Reformed or Simply American Middle-Class?

The Gospel Allies would have us believe (in their It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia way) that Andy Crouch is channeling Reformed teaching on culture:

Crouch had read “social constructionist” figures like Peter Berger, but “it wasn’t until I started reading Reformed writers that I found really careful theological work that correlated well with cultural sociology. I’ve certainly been influenced by other streams to some extent—Anabaptists like Yoder and Hauerwas and Ellul (who was technically Reformed but temperamentally more Anabaptist, I’d say), as well as Catholic social teaching—but the truth is that among Protestants especially, the Reformed community has nurtured the most careful thinking about the breadth of human cultural activity.”

In 2008, Crouch released Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, which argues that Christians can best affect culture not by withdrawing from it, but by making more of it.

His Reformed bent was immediately apparent.

“Andy Crouch makes the case for cultural discipleship by giving us an exciting overview of the drama of creation, fallenness, and renewal,” Fuller Theological Seminary president emeritus Richard Mouw wrote. Tim Keller wrote that it was “one of the few books taking the discussion about Christianity and culture to a new level,” while LifeWay Christian Resources publisher and TGC blogger Trevin Wax called it “a landmark work that will create a new culture of its own within evangelicalism.”

Here’s a different reading:

To be sure, the advantage of this approach, and the astute recommendation that evangelical Protestants need to develop postures of cultivation and creation in cultural endeavors is its recognition that human beings cannot escape culture (the fundamentalist temptation) and that simply imitating culture (the Jesus Rock temptation) is inferior to creative expressions of worth. In fact, Crouch even ups the ante for his fellow evangelicals when he turns from culture-making as basic to human identity to culture-making as a biblical duty.

In the second section of the book, Crouch decides to take a relatively quick tour of the history of salvation recounted in the Old and New Testaments. Not surprisingly, in a book devoted to not simply the legitimacy but also the necessity of culture, Crouch sees cultural life writ large throughout the pages of holy writ. This strategy can become tedious. Creation in Genesis 1 is culture. Adam and Eve were given the task of creating culture, specifically, agriculture. As a nation, Israel was political culture, while its cultural insights in the religious sphere replaced henotheism with monotheism. Jesus was a cultural figure in his training and work as a carpenter. He died on a cross, a cultural instrument of torture. The apostles took the message of Christianity to cities, arenas of great cultural significance. Pentecost overturned Jewish culture and gave Christianity’s blessing to cultural diversity. Finally, the new heavens and new earth in the last book of the Bible reassert the import of the city and cultural life. According to Crouch, culture is “the furniture of heaven.” [170] He adds, “human beings, in God’s original intention and in their redemptive destination, cannot be separated from the cultural goods they create and cultivate at their best.” [170]

As inspiring as such a cultural reading of the Bible may be for evangelicals like Crouch, it loses some of its loftiness when in the next paragraph the author adds a few of his favorite things, such as fish tacos, the iPod, and Moby Dick. The impression Crouch creates is that without a biblical justification, evangelical Protestants would be powerless to recognize the value of cultural activities. It is as if being human is not good enough for cultural life; so culture needs the lift of redemption and the approval of God to lose either its worldly reputation or become the object of devotion. Indeed, confusion about the relationship between creation and salvation haunts Crouch’s argument. The muddle might have been avoided had Crouch interacted carefully with Christian teaching (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic but especially Augustinian) on the relationship between nature and grace. As it stands, Crouch interacts with Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture not to discover analytic categories for reflecting on the relationship between cult and culture but mainly to find Niebuhr’s implicit endorsement of cultural transformation deficient for the aim of evangelical cultural engagement.

The reason for Niebuhr’s deficiency becomes clear in the third and final section of the book where Crouch provides a number of worthwhile insights into the work of culture engagement. To avoid the culture-war propensity, Crouch steers clear of the word transformation, preferring “culture making” to “changing the culture.” Here he addresses topics such as unintended consequences, economies of scale, power, wealth, and consumption. These cautions are intended to direct evangelicals away from imposition or conquest. Instead, he recommends that their cultural posture be one of introducing the fundamental realities of human beings as culture makers wherever they go. He offers the example of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. There travelers may find a high modern oasis of an atrium with rocking chairs across from a food court. As opposed to the dehumanization of air travel, this space introduces smiles and relaxed conversations “where good news whispers just a bit more audibly.” [215] Crouch believes that this human touch is at the heart of culture and is needed in exurbs, cities, and suburbs. It is also at the heart of being Christian because “our calling is to join [God] in what he is already doing—to make visible what, in exodus and resurrection, he has already done.” [216]

