Rob Bell as Drag Queen

Talk about click bait. But if a drag queen could provoke Sorhab Ahmari to go digitally postal on David French-ism, the once-upon-a-time emergent church poster boy seems to have prompted Christianity Today’s editor, Mark Galli, to question the logic of the missional church:

I was interviewing Rob Bell for Christianity Today about his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He wrote something in the book that surprised me (imagine that, Rob Bell saying something surprising). So I asked him to clarify himself: “What to you is the purpose of the church?”

“The purpose of the church,” he replied, “is to make the world a better place.” That’s what he had said in the book, and that’s the statement that puzzled me. I frankly couldn’t believe he had said that in front of God and everybody. But as I thought about it, I realized that Bell had expressed precisely the current zeitgeist of the American church. I was less concerned about Bell than I was about the church.

Galli goes on to link Bell’s view first to Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel (without mentioning cultural Marxism!) and then to Leslie Newbiggin who has inspired a certain Presbyterian church in mid-town Manhattan:

Wilbert Shenk’s summary of Newbigin is what many of his readers have taken away:

… we are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose. … Mission is often treated as a stepchild or, even worse, in some cases an orphan. That is to say, traditional ecclesiology has had no place for mission. Yet the church was instituted by Jesus Christ to be a sign of God’s reign and the means of witnessing to that reign throughout the world. The church that refuses to accept its missionary purpose is a deformed church. … We are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose in relation to modern Western culture.

As I just noted, Newbigin’s theology is larger than this, but this is what has made a great impact on evangelical leaders. Perhaps the prime example is what’s called the missional movement. As with most movements, the very term itself is in dispute and comes to us in many colors. It is often combined with a fresh appreciation of kingdom theology, an attempt to let Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God become the hub of the wheel of our theology. We needn’t deny the many flavors of missional, or its obvious strengths, to grasp that for many pastors and theologians, the purpose of the church can be summarized like this (from a church blog I happened upon):

After Jesus was resurrected and after he had spent significant time schooling the nascent church, as He Himself had been sent, He sent His church on a mission, and sent the Holy Spirit to empower them for that task until the end of time, to the very ends of the earth. As Jesus was sent, and as the Spirit was sent, in like manner, the church has been sent. Therefore, the church exists missionally, sent by the triune God to carry out the mission of making disciples of all nations. Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world, as a sign and proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Given my travels and readings especially in the evangelical subculture, this strikes me as a near-perfect summary of an evangelically orthodox expression of much missional thinking today. For all its inspirational value—and this is not to be denied nor denigrated—in the end, it reduces the purpose of the church in the same way as does Rauschenbusch: “Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world.”

Let the reader answer: how is this any different from Redeemer’s mission statement?

The Redeemer family of churches and ministries exist to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if the editor of Christianity Today is thinking that missional Protestantism has set priorities for the church that are more transformational (and worldly) than they are doxological and evangelistic, someone in the home office may want to call a meeting.

Meanwhile, confessional Protestants who know how to distinguish between the church and the world (and have been doing so since at least the Second Pretty Good Awakening) did not need Rob Bell to understand what Galli has discovered.

Sanctification Signaling

Big Green Letters is piling on with niceness. Not only has Jared Wilson repeated the charge that Calvinists are mean, but Ray Ortlund re-quotes John Newton’s oft-cited comments about how to pursue controversy with love. (Justin Taylor may be the first Green Letter to appeal to Newton.)

But here’s the thing that Big Green Letters don’t seem to consider — that the pursuit of nice often ignores both sides of a disagreement. It opts for the third way without really sorting out what’s right and wrong in the controverted issues. Which means, that love or nice is its own sort of polemical meanness because in taking no side and offering no alternative except to say “love” or “be nice,” it ignores the people and principles in view. Imagine doing that in a dispute between a wife and a teenage son over mowing the grass. The dad says, “love each other.”

Sure.

This side of Big Green Letters, this religious affectionism, is what makes evangelicals (even those who think they are Calvinist) so unreliable either in ecclesiastical or civil matters. Liel Liebovitz picked up on this in the spat between Sohrab Ahmari and David French over virtue and the current POTUS:

To put it briefly, the Never Trump argument is that they should be greatly approved of, while Donald Trump should rightly be scorned, because—while they agree with Trump on most things, politically—they are devoted to virtue, while Trump is uniquely despicable. The proofs of Trump’s singular loathsomeness are many, but if you strip him of all the vices he shares with others who had recently held positions of power—a deeply problematic attitude towards women (see under: Clinton, William Jefferson), shady business dealings (see under: Clinton, Hillary Rodham), a problematic attitude towards the free press (see under: Obama, Barack)—you remain with one ur-narrative, the terrifying folk tale that casts Trump as a nefarious troll dispatched by his paymasters in the Kremlin to set American democracy ablaze.

