obviously important to God, since it is the realm where God ultimately brings about the salvation of his people by entering into the very fabric of time and taking on our humanity, sin excepted, in the person of Jesus Christ. This divine activity in the realm of history should not be restricted to the Bible. Though it is impossible to trace out his footsteps across the sands of time in detail, it is blasphemous to deny that God is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his Name and the good of his people. As such, to quote the seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Baxter, “The writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word.” Reading Church history should lead therefore to the praise of God and his adoration.

This is a tad sloppy and betrays that evangelical earnestness so often eager to find in every-square-inch Neo-Calvinism that magic wand to integrate everything. Everyone, thanks to the Holy Spirit, can now see historical significance, perform algebra equations, and tie boating knots. Well, not really. All good believers, even the most gullible, won’t come to my door in hopes of finding a cure for that nagging pain in the sciatica. Maybe to be a good historian it helps to go to graduate school and obtain a license.

But, when Haykin writes this:

Without the past our lives have little or no meaning. When a community forgets its past, it is like a person suffering from dementia: they really cannot function in the world. So we must study history, and as Christians, this means Church history.

He has a point.

Imagine the pain Tim Keller might have avoided if he had known better the struggles between Machen and Old Princeton, between Old School and New School Presbyterians, or between New York and Philadelphia presbyteries. For that matter, why doesn’t the Gospel Industrial Complex have a better memory of Carl Henry, Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Fuller Seminary?

Selective skepticism? Heck, selective memory.

My Podcast Ministry

Just when you thought you heard enough from mmmmeeeeEEEEE, along comes another interview. Adam Holland of The Daily Brew was kind enough to invite me to chat about The Lost Soul of American Protestantism under the heading of pietism and revivalism. I think I showed restraint.

The main reason for engaging in such self-promotion is that I did tell Adam I would mention the podcast here at Old Life. Not to worry, I won’t be heading down the trail of weekly lists of the ten most popular posts.

Enough.

Empathy Matters (but maybe not the way you think)

While recent discussions of police brutality have brought attention to the so-called racial empathy gap, other research suggests that empathy can create as much harm as good. First, racial empathy gap:

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.

On the other hand:

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at Yale, has written a thoughtful criticism of the widespread assumption that we can improve the world by increasing our empathy. In his farewell address, for example, President Barack Obama said that empathy for those who are different is an essential pillar of democracy. Political polarization could be reduced if Republicans and Democrats had more empathy for one another. Teachers, psychologists, and politicians suggest that lack of empathy lies behind complacency toward Native Americans, judgmentalism toward opioid addicts, and hostility toward immigrants. If we felt the pain of the afflicted, it is often assumed, we would want to take proactive steps to help them.

Bloom doubts it. He rejects the assumption that empathy is either a strong motivator of moral goodness or a proper guide to moral decision making. One can identify emotionally with the suffering of others but not do anything about it; conversely, one can offer effective assistance to another person without echoing his or her internal states.

Bloom goes even further in arguing that empathy is actually responsible for more harm than good. A wide array of studies in social psychology and neuroscience show that empathy is highly context sensitive, shortsighted, mood dependent, narrowly focused, biased, and parochial.

Turns out that moral reflection (not moral outrage) may be better than empathy:

The good Samaritan was moved by the victim’s sorry state, but there is no reason to think he felt anything like what the victim would have felt lying on the side of the road. What was important was the Samaritan’s good will and good judgment about how to help the poor man. More generally, the point is that we do not have to feel any particular way in order to do what is right in any given situation. What is essential, as Thomas Aquinas put it, is a “constant and firm will to give each his or her due.”

Once again, the value of emotions, experience, and authenticity may be way less important than pietists (among others) think.