Examples such as Crouch’s reflections on Charlotte’s airport and omelets leave the impression that the new evangelical cultural engagement is no thicker than baby boomers’ parents’ ideal of a cultural remnant preserving the faith once delivered. To be sure, rocking chairs in airports can buoy the spirits of weary travelers and a fluffy omelet may hit the spot on a leisurely Saturday morning (if, of course, the eater’s cardiologist approves). But unclear is whether attention to small rays of uplift that shine through either the most unpleasant form of human transportation or food preparation is sufficient for confronting the cultural decay that affects the West. Crouch’s book does signal a hopeful development, which is that the evangelical pursuit of culture warfare was and is a dead end. Had evangelicals been reading the likes of Kirk or Dawson, though, they would have known that the ballot box and the White House were poor vehicles, even if sometimes necessary conditions, for a healthy culture. Less encouraging is the motive behind Crouch’s apparent fatigue with the culture war. He does not simply find the warrior mindset defective but seems to be mainly comfortable with the cultural goods available to middle-class, urban-friendly, suburban Americans. Evangelicals like Crouch have found a home in the modern world; they are no longer a-passing through.

The whole not-so-sunny review of Crouch’s Culture Making is here.

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How Orthodox Presbyterians became PCA

Another way to supplement Chris Gordon’s post about the demise of confessionalism in the CRC and lessons for the PCA is to consider what happened to the OPC after the failure of union between the CRC and the OPC.

The merger that the OPC and CRC contemplated between 1956 and 1972 never took place but at roughly the same time that those negotiations died, the PCA was born and for the next twenty years became the chief player in ecclesiastical mergers-and-acquisitions. First the PCA acquired in 1982 the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (an earlier merger of revival-friendly Covenanters and dissident – read agreeable – Bible Presbyterians of the McIntire variety) and then the PCA almost in 1986 absorbed the OPC (a majority of Orthodox Presbyterians voted in favor but not by the two-thirds majority required for sending the plan to presbyteries for ratification). In the aftermath of that failed plan for Joining & Receiving, congregations in the OPC and PCA had the liberty to re-align if they chose. This was opening for a number of New Life churches (among them the Glenside congregation where Tim Keller learned the ways of New Life Presbyterianism) to join the PCA during the late 1980s.

Again, a piece of OPC history (self-promotion alert) that fills out Gordon’s observations:

In 1988 the effects of the OPC’s change of direction were still visible but not altogether clear. Again the church experienced a growth numerically, rising to 19,422 members but it also lost two more congregations to the PCA, one (New Life) in Philadelphia and one in Southern California. Only in 1989 did the OPC’s statistician start to notice these numerical changes as part of a “step backward.” That year was the peak of membership and congregational loss. The church’s total membership decreased by 3.5 percent to 18,689. [ed. no snickering] Meanwhile, five congregations transferred to the PCA, among them New Life in Escondido, California. This was the same year that the Assembly’s decisions about Bethel church took their toll. A majority of the Wheaton congregation (162 out of 301) left the OPC to form an independent congregation, which eventually affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In 1990 the “step backward” statistically lengthened. The OPC lost another 546 members and three congregations; among them New Life, Glenside, joined the PCA. Only by 1991 did the hemorrhaging stop and membership begin to rise again. In 1992 the OPC added 525 members and total membership increased to 18,767.

The movement of OPC congregations into the PCA was the occasion for a exchange between John M. Frame and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. in New Horizons on realignment at the same time that statistics were revealing the consequences of congregational transfers. It was a telling exchange because it revealed an important aspect of Orthodox Presbyterianism that after the semi-centennial was beginning to reassert itself within the life of the communion and causing sufficient discomfort for others to look for another denominational home. That characteristic of Orthodox Presbyterianism was the Reformed doctrine of the church in which membership in particular communion was not a supplement to Christian identity but its embodiment. As Gaffin explained in this exchange, the OPC was not merely a denomination; “it is a church, a church that exists by divine warrant.” As such, he added, “Biblical presbyterianism has no place for loyalties torn between the denomination and the local congregation, or for greater loyalty to either one.” In contrast, Frame, who was then an associate pastor of the New Life congregation in Escondido that had realigned with the PCA, explained that the reason for transferring was to partner more effectively with other church planting efforts in southern California. Denominational affiliations for him were at best accidental, at worst sinful. Either way, he hoped that denominational “barriers” would become less important and that Orthodox Presbyterians would understand that transferring to the PCA was not a sign of disloyalty or contempt. The move was simply practical.

