What Does Matthew McConaughey Know that the Gospel Industrial Complex Does Not?

I am no fan of religious “journalism” that functions as publicity but here I may be guilty of that of which I complain — at least, to paraphrase the Pharisees, I’m no reporter.

All about mmmmeeeeEEEE, but I really like Nick Foles if only because he is so hard to like, not for having rough edges but for his vanilla qualities. He generally answers reporters questions with generic affirmations of hard work, team spirit, and respect for the other team — in a monotone that is singularly dull. He seems to suffer from the professional QB disease of not being fleet of foot. He even gets that deer-in-the-headlights look when on camera. After a scintillating start in his rookie season (under Chip Kelly, mind you), he fell back to the back of the pack.

Oh, by the way, he just won the Super Bowl, went pass-for-pass with the legendary Tom Brady, and also was MVP. Add to those accomplishments Foles’ profession of faith in Jesus Christ and his on-line seminary studies and you might think the journalists at Christianity Today or the “reporters” at Gospel Coalition would be delighted to draft on Foles’ success the way the Co-Allies did with Bubba Watson at the Masters, if only for the sake of winning more people to Christ. But no. Nothing at either website.

Not even the endorsement from Frank Reich, the Eagles’ Offensive Coordinator (and now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts), who was once-upon-a-time the president of Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) commanded the gospel industrialists’ attention:

“Nick is the real deal — an authentic Christian who has a contagious love for Christ and for others,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich told The Washington Post in a text message.

Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey took out a full-page ad in the Austin American-Statesman to congratulate Foles.

The actor’s response likely has nothing to do with the coverage that even the Washington Post gave to the Eagles’ QB:

Foles’s up-and-down career in the NFL, which included him considering retirement, has prepared him to discuss adversity and character building for a Christian audience. In a video on the YouVersion Bible app, he slipped into preacher mode by reading and explaining 2 Corinthians 12:9.

“This verse has brought so much meaning to my heart and in my life,” he says, later adding, “Everyone feels weak at some time in our lives, but we have to realize when we’re going through that, God’s shaping our hearts and allowing us to grow to become who he created us truly to be.”

He said the week of the Super Bowl that he envisions ministering to students because he understands the temptation with social media and the Internet.

“It’s something I want to do,” he said in an AP story. “I can’t play football forever. I’ve been blessed with an amazing platform, and it’s just a door God has opened, but I still have a lot of school left and a long journey.”

Carson Wentz, the Eagles’ injured starting quarterback, posted an Instagram picture with Foles before the game, writing, “God’s writing an unbelievable story and he’s getting all the glory!”

The Liberty connection may be what puts off the evangelicals in the center of evangelicaldom. Liberty University issued a press release that reads a lot like the kind of features reporting in evangelical publications:

Foles has been bold about his faith during his football career, indicating that he would like to be a youth pastor someday. As the Eagles were presented with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Foles held his infant daughter, Lily, and said, “Being here with my daughter, my wife, my teammmates, my city, we’re very blessed.” At the post-game press conference, he said God gets the glory. “I wouldn’t be out here without God, without Jesus in my life. I can tell you that, first and foremost in my life, I don’t have the strength to come out here and play a game like that. It’s an everyday walk.”

But Liberty’s president did not even spook the Washington Post’s editors who have been known to be a tad tough on Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s favorite POTUS:

Liberty President Jerry Falwell tweeted after the game: “Congratulations to Liberty student @NFoles_9 on an incredible performance tonight and on becoming the first @LibertyU student to quarterback a winning @SuperBowl team! Amazing job by @Eagles! Great game and a real testament to the character and perseverance of the Eagles team!”

So what gives? Even Liberty University English professor, Karen Swallow Prior, isn’t toxic for Christianity Today’s purposes.

My gut tells me Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition still hold a grudge against J. Gresham Machen who started Westminster in Center City Philadelphia. But don’t the editors know that Machen protested the change in Blue Laws that allowed the NFL to play on the Lord’s Day?

