New Rome

If you were thinking Constantinople you would be wrong. The New Rome is Roman Catholicism after Vatican II.

Here are a couple of data sets. One from Lawrence King and Robert Miller:

When Vatican II promulgated its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae), few expected that fifty years later the view that people do not have a right to religious liberty would become popular again. Yet this doctrine—commonly known as integralism—is experiencing a resurgence among some conservative Catholic intellectuals.

Integralism is the doctrine that (ideally, if not always in practice) the state should endorse the Catholic faith and act as the secular arm of the Church, punishing heresy among the baptized and suppressing false religious practices if they threaten Catholicism. This doctrine was taught by several nineteenth-century popes. Then, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council taught that all human beings have a right to religious freedom and that it is wrong for the state or anyone else to use force in matters of religion. . . .

From 1978 to 2013, the conservative position was dominant. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI insisted that Vatican II was an incremental development of the Church’s ongoing tradition, not a radical break with the past. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) was an authoritative statement of this position, weaving pre-1962 and post-1962 Catholic teachings into a seamless whole. Conservative theologians deployed two powerful arguments: Against the liberals, they argued that rejecting the Church’s traditional teachings is profoundly un-Catholic. Against the traditionalists, they argued that rejecting the Church’s recent teachings, both of the Council and of the post-conciliar popes, was equally un-Catholic.

Since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, however, this conservative synthesis has been put in serious question. While not formally rejecting any of John Paul II or Benedict XVI’s teachings, Francis has scuttled many of their initiatives, removed their most ardent supporters from office while promoting several of their critics, and has taken positions on certain matters (such as gradualism in moral theology) that appear to be at odds with the views of his predecessors. As a result, some conservative theologians have concluded that Francis may be teaching serious errors.

However, once a Catholic theologian concludes that the current pope is in error, he or she opens the lid of a very deep box. If the pope has been teaching false doctrine regarding moral gradualism since 2013, then isn’t it possible that all the popes since 1965 have been teaching false doctrine regarding religious liberty? The conservatives’ strongest argument against traditionalism—“How can you call yourself Catholic if you reject the authority of the pope?”—is no longer available. As a result, some conservative Catholic thinkers have recently been reevaluating traditionalist claims on a variety of matters, including integralism.

There is a certain irony in this. Integralism extends the religious authority of the pope and bishops into the sphere of civil law, and yet the people who most adamantly defend integralism today are rarely fans of the current pope.

Or this from James Chappel, Catholic Modern:

Whatever we might think of the Church’s activism on these fronts, one thing at least is clear: it has embraced modernity. With few exceptions, Catholic thinkers and leaders take for granted that they are living in a religious plural world, and that their task is to collaborate with others in the name of the common good. They no longer call for church-state fusion or the revocation of religious freedom. They invoke, instead, human rights. They are more likely, too, to agitate for civil rights and pursue Christian-Jewish dialogue than they are to revive the Church’s long history of anti-Semitism.

Catholics have their own idea of what a just modernity should look like, of course. . . . They do not, in other words, call for an overturning of the secular order and a reinstatement of the Church as the sole guardian of public and private morality. These aspects of Catholic engagement are so familiar to us that we can sometimes forget how recent they are. A devout Catholic in 1900, anywhere in the world, would have been shocked to learn that the Church would one day support values like these. Sometime between 1900 and the present, the Church became modern. (1-2)

This is a much more serious problem than Protestants with 33,000 denominations or EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT of evangelicals voting for Trump. It means that the church, the hierarchy, the infallible magisterium, was wrong about the world, sin, and the devil for much of medieval and modern history. Roman Catholicism was not simply about grace and spiritual matters. It claimed to be the source of order in society and truth about the way humans should order their earthly affairs.

It’s like saying the Bible teaches a judgment day when the saved and lost will be separated and then realizing that Scripture teaches universal salvation. Protestants may disagree about what the Bible means, but they still regard it (the ones who believe it) to be true. Modern Roman Catholics, even before the revelations of sexual scandals for the past two decades, do not believe that popes before John XXIII were telling the truth about the church and its function in the world. And once you question the church’s function in the world, you question implicitly its teaching about salvation.