Clearly, Frame did not see the switch to the PCA as the serious risk that Gaffin said it was. Gaffin believed such transfers were dangerous because they nurtured a mind set that increased divisions in the church, not along lines of biblical witness, but according to personal preferences or styles of ministry. As such, Gaffin was expressing a doctrine of the church that had deep roots in American Presbyterianism reaching back to Old School Presbyterianism and even to the Old Side Presbyterians of the colonial era. Frame, in contrast, was more typical of a view of the church characteristic of New School and New Side Presbyterians, where the formal work of ministry was supplemental to the religious endeavors of all believers. In other words, whether Frame or Gaffin acknowledged the history of American Presbyterianism in their reflections, they spoke volumes about Orthodox Presbyterianism and how it emerged and developed in relation to its Presbyterian past. Among the many convictions for which the OPC had stood historically, the doctrine of the church as part of biblical teaching and necessary for faithful witness was one of the hallmarks of Orthodox Presbyterianism. During the 1970s and 1980s that ecclesial conviction had begun to wane if only because it was not producing the size and influence that some Orthodox Presbyterians desired. But as the OPC began to take stock of its past, it also recovered one of its most noticeable features. Furthermore, just as that commitment to biblical Presbyterianism had been a source of frustration to Bible Presbyterians in the 1930s, neo-evangelicals in the 1940s, and more generally to Orthodox Presbyterians like Edwin H. Rian who had hoped the OPC would turn out to be a conservative version of culturally established and respectable Presbyterianism, so in the late 1980s as the OPC recovered its doctrine of the church some felt compelled to look for better, friendlier, or less restrictive expressions of American Presbyterianism than the OPC. (Between the Times, 316-18)

In other words, the consequences of Reformed ecumenism from the 1970s and 1980s were having consequences for all of the players — the CRC, OPC, and PCA. Where Presbyterians went, their forms of association, and their understand of the church were factors in the witness they embraced.

How the OPC Avoided becoming the CRC

Chris Gordon’s piece on how the CRC lost its Reformed bearings has wisdom not only for noticing similarities between the CRC and New Calvinists but also contains a warning about developments in the PCA:

NAPARC churches should not forget their older brother, the CRC. Unless these concerns are taken seriously, I foresee the PCA and other Reformed denominations following this trajectory heading for fights, splits, and empty pews. They will be on a fast track to becoming just another mainline liberal denomination scratching its head at General Assembly meetings as they desperately try to find answers. I pray that my dear brothers and sisters in NAPARC will hear this humble plea from a brother in Christ who learned how true it is that those who forget their (church) history, are most certainly doomed to repeat it.

One difference between the CRC and PCA is the former’s ethnic outsider self-identity compared to the latter’s effort to become the Presbyterian insider. In other words, the CRC wanted to leave the ghetto and enter the mainstream; one way to do that was to embrace some forms of evangelicalism. For a time the CRC even considered merging with the OPC (as explained in Between the Times — self-promotion alert!):

Decreasing familiarity with the OPC was one of the factors to which Henry Zwaanstra pointed in this study of the CRC’s ecumenical relations. In fact, his narrative highlights developments in 1967 as decisive for sinking the project. The previous year, according to Zwaanstra, the OPC’s committee was requesting “their general assembly to declare that the joint committee should work toward the definite goal of organic union.” But the following year, the OPC’s Assembly “retired its representatives from the joint committee and appointed new members.” The reason for the new appointments, according to Zwaanstra, was “mandate to investigate trends toward Liberalism in the CRC.” . . .

