When the Gospel (Coalition) Needs Conservatism

At a time when out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing (forty percent in 2013) and straining urban life in major ways, Bethany Jenkins, who writes with the blessing of the Gospel Coalition and who swims the the heady streams of New York City evangelicalism, considers being a single mom:

These days it almost seems passé to talk about needing marriage before having children. Today’s single woman doesn’t need marriage—or even a man.

Single mothers by choice (SMBC)—in contrast to by circumstance or chance—are single women who have chosen to have children through sperm donation (75 percent) or adoption (25 percent). The difference between these women and women like me who choose to remain childless, says Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is desire:

Again and again, the [SMBC] I spoke with described how they’d wanted to be a mother for as long as they could remember and how the urge to get there became so overpowering, it felt less like a rational decision than a compulsion. This conviction—that no matter what, they would have a child—is, I’ve concluded, the most common denominator uniting all choice moms.

Such women are praised for their courage and confidence. One SMBC, who became a mother through sperm donation, says her friends called her “amazing” and “brave.” Yet she confesses she didn’t feel brave. “It’s not about being brave—it was about wanting to stop feeling like a childless mother, and take the next step before I ran out of time.”

My single friend, Christine, on the other hand, became a mother by adoption. Her journey was less a pursuit of self-actualization or self-fulfillment and more a response to a need—not a need she felt within herself, but a need she saw in someone else.

While working with high schoolers through the faith-based nonprofit Young Life, Christine met Ana, a 15-year-old expectant mother. When Ana’s water broke, her mother refused to take her to the hospital. That’s when Ana called Christine. Christine drove her to the hospital and stayed with her through the birth, holding her hand in the delivery room. Over the next few years, it became apparent that Ana and the birth father couldn’t care for their daughter, María.

It wasn’t easy, but Christine stepped up. At one point, she and María shared a 425-square-foot apartment and, since María’s biological familial ties weren’t completely severed, there were some relational challenges, too. But Christine says María is the greatest joy she has ever known—in spite of the obstacles. She also says she didn’t stumble into motherhood: “I longed to become a mom, so I diligently prayed for God to give me a child. When this opportunity arose, I had eyes to see it. If this hadn’t happened, I believe I’d have seen another opportunity. I was on the lookout for it.”

Hasn’t she heard about the importance of fathers in socializing children (especially boys)?

Meanwhile, Gracie Olmstead who writes regularly for American Conservative, puts motherhood in perspective, as in it’s not all about her but about the child:

Motherhood is not easy. It is often painful, frustrating, and difficult. It involves a host of unpleasantries. In our age, in which the self reigns supreme, motherhood runs counter to every society-endorsed impulse and mantra. Motherhood is all about sacrifice—from the moment our bodies begin to reconfigure themselves in order to grow a new human being.

Motherhood means sleepless nights, sore nipples, baby blues, weight gain, aching backs, temper tantrums, frightening doctor’s appointments, endless laundry, constant cleaning, incessant worry, near heart attacks, and lots and lots of money. Motherhood isn’t about self-filling. It’s about self-emptying.

That isn’t to say motherhood can’t be fun and joyous. It truly is and can be. But in order to embrace it, one must believe that all of the pain and hardship involved in motherhood is good, and that the child that results from all our work and hardship is inherently, intrinsically good as well. One must have a moral imagination, a “stable sentiment.” Mothers must have chests.

Olmstead adds that today’s decision to have a child could turn into tomorrow’s regret at giving birth:

As soon as we take away the idea of virtue—the idea that an act, despite the pains and sacrifice it might require, is objectively good and worth pursuing for its own sake—we permanently impede humankind’s ability to pursue selfless action. It does not matter if you tell a woman she should procreate “for the good of the species,” or tell her that she’s biologically predisposed to want children. If there is no overarching moral code related to the bearing and raising of children, then motherhood is subjugated to the wild and changeful whims of human emotion and desire. One second, you might want a baby; the next, you might spurn your child—and there is no law or code that can suggest you should do otherwise. “Instinct” becomes “impulse,” and so we waffle from whim to whim.