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Mainline Protestantism’s Elder Brother

Boniface takes the temperature of Roman Catholicism in the light of Governor Cuomo and Archbishop Dolan:

the purpose of excommunication is not merely for the good of the sinner’s soul; it is also for the edification and protection of the community. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump.” St. Paul teaches that excommunication helps purge the body of “leaven”, and that without this purging such leaven will cause a rot throughout the body. When the offender is singled out and has judgment pronounced upon him, the faithful at least see that such behavior is proscripted. St. Paul is not only worried about the sinner, but about the boasting of the congregation, that is, their attitude about the sinner. By excommunicating him, St. Paul judges not only the sinner, but the broader attitude that allows sin to flourish unchecked.

To bring this back to Governor Cuomo: from the biblical perspective, whether Cuomo will repent or not, whether he respects the authority of the Church or not, whether the Church can claim any socio-political leverage in these matters, is not ultimately the main concern. The fact is, the good of the Catholic Church in America demands that this man be thrown out. At least make an attempt to purify the lump of its leaven. If we don’t, we are celebrating with the old leaven. It’s about the integrity of the community as much as it is about the sinner.

* * * * * *

There have often been times in Church history where discipline has been lost or seriously eroded. We can think of various monastic reforms throughout the centuries. Or the era of the Counter Reform and the Council of Trent when the Church had to fight an uphill battle to transform the episcopacy from a class of political courtiers into something more in line with what Christ intended. Countless regional synods from the first millennium and the era of the barbarian invasions attest to the Church’s commitment to maintaining or restoring discipline in an age of chaos when order seemed to be falling apart everywhere.

…And that’s the sad truth here. Cardinal Tobin, Dolan and the like don’t care what the optics are here. They don’t care whether the House of the Lord is an eye sore, an abomination to the people. “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24); but they don’t care. If discipline has been lost, then the common sense approach is to restore it. You restore it by making examples of people and actually asserting your will to enforce discipline. If you can’t do that or refuse to, it simply means you don’t even want discipline restored. You’re happy with the status quo. This is the inescapable conclusion: Cuomo will not face excommunication because the princes of the Church are content with the current situation.

So why convert? Protestants are supposed to think this is the church founded no matter how much it resembles mainline Protestantism? When the successors to the apostles are so far from following the apostles, we’re supposed to see nothing and come back to mother church?

Will Kevin DeYoung be Reduced to One Cheer?

I cannot give a thumb up the way Scott Clark did to Kevin DeYoung’s post about the spirituality of the church. As Scott implies, DeYoung’s point is useful for showing that the doctrine was part of the Reformed churches’ toolkit well before the sectional crisis in antebellum America. It was not the product of Presbyterians defending slavery. DeYoung is also helpful on showing that the doctrine protects the jurisdiction of the church from that of the magistrate or king.

the magistrate and the minister exercise jurisdiction over different spheres. The magistrate can only deal with external things. That is, he cannot make laws that demand certain affections or compel the conscience to believe certain things. The minister, on the other hand, has the right to judge inner dispositions and outward obedience, though the minister mainly deals with spiritual things (as his sphere) and only “handles external things for conscience cause.”

The problem comes when, and I’m not happy to put it this way, he quotes Charles Hodge:

Hodge strongly disagreed with Thornwell’s contention that since the church was only to preach the gospel that the church had no right to open her lips against the slave trade (p. 289). “Yes,” says Hodge (who was mostly a moderate when it came to slavery itself), “the Bible gives us no rule for deciding the litigated questions about public improvements, a national bank, or a protective tariff or state rights. But it does give us rules pronouncing about slave-laws, the slave-trade, obedience to magistrates, treason, rebellion, and revolution” (pp. 289-90).

This understanding of the spirituality of the church, then, keeps church and state distinct but allows ministers to pontificate when they read the Bible a certain way. Here is where the matter of the sufficiency of Scripture is crucial to the spirituality doctrine. The point of keeping pastors out of politics wasn’t simply to maintain checks and balances or some kind of differentiation of spheres. It was mainly to limit ministers to expounding the word of God. If the Bible speaks to a particular matter, ministers should speak to it. But where the Bible is silent, ministers should also keep quiet.