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When You Think Billy Graham You don’t Think Lent

But such are the fortunes of evangelicalism that the people running the magazine that Billy Graham (trans-denominational) helped to found with Carl Henry (Baptist), and J. Howard Pew (anti-Communist Presbyterian) are fully comfortable with Anglicanism, and so have posted another article recommending Lent. In this case, telling points mount to show how poorly Lent fits with Christian piety:

heightened devotion is fruitful for a season, but cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Christian calendar offers a sustainable rhythm of which Lent is a part, and the fasting of Lent gives way to the feasting of Easter. Fasting and feasting are interconnected disciplines that teach us to love the King and his coming kingdom. In Lent, we learn to confess our sins, practice self-denial, and take on the humility of Christ. In Easter, we learn to rejoice, exult, and feast in Christ’s victory. As historian William Harmless explains, “In these two liturgical seasons Christians drank in, by turns, the ‘not yet’ and ‘already’ of New Testament eschatology.”

Repentance is fruitful for only part of the year? Moderation is something to observe but only for a time? Imagine if American Christians were moderate and humble the entire year. They wouldn’t binge or purge on American greatness or heinousness depending on which of their favorite presidential candidates was in the White House. Indeed, encouraging the idea that restraint and repentance are only for a while and not for all of life nurtures antinomianism: “I wouldn’t do this during Lent, but the other 325 days I will.”

If Lent is not supposed to lead to those thoughts (which I assume it’s not), then why not make Lenten practices year round? Because repentance and moderation can’t be “sustained indefinitely”? So people practicing Lent are Snowflake Christians? They don’t have the stomach for life-long dying to sin and living to Christ?

Aaron Damiani concedes that “Many Christians choose to keep or modify their Lenten disciplines for the rest of the year, as they have established helpful routines.” So now you have churches divided between full-time Lenten Christians, and ones who only observe Lent in late Winter and early Spring? Christians who truly sanctified and some who aren’t? Not only does this allow a culture of spiritual superiority to gain traction, but it also violates the rules of the liturgical calendar. Who sings Lenten hymns during Advent (oh, the hay that evangelicals make of tradition)?

Then there is the argument that Lent and the church calendar evoke the Jewish liturgical calendar (have you heard that Jesus fulfilled all of the law?):

It’s important to remember that the Christian liturgical calendar developed in part out of the rhythms of Jewish practice. The Old Testament indicates seasons of both heightened devotion and celebration, including Levitically led “sabbaths, new moons, and feast days” (1 Chron. 23:31) and “seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts” (Zech. 8:19). Fasting and feasting were part of the “architecture of time,” in which Jesus participated as an observant Jew.

So what does Father Damiani do with Apostle Paul:

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. (Col 2:16-17)

Here‘s what Calvin did:

The reason why he frees Christians from the observance of them is, that they were shadows at a time when Christ was still, in a manner, absent. For he contrasts shadows with revelation, and absence with manifestation. Those, therefore, who still adhere to those shadows, act like one who should judge of a man’s appearance from his shadow, while in the mean time he had himself personally before his eyes. For Christ is now manifested to us, and hence we enjoy him as being present. The body, says he, is of Christ, that is, IN Christ. For the substance of those things which the ceremonies anciently prefigured is now presented before our eyes in Christ, inasmuch as he contains in himself everything that they marked out as future. Hence, the man that calls back the ceremonies into use, either buries the manifestation of Christ, or robs Christ of his excellence, and makes him in a manner void.

In other words, Lenten Christians are still holding on to a piety that clings to outward and physical attributes of unseen realities (heard of faith vs. sight?). They are incomplete Christians. They demand outward expressions of spiritual realities. They forget that Paul also wrote:

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:22-25)

Oh by the way, Paul’s contrast between the visible and invisible, between the external and internal, is why the Confession of faith contrasts Old Testament and New Testament worship this way:

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (7.6)

The comparison of Lent to the Old Testament is epic fail.