What accounts for the difference between an evangelical and conservative outlook on motherhood? Could it be that born-again Protestants really put the mmmmmeeeEEEE in all about mmmeeeeEEEE since personal experience and fulfillment is so important to being an evangelical? In contrast, conservatives (who may also be evangelicals) tend to think about the traditions and webs of social networks that go with marriage and rearing children. If the New York evangelical intelligentsia had given Bethany more instruction in conservatism than the gospel, maybe she’d see the problem with single parenthood.

The Unsanctity!

At this point, surprise and indignation are no longer in order since the disregard for the Lord’s Day among New Calvinists is so ho-hum. Yet, sometimes the ordinary is brazen in its ordinariness. Consider this paid advertisement for the Professional Golfers Association at the Allies website:

There’s a tight-knit Christian community on the PGA TOUR, including a Tuesday night fellowship that includes Bible study and worship. Tournaments run Thursday to Sunday, so it’s often hard for players to attend church on Sunday. This is their form of Christian community away from church.

No wrestling with the fourth of the Ten Commandments? Just a shrug? It’s hard. Ever heard of Eric Liddell? Sometimes, Christian athletes really do make sacrifices for their religious obligations.

Apparently, a golfer learns enough about grace on the links so he doesn’t need to comply with the demands of God’s law:

Ben Crane, one of the TOUR’s Christian players, summed this up perfectly a few years ago. He was having a tough year on the course. One of his friends asked how he was doing in the midst of his struggles. He replied:

I think he expected me to say I was really struggling because the golf wasn’t all that good. I just said, “You know, I’m doing great, because the rough season of golf has brought me closer to God. Golf was becoming too important to me. . . . These last few weeks I’ve just said, you know what, golf is not everything.”

Two years ago, Crane was injured and thought he may have to retire from the game, even though he was only 38 and keeps himself in good health. He surprisingly won a tournament a few months later.

“I had to finally become okay with golf not being in the picture,” he said, reflecting on how to find an identity apart from golf. But the gospel got him to the place where he could pray, “Lord, if it’s not golf, I will love you. But if it is, that would be really fun.” Golf was no longer his idol; he could enjoy it for what it is—a gift of grace.

I believe the person who conducted this interview attends a Presbyterian church where the Shorter and Larger Catechisms are supposed to be taught and followed. So is the lesson here that New Calvinists really are a different kind of Protestant?

Identity Economics

I thought that neo-Calvinism was supposed to do away with the sacred-secular distinction that led fundamentalists to produce the Christian Yellow Pages — you know, the phone book that allowed Christian consumers to buy goods and services from Christian providers of goods and services. Well, even in the hipster land of urban Protestantism, the logic of every square inch only extends to redeemed businesses. Bethany explains:

But we also believe that God is working in areas beyond literature, academia, and journalism. In fact, as our Theological Vision for Ministry makes clear, we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do everything—from teaching to plumbing to accounting. “Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions.”

This Christmas, our faith and work channel—Every Square Inch—wants to celebrate products made by companies founded by Christian entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs, they created something from nothing and, along the way, have given people jobs, contributed to the economy, engaged in ethical business practices, been generous with their neighbors, and expressed the creativity of God.

This guide isn’t comprehensive. There are thousands of outstanding Christian-led companies, and I welcome your suggestions in the comments. Also, each company featured makes many products, not just the ones below, so I encourage you to explore. These items are simply “my favorite things.” I hope you that enjoy the guide and—even if you don’t find anything in it—that you’re encouraged to see God at work.

Aside from projecting a kind of insularity that conflicts with Redeemer NYC’s cosmopolitanism, Bethany fails to explain how exactly non-Christians fail to give people jobs, contribute to the economy, engage in ethical business practices, be generous to neighbors, and express the creativity of God. That sacred-secular distinction might come in handy and let Christians recognize the creational norms that govern not just sanctified but all human existence.

