Old Lifey

In my (all about mmmmmeeeeEEE) estimation, the Coen brothers worst movies were Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. I have seen each only once and the thought of re-viewing does not generate the pheromones that their other movies do. (Recently watched Hail, Caesar! and experienced much mirth.) I am not sure what happened on these movies, but I’ve always felt Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were the kind of productions the Hollywood system would yield if trying to be Coenesque. It’s like Hollywood trying to give that Coen Brothers’ feel (and remember what Hollywood did when it tried to bring to the screen that Barton Fink feeling.)

All of which is to say that when Justin Taylor praises cynicism (granted in the voice of Carl Trueman), you begin to wonder if The Gospel Coalition is trying to produce something not quite so pietistic.

Here’s Trueman:

And that is why church historians play such an important role and our cynicism is such a boon. Church history keeps things in perspective. Through reading the texts and studying the actions and events of the past we can truly say that we have seen it all before. Thus, whatever it is that the latest guru is suggesting, it definitely will not work as well as expected, probably will not work at all, and anyway it will be a hundred years or more before we can say whether it made a real difference or not.

Here’s Taylor:

Of course, cynicism is not the only thing a historian offers to the church, and cynicism by itself can be a vice and not a virtue. Neverthless, Trueman is right. We should listen to those who have a built-in skepticism about the latest hype because they know enough to have a proper perspective.

Seriously? Has anyone at TGC listened to any of the skepticism about the hype of celebrity pastors and the alliances they form?

It’s not history that teaches you to take the Allies of the gospel with a grain of salt, it’s doctrine of the church. Don’t do ministry without one.

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I Thought John Fea Is Evangelical

John linked to a report from Baylor on the outlook of Trump voters. Among those voters are these characteristics:

• are members of white Evangelical Protestant churches

• consider themselves “very religious”

• think of the United States as a Christian nation

• believe that God is actively engaged in world affairs

• fear Muslims and refugees from the Middle East

• believe that women are not suited for politics

• oppose LGBTQ rights

Here’s what’s odd about this finding. I’m betting John and I are on the same side of these bullet points.

He and I consider ourselves very religious.

He and I think the United States is not a Christian nation.

He and I believe likely that God is actively engaged in world affairs since we tend not to be deists.

He and I do not fear necessarily Muslims or refugees from the Middle East, though I bet if those Muslims or refugees had fought for ISIS John might be a little afraid as I would be.

He and I do not think that women are unsuited for politics, though John was far more congenial to Hillary Clinton than I was.

He and I likely overlap on rights for LBGTQ folks, though I also suspect that the extent of those rights might be qualified.

In which case, neither John nor I fit the profile of evangelicals who voted for Trump. And yet, John still self-identifies as evangelical. I do not and have not for at least 25 years.

In which another case, why does John object to Trump as strongly as he does? Is it because he identifies as evangelical even while the majority of evangelicals voted for Trump? That disconnect could make you wonder about the group to which you belong. I imagine if Bruce Springsteen came out in favor of Trump, John would have as much psychic discomfort as I would if Ethan Coen trashed J. Gresham Machen.

In which a third case, isn’t what matters here not someone’s religious w-w but his or her politics? I can belong to a communion that includes (or used to) Kevin Swanson and that’s okay because the OPC does not require fidelity on political or cultural matters. But if you are part of a religious group that includes a wide swath of Protestants and think that faith should inform a lot of what you do — not to mention that the group has been identified with a certain political trajectory for FORTY years, evangelical support for Trump might give you pause. In other words, if you think religion and politics need to be consistent, then you might assume that a self-identified Calvinist is also a political conservative (which Donald Trump is not). But doesn’t that also mean that if you are an evangelical, your politics should align in some way with the rest of the evangelical world? Being evangelical surely doesn’t make you a liberal (though evangelical professors seem to think otherwise). And oh by the way, some of the biggest opponents of Donald Trump like Russell Moore also oppose policies like gay marriage. In other words, you don’t need to oppose Trump and go over to the editorial page of The New Republic.