By analogy, The Big Green Letters supposedly agree with “mean” Calvinists about Christianity and church ministry (actually they don’t but go along, please), but want to hold themselves up as the party of sanctification because they don’t fight the way “mean” Calvinists do. But what if Big Green Letters had had a little more fight or agreed more with “mean” Calvinists when deliberating about whether to grant a Big Letter to Mark Driscoll, C. J. Mahaney, and James MacDonald?

It gets worse (thanks to Liebovitz) and points to the follow-the-money argument that Carl Trueman has made:

French and the other self-appointed guardians of civility, then, should do us all a favor and drop the civic virtue act. They’re not disinterested guardians of our public institutions; they are actors, working in an industry that rewards them for dressing up in Roman Republican drag and reciting Cicero for the yokels. This is why Bill Kristol, another of the Never Trumpers, could raise money for his vanity website, The Bulwark, and why he could expect his new creation be lauded on CNN as “a conservative site unafraid to take on Trump,” even as the site was staffed by leftist millennials and dutifully followed progressive propaganda lines. Like anyone whose living depends on keeping on the right side of a leftist industry, they understood that there’s only so much you can say if you care about cashing a paycheck—especially when the president and leader of your own party won’t take your phone calls.

The Never Trumpers, of course, aren’t the first Americans to hide cold careerism behind a wall of virtue-signaling. It’s why so many in the professional punditry went the way of Never Trump: More than anything else, the decision to align oneself with a movement that, ontologically, vows to reject the president a priori, no matter what he might say or do, regardless of your own supposed political beliefs, is a way of affirming one’s professional class loyalties, thus ensuring that your progeny will still be accepted and acceptable at Yale.

A YUGE part of Big Green Letters’ brand is nice. It increases hits at the website, registrations at conferences, sales of books, size of celebrity. In which case, if the New Calvinists really want to follow John Newton’s example and practice their niceness within the boundaries of a Christian communion like the Church of England rather than turning nice Calvinism into a movement.

Fake News, Climate Change, and Testosterone

Remember when some clever analysts of evangelicals attributed their blindness about Donald Trump’s immorality to presuppositionalism and a biblical w-w that grants power to the mind in determining truth? Well, Andrew Sullivan comes through with a healthy reminder that residents and citizens of the United States may have bigger worries than Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University, David Barton, and Shane Claiborne:

The deeper question for me is why anyone would try to insist that biology is largely irrelevant in, of all arenas, sports. I can see trying to minimize biological sex differences in many, many areas where the distinction is trivial — but something as obviously physically rooted as athletics? It’s almost perverse. An ACLU blog post defending the participation of trans girls in school sports states that there is “ample evidence that girls can compete and win against boys,” but somehow avoids the conclusion that there should therefore be all-sexes leagues or contests, where men, women, and intersex people can all compete together. Or you can have an article in Deadspinwhich ridicules any idea of a testosterone advantage for trans women:

The thing about all this talk equating hormone replacement therapy to doping, and the threat to “biological females,” and the “unfair advantages” of “male puberty,” is that it’s based entirely on social perceptions of gender. “There’s absolutely no scientific evidence at all that supports their position,” said Rachel McKinnon.

McKinnon is a philosophy professor. The idea that there is “absolutely no scientific evidence” that male puberty dramatically increases the physical strength of boys compared with girls is, well, unhinged. It’s the left’s version of climate change denial.

And for what? Why are the differences between men and women on average so offensive? Why is it problematic that men are physically stronger on average than women? Why should strength have some kind of normative value? I honestly cannot understand.

I suspect it’s related to postmodernism’s attempt to turn everything in the world into something humans have created and can therefore control. “Nature” is outside that rubric and so must be interrogated and deconstructed until it has been whittled away to nothing. Even science is a social construction, the argument goes, and so any advantage conferred by testosterone must be entirely a function of patriarchy. “Gender” absorbs “sex” altogether. But even if you end patriarchy, you are never going to end sex difference.

Then there’s the well-intentioned pursuit of equality. All inequalities, we are told, are socially created and need to be eradicated for full human freedom to flourish. Accepting natural differences seems like a backdoor to bigotry. And, yes, discrimination is often rooted in a crude idea of “nature.” That’s why making such distinctions requires nuance and exactitude.

There is a distinction between equality and sameness, just as there is a crucial distinction between inequality and difference. If the social-justice ideologues attempted to make all sports coed, there would be a universal outcry. Outside a few pockets of wokeness, it would seem absurd. And yet we are stuck in a discourse that presents this unreality as if it has some kind of science behind it. It doesn’t. We should be able to accept our inequalities as part of human diversity, and celebrate them, while treating each other as political and moral equals. The deeper laws of nature establishing this core human equality are enshrined in America’s Declaration of Independence. They do not mean we are all substantively the same, or will all end up in the same place. We are just morally and politically equal.