Maybe the explanation for Christians’ superiority is that only Christians can create “something from nothing.” If so, Bethany doesn’t understand ex nihilo or the omnipotence of God (where are TGC’s theological editors?). She also does not seem to agree with President Obama. Bethany appears to have us believe that Christian entrepreneurs “did build that.”

How Red State.

Reimagine Humility

Bethany Jenkins gives us a window into the path to true humility (thanks to our southern correspondent):

To live out the fullness of our liberty, though, we must get rid of our arrogant, controlling, slow-to-hear, quick-to-speak, know-it-all spirits. In a 1995 sermon titled “Growth Through Hearing Truth,” Tim Keller highlights three characteristics of a proud heart:

A proud heart argues for every one of its convictions because it can’t distinguish between major and minor points. Instead, it says: “Any belief—because it’s mine—is a major belief.”
A proud heart either enjoys or avoids confronting, but never confronts with tears.
A proud heart is unhappy with life and, instead of receiving it as a gift, always gripes about how things are going.

The opposite of a proud and angry heart is humility, not self-control. And it’s our internal postures—not our external circumstances—that determine our happiness.

But why doesn’t humility involve submitting to God’s revealed will? Jenkins’ lesson in humility stemmed from a difficult encounter at the check-out line — wait for it — on Sunday:

On Sunday afternoon, in the checkout line at the grocery store, I put a man on trial. He made no argument and offered no defense, but I judged him guilty.

I went there to pick up three things—fruit, deli meat, and club soda. When I got to the only open line, there was just one man ahead of me. This is going to be quick, I assumed.

After the cashier started ringing up his items, though, he decided it was a good time to ask where the premade guacamole was. “Aisle 5,” she said. Then he left his place in line to find it.

When he returned a few minutes later, the cashier had finished scanning his items and customers had started lining up, but his hands were empty. He hadn’t found the guacamole. “It’s on aisle 7,” another store employee said. “On the bottom shelf.” The man again went to search.

Five minutes later, with eight customers now in line, he finally checked out. And I was annoyed. Why did he wait and ask the cashier? Why didn’t he ask someone else before he got in line? How could he inconvenience the rest of us like this? The only reasonable answer, I concluded, was that he was rude, incompetent, and narcissistic.

As I walked home, though, I wondered why my heart went so easily to judgment and anger, not to grace and mercy. Why did I spend so much time mentally logging the reasons he was guilty, not the reasons he might need grace? Why did my time need so much defending?

I know it’s easy to throw the Reformed Protestant penalty flag on this one and emerge as the righteous one who keeps the law, though actually keeping the Lord’s Day holy is difficult and sometimes means having to go without food items for one day that you forgot to pick up on Saturday, not to mention trying not think about “worldly employments and recreations” on Sunday. In the heat of the pennant race, avoiding baseball scores until Monday morning is one thing, but not thinking about the game being played is a whole other layer of sanctity. It’s also easy to take a shot at the Gospel Allies who promote sanctification and a holistic gospel but then publish a piece that so flagrantly acknowledges conduct that would have gotten any Christian for almost 1950 years in trouble with his session or priest. Can’t the Allies at least acknowledge a diversity of views on the Lord’s Day and walk circumspectly around it? If I get flack for talking about The Wire, can’t Jenkins get push back for breaking the Fourth Commandment? (And what exactly is Tim Keller teaching Jenkins?)

But aside from the letter of the law or even ignoring a law, might the means of grace be a way to learn the humility that Jenkins thought she found? What if sanctifying the Lord’s Day is in fact a means of grace? And what if submitting to God’s law is a way to say not my but your will be done, not my convenience because I didn’t order my week but your teaching on how order our lives in this world? What if the piety that the pietists seek is right there before them in the not so hip or urban ways of Reformed Protestantism — two services on the Lord’s Day regulated by and filled with Scripture, catechesis, family visitation, family worship, and not doing worldly things on Sunday? Imagine how much humility that gospel coalition might yield.

No Rest, No Worship

I wish Bethany Jenkins would try to find the work for which she trained in law school. To graduate from Columbia, she must be bright. But I’m not sure she has captured the high points of Reformed theology and worship. I think that means that I also wish the Gospel Allies would not give spiritual cheerleaders a platform. (Unlike Las Vegas, what the Kellers enable doesn’t stay in but spreads all over.)