Okay, then, clever readers may be wondering, doesn’t the Bible speak to slavery? Well, it does but maybe not in the ways that Hodge or DeYoung or Frederick Douglass would find encouraging. Does anyone want to open the Bible to Exodus 21 and instruct southern slave owners about slave policy and tell the abolitionists to back down?

“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.

Or how about reparations (as Jemar Tisby advocates)? Should 2 Samuel 21 be the church’s standard?

Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. 3 And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” 4 The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” 5 They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, 6 let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.” And the king said, “I will give them.”

That sort of puts a point on it.

And how about the John-the-Baptist 30-year diet?

John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4)

Don’t even start on the John-the-Baptist line of men’s ware for those offended by the Gillette commercial.

So the spirituality of the church is not simply about distinctions between church power (spiritual) and state power (civil). It is also about the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the way of salvation.

Sometimes Scripture does speak to social and political matters. But because the biblical authors were so distant from ours, following their counsel about monarchy or about executing adulterers may not be what God wants his church circa 2020 to do. In other words, the Bible comes packaged in all sorts of historical circumstances that good interpreters generally know how to render so that women who don’t wear hats to church do not have to meet frequently with session or consistory.

If the Bible is a guide to life, then I guess you can consult it for political hot button issues like abolition and reparations. And if humans have no recourse to wisdom about daily living, including social and economic policies, then some Christians may think the Bible is the only source of answers. But if the Bible is an account of how God reconciled sinners to himself and how the church ministers that plan of salvation to God’s people, then Christians need to use the best insights from the unregenerate and the redeemed to achieve a modicum of peace and order this side of glory.

Changes on the Left and the Right

Not even development of doctrine can keep up with the flips and flops, the yings and yangs, of English-speaking Roman Catholics. Massimo Faggioli provides a bird-watchers guide:

There is, for example, a new wave of ultramontanism that looks to an idealized conception of Rome for its points of reference. There is also a related resurgence of “integralism,” inspiring conferences at the University of Notre Dame and Harvard. The new integralism takes a step beyond the more tentative Catholic post-liberalism, or the simple proclamation of the crisis of liberal Catholicism. Integralism is the attempt to imagine for the Catholic Church—but also for the world in which the church lives—a future that rejects the “liberal” separation between temporal and spiritual power, and subordinates the former to the latter.

According to Sacramentum Mundi (first published between 1968 and 1970, and now available online—its general editor was Karl Rahner, SJ) integralism is

the tendency, more or less explicit, to apply standards and directives drawn from the faith to all the activity of the Church and its members in the world. It springs from the conviction that the basic and exclusive authority to direct the relationship between the world and the Church, between immanence and transcendence, is the doctrinal and pastoral authority of the Church.

Here one can detect a subtle difference between the classic definition of integralism and its twenty-first-century variety. This new strain is focused almost exclusively on the political realm. In fact, what it resembles most is another phenomenon of nineteenth-century Catholic culture: intransigentism—the belief that any concession to, or accommodation with, the modern world endangers the faith. Unlike mere conservatism, which values elements of the past and seeks to preserve them, intransigentism rejects the modern outright and preemptively. This has consequences for the theological thinking of Catholics who today call themselves integralists, traditionalists, and ultramontanists. For these Catholics, the past sixty years—and especially Vatican II—either do not matter at all or matter only if they can be interpreted as a confirmation of the church’s past teaching.

Roman Catholic liberals also are hardly steady:

It is interesting how different the liberal Catholicism of the nineteenth century is from the liberal Catholicism of today, and how similar the Catholic intransigentism of the nineteenth century is to the intransigentism of today. Liberal Catholicism today is much more accepting of individualistic, bourgeois society than it was in the nineteenth century, when it had a more prophetic edge. But intransigentism hasn’t really changed much in the past 150 years, especially when it comes to the question of the confessional state—a question on which the church’s official teaching has changed during this period. It would be interesting to ask the proponents of this kind of Catholicism what they make of the plight of Catholics who have to live as minorities under integralistic non-Christian confessional regimes, and why those Catholics do not seem to be so afraid of liberalism.