Indeed, the overwhelming factor that prompted the OPC to worry about liberal theological trends in the CRC was a re-ignition of anti-liberal polemics during the mid-1960s over the PCUSA’s adoption of The Confession of 1967. During the 1960s leadership within the OPC spent considerable time disputing the mainline Presbyterian Church’s revision of its confessional standards and faulting the denomination for embracing a Barthian doctrine of the Word of God. This view, exhibited in the Confession of 1967, distinguished in effect between the sort of encounter with divine revelation that came through Scripture rather than regarding Scripture itself, its words, paragraphs, and books, as the Word of God. One Orthodox Presbyterian who was particularly vocal in defending the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and in criticizing was E. J. Young, newly appointed to the OPC’s committee to confer with the CRC. The Old Testament professor was by no means insensitive to the assistance the CRC had given to the OPC since Young had served with the likes of Van Til, Stonehouse, and Kuiper, and as a renowned scholar had trafficked in Christian Reformed circles at conferences and lectures. And yet, Young was adamant in his diagnosis of Barthian developments in the PCUSA and was likely sensitive to similar trends in the CRC even if evident in much less noticeable ways.

Thanks to arguments by Young and Van Til, for instance, by the second half of the 1960s the OPC’s sensitivity to defective expressions of the doctrine of Scripture was at an all time high and undoubtedly many pastors and teachers detected echoes of a Barthian view in Dutch Calvinist circles. Whether members of the CRC themselves actually resembled Barth or were simply guilty of not condemning Barth’s influence upon the GKN is a debatable point. Either way, the controverted status of Barthianism for Orthodox Presbyterians was certainly a factor in the growing distance between the OPC and the CRC. (161-62)

The OPC did not have a front-row seat to changes in the CRC, but it had more familiarity than most Presbyterian churches. In which case, reading about OPC-CRC relations between 1956 and 1970 is a supplement to Gordon’s post (read: buy the book).

Irish Presbyterians are Exceptional

If you take that word, exceptional, as synonymous with unusual. In other words, the Presbyterian communions in Ireland don’t line up with the mainline vs. conservative brands that we know in the U.S.

Here‘s one piece of evidence. Two former moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have issued a statement opposed to abortion. If you didn’t know better, you might think the PCI is the mainline equivalent of the PCUSA. The PCI is closer to the mainstream of Irish life than the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a communion that started with some inspiration from J. Gresham Machen and set up a rival communion to the PCI. But I can’t imagine this ever happening in the PCUSA:

Two former moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have written to all TDs and Senators expressing grave concern at recommendations that unrestricted abortion be allowed in Ireland up to 12 weeks and for health reasons thereafter.

In their letter, Rev Dr Trevor Morrow and Rev Dr Norman Hamilton have said “our church holds a strongly pro-life position, while recognising that there can be very exceptional circumstances when the termination of pregnancy may be necessary”.

They continued: “However, we are very gravely concerned about the [Oireachtas] Committee’s recommendations to introduce abortion with no restriction as to reason until the 12th week of gestation, and beyond 12 weeks on health grounds.

“Even if the recommendation of abortion on request is excluded, the health proposals on their own will create similar provisions to those in Britain, which have, in practice, brought about abortion on request (we note that one in five pregnancies ends in abortion in Great Britain and that of the 190,406 abortions in England and Wales in 2016, 97 per cent took place on health grounds).”

For some reason, apparently, Irish Presbyterians do not stumble over Orwellian language like “women’s reproductive health.”

Another indication that Irish Presbyterians are exceptional odd comes from this recent announcement:

True Christian Piety

Speaker: D.G. Hart

Subject: “True Christian Piety”

Dates: 2-3 August 2018

Times: 10am-4pm

Venue: Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church

Darryl Hart teaches at Hillsdale College, USA, and is a well-known writer on historical and ecclesiastical matters. On 2-3 August 2018, he will lead a workshop that will explore major themes in his work, teaching and leading discussions on such themes as the Sunday gatherings, marriage as a means of grace, and sanctified work. Attendees should prepare for the workshop by reading Darryl’s books, “Recovering Mother Kirk,” “The Lost Soul of American Protestantism,” and “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.”

Cost: £40 for both days, including lunch and refreshments.

For some reason, Irish Presbyterians do not consider “Old Life” and “True Christian Piety” oxymoronic.

