Hypocrites All

Has anyone wondered what Bible #woke Christians read?

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Phil 2)

It gets worse if you think that suffering is actually part and parcel of flourishing for Christians.

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Have The Weak and Strong Turned into the Righteous and the Wicked?

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Lots of imperatives there, but substituting orthodoxy on race for conformity on political affiliation is hardly in keeping with what Paul commanded in Romans 14:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;

Maybe the way around this call to forbearance (even tolerance) is to say that Donald Trump is simply evil. If so, then it would be doubly odd to condemn a chief sinner when Jesus hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other deplorables. Since when does following Jesus mean imitating what he will do when he returns on Judgment Day?

One point to remember about the weak and the strong is that it allows for Christians to feel superior. Some are strong, others weak. Not sure how you turn that into some form of egalitarianism. The strong can handle more than the weak, and so have a better grasp of the gospel than those who form certain kinds of legalism.

So if the supremacy of the strong is a biblical idea, what is so bad with talking about some groups being better than others? Is it really so bad (when so many do it) to believe in the supremacy of the educated? American society in most middling to upper institutions runs on the premise that someone who is educated beyond high school will be a better employee, student, leader, manager than someone with less education. That is not hatred (though it can turn into it) of the uneducated. It is a recognition (perhaps debatable) that education is generally a good preparation for lots of human activities.

The point of the weak and the strong in Paul’s epistle seems to be to recognize difference but not let that be the basis for exclusion or cliques in the church.

I understand that people who moved in religious right circles did not handle their (self-understood) superiority very well. But I don’t think the social justice Protestants are setting a great example. If Paul can say “chill” about activities that some Christians deemed sinful, when did the new set of apostles arrive to declare that Paul’s instructions have hit their expiration date?

How to Bring Harmony between Woke Christians and Christian Nationalists

Find passages from Scripture that neither can preach while maintaining their social media postures.

Here are some examples:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Pet 2)

Even if Peter were not aware of intersectionality, he seems to allow that businesses, schools, governments, attitudes, even economic status function as restraints on our freedom. Either way, we’re supposed to submit and not rebel. That might also apply to Parliament and the British monarchy way back in 1776.

Paul at times set the bar higher than Peter:

9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12)

One lesson from that challenge is don’t kvetch! Don’t complain about taxes or the king. And don’t anathematize groups of people that you think have privilege or are bigoted.

In fact, how could you ever square such passages with a declaration of war against an existing government or with Twitter outrage that castigates entire classes of people based on the news cycle? In other words, how do American believers become so comfortable with an American exceptionalism that either idolizes or vilifies the United States and its government?

Selah

Bill Clinton: In Red, White, and Especially Blue

This is how objections to presidential immorality sounded twenty-one years ago (from the October 1998 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

Of the several disadvantages of growing up in a fundamentalist home, one was the ability of my father to detect off-color humor a mile away. (Sure, the promoters of family values would see this as a virtue. But, then again, they are the ones responsible for the Family Channel where firm parental guidance is little different from parental naivete.) I can remember those rare nights when for some reason my brother had been sufficiently well-behaved to merit staying up late – it also needs to be added that it was Friday night. And then around 11:30 we would gain access into the sophisticated adult world of “The Tonight Show” and hear the urbane (to us) humor of Johnny Carson. We would listen to Fred McMahon announce the evening’s guests and cherish the prospects of seeing Buddy Rich or Don Rickles.

BUT WE KNEW ONE OBSTACLE lay in the way of our making it past midnight. It was Carson’s monologue. If Johnny went blue – the showbiz vernacular for telling dirty jokes – then we knew dad would get up from his recliner and turn the TV off, thus forcing an abrupt end to the quality time around the tube. Sometimes Carson’s allusions to parts of the female anatomy would be tame enough to keep our father in his seat – he no doubt enjoyed Carson and wanted to see the same guests that we did. (By the way, it helped if dad fell asleep. But there would be hell to pay if he woke up to a dirty joke. And could you be really sure that he was asleep?) But in those cases where the jokes were only a shade blue, the pressure I felt was even greater than if Carson had gone ahead and told a crude one-liner. I couldn’t stand not knowing when my father would turn off the TV. And so, in some cases I would be the one to make the first move. It wasn’t because I objected to the humor, nor was it even a case of trying to protect my innocent dad from the dirty jokes that I had come to hear at school (often repeated from “The Tonight Show”). Instead, it was simply a desire to end my misery. I could not bear hearing off color jokes in my dad’s presence. If I laughed I would certainly disappoint if not anger him. If I didn’t then why bother watching?