Faggioli may regard himself as closer to the mainstream of Roman Catholic thought thanks to his regard for Pope Francis and his Italian background. But when you ponder all the changes in Roman Catholic teaching about various aspects of modern society since Vatican II, you hardly see the sort of continuity to which the Villanova University professor aspires. Roman Catholics in the U.S. certainly have their moments. But it is not as if the bishops, the Vatican, or the papacy has stayed on track. Roman Catholics can pick their favorite pope after World War II — John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Francis — according to their reading of the tradition, the modern world, and personal preference.

It’s almost as chaotic as Protestants reading the Bible.

Social Justice circa 2009

If you read some people, you might get the impression that the gospel and social justice are synonymous. But words change meanings, even if some people have trouble understanding that a reference to “race” in the 1930s is not the same as one in the 1880s or the 1980s.

Consider how only a decade ago, the Gospel Allies were talking about social justice in ways that no one could use after Michael Brown, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter. For instance, Kevin DeYoung wrote a series on social justice in Scripture that found almost no reference to race. Here is how he summarized it last year (even!):

Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.

So for simplicity sake, let’s take biblical “social justice” to mean something like “treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable.” If that’s what we mean, is social justice a gospel issue?

Even Thabiti Anyabwile seemed to be persuaded:

We seem to put social justice at odds with gospel proclamation. Many today don’t think these can easily coexist. They think that to fight for justice as the Christian church inevitably means the abandonment of the gospel. They may be correct. For since the Civil Rights Movement, the gospel has been thoroughly confused by too many in the African American church with liberation and justice itself.

To be sure, Anyabwile went on to question those who make too strong a contrast between the gospel and social justice:

to preach the gospel and have no concern and take no action in the cause of justice is as much an abandonment of the gospel as mistaken the gospel. How can a faithful gospel preacher preach the gospel before slaves and never wince at the gross barbarity of that peculiar institution? How can a man claim to live the gospel with fellow brothers in Christ and yet uphold laws that disenfranchise, marginalize, and oppress those same brothers?

Well, what exactly counts as taking action? Is it tweeting? Writing a post for a parachurch website? Calling a legislature? Standing outside an office with a placard?

What also is “upholding” laws that disenfranchise? If someone says nothing are they guilty of upholding existing laws? Or is it a case of speaking out or “taking action” against some laws but not others?

Abandonment of the gospel is a tad strong for a condition — “taking no action” — that is so arbitrary and inexact.

At the same time, once upon a time Anyabwile fully endorsed DeYoung’s point that Christians should stop using the phrase social justice:

Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!

Not even John MacArthur and fellow signers went that far.

Something changed between 2009 and 2019. It could be that history clarified all the ambiguity (even if it did not change what the Bible — a fixed set of texts — says. Or it could be people have changed their minds. If Ferguson is the turning point, it sure would help to hear some reflection on ways in which a country that has persistently practiced racism only in 2014 became so egregious that now some people had to build up word counts and twitter followers.

W-w Giveth, W-w Taketh Away, Short Live W-w

Tim Carney’s piece on Trump-voting evangelicals is getting a lot of play and for good reason. He looks at churches outside the urban, suburban bubble, the ones that Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition try to own. And he finds that evangelicalism is not nearly as monolithic as scholars and evangelical leaders have said. He may even give reasons for abandoning evangelicalism altogether.

But Carney also opens a window on those Protestants where neo-Calvinist influence has had the longest shelf-life. In some cases, the results should hearten the redeemers of every square inch:

Trump’s single worst county in all of Iowa—far worse than Polk County (where Des Moines is) or Story County (home to Iowa State), or Johnson County (University of Iowa)—was Sioux County. Trump finished fourth place there, behind Ben Carson. Ted Cruz won every precinct of Sioux County.

Sioux is home to Orange City and Sioux Center, and it is the Dutchest county in America. Dutch ancestry is probably one of the best proxies the Census has for religious attendance.