But remember what Calvin went on to say about Colossians 2. The rejection of the church calendar and other external ways of commemorating salvation doesn’t mean that Protestants throw out the sacraments:

Should any one ask, “What view, then, is to be taken of our sacraments? Do they not also represent Christ to us as absent?” I answer, that they differ widely from the ancient ceremonies. For as painters do not in the first draught bring out a likeness in vivid colors, and (eikonikos) expressively, but in the first instance draw rude and obscure lines with charcoal, so the representation of Christ under the law was unpolished, and was, as it were, a first sketch, but in our sacraments it is seen drawn out to the life. Paul, however, had something farther in view, for he contrasts the bare aspect of the shadow with the solidity of the body, and admonishes them, that it is the part of a madman to take hold of empty shadows, when it is in his power to handle the solid substance. Farther, while our sacraments represent Christ as absent as to view and distance of place, it is in such a manner as to testify that he has been once manifested, and they now also present him to us to be enjoyed. They are not, therefore, bare shadows, but on the contrary symbols of Christ’s presence, for they contain that Yea and Amen of all the promises of God, (2 Corinthians 1:20,) which has been once manifested to us in Christ.

I understand the appeal of Lent over the Anxious Bench. The followers of Billy Graham needed to graduate to something more meaningful, something more historical. How about the Reformation? How about the Bible? It replaces the altar call with the Lord’s Supper and gives us fifty-two Easters a year, fifty-two feast days with six days every week to prepare.

Even More on Christian Intellectuals

John Schmalzbauer made some arresting observations about the demise of Books & Culture (that add to Alan Jacobs’ own wondering out loud about Christian intellectuals):

From the Dial and the Partisan Review to Commentary and Dissent (dubbed Dysentery in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), small-circulation periodicals have played a key role in many intellectual movements. The same goes for religious intellectual life, where journals like Commonweal and Christianity and Crisis have cultivated both theological literacy and civic engagement.

Inspired by dreams of a better world, little magazines originate in a frustration with the way things are. While Commonweal offered a Catholic alternative to the New Republic and the Nation, Christianity and Crisis began as a response to the rise of European fascism. According to Dissent founder Irving Howe, “When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine.”

Like many little magazines, Books & Culture was a response to a problem. As Wilson remarked in a recent podcast, “It was not accidental that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind came out in ’94 and the first issue of B&C in ’95.” Lamenting the persistence of anti-intellectualism within American evangelicalism, Scandal was an “epistle from a wounded lover,” articulating Mark Noll’s “hope that we American evangelicals might yet worship God with our minds.”

In so many ways, Books & Culture was the concrete expression of this ideal. Printed on tabloid-sized paper and illustrated with literary caricatures, it was modeled on the New York Review of Books. Overseen by Wilson and Noll, the magazine soon won the respect of readers from outside the evangelical subculture, including Peter Steinfels of the New York Times. In an Atlantic cover story on the “opening of the evangelical mind,” sociologist Alan Wolfe praised Books & Culture for nurturing a “humanistic tradition of writing about poetry and fiction for the informed lay reader.” Joining Commonweal and First Things on the website of Arts & Letters Daily, it is the only evangelical publication listed on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s virtual roster of magazines and book reviews.

Schmalzbauer adds that finances were a big part of B&C’s problems:

Three years ago, Books & Culture survived a near-death experience by raising over $250,000 in pledges. As in the past, much of this support came from evangelical colleges and universities. Despite this reprieve, the magazine was never able to break even, requiring a hefty annual subsidy from its parent company, Christianity Today.

Such financial problems are not unique to evangelical periodicals. Over its long history, Commonweal has weathered several difficult episodes. Today its board includes a director with McKinsey & Company and a former partner with the white shoe firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore. Out of an annual budget of $1.7 million, the magazine raises about $400,000 from Commonweal Associates. In a similar way, the Christian Century has relied on advertising revenue and private donations, establishing the Martin E. Marty Legacy Circle in 2013.