The post that has my jaws clenched today (thanks to our southern correspondent) is one in which Bethany calls for worship that reflects all the ways that God is glorified, especially the work Christians do outside the worship service:

For churches, the question is not just, What is worship?, but also, What kinds of worship should we experience and model when we gather together? Shying away from offering any particular rules, Carson casts a high vision for corporate worship: “Work for a massive display of the glory of God and character and attributes of God.”

That display is not massive, but miniscule, when we limit it to include only work that contributes to our worship services. If we only have church activities in mind when we sing, “Come and see what God has done” (Ps. 66:5), then we miss out on that “massive display” of God’s glory, character, and attributes.

If Ms. Jenkins ever watched The Wire or a Coen Brothers movie she might have a clue about how self-serving this talk of massive displays of God’s glory seems. She is close to saying, even though I’m sure she doesn’t intend it, that worship should be about what WE do during the week. If worship doesn’t expand to include our work and how we think about it, we will miss God’s glory. If we only hear about and meditate on — oh, say — the creation of the world, the call of Abraham, the exodus, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension, our worship doesn’t capture the big picture of God’s glory. Sure enough, I love it when people compliment me for the books (all about me) I’ve written. I even like it when they talk about the ways (some about me) my writing has helped them understand the gospel or the work of the church. But I thought the point of worship was not all about me. My understanding of Reformed worship was that it was theocentric.

The self-servingness of Jenkins and company’s understanding of work is especially evident when she quotes the formal words of commission that folks at Redeemer NYC give to people who work in professions:

In a world filled with brokenness, confusion, darkness, mourning and loneliness, God has called his people to bring the healing light of the gospel into every sector of our city through every profession, institution, and calling. There is no inch of this city where his gospel cannot redeem.

If you work in mid-town Manhattan, drink a lot of expensive coffee, and roam from wi-fi hotspot to hotpsot, these words may give you the gumption to go out and get things done. But if you’re a pig farmer, or regularly milk cows, or clean toilets, or collect subway tokens, the inspiration that works on mid-town Manhattanites may not be your cup of chai.

Entirely missing from this bloated view of work is the Sabbath setting for worship. The Lord’s Day is one reserved for rest and worship and as the Heidelberg Catechism explains, that rest has soteriological significance:

Question 103. What does God require in the fourth commandment?

Answer: First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear his word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor. Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by his Holy Spirit in me: and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath.

One of the arresting points of redemptive history I am learning from a Sunday school series on the Sabbath taught ably by our pastor is that the Sabbath was almost nowhere to be seen between the creation week and the giving of the law at Sinai. The patriarchs knew no real Sabbath and Israel did not enter into meaningful rest until the saints entered the promised land where they could worship in the holy of holies.

If Ms. Jenkins paid more attention to the Bible and its teaching about worship, rest, and the Lord’s Day, she might reconsider her views about massive displays of God’s glory. A loan, a contract, a consultation, a piece of legislation, a foundation grant, an interview with a reporter might look important if you don’t rest from your labors but carry thoughts of them into worship. But if you take a break and contemplate the remarkable work of God in redeeming a sinful world, you may be able to discern the difference between temporal and eternal things.

How Did the Reformation Ever Happen . . .

without The Bible: Faith and Work Edition?

The constant and everyday relevance of the Bible is why David Kim, Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and I—along with the editors of Christianity Today and Zondervan—are working on a new Bible. We want something with staying power.

The Bible: Faith and Work Edition will be a unique and engaging combination of doctrine, application, and community that can find its home not only on your nightstand at home, but also on your desktop at work. Its goal is to equip Christians to meaningfully engage various aspects of their work—even those we might not even think could be relevant—with a renewed sense of the power and relevance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

With over 20 years of experience pastoring people in communities that wrestle with questions about faith and work, Kim says,

What you will learn in the pages of this Bible is not a list of do’s and don’ts at work, but a theology that will hopefully rewire the way you understand the gospel and how it has everything to do with your work. Once you see the connection between faith and work, the work of Christ will become more beautiful, comprehensive, and necessary. I hope this Bible will bring to you an excitement to engage not only your work, but also the world around you, with a renewed sense of purpose grounded in the unique hope of the gospel.