MEMORIES OF MY YOUTHFUL late night discomfort have come back to me over the past eight months, first as a trickle, and now as a virtual geyser, as the sordid and tawdry details of our President and his intern have absorbed the nation and its media. Through it all I know that my aging fundamentalist parents sit glued to the TV, not because they are so interested in Bill Clinton’s sex life (though as registered Republicans these incidents have no doubt confirmed their prejudices). Rather, it is their habit to watch at least ninety minutes of news each night, first the local variety at 6:00, then the national edition at 6:30 – I think they still watch Peter Jennings, who has had his own intern problems, because their local news of choice comes from the ABC affiliate and they don’t have remote control. Then, they finish off the day with a dose of local news at 11:00, complete with that evening’s murders, fires, and woes of the Major League Baseball’s closest franchise.

THROUGH IT ALL, MY DEAR, devout conservative independent Baptist parents have had to hear about parts of the human body and sexual positions that had Johnny Carson ever mentioned my dad would have likely not only turned off the TV, but put it out by the curb for the next trash pick-up. I feel this obligation to go home at certain times of the evening so I can be there to turn off my parents’ TV. Many people have talked about how parents are going to explain the President’s actions to their children. But what about former fundamentalists like me? Who is going to explain it to our parents? I want to protect my parents from the evening news which is now pornographic. They don’t need to know about oral sex or stained cocktail dresses. Their lives, innocent though they may have been, would have been complete without such carnal knowledge. And this is the source of my complaint against our President. His sexual life is his business, though I can see its repercussions for the body politic and his ability to govern. But do my parents have to know? Couldn’t he have thought about all those fundamentalists out there who had never dreamed that sexual desire could take such bodily form?

Now, part of the problem may be mine. I could be suffering from the same naivete that Hamlet exhibited when he denied that his mother was a sexual creature. In other words, I may think my parents so sexually innocent that I can’t conceive of their sexual intimacy, let alone the fact that they did produce two sons. They both grew up on farms and probably know a lot more about sex than I can ever fathom. Still, if they felt the obligation to protect me from Johnny going blue, I feel a similar responsibility to protect them from Bill Clinton, who should be turning red.

Townsend Levitt

Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.

What Transformed Churches Used to Look Like

Over at Front Porch Republic I posted some reflections on the urge for contemporary Christians to hope for and try to implement “radical” Christianity. It strikes me that such radicalism is at the heart of #woke Christians’ deep and abiding resentment of the fall’s effects on human institutions, not to mention its influence on humans.

Roger Olson is also surprised by the turn that some evangelicals are taking in their awakened state. And he also remembers what used to characterize a transformed Christian culture. Hint, it was not radical:

“The Christianity of my youth is gone; I don’t find it anywhere.” I have thought that to myself but been afraid to say it to anyone. I had to agree with him. We both grew up in and began our ministries within the “heart” of American conservative Protestant, evangelical Christianity. We both have taught at several Christian institutions of higher education and we both have traveled much—speaking to Christian audiences both inside and outside of churches. We have both written books published by evangelical Christian publishers. We both have our finger on the “pulse” of contemporary American evangelical Protestant Christianity and we both grew up in and began our ministries in what that used to be. We are both dismayed at how it has changed.

We were not talking about “drums on the platform used during worship.” We were not talking about styles of dress or hair or anything like that. We were talking about substance.

