Timelines and Bloodlines

It turns out that the shift along racial lines among evangelical and Reformed Protestants is remarkably recent. Some have objected to seeing 2014 as the turning point, but Jemar Tisby seems to provide the smoking gun:

remembering Brown on the five-year anniversary of his killing would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact that this tragedy had on race relations within American evangelicalism.

I know how that day and the subsequent events affected my faith and my relation to those who I once thought of as my spiritual family.

Six days after Brown’s killing, I wrote for the first time publicly about my traumatic encounters with the police.

Every black man I know has harrowing stories of being pulled over, searched, handcuffed or even held at gunpoint. When I encouraged readers to “pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers,” the responses disclosed a deep divide.

Tisby goes on to talk about the criticism that he and other African-American evangelicals for questioning police brutality. He then observes:

Black Christians like me and many others began a “quiet exodus” from white evangelical congregations and organizations. We distanced ourselves both relationally and ideologically from a brand of Christianity that
seemed to revel in whiteness.

Now, after this quiet exodus, we find ourselves wandering in a sort of wilderness. Some are rediscovering the black church tradition and moving in that direction for healing and solidarity. Others, often by necessity, have remained in white evangelical spaces but with a new degree of caution. Some of us still don’t have a faith community to call home.

In sum:

Brown and Ferguson highlighted that when it comes to some parts of conservative evangelicalism, whiteness is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Who can judge another’s personal experience? I do not doubt that 2014 was traumatic for Tisby and many African-Americans, though I still don’t see the issue of police brutality as simply indicative of a black-white divide in the United States. In the hyphenated world in which all Christians live, it seems possible to support in general the functions of the police and oppose racism. In other words, opposition to racism should not be synonymous with hostility to law enforcement. I could well imagine, for instance, someone supporting Robert Mueller’s investigation (part of law enforcement) of the 2016 presidential election and detesting racism.

What is a problem, though, is to write a book with a tone of exasperation that white Christians just don’t get it. Not only does Tisby in his book fault white Christians for being tone deaf to race today. He adds that this is the way it has always been. The white church has been racist and always oblivious.

But if it took 2014 for an African-American Christian to see the problem, might not Tisby also have empathy for those who are five years late?

Meanwhile, to John Piper’s credit, his book on racism came out in 2011. He did not need cops in Ferguson, Missouri to see what Tisby saw three years later. Here is how Collin Hansen reviewed Piper’s book:

Tim Keller writes in his foreword that conservative evangelicals “seem to have become more indifferent to the sin of racism during my lifetime” (11). That would indeed be a major problem, since conservative evangelicals have been responsible for so much of the institutional racism of the last 60 or so years. Piper saw racism in the form of Southern segregation. The church of his youth voted in 1962 to ban blacks from attending services. His mother, however, opposed this motion. Piper’s experience explains the burden for writing this book, in which he argues, “Only Jesus can bring the bloodlines of race into the single bloodline of the cross and give us peace” (14). No political platform, lecture series, listening session, or economic program can cure what ails us. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sin and make our diverse society whole again. Sadly, white Christians have so often perpetuated racism that we’ve largely lost the moral authority to help our neighbors confront and overcome this sin.

Bloodlines opens with a brief recap of racial history in the United States focused on the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his masterful writing, particularly “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This historical jaunt may indicate Piper anticipates a youthful readership who did not live through these events. Or maybe he believes the race problem is worse than ever. He writes, “There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968” (27).

Either way, no one can argue the church has made sufficient progress on race. Sunday mornings remain largely self-segregated. But Piper sells himself short as a credible leader when it comes to racial reconciliation. He and his church have made commendable and costly investments to live out what they profess about the gospel that unites Jews and Gentiles. I would have gladly read much more than a few appendix pages on Bethlehem’s experience of trial and error. We need theology that exalts the work of Jesus, and we also need examples from churches that have enjoyed God’s gracious favor in the form of racial diversity and harmony.

With Keller and Piper alert to the problem of racism in white Protestant circles in 2011, Tisby’s dating of the racial rift is curious. It is hard to believe he was not reading Keller and Piper.

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Gospel Coalition as Harlem Globe Trotters

One of our many southern correspondents notified me of TGC’s year-end pitch for charitable donations. At the end of Collin Hanson’s post is a link to TGC’s 2016 Annual Report. Curiously absent are the financials. The Allies encourage people to give but those people have to trust TGC staff about funds.

The similarities and differences between the Coalition and a church are striking. Since I serve on the Christian Education Committee of the OPC and am also one of the OPC’s representatives on Great Commission Publication’s board of trustees, I see strong similarities among the OPC, PCA, and TGC at least in the arena of education, curriculum development, and publication. TGC’s report on website hits, best selling books or pamphlets, and plans for 2017 titles is the sort of information I see four times a year as an OPC/GCP officer. But what I don’t see from TGC is any financial spread sheet. Since the church and parachurch both operate in a voluntary world of free-will gifts, support, and self-identification of members, you might think that giving supporters some insight into the Coalition’s funds would be not only wise but honorable.

Chalk up one for the church over the parachurch.

Another note of concern for TGC supporters may be the popularity of Jen Wilkin. According to TGC’s report:

Our all-time bestselling resource on any paid platform is Jen Wilkin’s Sermon on the Mount study with LifeWay, but it may end up topped by her 2016 TGC release, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ.