What Schmalzbauer fails to factor into his analysis is that for all of B&C’s intellectual orientation, its parent company was one where the likes of non-intellectual evangelicals flourished (from Ann Voskamp to Billy Graham). Other small intellectual magazines did not have that burden. Commentary magazine did not have to worry about offending populist Jews. Partisan Review did not have to play footsie with leftists who read Marxist self-help bestsellers. That means that the gate keeping role that high brow magazines need to perform was always a bit of a liability for Books & Culture. The magazine wanted to call evangelicals to the life of the mind, to repent of the scandal, even as the parent company, Christianity Today Inc., needed to refrain from offending the scandal ridden evangelicals.

Another reason why the magazine/journal frustrated mmmmeeeeEEEE.

It’s Always Sunny In Religious Journalism

The New Calvinists have to be feeling pretty good with yet another puff piece about one of the under home boys (as in under shepherd in relation to Jonathan Edwards as the New Calvinist home boy). Tim Keller is once again the darling of a national media outlet, the Weekly Standard, and he is doing what few pastors seldom can — showing that faith is not backward or sectarian but young, urban, even urbane:

Timothy Keller lists the types of congregants filling his auditorium pews: “A cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.”

Huh? We raise our eyebrows. How could this be, when the city runs on secular selfishness? Or at least, secular selfishness drives the creative class and their upwardly mobile professional counterparts to pursue material success and swami-organic “self-actualization.” The traditional mainline Protestant denominations may be mostly dead, making way for the ongoing rise of a new orthodox evangelicalism. But in Manhattan?

So contrary to the secularization-is-winning narrative that predominates the media and academy, Keller (and the rest of the evangelical megachurch world) is what is really happening:

The truth remains: Megachurches from the Upper West Side to the Bible Belt draw mega-congregations. For Episcopalians, who can’t stomach evangelicalism, the rule is attraction rather than promotion. As empty pews and dwindling parishes testify, gospel-as-metaphor doesn’t attract troubled souls, particularly when the 21st-century’s troubled soul wants to know what’s it got to do with me?

It’s not news that yuppies, creatives, and masters of the universe have immortal souls, too. In 2016, it might take a minister like Timothy Keller to remind us what that means.

Granted, this is a short piece and so the author may not have had room to dig a little deeper in the Keller phenomenon to see if it is all numbers, success, and orthodoxy. Old Life readers likely are aware that some in the Presbyterian world (okay, me) wonder if the New York City pastor is as fully committed to the orthodoxy of his Presbyterian communion as this journalist assumes. Some of those critics (okay, me) also think that Keller’s cooperation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants in planting churches in New York City and around the world not only raises questions about his commitment to Presbyterianism but also demonstrates the tell tale signs of the kind of interdenominational cooperation that turned the Protestant mainline from evangelical to liberal. If you can cut corners with the Shorter Catechism, your successors can cut more than corners — maybe an entire block.

Feature stories in journalism to be sure rarely go into great depth regarding the controversies or critics that surround their subject. But when the New Yorker recently ran a feature on the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, they did not shelter audiences from some of the less than flattering aspects of her life. Not only did the writer cover the philosopher’s complicated relationship with her father, but also refused to ignore Nussbaum’s run-in with feminists:

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

The feature story on Keller also reminded me of Christianity Today’s coverage of Bill Hybels back when Willow Creek was emerging as the more important megachurch in the U.S. The article sounded more like the Weekly Standard on Keller than the New Yorker on Nussbaum:

Because of Willow Creek’s size, the church’s leaders feel participation in small groups is essential to the spiritual support of its members. And in keeping with its megachurch status, Willow Creek is loaded with specialized ministries for virtually every need among its believers: programs for four age divisions of youth, three categories of single adults, married couples, divorced persons, single parents, and physically and mentally challenged individuals, as well as outreach services to the homeless, the poor, and prison inmates, are just a few of the selections from the church’s huge and diverse menu.