We both know what evangelical Protestant Christianity was like in terms of substance in the middle of the twentieth century—in America. We both know what it is like now. And to us, at least, the change of substance is so radical that we have trouble recognizing contemporary evangelical Protestant Christianity in America as in continuity with the religious form of life we both grew up in and began our ministries in.

Let me explain….

It’s actually difficult to know where to begin! Almost everything has changed substantially. But what I mean by “substantially” will only be revealed by my examples.

First, church was extended family; people knew each other and were involved in each other’s lives. There was no notion of “personal privacy” if you were a member of the church—except in the bathroom and (normally) bedroom. When the church was large, the Sunday School class was your extended family. If you were a member or regular attended and missed two Sundays in a row without explanation you could expect a visit from a pastor or Sunday School teacher. I could go on, but that should give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

Second, and following from “first,” home visitation was a big part of a pastor’s job. If the church was large this might be delegated to Sunday School teachers or others (e.g., elders or deacons). Also, hospital visitation was expected of pastors—even if they could not get to everyone every week (due to the size of the church and the city).

Third, evangelism and missions were central to church life. People had missionaries’ pictures at home and prayed for them as well as supported them financially. Many churches had “missionary barrels” where people put non-perishable items to send “overseas” for the missionaries. When the missionaries came “home on furlough” they traveled around speaking in churches and were expected to talk about conversions and church planting and building. “Transformative initiatives” were not enough; “winning lost souls to Jesus” was the common language and it was expected.

Following as part of “third” is that all evangelical churches had programs for training members to witness and evangelize. Everyone was expected to witness to their neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, etc.

Fourth, the worship space was treated as a place for reverence and respect. It was not “the auditorium” but “the sanctuary” and drinking beverages and eating food was absolutely forbidden. Every church had “ushers” part of whose job it was to speak to people who were not showing proper reverence and respect for the worship space—not so much because it was considered especially “holy” or “sacred” but because munching food and gulping beverages was distracting to others and just not proper during worship.

Fifth, most of the work of the church was performed by volunteer lay people instead of paid staff people. It was expected that every member would volunteer part of his or her time to do something for the church. Anyone who didn’t was considered a backslidden person in need of correction or even excommunication. There were excommunicated people who attended regularly, but they were not allowed to hold any positions of leadership and were the subjects of much prayer and visitation.

Sixth, Sunday was set aside as a time to be in church—morning and evening—and afternoons were devoted to rest, reading, visiting “folks” in their homes, etc. Normally, television was turned off on Sunday (unless possibly for religious programming in the morning while the family got ready for church or in the afternoon after the usually abundant Sunday noon dinner). People who did not spend most of Sunday at church were considered unspiritual and not given any kind of leadership in the church. (Of course exceptions were made for people who were for whatever reason not able to spend most of the day in church.)

Seventh, if a person attended church often (e.g.,with a “loved one”) but did not show any sign of interest in growing spiritually, he or she would be talked to and eventually asked to stop attending—if he or she was living a “sinful life.” That’s because children and youth would possibly assume that the person’s sinful lifestyle was acceptable.

Eighth, every evangelical church had occasional revivals—“protracted meetings” where people came every night of the week to hear music and preaching that was not “ordinary.” The focus was on both evangelism (“Bring your friends!”) and re-dedication or new consecration to the Lord. “Deeper life” or “higher life” was a major focus of evangelical churches with retreats, seminars, workshops, etc., that people were expected to attend.

Ninth, churches that “shut down” programs for the summer or for holidays were considered unspiritual. Summer, for example, was one of the most active times for evangelical churches with Vacation Bible Schools, “Backyard childrens’ clubs,” “Camps” and “Mission Trips”—usually to visit missionaries “on the field” in the countries where they were working for the Lord. Of course, only some people could go on these, but when the people who did go returned everyone was expected to come and listen to their stories about the missionaries and the people they were evangelizing and view their slides.

Tenth, every evangelical church had at least “Wednesday Bible Study” that usually met in the evening for at least an hour and any church member who did not attend was considered less than fully committed.