Even so, nothing on that list of Trump voters’ attributes is inherently Christian.

Regarding those qualities now as sub-Christian is going to take a little more work than simply finding Trump repugnant. Ever since Ronald Reagan, most Christians in either the Democrat and Republican parties would have agreed with those convictions.

In which a fourth case, Donald Trump justifies rewriting the rules governing yucky evangelicalism.

Happy Year’s End

For those staying in tonight, the Old Life movie recommendation for New Year’s reflections is Hudsucker Proxy, the fifth movie that Joel and Ethan Coen made. It is their homage to the genre of RomCom, and it even explains wisely (for mmmmeeeeEEEEE anyway) why people make such a big deal of changing wall calendars. From the script:

NARRATOR (VOICE OVER) It’s 1958 — anyway, for a few mo’ minutes it is. Come midnight it’s gonna be 1959. A whole ‘nother feelin’. The New Year. The future…

The SINGING, a little MORE AUDIBLE, but still not close, is “Auld Lang Syne.”

NARRATOR (V.O.) …Yeah ole daddy Earth fixin’ to start one mo’ trip ’round the sun, an’ evvybody hopin’ this ride ’round be a little mo’ giddy, a little mo’ gay…

We are MOVING IN TOWARDS a particular skyscraper. At its top is a large illuminated clock.

NARRATOR (V.O.) Yep…

We hear a SERIES OF POPPING sounds.

NARRATOR (V.O.) …All over town champagne corks is a-poppin’.

A big band WALTZ MIXES UP on the track.

NARRATOR (V.O.) …Over in the Waldorf the big shots is dancin’ to the strains of Guy Lombardo… Down in Times Square the little folks is a-watchin’ and a-waitin’ fo’ that big ball to drop…

The LOMBARDO MUSIC gives way to the CHANTING of a distant CROWD: “Sixty! Fifty-nine! Fifty-eight!”

NARRATOR (V.O.)…They all tryin’ to catch holt a one moment of time…

The CHANTING has MIXED back DOWN AGAIN TO leave only the WIND. Still TRACKING IN TOWARD the top of the skyscraper, we begin to hear the TICK of its enormous CLOCK. The clock reads a minute to twelve. Above it, in neon, a company’s name: “HUDSUCKER INDUSTRIES.” Below it, in neon, the company’s motto: “THE FUTURE IS NOW.”

NARRATOR (V.O.) …to be able to say — ‘Right now! This is it! I got it!’ ‘Course by then it’ll be past. (more cheerfully) But they all happy, evvybody havin’ a good time.

We are MOVING IN ON a darkened penthouse window next to the clock. The window starts to open.

NARRATOR (V.O.) …Well, almost evvybody. They’s a few lost souls floatin’ ’round out there…

A young man is crawling out of the window onto the ledge. With the opening of the window, “AULD LANG SYNE” filters out with greater volume.

NARRATOR (V.O.) …This one’s Norville Barnes.

Grade Giver, Grade Thyself

Actually don’t. The optics are off, but end-of-year blogging brings out the worst of the medium:

There is always both wheat and chaff in hurried weekly commentaries. A look back on the past year of my RNS writings reveals plenty of both.

I was right, I think, in my claim that progressive and conservative evangelicals are heading for divorce, though it will never be an entirely clean or complete one.

I was right that America’s national character is eroding — that one sign of that erosion is the nature of our politics and another is the nature of our social media.

My improved peace of mind and retention of good relations with friends and family suggest I was right to abandon Facebook last summer.

I was right that clergy entanglement with American politics is an abiding temptation that regularly makes clergy useful idiots to politicians.

I was right that the (mainly white) Christian right’s embrace of Donald Trump was deeply discrediting to the Christianity that group purports to represent. At least, I believe I was right.

I also think I was right in my regular critiques of the campaign rhetoric and policy proposals of Mr. Trump. Now we all hold our breath to see what kind of president he will actually be.