Willow Creek’s success has not gone unnoticed. Three times a year, the church sponsors a conference at which 500 church leaders gather to see how it is done. And in 1992, Hybels and his church elders formed the Willow Creek Association—which currently has a membership of over 700 churches—to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations.

Bill Hybels says Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. In the meantime, hundreds of twentieth-century churches are: eager to follow the pattern of Willow Creek.

So aside from questions about Keller or Hybels and their way of doing ministry, what’s up exactly with Christian and conservative readers of journalism? Do we always need to hear the positive and fear any mention of the negative? Faith is about inspiration, not about troubles? That may be what editors think and what marketing reveals. But for a religion that features all those animals butchered in the Temple, the execution of the son of God, not to mention Jesus’ followers clear teaching about suffering, it sure seems odd that secularists appear to handle the dark side of human existence better than believers.

Could This Happen in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod?

Would confessional Lutherans have ever fallen for the Alex Marlarkey story of dying and going to heaven and coming back to life? (Wasn’t the last name a tip-off?) Would confessional Presbyterians be so gullible for that matter?

Here’s one account of what happened:

Tyndale House Publishers has stopped production of the book and DVD of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven after the book’s coauthor and subject, Alex Malarkey, released a statement retracting the book’s contents.

In an open letter, the self-described “boy who did not come back from heaven” wrote:

Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.

I did not die. I did not go to heaven.

I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.

It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of heaven outside of what is written in the Bible . . . not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.

In Christ,
Alex Malarkey

This isn’t simply a question of good or bad theology, pietist or confessional piety, someone who naively thinks Christians don’t intentionally mislead or someone who has a healthy respect for the ongoing effects of original sin. It is a question of ecclesiology. Belonging to a communion where pastors and others vet who gets admitted to fellowship (the Lord’s Table), where pastors receive scrutiny before being ordained, where church officers monitor what seminaries teach, and where education committees subsidize instructional materials for church members — all of these structures contribute to an identity for church members that prevents individual Christians from being at the mercy of the market and its hucksters (and the editors who enable the hucksters).

Which is to say that not only does evangelicalism lack ecclesiology. In place of the church evangelicalism has the market. The publishers, parachurch agencies, magazine promoters, conference sponsors — these are the structures that “minister” for a price to your average born-again Christian who worships at some independent tabernacle, celebration center, or even a local congregation. And without any shepherds to police the sheep and the wolves, your average Christian has to figure out for himself whether other Christians really do manipulate best-seller lists or turn the NFL into a sacred cow.

Would the Papal States Have Fielded a Bobsled Team?

The question is of course anachronistic since the International Olympic Committee did not start until 1894, a good quarter of a century after the papacy lost its temporal powers. Even so, if ever Christians had wanted to root for a Christian team in the Olympics, the Papal States would have come the closest to integrating faith, politics, and sport since in that context the church was running things.

The reason for this little venture in wonderment was a recent story at Christianity Today about God and country at the Olympics in Sochi (in contrast, this one avoids nationalism):

It’s nice to find fellow Christians among the 230 men and women who make up the 2014 Team USA delegation to Sochi, Russia. We don’t root for them because they’re on “Team Jesus,” but all the same it’s nice to see people at the peak of their field, on the world’s biggest athletic stage, turn the credit back to the One who gave us bodies to run and jump and spin on ice and imaginations to push the limits of those bodies to run faster, jump higher, and spin faster than we ever thought possible.

Here are a few Christians to watch as they compete for Team USA in Sochi. Many of them are medal contenders; all of them know that no matter what happens over the next two weeks, God will still be good.