Thread 1.2

(A series on the history of Calvinism)

Reformed Christianity existed before Calvin became a Protestant and so calling the churches Calvinist to which he belonged is anachronistic. Before Geneva became a home for Protestantism, several cities in the Swiss Confederation, Zurich chief among them, had initiated reform. At the same time, Geneva was a late addition to the Swiss Confederation and always dependent on stronger Swiss cities. This meant that in addition to the struggles Calvin faced in his adopted city, he also encountered resistance and sporadic opposition from the other Reformed churches in Switzerland. His difficult dealings with the other pastors make all the more ironic the later identification of Reformed Protestantism with Calvinism. For instance, in 1554 around the time that Calvin was facing stiff opposition in Geneva from old-time aristocrats who fought the new spiritually inspired regulations of city life, the government of Bern banned Calvin=s writings from the lands under its authority and ordered that they be burned. Burning books was what Roman Catholics were supposed to do with Protestant texts but here was a Reformed city judging Calvin=s teaching beyond the pale. In point of fact, the opposition to Calvin from the Bernese officials had less to do with theology than politics; Geneva was an upstart city that seemed to be acting independently of Bern and so the Bernese wanted to teach the Genevans a lesson. As one biographer argues, this treatment of Calvin=s writings said more about the personalities involved than the intricacies of double predestination or any other contested point of doctrine. Still, the incident is instructive for remembering Calvin=s status among the Reformers and their civic patrons in Switzerland. (p.21)

Thread 1.1

(A series on the history of Calvinism)

Fourteen years after the sausage-eating incident in Zurich, on May 25, 1535, the citizens of Geneva pledged to Alive according to the Law of the Gospel and the Word of God, and to abolish all Papal abuses. The apparent orderliness and consensus of that expression of popular sovereignty in Geneva could not hide the turmoil by which the Reformation had come to a city that, although not part of the Swiss confederacy, would soon rival Zurich for leadership among Reformed Protestants. For the better part of a decade, the citizens of Geneva had been trying to gain independence from the House of Savoy. To do this Geneva needed the support of nearby Swiss cities, Fribourg and Bern. When political autonomy of the 1520s led to religious reforms in the 1530s, political rivalries turned ugly. Fribourg officials, who were Roman Catholic, used the death of one of their citizens during a religious riot in Geneva in 1533 to pressure the Genevans back into the fold of Rome. But thanks to friendly relations with the Protestant Bern, Geneva resisted Fribourg=s intimidation. In turn, Geneva sponsored two public debates between Protestant and Roman Catholic representatives, one in January, 1534, the second in June, 1535. Both led to riots. They also increased Geneva=s resolve for political independence and the prerogative to establish the city’s religious identity. By the time that Geneva=s citizens vowed to submit to the word of God in the spring of 1535, the city had withstood intimidation from both Fribourg and Bern, and had informed its Roman Catholic clergy that they either needed to convert to Protestantism or leave.

The Best Decision I ever Made

Maybe not ever. Marrying the missus has to be at the top since deciding to trust Jesus was not really my decision. But my conversation yesterday with Tom Woods about Machen was one of those rare moments when you see directly the consequences of a choice made longer ago than you care to admit. The closest I could come most easily to that decision was to resurrect the preface to my dissertation (“‘DOCTOR FUNDAMENTALIS’: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY OF J. GRESHAM MACHEN, 1881-1937,” Johns Hopkins University, 1988):

The central argument of this study is that Machen’s involvement in the fundamentalist controversy, his eventual expulsion from the Presbyterian Church, and his founding of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church were logical outcomes of his biblical scholarship and critique of religious liberalism. In fact, when understood in the light of his theological convictions, Machen’s behavior appears thoroughly reasonable.

This reading of Machen stems in part from my concerns as an intellectual historian. One of my presuppositions is that ideas, both religious and secular, operate with some autonomy from social and cultural settings. More importantly, I assume that religious thought cannot be reduced to or interpreted narrowly by social experience. These suppositions imply that Machen’s studies and beliefs were causal factors in his career and explain his behavior as well as, if not better than, his personality. I have not pursued psychological interpretations, then, because Machen’s ideas seem to offer an adequate explanation. Having said this, however, I must still admit that this approach stacks the deck in Machen’s favor since he also insisted throughout the fundamentalist controversy that differences stemmed from intellectual, not personal or administrative factors.

Because many recent studies have stressed the intellectual dimension of fundamentalism, I should also explain why I think mine is different. By emphasizing Machen’s Calvinistic outlook, this dissertation breaks with previous interpretations which explain fundamentalism largely by reference to such epistemological considerations as the persistence of Scottish Common Sense Realism among conservative Protestants. As helpful as these studies have been, I believe they overdramatize the philosophical differences between Protestants and overlook the significance of doctrine to the fundamentalist controversy. Yet, rather than stressing the theological convictions that united conservative Protestants, I have focused on one fairly specific rationale for opposition to modernism, namely, Machen’s Old School Presbyterian heritage, not Princeton Seminary’s defense of biblical inerrancy. Without considering Machen’s confessional concerns, students of twentieth-century evangelicalism cannot understand properly Princeton Seminary’s relationship to fundamentalism.