Eleventh, when evangelical Christians gathered for social fellowship with each other, whether in homes or at restaurants, wherever, they talked about “What Jesus is doing,” what they were learning from the Bible, reading Christian literature, their favorite radio preacher, or something spiritual and not only sports or politics or the weather. If they gathered in a home on Sunday afternoon, for example, they watched Billy Graham or Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard or some other evangelical Christian program (not football). Of course there were exceptions, but these fellowship gatherings of evangelical believers in homes were common and much of the “talk” was about religion, faith, God’s work in people’s lives, etc.

Twelfth, evangelical Christians had fairly high standards about entertainment. Many did not attend movies in movie theaters. If they did, they were highly selective about what ones they would attend (and let their children attend). Along with that, modesty in dress was expected—of both males and females. Most evangelical churches did not permit “mixed bathing” (boys and girls swimming together at camps or “lock ins” at the YMCA or YWCA). Young people were encouraged to listen only to Christian music on the local Christian radio station. Often they were given notes to take to school saying that they were not permitted to dance. Alternatives to “prom” were routinely planned by churches and local evangelical ministers’ associations. Such alternatives included (mostly) banquets to celebrate the coming commencement.

Thirteenth, Sunday sermons were expected to convict congregants and visitors of sin and “backsliding” and call them to new repentance and greater involvement in spiritual practices such as daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer and witnessing to the unsaved.

This was what I experienced as a yute. And it also explains why I found Reformed Protestantism more appealing and reassuring. I would certainly in my confessional and two-kingdom Protestant self construe church life and personal piety differently that Olson does.

At the same time, that older kind of evangelicalism (or fundamentalism) was earnestly otherworldly and congregational.

As much as the anti-liberal Christians out there, from Rod Dreher to Adrian Vermuele and N. T. Wright want to reject secularism and modern social forms, they don’t seem to have a place for the fairly thick glue of older congregational life and worship. Instead, they seem to prefer that the nation-state take on the attributes of a congregation (without of course all of the earnest striving to avoid worldliness). Meanwhile, the voices for social justice also seem not to notice how the protests and outrage distract from higher responsibilities (because more eternal) of fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. Again, part of the explanation seems to be an expectation that the world conform to the church or that the eschaton be immanentized.

I am not sure how to conclude other than to say, what the heck happened?

Baseball for Sabbatarians

With the completion of the 2018 season, an old article from the Nicotine Theological Journal (October 2007) on fans, pennant races, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy (and an excuse for an image of Mr. Utley):

NTJ Diarist: Day of Stress and Worry

It seems a distant memory now. But the last Lord’s Day of the 2007 Major League Baseball season created great conflict for the NTJ’s editors. Each of us grew up rooting for either the Mets or the Phillies. We are also committed to sanctifying the Sabbath. Consequently, the prospects of the Eastern Division’s title being settled on a day reserved for rest and worship generated considerable soul searching and much distraction by earthly and perishable things.

What follows is a confession of the editors’ unsuccessful efforts to keep September 30th holy. (The Phillies’ fan’s account is in bold for the victor’s emphasis.)

September 29, 4:35 pm: I was prepared to give up on the Metropolitans the night before. As their home losing streak extended to five games, they surrendered first place at last to the Phillies. Still I followed this afternoon’s game on the Internet, and, remarkably, John Maine came within a few outs of the first no-hitter in Mets history. The 13-0 shellacking of the hapless Marlins, combined with the Phillies loss, virtually wiped clean weeks of futility. We were tied again, and the Mets had their mojo back.

6:45 pm: I have a bad feeling of foreboding as I go out for the annual progressive supper on our block in Philadelphia. Could it be that the Phillies’ rise to first place yesterday is only setting us up for an even more depressing defeat tomorrow, the perfect way to cap a season in which they achieved 10,000 losses? The team looked bad today in their 4-2 loss to Washington. Thankfully, the neighbors bring lots of wine and don’t talk much about sports. Avoidance mixed with a buzz is bliss.