Jordan Helming, a transplant whom I met at a Jeb Bush rally in Sioux Center, was astounded by the religiosity of the place, including the sheer number of churches. “There are 19 of them in this town—a town of 7,000 has 19 churches.”

Different strains of Reformed Christianity dominate in this overwhelmingly Dutch county, from austere old-world Calvinism (“the frozen chosen” they call themselves) to more evangelical flavors. Attendance (often twice on Sundays) is high, and the churches build strong community bonds.

“You care about your neighbors,” Helming explained, “you care about your environment, but you also take care of it yourself—don’t rely on the government.”

Carney does not mention that these Iowans also selected Steve King to represent them in the House of Representatives.

Reinforcing that uncomfortable detail are Carney’s tabulations of Michigan’s voting habits:

Back in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, analysts saw the GOP electorate in two categories: (a) establishment Republicans or (b) Evangelicals. The Establishment types voted for Mitt Romney or John McCain in 2008, and the “evangelical vote” went for Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.

It turns out we were all oversimplifying things. That supposedly “evangelical vote” was a combination of two electorates: (1) the evangelical vote and (2) the rural populist vote. The 2016 primaries illuminated this distinction.

In Michigan, for instance, 2012 saw Romney carry the stretch of the state from Ann Arbor to Detroit, while Santorum won most of the rest of the state. Four years later, it was much more complex: Kasich won Ann Arbor, Trump won Detroit and most of the rural counties, while Cruz dominated in the handful of counties around Holland and Grand Rapids, where the Dutch Reformed church dominates.

Cruz would likely be better than Trump. But why don’t Christian Reformed institutions own up to being oh so Republican? You’d never know from reading the Banner, Reformed Journal, Pro Rege, or In All Things. If the leaders of Evangelicalism, Inc. could be so out of touch with non-urban Protestants, are the professors and pastors in the Christian Reformed and Reformed Church of America world all that connected?

People Are Silent about A Lot of Things

If you are woke, apparently you think you see it all. And anyone who doesn’t see what is in your sights is guilty of cover-up or worse.

Sometimes though the system is worse than even the ones who see and speak loudly of their insight. For instance, you won’t see many Christian social justice warriors discussing this problem of needing medical treatment and being under warrant:

Say your Uncle Pedro has chest pains. Or is ODing. Should you call 911? Of course! Right? But what if you don’t know if he’s wanted? What if you don’t know if you’re wanted? Should you still call 911? You know cops might also respond because, well, why not? Maybe cops can do some good before the ambulance arrives. (Though generally, as a former cop, when it comes to medical care, are you serious?) Or keep the peace. But should you be debating all this before deciding to call 911? While you’re discussing the pros and cons, Uncle Pedro just stopped breathing.

For some reason, blogging about the dangers of the spirituality of the church won’t fix this:

What problem is this solution supposed to fix? “We want the cops to put an aided card into the phone on the scene and it to automatically query the warrant system.” It is bad policy to routinely run warrant checks on people seeking medical care.

I know it’s not in the public’s interest to have wanted people running around. It’s one thing for police to run somebody because they have suspicion. It’s another to do so because they called for help. It’s not in the public’s interest to have people afraid to seek medical care or see EMTs and paramedics and the FDNY as part of law enforcement. Let’s base a policy decision based on evidence rather than, “hey, cops now have smart phones linked to the warrant system!”

On the other hand, while white Protestants in the past were guilty of white supremacy (science has yet to conclude you receive this condition genetically), African-American men are doing better than the social justice warriors have you believe, according to a recent study:

1. A substantial share of black men in the United States are realizing the American Dream—at least financially—and a majority are not poor. Per a new analysis of Census data outlined in the report, more than one-in-two black men (57%) have made it into the middle class or higher as adults today, up from 38% in 1960.

2. Education, work, and marriage are central to the economic success of black men in the United States. Black men who work full time, earned at least some college education, and married are significantly more likely to be members of the middle or upper class in their fifties. For example, about 70% of married black men are in the middle class, compared to only 20% of never-married black men and 44% of divorced black men.

3. Military service is also linked to higher odds of making it into the middle class or higher for black men. The report finds that black men who served in the military are more likely than those who did not to be in the middle class when they reach mid-life (54% vs. 45%).