Still, my personal beliefs have informed this study, perhaps even more than I imagine. To be sure, my upbringing in a fundamentalist home as well as my education at Westminster Seminary account for many of my sympathies. Nonetheless, my interest in Machen is still relatively fresh because ironically I learned little about him at Westminster. A survey course in American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, which required the reading of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, generated my initial interest and led to a greater appreciation of Old Princeton Theology and Machen’s efforts to preserve it.

Nevertheless, I have tried to account for my own biases and present as correct an understanding of Machen as possible. To do so I have relied on my dissertation advisor, Professor Timothy L. Smith, whose knowledge and perspective on American religion challenged me to keep in mind the diversity of evangelicalism. Furthermore, his careful editing often cleaned up wooden prose and improved this dissertation considerably. Professors John Higham and Ronald A. Walters also deserve credit for their helpful criticisms throughout my studies. I must also thank Professors Mark A. Noll, George M. Marsden, and Richard B. Gaffin, who read earlier drafts and made helpful suggestions, and Professor William R. Hutchison, who first introduced me to Machen and offered advice at a preliminary stage. I am especially indebted to the librarians and staff members of the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary, particularly John R. Muether, Grace Mullen, and Jane Patete, who guided me through the Machen Archives, allowed me liberal use of the library’s holdings, and answered many questions. Jeff Charles and David Harrington-Watt have been good friends throughout my time in graduate school, offering as much aid through informal chats and rounds of golf as through their comments on various chapters.

Above all I must acknowledge my wife’s contribution. Her patience and support would have been more than sufficient. But her genuine interest in American history as well as her willingness to edit, proofread, and criticize my research and writing have been a tremendous encouragement. My debt to her is emphasized by the dissertation’s dedication.

I Didn’t Think Kevin Spacey was an Orthodox Presbyterian

Despite what we now know about the actor, I remain a big fan of The Big Kahuna, a movie I even recommended as one of Hollywood’s better renderings of evangelicalism. (Trigger warning: language is vulgar in places.) Spacey starred in and produced the movie. Am I in danger of my publisher removing all copies of That Old-Time Religion in Modern America because of the way the book opens?

The Big Kahuna may not have been a box office hit, but the 1999 movie starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito offered a surprisingly candid glimpse of the way many Americans have come to regard the subject of this book, twentieth-century evangelicalism in the United States. The film features three men who work for a firm that produces industrial lubricants and are assigned to host a cocktail party at a hotel in Wichita, Kansas, during a convention for industry-related vendors and producers. Two of the characters are from the sales division, experienced salesmen for whom the task of pitching the company’s product has nurtured a degree of cynicism and weariness. The third is a young, bright and somewhat naive evangelical Protestant who works in the research division. Their chief task on this particular evening is to make contact with the owner of Indiana’s largest manufacturing company, the “big Kahuna,” whose contract could salvage the salesmen’s declining careers.

Of course, Kevin Spacey is not the only one vulnerable. But we have no better sign of how Harry Emerson Fosdick lost and fundamentalists won than the way that mainstream institutions are employing standards that would have made my fundamentalist Baptist congregation think they were living in a Christian nation. Back then, as I have remarked before, I was under the impression that anyone I should esteem as a hero should also be a Christian. And with that logic, I turned my favorite athlete, Richie Allen, 3rd-baseman for the Phillies (and rookie of the year in 1964), into a born-again Christian, only to be crushed when a television camera showed him smoking a cigarette during a game.

Has our culture really come to that, the moral calculus of an eight-year-old dispsenationalist Baptist?

Of course, Peter Leithart tries to put a better spin on it:

But is private morality so easily distinguished from public ethics? Can we trust someone who lies, bullies, and manipulates to cover up the embarrassment of private sin? Doesn’t such a person prove himself a liar? Hasn’t he proven that he lacks the basic public virtue of justice?

Leithart is writing with politicians in mind, but the same point applies to artistic expressions? Should I sit with an author, director, or musician for anywhere between 30 minutes and two weeks who may be performing acts in private that would prove distasteful in public?