September 30, 8:30 am: Does God hear the prayers of the not-so-righteous? I am hoping and praying for discipline to concentrate on today’s services and sermons. But I can’t help think how great it will be if the Phillies actually surpass the Mets and win the division. I am also hoping that the season ends today. A playoff game tomorrow will be agonizing.

10:30 am: A sermon on Christ the resurrected King prompts my mind to drift. Is it impious to employ the resurrection as a metaphor for this horrible month? Will the Mets’ September humiliation yield to their October exaltation? That’s an inviting way to frame the narrative, and it pleases me to imagine how it will silence the obnoxious swagger of Phillies fans.

11:40 am: The pastor is preaching from the Beatitudes and I am doing my best not to think about the game this afternoon. But the notion that those who mourn are blessed gives me a perfect retort to gloating Mets fans should they win. The mourning Phillies fans would seem to qualify as those deserving of the Lord’s blessing. Even so, such a benediction doesn’t bring needed consolation.

2:30 pm: Before an afternoon nap I need to return an email about an ecclesiastical matter, surely a work of necessity. The problem is that I must get to my webmail via my homepage, which is the web page of Sports Illustrated. I am careful to pass over it quickly with barely a glance. All I remember seeing is a reference to the “Miracle Mets.” Oh yeah. 1969 . . . 1986 . . . and now, 2007.

3:05 pm: It suddenly dawns on me: si.com did not refer to the “Miracle Mets.” It said something like, “Mets need a Miracle at Shea.” Hmm. That’s a strange way to overstate the challenge. All we need today is the ordinary providence of Beltran’s bat, Glavine’s arm, and Reyes’ speed. So why the miracle talk?

3:20 pm: Overcome with confusion, I go back to si.com, which now features a photo of a forlorn Tom Glavine. I read where the Marlins scored seven runs off the future Hall-of-Famer in the first inning. SEVEN: the number of fullness and completeness and, well, Sabbath. It’s over. There will be no miracle today. I sense no impulse to check the Phillies score.

4:20 pm: My wife and I are out on our Sabbath stroll through the neighborhood and I am searching for signs of the outcome of the game at Citizens Bank Park. I am worried. I see no little pennants mounted on cars to show allegiance to the victors. I also hear no shouts or honking of horns. The town is way too quiet. I am preparing to find another team for which to root – too bad the Eagles only play on the Lord’s Day.

5:25 pm: I am tempted to check the score at one of the baseball websites so that I can concentrate better during the evening service. I resist temptation.

6:40 pm: Godliness, the seminary intern instructs the flock in the evening sermon, is manifested in obedience to God’s command. I suppose that includes the fourth commandment. I fall under conviction and take at least a measure of comfort in considering that I will not face a trial like this next week. Not with the way the Jets are playing.

7:10 pm: I stand with the pastor at the back door to greet exiting worshipers. While talking to the pastor I learn that one of the families in the church was celebrating the Phillies’ win in such a lively manner that the pastor and his wife heard the revelry from a few doors down the street. I am stunned. The Phillies have at least tied for the division.

8:15 pm: I begin to pack for a trip, oddly enough, to Philadelphia. I cringe at the satisfaction my friends will enact. I flee, where I have in the past, to the Psalms: “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us – a laughing stock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.”

8:45 pm: I finally give in to temptation and check the Internet for scores. I justify this by observing that the sun is officially and Pharisaically down. There I read the staggering news that the Mets also lost. I can barely believe the results. The Phillies were 7 games out with two weeks to go. They did not merely make the playoffs as the wild card team, but won the division outright. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Win a Free Book

Anyone who can guess the author of the following article will receive a copy of On Being Reformed:

Putting the X Back in Xmas

How to make “Jesus the Reason for the Season” – that is the dilemma facing evangelical Protestants. Some, the socially militant ones, insist that Christmas is a holiday by divine right and fight for the public nativity scene in town square, hoping to hide its otherwise nakedness. The evangelistic evangelicals (perhaps a redundancy) hope to use the holiday to reach the lost, taking advantage of banners, plays, or even worship to proclaim the gospel to those nominal Christians who go to church during the holy month of December. But rarely have evangelicals owned up to the commercial nature of modern Christmas celebrations and their part in its commodification. In his recent book, Selling God, R. Laurence Moore shows how the evangelical Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, transformed his downtown Philadelphia department store into a church during Christmas, complete with the largest pipe organ in the world (!!), programs of Christmas carols, and other Christian symbols. According to Leigh Eric Schmidt, whose Consumer Rites parallels Moore’s book on religious consumerism, the nativity scene in Wanamaker’s Grand Court “remained the center-piece” of the store’s Christmas Cathedral, “often spotlighted with a beam of light that looked as if it had come shining down from the heavens.” According to Schmidt, the interplay between the divine gift of God’s only begotten son and the gifts exchanged at Christmas energized Wanamaker’s displays. “Christmas gifts provided a tangible vehicle for connecting with the sacred drama.”

THE PROBLEM WITH ALL evangelical approaches to Christmas, from the crassly commercial to the devoutly evangelistic, is that of begging the question. Is Christ’s birth really about “Christmas cheer,” whether the secular variety of spiked eggnog, jingle bells, and jolly Saint Nick, or the seemingly more dignified joy that comes from gratitude to God for sending his Son to redeem the lost? In other words, should the incarnation make us glad or humble? Any answer to this question should, of course, keep in mind the less sentimental aspects of Christ’s birth, the manger in the stable and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

A better reason for Christmas gloom comes from the Bible’s teaching about the humiliation of the second person of the Trinity in the incarnation. Children reared on the Westminster Shorter Catechism are taught to conceive of Christ’s earthly ministry under the rubric of his humiliation, as distinct from his exaltation. Question 27 reads, “Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?” Answer: “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.” What is important to notice is that the birth and death of Christ, and everything in between, compose a single act of God in which he humbled himself by being subject to his own creation in the most humiliating fashion. So what is said about the incarnation applies similarly to the crucifixion, the former being initial, and the latter the culmination of Christ’s suffering.

SINCE BIRTH AND BURIAL ARE part of Christ’s humiliation, they should nurture a similar response from us as Paul says in Phillipians 2. Unfortunately the piety of Christmas is insensitive to this teaching as revealed by the spirit and traditions of the holiday. So instead of celebrating the birth of Christ at Christmas, the church should look to a more appropriate form of celebration – the regular receiving of the Lord’s Supper, It is the proper alternative to Christmas cheer, consumerism and yuletide indulgence.

INSTEAD OF LINKING THE incarnation to fictional tales about Santa and his elves, the Lord’s Supper unites Christ to real events in the history of Israel, filled with redemptive significance, like the Passover. And rather than forcing new and irrelevant significance on to the narrative to achieve a new market-centered gospel of trade and consumption, the Lord’s Supper explains the true significance of Christ’s coming, namely, to be the sacrifice for the propitiation of God’s wrath. Moreover, the Lord’s Supper produces a reverence and solemnity appropriate for something as awful as the incarnation. Instead of this being a time of gorging and giggling, the Supper’s small portions nurture self-examination, repentance, and faith. One last thing – an important one for Presbyterians and Reformed – the Lord’s Supper is biblically prescribed whereas Christmas is not. As J. Gresham Machen wrote,

the Bible makes no definite provision for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, but provides the most definite and solemn way for the commemoration of his death. . . . Indeed that commemoration of the death of Christ was definitely provided for by Jesus himself. “This cup is the New Testament in my blood,” said Jesus: “this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” In those words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus carefully provided that His church should commemorate His death.

Evangelicals used to cry, “Back to Jesus.” Maybe its time they did by taking up the cross and giving up the manger.

Fear’s Double Standard

A prominent theme in John Fea’s book, Believe Me, is that fear drives evangelical politics. The word “white” should go before evangelical because Fea also contrasts white and black evangelicals’ politics. He writes:

Even the most cursory reading of the Old and New Testament reveals that, ultimately, Christians have nothing to fear. Scripture reminds us that we already have a strong protector in times of need. . . . In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father Good pleasure to give you the kingdoms.”