The question this article raises is the one that 2kers constantly ponder: to whom do I have a higher allegiance, the temporal city (Team U.S.A.) or the eternal city — no, not the Vatican — the church? It may be a two-fer to have an American and a Christian on one of the Olympic teams. But why would American Christians be more interested in U.S. Christian athletes than believers on Team France, Team China, or Team Brazil? And how about Reformed Protestants pulling especially hard for the nations that gave us the Reformed churches — Team Switzerland, Team Netherlands, and Team United Kingdom?

At the same time, since God has little to do with the Olympics, since the teams arise from temporal polities not from spiritual ones, why should U.S. Christians root any harder for believers on Team U.S.A. than for the non-believing team members? The answer is, there is no reason, unless you think — like the transformers, theonomists, and neo-Calvinists — that “neutral” realms may not exist and religion needs to be part of everything. Oh, the inhumanity of the IOC and Russian officials not acknowledging God (and for shame on the BBs and Rabbi Bret for not raising a ruckus about the secular Olympics)! If realms like the Olympics need religion, then Christianity Today’s article makes perfect sense. But then so does reducing the kingdom of God to the earthly, fleeting, and spurious politics of the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

I'll Take Transformation over Redemption

If anyone wants evidence of the expanding meaning of redemption to the point of obscuring “the only redeemer of God’s elect,” take a look at Christianity Today’s list of 2012’s most redeeming movies:

Our annual Most Redeeming list . . . represents the year’s best movies that include stories of redemption. Several feature characters who are redeemers themselves; all have characters who experience redemption to some degree. Some are feel-good flicks; others, less so. Several are rated R and PG-13 and are not intended for young viewers, so please use discretion.

Of those on the list, I have only seen Argo, which is good and paradoxically a feel-good movie about the CIA (when does that happen? When the agency fights political Muslims, seems to be the answer.) But I would not call it a movie about redemption, a topic which has a much more definite meaning.

The lesson may be that when you begin to expand claims about Christianity’s comprehensiveness, break down distinctions between the holy and the common, regard all of life as “religious,” you wind up with a movie made by a Jewish-American about a predestinarian heterodox president turning out to be redemptive.

Should Regeneration Make Christians Wiser?

One week after Mr. Laden’s death, different websites are taking the pulse of readers to see what they think. Two that came my way by way of email were polls conducted by Christianity Today and the History News Network. I have to say that judging the polls simply on the basis of their questions, the folks without (or with hidden) religious conviction come closer to ascertaining the significance of Mr. Laden’s death than the folks who are born-again.

Here is CT’s set of questions:

What is your reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden? (check all that apply)

I am thrilled he is dead.

Justice is served.

I am less excited than I thought I would be.

I am concerned about the overly jubilant reactions.

I wish he had been brought to trial.

There are still evil people in the world.

Something else

This is how HNN framed their poll:

In the late 1990s Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States. In 2001 he ordered the 9/11 attack. Now he’s dead. What impact will his death have?

Question 1: How big an event is this?
Marks the end of terrorism against us.
Marks the beginning of the end.
Won’t have much of an impact.

Question 2:
Are you worried about a retaliatory attack?
Worried a lot.
Worried a little.
Not worried at all.

Question 3:
Show pictures of his corpse to prove he’s dead?
Yes.
No.

Question 4:
This will unite us again.
For a short while at least.
For a long while.
Not much at all.

Question 5:
Obama deserves credit for bin Laden’s death.
Yes.
No.
Not sure.

Question 6:
This will help Obama win in 2012
Yes.
No.
Not Sure.

Given evangelicalism’s dependence on the conversion experience, I should not be surprised that Christianity Today asked so many questions about its readers’ feelings. But what on earth does a Christian’s reaction to Mr. Laden’s death have to do with the terrorist organization he funded and ran, or with the peace and security of this world’s societies? As for this event’s theological significance, perhaps the pollsters at Christianity Today could have assessed evangelical beliefs about hell and universalism by posing questions about Mr. Laden in the light of Rob Bell’s new book.

Now He's Channeling DG

And I don’t mean Desiring God Ministries.