Well, I for one haven’t read this edition of the Bible and already recognized how the gospel does and doesn’t apply. The gospel has provoked this post of sheer disbelief that Christians can be so full of themselves. I also know that the gospel has little to do with making split pea soup in the crock pot for this evening’s meal. I double dare Bethany Jenkins to tell me how justification by faith, sanctification, union with Christ EVEN, applies to dinner.

Apparently as well, the folks responsible for this Bible don’t understand that the gospel, properly understood as good news for what’s coming on judgment day, might actually yield second thoughts about this proposed edition of holy writ. (Where is Kathy Keller’s b-s detector when we need it?) But when you are in the bubble of Redeemerland and have the TKNY brand, you really do think your ideas can “impact” the church and the world more than anyone else (which so far mainly means selling more stuff than John Piper and Desiring God). I am sure that plenty of church officers at churches in small cities and suburbia come up with ideas about how their devotional gadget or technique will change the lives of everyone in the congregation and region. The problem for the Redeemerites is that their bubble of NYC and their ties to TKNY allow them to take silly notions and sell them to business executives (like book publishers) and magazine editors who want more readers.

Would anyone at Zondervan have taken this Bible proposal seriously if it had come from church staff, say, in Montgomery, Alabama?

Did Jesus Die So We Could Eat German Chocolate Cake?

Do the every-square-inchers ever worry that making the gospel relevant to all of life may wind up depriving Christ’s work of its true significance? Bethany Jenkins is starting a series on the theology of dessert for the allies of the gospel (thanks to our southern correspondent). Weight gain is certainly a new way to put meaning in every square inch. Jenkins sees a lot of material with which to make analogies and so writes about milk and honey (but not baklava):

As we contemplate the eschatological reality of our future home in the presence of Christ, God once again turns our attention to desserts. First, he repeatedly tells our forefathers that Canaan will be “a land flowing with milk and honey,” combining milk (a rare and precious commodity in an era without refrigeration) with honey (the chief of desserts). Second, in Revelation, instead of finding a tree with forbidden fruit in a garden, John finds “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” Its leaves are “for the healing of nations” (Rev. 22:2), which fulfills the prophecy spoken by Ezekiel (Ezek. 47:12).

And this during Lent! What needless temptation to the church calendar followers.

Jenkin’s observations might be clever in a literature class, but is this the way the Allies want to handle Scripture? Apparently, the price of discovering ordinary matters in the Bible is worth the benefits that come with showing the gospel’s relevance. According to Collin Hansen:

This week’s series on how pastry chefs integrate their faith and work emerged from our editorial staff’s concerns about the narrow range of questions we typically ask ourselves as we apply our belief in Jesus Christ to everyday tasks. As Bethany Jenkins, our director of Every Square Inch, explored all the ethical issues facing the men and women who bake our cakes, we were amazed by the far-reaching implications of the gospel. You may not agree with every conclusion, but we’re hopeful the series will provoke you to think carefully about the costs and opportunities of discipleship, whether you’re baking cinnamon rolls for your children or arranging an elaborate dessert for display only.

Some believers may be amazed, but others along with any number of unbelievers are dumbfounded by the lack of seriousness implicit in such spiritualizing. Back in 2000 during the days when George W. Bush was running for his first term and securing the backing of evangelical Protestants, the editors at The New Republic quipped:

‘In God We Trust’ is on all our coins, but the ubiquity of the affirmation has not led to any sharpening of the soul or the moral sense. Instead, God is dropped into parking meters and vending machines throughout the land.

Will this series on the theology of ganache help to advance a better understanding or more gratefulness for the work of Christ? Or will it simply be an excuse to use the gospel to be clever? Galling indeed.