But of course, evangelicals did not believe this when the voted for Donald Trump:

While many of Trump’s evangelical opponents said that they could not tell their children or grandchildren that they voted for such a moral monster, other evangelicals were saying exactly the same thing about voting for Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, long-held fears or threats whose specter had been stoked for decades simply could not be overcome.

Recently, Mike Horton echoed Fea when he wrote under the title, “What Are Evangelicals Afraid of Losing?”:

In a Monday meeting with evangelical leaders at the White House, President Trump reportedly warned of violence against conservative Christians if the GOP loses in November. Evangelicals, he said, were “one election away from losing everything.”

As evangelicals, we would do well to correct the president on this point. If an election can cause us to lose everything, what is it exactly that we have in the first place?

What I don’t understand is why the evangelical voters for Trump, why their fears are a sign of infidelity. We have heard a lot about how evangelicals fear the Trump administration’s immigrant policy, the Southern Baptist Convention’s pastors’ treatment of women and sexual abuse, and the racial bias of police and related shootings.

Someone could argue that these fears about the plight of immigrants, women, and African-Americans are legitimate fears while the socio-economic concerns that motivated evangelicals to vote for Trump were illegitimate.

That may be, but that would also undermine the point that Christians should not be afraid, unless it is that white Christians don’t need to fear but Christian people of color do. Either way, a Christian no matter what his or her race or ethnicity is supposed to trust a sovereign God. If Psalm 23 is true, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” then it is true for all people who trust God.

If Peter Can Deny Our Lord Three Times (dot dot dot)

In the current climate of Roman Catholic discontent about sexually abusive and active priests, bishops, cardinals, and a church structure that made cover-up possible, it may not be the best time to raise questions about sexual infidelity among pastors. But a dinner with old friends and colleagues this summer at General Assembly and now reading about what to do about priests who have fallen has me thinking (always dangerous to do in public).

The thought is this: why is sexual infidelity worse than other sin? As the title of the post indicates, Peter did something that was pretty rotten. He denied his Lord three times. At certain times in church history (persecution in N. Africa in the third century and in Korea in the twentieth century), that kind of infidelity could get you booted from the ministry. But you could add lying and stealing as big deals. How do you trust a pastor who commits those sins? And perhaps not as obviously wicked, but what about idolatry or blasphemy (never mind keeping the Lord’s Day holy)? Why do we zoom in on the seventh commandment to adopt a one-strike and you’re out?

Here is how Robert George put it this week:

In short, what the Church (and by “the Church” I am referring to the lay faithful as well as to the Church’s hierarchical officials) should demand—that is, absolutely insist upon without exception—of its clergy is what the clergy should preach to the people, namely, fidelity. Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Priests must believe and preach what the Church holds as true about God and man—and must practice what they preach. Am I advocating a zero-tolerance policy toward grave sexual sins, such as fornication, adultery, and sodomy (even when committed by consenting adults)? Yes, I am. It is not because I think these sins are unforgivable, or even that they are the worst sins. (In fact, they are forgivable and, though grave, they are not the worst sins.) It is because the infidelity expressed by and embodied in these sins, and because the scandal—undermining of the faith (including the faith of the sinning priest and the faith of the person with whom he sins)—they occasion, is simply intolerable. These sins are toxic to the priestly ministry. Priests who cannot or will not avoid them cannot effectively carry out their mission.

So there is the logic from a conservative Roman Catholic:

Sexual infidelity undermines the faith corporately and personally.

Therefore, sexual infidelity is intolerable.

I understand it but the argument is not exactly airtight since you could insert idolatry, lying, and stealing into the premise and come to the same conclusion.

I am not trying to excuse sexual infidelity (or lying and stealing). I am curious though if our revulsion at sexual sin reveals more about those judging the sin than it does about the nature of the sin. I understand that according to our standards, some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others. But that catechetical language gives room for what may only be “like your opinion, man.”