4. Additionally, regular church attendance and a strong sense of personal agency are linked to upward mobility for black men. Black men who frequently attended church services at a young age are more likely to reach the middle class or higher in their fifties. For example, 53% of those who attended church as young men made it, compared to 43% who did not.

Moreover, black men who scored above average in their sense of agency as young men or teenagers in the late 1970s are more likely to be prosperous later in life, compared to their peers who did not have the same sense of agency (52% vs. 44%). “Agency” was measured by reports that they are directing the course of their lives versus feeling like they are not in control.

Something not included in this study: the percentage of African-American pastors with big-screen televisions and cable subscriptions for viewing the NFL playoffs.

What Would it Take for a Minster to Go to Jail?

These days the short answer has something to do with children (or not reporting someone who had something to do with children). But for high minded ministers, what about the ministering word and sacrament could get you locked up?

Doug Wilson’s recent encounter with FBI agents got me thinking:

A few weeks ago, I got a call from an FBI agent (apparently on the road) to see if I would be in my office later that afternoon. I acknowledged that I would be, and we arranged a time. At that arranged time, two field agents showed up, very personable, professional and polite. As far as I knew, it could be anything from running a security check on someone who had me down as a reference to hauling me off for thought crimes against our Brand New Republic.

I asked them if I should have a colleague sit in, and they said that would not be necessary. So then, we sat down, and though I may not have looked like I was all agog, I was all agog on the inside. Imagine my delight when it turned out that our topic was “No Quarter November,” specifically the first post in that series, and more specifically than that, the first paragraph in that post. As you may recall, the title of that post was “Burn All the Schools.” And here is the offending paragraph.

H.L. Mencken once suggested a shrewd educational reform that has somehow not caught on. He said that there was nothing wrong with our current education establishment that could not be fixed by burning all the schools, and hanging all the teachers. Now some might want to dismiss this as an extreme measure, but visionaries are often dismissed in their own day. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”

From this Wilson deduce that:

There are two kinds of Christian leaders in the world, dividing them broadly into two camps. Mention that someone has gotten a visit from the FBI on the basis of something he said in a sermon, on a podcast, on his blog, or in the church newsletter, and Christian leaders will sort themselves out accordingly. One group shakes the head disapprovingly, worried about the testimony, and what does this do to the good reputation among outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7)? The second kind of Christian leader hears of something like this, and his heart sinks. “Why can’t something like that ever happen to me?” And his wife says, “Honey, don’t . . .”

One kind of Christian leader thinks that it is an honor to be honored. The other believes that it is an honor to be dishonored, a grace to be disgraced. There is obviously more to it, but that basic division explains a lot of other things too.

Now someone might be ready with a quick comeback. “Yeah, Wilson, but you didn’t get visited by the FBI because of Jesus. You got visited because you quoted that old reprobate Mencken.”

To which I reply that perhaps a lot more pastors ought to be quoting Mencken.

That’s a strange admission that preaching Christ and him crucified will not land you in jail. It may in China. It may in Eritrea. But in the United States it won’t. Even the little old ornery OPC, for all of its warts and few crackpots, is able to minister scripture as a confessional Presbyterian communion without fear of police raids or federal penalties. Is the United States great, or what?

And yet, to maintain the narrative that the United States (and liberalism) is the second coming of the fall, and to prove their bona fides as “real” male ministers, some pastors get Chris Matthews tingle up the leg at the thought of going to jail.

Now, I like Mencken as much as the next white male Protestant, but I have never advocated preaching him. Yet, while Wilson entertains preaching Baltimore’s bad boy, Tim Bayly reached for Herman Melville:

In my first message at the conference, I quoted Melville’s maxim, “the pulpit leads the world.” During the Q&A afterward, a pastor ministering in a hipster neighborhood of an eastern seaboard city was quite exercised over the statement, calling out “what’s your authority for saying ‘the pulpit leads the world’?”

I answered that I hadn’t cited it, but my source was Melville’s Moby Dick, leading him to interrupt saying he didn’t care where the quote came from, following with “where does it say that in the Bible?”