Carl Trueman offers some preliminary thoughts on the Christianity Today feature story on Al Mohler. Trueman recognizes a potential trap in offering a response. If Mohler represents evangelicalism, then the born-again identity is really much smaller than the evangelical guardians at Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals would have it. But if the Southern Baptist Seminary president is only one small piece of the evangelical puzzle, then the movement has lost all chance of coherence. So Trueman’s solution is to punt, or at least conduct the thought experiment of a world in which evangelicalism does not exist.

I would like to suggest an alternative take, one intended neither in a mean nor chauvinist spirit: maybe evangelicalism, as some kind of abstract ideal in which all us `evangelicals’ participate, does not really exist. Maybe it is now (even if it has not always been) simply a construct which lacks any real doctrinal identity (and claims to be `gospel people’ simply will not do here, given that the Catholics and liberal friends I have also claim the same title). Maybe it is to be defined institutionally, not theologically. And maybe, therefore, it is not worth fighting or fretting over.

As in the debates between realists and nominalists in the Middle Ages, it seems to me that evangelicalism only exists in particulars, in highly qualified forms such `Confessing Evangelical’, `Open Evangelical’ etc. The essence of evangelicalism is elusive, and, I believe, illusory. After all, it is surely an odd term that implies a Reformed Calvinist has more in common with an open theist than a traditional Dominican. That, by the way, is a merely descriptive remark.

If this is so, and we can come to acknowledge such and act upon it, many of the current battles might well be defused. We will not be fighting, after all, over ownership of something that does not really exist. We could all be free to be ourselves (Reformed, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anabaptist and so on).

This sounds oddly familiar. In fact, in Deconstructing Evangelicalism the pre-DG DG wrote something very similar:

Instead of trying to fix evangelicalism, born-again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the category altogether. The reason is not that evangelicalism is wrong in its theology, ineffective in reaching the lost, or undiscerning in its reflections on society and culture. It may be but these matters are beside the point. Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, is it the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Behind this proboscis that has been nipped and tucked by savvy religious leaders, academics and pollsters is a face void of any discernible features. The non-existence of an evangelical identity may prove to be, to borrow a phrase from Mark A. Noll, the real scandal of modern evangelicalism. For despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction. This book is a work of deconstruction.

. . . . the central claim of Deconstructing Evangelicalism is precisely to question the statistics and scholarship on evangelicalism. The reason is not simply to be perverse or provocative. Good reasons exist for raising questions about whether something like evangelicalism actually exists. In the case of religious observance, evangelical faith and practice have become increasingly porous, so much so that some born-again Christians have left the fold for more historic expressions of the Christian faith, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. At the same time, in the sphere of religious scholarship, evangelicalism has become such a popular category of explanation that it has ceased to be useful. Better reasons, however, may also be offered for looking behind the evangelical facade to see what is really there. As the following chapters attempt to show, evangelicalism has been a religious construction of particular salience during the late twentieth century. The general contractors in building this edifice were the leaders of the 1940s neo-evangelical movement who sought to breathe new life into American Christianity by toning down the cussedness of fundamentalism while also tapping conservative Protestantism’s devotion and faith. Yet, without the subcontractors in this construction effort, the neo-evangelical movement would have frayed and so failed much quicker than it did. The carpenters, plumbers, and painters in the manufacturing of evangelicalism have been the historians, sociologists and pollsters of American religion who applied the religious categories developed by neo-evangelicals to answer the questions their academic peers were asking about Protestantism in the United States. The emergence of evangelicalism as a significant factor in American electoral politics did not hurt these efforts and, in fact, may have functioned as the funding necessary for completing the evangelical edifice. Especially after the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 and the formation of the so-called Religious Right, religious leaders and religion scholars had a much easier time than before convincing skeptical academics, policy wonks, publishers and pundits that evangelicalism was a given of American life, a thriving movement, and therefore important.

Makes you wonder if Trueman is an undercover Old Life agent at the Alliance of Confessing EVANGELICALS?