I was right that differences about ideology, politics, and faith continually tear at the fabric of our society, our churches, and our friendships.

I was right that middle ground on the LGBT issue is eroding.

I was right that the resolution of the Wheaton College/Larycia Hawkins case and her forced departure deeply wounded the cause of Christian higher education, not to mention Professor Hawkins and Wheaton.

It goes on.

Why don’t the smartest people in society not see the problem of self-evaluations? Have they never watched a Coen brother’s movie?

Whatever Happened to Boomer Irony?

While the missus is still away, I watched a documentary over the weekend about folk music in Greenwich Village, Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation. It was largely celebratory. Only scant attention to drugs, the cost of success and selling out, envy of Bob Dylan. And then there was politics. I had really hoped they would not go there but they did: folk music changed everything. The last segment included stars talking about how music changed the world. One example was how Harry Chapin rallied musicians to sing together (of all things) and so raise funds for worthy causes. No mention of how those funds were administered. No mention directly of folk music’s inspiration of either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. And no images of Rev. King with ear buds during his marches while he listened to Don McLean or Peter, Paul, and Mary (and why did Mary come up last in the list?) and evaded barking dogs.

I’d have expected New Yorkers with New York sensibilities to be a little less self-congratulatory. But then there are the Yankees and their fans.

But amazingly, for a movie made after — underscore after — A Mighty Wind and Inside Llewyn Davis (okay, Greenwich Village and Inside LD came out the same year), how can you ever play folk music straight? Don’t you need a measure of ironic distance, a little self-awareness that you are the one touting yourself?

It struck me that folk musicians were for the left what evangelicalism is to Christianity.

And then comes this from another boomer New Yorker:

CoyrCxpXEAAcrLI

Forget irony. Whatever happened to the fall that follows pride?

Ye Must Be Baptized Again

Tim Challies keeps explaining what he is not. This time, it’s paedobaptist — not.

What is curious about the post, aside from how circumstantial Challies’ theological evolution is/was, is his adoption of the Gospel Coalition policy of looking the other way:

I suppose I am credobaptist rather than paedobaptist for the very reason most paedobaptists are not credobaptists: I am following my best understanding of God’s Word. My position seems every bit as obvious to me as the other position seems to those who hold it. What an odd reality that God allows there to be disagreement on even so crucial a doctrine as baptism. What a joy, though, that we can affirm that both views are well within the bounds of orthodoxy and that we can gladly labor together for the sake of the gospel.

But if credos and paedos can all get along, why did Challies have to be re-baptized? He admits that he was baptized as an infant in an Anglican church. But then he became a Baptist:

When we moved to our new home we began attending Baptist churches. We eventually settled into one and, in order to become a member, I had to be baptized as a believer. By then my convictions had grown and deepened enough that I believed it was the right thing to do. Since that day my convictions have grown all the more.

If both views are within the bounds of orthodoxy, why don’t Baptists (Reformed or not) recognize Presbyterian or Anglican baptisms? Or why don’t Baptists like Challies object to Presbyterians like Tim Keller for baptizing unbelievers? I grew up Baptist and was baptized sometime during my misspent adolescence. So far, the PCA, CRC, and OPC have not required re-baptism of mmmmmeeeeeEEEEEE.

Why Christians Shouldn’t See Christian Movies

Here’s one reason:

The glaring problem with God’s Not Dead, and most other films made for and marketed at the “faith audience,” is that instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead.

God’s Not Dead enlists an army of straw men (the evil atheist professor who will fail a student for refusing to sign a paper agreeing that God is dead, the evil atheist boyfriend who abandons his girlfriend as soon as she announces her terminal illness, the evil Muslim father who kicks his daughter out of the home for converting, the evil liberal ambush journalist with a bumper sticker on her car that reads “I love evolution”) then burns them in effigy. The movie isn’t content to merely convert our main antagonist, effectively forcing him to grovel before his 18-year-old student. It also trots in a deus ex machina and kills him off. (Spoiler, sorry.)