To which I responded that the entire Bible says it, from the prophets through the book of Acts where we read of the preaching of the Gospel turning the ancient Roman Empire on its head and getting the Jewish leaders to gnash their teeth.

He continued adamant in his denial, at which point I probed whether he was an R2K acolyte of men like Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen?

Bingo. And later in the conference, this pastor interrupted my message on the sin of effeminacy, saying I should stick to preaching the simple Gospel. He was quite adamant about it and I had to ask him if he’d please let me finish and we could talk afterward?

This is the preaching of Reformed pulpits in our nation today, and it leads me on this morning following our midterm elections to make the obvious point that everything going on in these United States right now, from our White House to our Congress and Supreme Court down to our state capitals and governors’ mansions down to our mayors and school district superintendents, even to the words squawking in our police cars and the smiles and frowns of our crossing guards, is the product of our pulpits.

Notice the concession to the spirituality of the church (and its foundation in the sufficiency of Scripture). If you want to preach about politics, you need to look beyond the Bible to American authors. Mencken and Melville are preferable to Charles Dickens and Flannery O’Connor, though Christians reading non-Christian fiction is generally a good thing. But not in the pulpit, not even The Wire.

If You Worry about Pompeo, Why Not Pope Francis?

The Guardian has a story that should trouble 2kers. It’s about the influence of evangelicals, holding office, mind you, and responsible for foreign policy in the Middle East:

In his speech at the American University in Cairo, Pompeo said that in his state department office: “I keep a Bible open on my desk to remind me of God and his word, and the truth.”

The secretary of state’s primary message in Cairo was that the US was ready once more to embrace conservative Middle Eastern regimes, no matter how repressive, if they made common cause against Iran.

His second message was religious. In his visit to Egypt, he came across as much as a preacher as a diplomat. He talked about “America’s innate goodness” and marveled at a newly built cathedral as “a stunning testament to the Lord’s hand”.

The desire to erase Barack Obama’s legacy, Donald Trump’s instinctive embrace of autocrats, and the private interests of the Trump Organisation have all been analysed as driving forces behind the administration’s foreign policy.

The gravitational pull of white evangelicals has been less visible. But it could have far-reaching policy consequences. Vice President Mike Pence and Pompeo both cite evangelical theology as a powerful motivating force.

Just as he did in Cairo, Pompeo called on the congregation of a Kansan megachurch three years ago to join a fight of good against evil.

“We will continue to fight these battles,” the then congressman said at the Summit church in Wichita. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight.”

This is not good on two counts. First, it mixes the church and the state. Second, it uses bad theology for one of the mix’s ingredients. Good for Julian Borger to catch this.

But what about when the Vatican does the same thing (but without the Word of God)?

Though the week between Christmas and New Year’s is traditionally a fairly slow period on the Vatican beat, this is the Pope Francis era, when tradition and a Euro will buy you a cup of cappuccino in a Roman café.

Thus it’s entirely fitting that arguably one of the Vatican’s most important diplomatic encounters of 2018 came the day after Christmas, when Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, met Iraqi President Barham Salih in Baghdad.

During the meeting, Salih extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the Iraqi city of Ur, the Biblical city of Abraham, for an interreligious summit. It’s a trip that St. John Paul II desperately wanted to make in 2000, during a jubilee year pilgrimage to sites associated with salvation history, but the security situation at the time made such a trip impossible.

There was no immediate word from the Vatican whether Francis intends to accept the invitation, although there has been some media buzz about an outing coming as early as February. Doing so would be entirely consistent with his penchant for visiting both the peripheries of the world and also conflict zones.

Parolin was accompanied in the Dec. 26 meeting by the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, the largest of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome in the country, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako. That was an important signal, in part underlining that the Vatican isn’t interested in pursuing a parallel diplomatic track with Baghdad that doesn’t prioritize the concerns of the local church.

(That’s a real concern, given the fact that critics insist the Vatican has done precisely the opposite in some other parts of the world, including China and Russia.)

According to a statement afterwards from the Iraqi president’s office, Salih and Parolin discussed the importance of different religions working together to combat extremist ideology “that does not reflect the beliefs and values of our divine messages and social norms.”