Which is More Troubling?

Charismatics who sway and wave their arms during congregational singing, or evangelicals who think charismatics swaying and waving are a sign of the Spirit?

I can’t help but wonder after reading David Neff’s wishing happy birthday to the charimsatic movement in his editorial for Christianity Today. He writes:

In April 1960, I was a seventh grader in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, culturally and religiously as distant from Southern California Episcopalians as an American could be. But by 1974, I had a newly minted M.Div. and became pastor of a church near San Diego. There I became friends with Frank Maguire, an Episcopal priest who featured prominently in Dennis Bennett’s autobiographical Nine O’Clock in the Morning.

In 1959, Maguire had invited Bennett to meet members of his parish who were experiencing unusual spiritual phenomena. These folk weren’t doing anything wild and crazy, Maguire told Bennett. They just glowed “like little light bulbs” and were “so loving and ready to help whenever I asked them.” When I met Maguire almost 15 years later, the charismatics I met in his parish still weren’t wild or crazy. And they still had the glow and the love Maguire had told Bennett about.

I had been raised in a sectarian atmosphere, trained to distrust Christianity of any stripe but my own. For me, what made the charismatic renewal remarkable was the ecumenical fellowship it created. American Baptists and Roman Catholics in our community were sharing Communion—even serving Communion at each other’s churches—until the Catholic bishop put a stop to it. Episcopalians were worshiping with an intensity that undercut all my prejudices against written prayers and prescribed liturgies. Formerly competing religious communities were suddenly open to common ministry and shared worship. This was not the classic liberal ecumenism with its “Doctrine Divides, Service Unites” motto. This ecumenism flowed from recognizing that the Holy Spirit was animating and transforming others.

Some analysts say the mainline charismatic renewal fizzled. It is more accurate to describe it the way Jesus pictured the kingdom of God: like yeast that spreads through bread dough. You can hardly identify it as a movement anymore, but it has changed the way most churches worship. Repetitive choruses and raised hands are now common. Except in pockets of hardcore resistance, the fact that a fellow Christian may praise God in a private prayer language hardly elevates an eyebrow.

What I wonder is how Neff can spot the defect of Doctrine-Divides-Service-Unites ecumenism and not see the error in charismatic understandings of the Holy Spirit, the second helping of blessings, the casual worship, and the disregard for ecclesiastical office (for starters). After all, plenty of Charles Erdmans in the Presbyterian world believed that the Spirit was leading the church to a Doctrine-Divides-Service-Unites form of Protestant unity. So how do you deny the blessing of the Spirit to one form of unity but not the other?

Part of Neff’s response may fall back on doctrine, as in the kind of teachings advocated by charismatics are more true than the ideals propagated by Protestant liberals. I would likely agree. But then once you appeal to one doctrine, don’t a lot of other doctrines kick in, like all the ones that tell me charismatics are in error. And then I conclude – contra Neff – that despite talking about the Spirit a lot do not charismatics do not have special claims on the Spirit.

I think I understand Neff’s regard for charismatics. He displays an important part of the legacy of neo-evangelicalism which is to downplay the negative and accent the positive. Neo-evangelicals believed they needed to do this in order to overcome the bad PR of fundamentalism (i.e., a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry). Neff is trying to be generous and looking for alliances wherever they may be cultivated.

But if doctrine does not unite, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is a part of the church’s teaching, then shouldn’t Neff be more discerning about the charismatic movement? In fact, if Word and Spirit ordinarily work together, so that the Spirit is alive and well wherever true teaching from the Word is present, then folks like myself who cringe in the presence of swaying and waving, or when reading approving editorials about such worship behavior, may have the Spirit more than the allegedly Spirit-filled charismatics. (Of course, all such claims to the Spirit need to be read in the context of the battle between the flesh and the Spirit that requires most Augustinian readers of Paul to abstain from saying that they are Spirit-filled.)