But here’s the other side that few of the new morality police seem to consider: why are good works whether performed in private or public any sort of guarantee of admirable character? If good works are filthy rags, if people do good works for noble and ignoble reasons, and if someone is unregenerate, how trustworthy are they (especially by our current Wesleyan standards)? According to the Confession of Faith:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (16.7)

I get it that sexual abuse is bad. But let’s not fool ourselves about any actor or politician. The doctrine of total depravity teaches that behind that image of virtue and decency lurks a heart that is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Agents, spouses, interns, anyone who sees the public figure off camera.

Red Ribbon

Just removing the cake from the Bundt pan was victory enough for we theologians of the cross. But when the cake entered at the The Most Popular Fair on Earth won second place in the Bundt cake division, the red ribbon was icing on the cake.

Here is the recipe for Mississippi Mud Cake:

Into a bowl sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and a pinch of salt.

In the top of a double boiler set over simmering water heat 1-3/4 cups coffee and 1/4 cup bourbon for 5 minutes. Add 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate and 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, all cut into pieces, and heat the mixture, stirring, until the chocolate and butter are melted and the mixture is smooth.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 2 cups sugar. Let the mixture cool for 3 minutes and transfer it to the bowl of an.electric mixer.

Add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, beating at medium speed, and continue to beat the mixture for 1 minute.

Add 2 eggs, lightly beaten, and 1 teaspoon vanilla and beat the batter until it is smooth.

Butter a 9-inch tube pan, 3-1/2 inches deep, and dust it with cocoa. Pour in the batter and bake the cake in a pre- heated very slow oven (275° F.) for 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack and turn it out onto a serving plate. Dust the top with powdered sugar or serve with whipped cream.

The recipe comes from a celebrated blue ribbon winner at Wisconsin county fairs who lives in Chicago and has edited and published a couple of my books.

Fine print: the one time I used butter and cocoa on the pan, the results were not great. The better strategy is to use what works best for your Bundt pan.

Bodie and Jimmy Are Back

Here’s some of the dialogue I plan to include in my talk on Saturday for Mencken Day. Its title is “When America Was Great and Baltimore Knew Better.”

Scene 1:

Bodie: The radio in Philly is different?

Shamrock: N-word, please, you gotta be f-word with me. You ain’t never heard a radio station outside of Baltimore?

Bodie: Man, I ain’t never left Baltimore except that Boys Village s-word, one day, and there wasn’t no radio up in that b-word.

[Shamrock starts to hit the pre-set buttons.]

Bodie: Come on, man, you’re killin’ me.

[Shamrock tunes into Prairie Home Companion and viewers hear Garrison Keillor say, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town. It’s been
perfect tomato weather out there. . .]

Bodie: This a Philly station?

Shamrock: How the heck should I know?

Bodie: Why would anyone ever want to leave Baltimore? That’s what I’m askin’.

Scene 2:

McNulty: I feel like I don’t even belong to any world that even bleeping matters.

Greggs: ‘Cause you’re a cop?

McNulty: Nah, it’s not just that. It’s like, I went to meet her once; she was in a hotel room on the top floor. I punched the button on the elevator and it doesn’t even go there. You gotta have some kind of special key to even get to that special f-word floor. So I go to the front desk, some sneering f-word calls upstairs, gives me permission to go and get laid. I listen to the s-word she talks about and it’s the first time in my life I feel like a f-word doormat. Like anyone else with any smarts would do something else with his life, you know? Earn money, or … get elected. Like I’m just a breathing [sex] machine. I’m serious; I’m the smartest a-hole in three districts and she looks at me like I’m some stupid f-word playing some stupid game for stupid penny-ante stakes.

Jimmy and Bodie seem to have the same outlook that led Mencken to write this:

Human relations, in such a place, tend to assume a solid permanence. A man’s circle of friends becomes a sort of extension of his family circle. His contacts are with men and women who are rooted as he is. They are not moving all the time, and so they are not changing their friends all the time. . . . In human relationships that are so casual there is seldom any satisfaction. It is our fellows who make life endurable to us, and give it a purpose and a meaning; . . . What I contend is that in Baltimore, under a slow-moving and cautious social organization, touched by the Southern sun, such contacts are more enduring than elsewhere, and that life in consequence is more agreeable.

By the way, Machen is also part of the talk. Can you believe it?