Jen Wilkin may be a great lady — I’ve never heard of her though she appears to take hairstyle-advice from Ann Voskamp (not Jen Hatmaker) — but do supporters of TGC have no trouble with a non-ordained person teaching the Word of God to Christians? Maybe Ms. Wilkin is ordained. Either way, TGC’s efforts to attract support from conservative Reformed Protestants runs up against church polity that again separates the parachurch from the church (not in a good way, by the way).

But when you look at TGC’s report, you have to come away impressed with all the effort the Allies put into their labors. But what would happen if those same people put their energies into the PCA with Tim Keller or into the Southern Baptist Convention with Ms. Wilkin who goes to The Village Church (is there only one?) or into the Evangelical Free Church with D. A. Carson (does he belong to the EFC?). Where’s the efficiency? Sure, a TGC supporter could argue that the OPC or PCA or SBC are competing with TGC and these other Protestants should join forces with the Allies. But this is always what happens with “unity” projects among Christians. You form one agency to unite everyone and simply add one more organization or church to the landscape. The United Church of Canada did not unite Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It added the United Church to the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican churches.

And then there is the question of officers or pastors who hold credentials in the PCA or SBC adding their energy and resources to another Christian organization. If I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, would the NFL allow me to play for a European football league midweek during the season (or even in the summer)? Or if I am a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, do I write regularly for The New Republic? These are obviously apples and oranges — publishing and sports are not ministry (though to hear some neo-Calvinists. . .). But questions about which is the primary outlet for Coalition contributors and officers is a real question that supporters of TGC should question. If I give to TGC, do I want Tim Keller spending a lot of time on committee work for his presbytery?

Chalk up another for the church.

One last observation that makes me think TGC more like an exhibition sports team (Harlem Globe Trotters) than a Major League Protestant Communion: I went to the staff page of TGC and noticed that no one works in a central office. The executive director lives in Austin, Texas (no church mentioned). The executive editor lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is part of a local community church. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the organization, payroll, accounting, general housekeeping, again staff is scattered. The director of operations lives in Austin (no church listed). The director of program development lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (no church listed). The director of advancement lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota (no church listed). The manager of operations lives in Minneapolis (no church listed). The business manager lives in Austin (no church listed). And yet, for full-time staff’s location in places far away from the Big Apple, TGC’s major publishing project for 2017 is a print version of Keller’s New City Catechism. When terrorists band together, we call them non-state actors to distinguish them from the military personnel of nation-states. Nation-states engage use coercive force legitimately (ever since 1648). Terrorist organizations do not. Does that make the Allies spiritual terrorists who have no geographical or ecclesiastical home?

The impression TGC gives overall is doing all the stuff a church does (including solicitation of funds) without many of the rules that give accountability to churches in their work of word and sacrament ministry. The Allies produce conferences and literature and a website presence that provides much of the teaching and encouragement that churches also give. And yet, the Coalition has no mechanism for discipline or oversight or even ecumenical relations. To be in TGC’s orbit is like following an exhibition basketball team instead of the National Basketball Association. I guess, when your home team is the Sixers, the Globetrotters look pretty good. But it’s not real basketball.

What’s Wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention?

Jared Wilson observes for the Gospel Allies the 10th anniversary of the religious reporting that put the New Calvinists on the map, Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed. My first take is that it seems odd to celebrate the anniversary of a magazine article. Why not the 20th anniversary of John Piper’s Desiring God, or the 270th anniversary of Jonathan Edwards’s dismissal from First Congregational Church, Northampton?

But stranger is Mr. Wilson’s by-line. He works for Midwestern Seminary, which has been in the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention since its founding in 1957 and not a subsidiary of The Gospel Coalition.

As an institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, Midwestern Seminary is guided by a board of trustees elected by the Convention in its annual sessions. The trustees in turn elect faculty members and administrative officers. Upon election to the faculty, each professor subscribes to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 statement adopted by the SBC in 2000.

Each of our faculty members participates in a local Southern Baptist church, teaching classes, serving as a deacon or leading a congregation as an interim pastor. On campus, our faculty is dedicated to equipping men and women in a variety of Christian ministries and is committed to the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds. Like our faculty and staff, our students are committed to theological education in preparation for the practice of ministry. Midwestern Seminary has awarded more than 3,500 theological degrees.

Midwestern Seminary derives the majority of its financial support from the SBC Cooperative Program. In addition to Cooperative Program funds and student fees, alumni gifts and endowments from special friends enable the school to further its far-reaching ministry.

Here’s the question: is New Calvinism synonymous with the Southern Baptist Convention or is the former a subset of the latter? Related to this, why does someone associated with New Calvinism not have a higher loyalty to the communion to which he belongs? New Calvinism (and Gospel Coalition) is parachurch, movement oriented. The SBC is a communion. So shouldn’t someone who wants to see churches planted and grow rather put his energies into a real communion than into a movement?

This is the problem with New Calvinism. It seems to be a cover for ecclesiology and churches that have no fellowship with Old Calvinist communions. There’s nothing wrong with being Southern Baptist. At least it’s a church ethos, to modify Walter Sobchak’s phrase. New Calvinism seems mainly sneaky and self-promotional.

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.