The statement also said the two leaders discussed the situation facing Christians in Iraq, talking “a great deal” about how to maintain their presence in the country and to assist in rebuilding their homes, businesses and places of worship in the wake of devastation caused by ISIS and other extremist Islamic forces.

Is it because the Vatican has been engaged in foreign policy for a millennium, compared to evangelicals who have only been at it maybe 30 years tops, that allows reporters to take Bishops’ influence on temporal rulers for granted?

Or are evangelicals scarier because with the executive branch of the U.S. federal government they have more power than the pope?

If so, that’s true audacity.

What the Gospel Co-Allies Could Learn from Non-Christian Movies

Jared Wilson (not at TGC website) makes some good points about the poor quality of Christian movies:

Christian movies are not made by artists but propagandists.

I don’t mean that these projects aren’t carried about by people who know what they’re doing with cameras, lighting, etc. The visual quality of Christian movies has definitely increased over the last decade. The caliber of talent on both sides of the camera has increased, as well. So when I say Christian movies aren’t made by artists, I don’t mean they aren’t made by people who are good at their jobs. What I mean is that they are made by people who don’t really know what the job ought to be.

I tracked this shift most notably in Christian writing (fiction) about 20 years ago. We always wondered why there weren’t any more C.S. Lewises or G.K. Chestertons around. The truth is, there were — they just weren’t writing for the Christian market, because that market does not want art that communciates truth but art that is being used by a message. And there’s a difference. It is the difference between art and propaganda.

Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art, because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme — the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something — and then the story is crafted around that message. This is true even when the story is something based on a real-life incident. Delving into the depths of human character and motivation is subservient to getting the message across. This is why so much of the dialogue in Christian movies violates the classic writing proverb, “Show, don’t tell.”

Wilson makes several other good points about Christian movies’ lameness.

The thing is, someone could make similar points about the content at TGC, whether current events, movie reviews, or even discussions of Christianity. The problem with the Christian intellectual bright web is that the Christianity or w-w on view is mainly about uplift and rooting for the good guys, that is, the celebrity pastors who sometimes leave their own parachurch platforms to perform occasional services for TGC.

A basic problem is an inability to regard non-Christians as confronting real life situations that believers also face, or portraying Christians as people with similar problems to non-Christians — juggling multiple loyalties, avoiding temptation, maintaining integrity, or even looking up to people without faith for insights into the human condition. Is it possible, for instance, for a Christian to render a non-Christian as a charming, likable, even wise person? I understand the challenges that non-believers have in portraying Christians as anything other than two-dimensional figures. That’s because Christians have such trouble admitting that they are both human and spiritual, justified and unsanctified. But is it so hard to portray human existence apart from Christ as a compelling story from which Christians can learn how to participate in all those parts of experience that are not obviously religious? If it is hard — and it is — it is because the victorious Christian living, teaching, and defending that TGC advocates is one where Christians are sanctified across all parts of ordinary life. Christians do Christian music, holy child-rearing, sanctified plumbing, and spiritual goat breeding. If everything has to have Christian significance, you are going to miss a lot of life.

That is why The Big Kahuna is such a great movie. Of course, we may no longer watch it because it stars Kevin Spacey among others. Plus, it has at least 20 f-bombs. But it also portrays the haplessness of an evangelical engineer who works with worldly salesmen and turns out not to be a reliable colleague because he (Bob, played by Peter Facinelli) is so eager to evangelize on the job. The movie, to its credit, treats this evangelical as a real life human being. When he says that it’s more important to follow Jesus than sell an industrial lubricant (at a business convention), you actually see Bob’s dilemma. It is not a ridiculous riddle. But the evangelical also lacks character, as Danny DeVito’s character points out, because Bob doesn’t see how his desire to serve the Lord has blinded him to poor performance on the job, or a distance from co-workers. Bob sees himself in two dimensions because his piety tells him to view himself that way.

It is a smart movie from which Christians and non-Christians can see the way life doesn’t proceed in straight lines.

If TGC wants Christians to make better movies, they should produce better content.