Who, after all, would want to live in a world like this — where we are all interchangeable, where nature is irrelevant, where men are the same as women, and where acknowledging the variations of humanity is relegated to the precincts of bigotry? How much drearier than the actual, diverse, fascinating natural world we live in.

Surely this is a point upon which Sohrab Ahmari and David French would agree and by uniting with Andrew Sullivan make liberalism great again.

David French is to Conservatism what Tim Keller is to Presbyterianism

This is a follow up and updates this in the light of even more chatter.

Sohrab’s Ahmari’s critique of French-ism, the outlook of the evangelical attorney and Iraq War veteran, David French (not to be confused with Moby), who writes for National Review was over the top. But it did capture a problem in French’s above-it-all-I-just-follow-the-Declaration-and-Constitution self-fashioning. That is one of putting convictions into practice and forming institutions to maintain them.

French says his outlook consists of:

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The problem is, as William F. Buckley saw when he founded National Review, that holding up the ideals of classical liberalism requires taking sides. You nominate candidates, vote in elections, and decide on laws and policy. You may believe in the Bible, by analogy, but you need to interpret it, write a creed, institute a polity, and decide who may be ordained to ecclesiastical office. Simply saying that you believe in the founding or in the Bible without taking a side politically or denominationally is to fly in a hot air balloon above the fray — except that you’re receiving a pay check from either a magazine that has for over fifty years been taking the movement conservative side of interpreting the founding or a denomination that has identified for forty years with a American conservative Presbyterian rendering of the Bible.

Both French and Keller don’t want to be partisan or extreme which is why they reach for the high-minded origins of either the U.S. or Christianity. They don’t want to fight alongside others. They may employ their own arguments either in court or as a public theologian but having the backs of others in a particular group is not the way they seem to carry it.

No Machen’s Warrior Children here.

This is why Rod Dreher sees Ahmari’s point, namely, that French positions himself above the clamor of division or controversy:

I concede that I’m more of a classical liberal than I thought I was, in that I resist a coercive political order. I am willing to tolerate certain things that I think of as morally harmful, for the greater good of maintaining liberty. Not all sins should be against the law. Again, though, there’s no clear way to know where and how to draw the line. Sohrab Ahmari uses Drag Queen Story Hour as a condensed symbol of the degrading things that contemporary liberalism forces on the public.

I am a thousand percent behind Ahmari in despising this stuff, and I am constantly mystified by how supine most American Christians are in the face of the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement and its allies, especially in Woke Capitalism. I am also a thousand percent with Ahmari in his general critique of how establishment conservatism tends to capitulate to cultural liberalism.

But French has the virtue of being virtuous, which is why Alan Jacobs sees the National Review correspondent as merely being a good Christian:

I disagree with David French about a lot of things — especially what I believe to be his sometimes uncritical support for American military action — but I admire him because he’s trying. He’s trying to “take every thought captive to Christ.” I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly. Among Christians invested in the political arena, that kind of integrity is dismayingly rare.

Hey, Dr. Jacobs! I try too. But the day I see you come alongside confessional Presbyterians and say, “they are simply trying to live out the Christian gospel” I’ll book a flight to Waco and buy you a drink.

But Jacob’s reaction is precisely the problem. To regard French’s politics as simply trying to be consistent with Christianity — aside from being a violation of two-kingdom theology — is to ignore that politics requires getting dirty and making compromises. It is not a place to pursue holiness and righteousness — though it is an occupation worthy of a vocation.

So, while David French takes his stand with Burke, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jesus (as if those add up to anything coherent), French-ism is nowhere in Matthew Continetti’s breakdown of contemporary conservatism — trigger warning for #woke and Neo-Calvinist Christians who want their politics to come from either the prophets or the apostles:

The Jacksonians, Mead said, are individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny. Jacksonians are anti-monopolistic. They oppose special privileges and offices. “There are no necessary evils in government,” Jackson wrote in his veto message in 1832. “Its evils exist only in its abuses.”

…Reform conservatism began toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the publication of Yuval Levin’s “Putting Parents First” in The Weekly Standard in 2006 and of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party in 2008. In 2009, Levin founded National Affairs, a quarterly devoted to serious examinations of public policy and political philosophy. Its aim is to nudge the Republican Party to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.

…Where the paleoconservatives distinguish themselves from the other camps is foreign policy. The paleos are noninterventionists who, all things being equal, would prefer that America radically reduce her overseas commitments. Though it’s probably not how he’d describe himself, the foremost paleo is Tucker Carlson, who offers a mix of traditional social values, suspicion of globalization, and noninterventionism every weekday on cable television.

…The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.

For those keeping score at home, that’s Jacksonians, Reformocons, Paleocons, and Post-Liberal conservatives. None of them are “classical liberals.” History moves on and requires people to choose.