I can look past characters created by writers who have only heard about liberals and secularists on talk radio. But every non-Christian character in the movie, and so many others, “hates God” (direct quote). They believe or hope the Almighty has kicked the can, and do so for deeply personal reasons. They’re all secretly miserable, every last one. I believe in the power of representation enough to know that God’s Not Dead insidiously shapes the imaginations of the audience, especially if their daily lives don’t bring them into contact with people who don’t believe the way they do. And that’s true for many (and not just Christians).

Rarely do I even recognize myself or my family and friends in Christian movie characters. Left Behind, a faith-based film in which virtually all the Christian characters are weirdly portrayed as nutjobs, is a great example. And the God-fearing characters in God’s Not Dead seem like decent people, even if Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson co-star in a dash of ill-conceived product placement. But I believe we’re all in the same strange family of misfits. Which is why I get twitchy with the “faith audience” designation. The implication is that, if you’re not in that audience, you’re… what? The doubt audience? The unbelief audience?

The Coen brothers, however, gave a better reason in their latest, “Hail, Caesar”:

All of this means, however, that the Bible-Blockbuster religion depicted on the screen is going to be in significant ways distinct from actual Christian religion (or, in the relevant parts of Ben-Hur and the whole of the Ten Commandments, from actual Jewish religion). Hollywood owners, executives, and directors can sincerely believe that such Bible-Blockbuster religion is a unifying and salutary thing to portray for the nation, and more importantly, they can know that it is a very profitable thing to portray. But in the Coens’ telling, the problem is that Bible-Blockbuster religion cannot but be deceptive, hypocritical, and at the deepest level, faithless. Many of the key actors and many of the key film-makers will not believe in the relevant actual religions, and any serious believers that are on the set may either disagree with the religion that is being depicted, or disagree with one another about its correct interpretation. On the doctrinal level, it is only going to fully work for those who are in the vague sense believers but who have decided not to look into doctrine or the pages of scripture very much. On the dramatic level, it is going to involve actors, writers, and image-makers imitating a faith that many of them don’t have, and which is itself perhaps impossible to depict.

So the Bible-Blockbuster is going to have to primarily make faith seem to be a matter of melodramatic emotional inspiration, which from another angle, is a matter of manipulation. Hollywood magic, used…well, used for what? Not simply for escapist entertainment, but for more firmly setting the religion of America?

Carl Eric Scott admits that he feels awkward laughing at Jesus through the Coen’s smart alecky ways and tries to answer this here. But if Scott were truly a 2k Protestant, he’d know that he wasn’t laughing at Jesus in “Hail, Caesar.” He was only laughing at Hollywood trying to capitalize on Jesus. And if Alissa Wilkinson watched more Coen Brothers’ movies, she’d know not to go to Christian movies. What’s the point?

Teach Us To Number Our Years

I have never understood the festivities surrounding the change of the annual calendar, especially when academic and fiscal calendars so often fail to align with the solar year. Mind you, an excuse to party is always welcome, though the advance of years means that New Year’s Eve parties throw a big wrench into the biological clock works. Why the party for the New Year begins in the old one is also a curiosity. Perhaps the fondest memories of New Year’s holidays come from the days when a Watch Night service at Calvary Baptist functioned as the congregation’s party — though merriment ended at midnight when the worship service began — and the holiday itself was filled with college football games, the last of which we would watch at my uncle and aunt’s who opened their home late in the afternoon for a buffet and fraternizing. These days, the new year brings the annoyance of having to tear up erroneously dated checks for the first few weeks of January.

Perhaps, the Coen brothers — the font of so much boomer wisdom — captured the existential resonance of calendar changes in the opening lines of what is the best New Year’s Eve movie — Evveh — Hudsucker Proxy:

The’s right… New York.

It’s 1958 — anyway, for a few mo’ minutes it is. Come midnight it’s gonna be 1959. A whole ‘nother feelin’. The New Year. The
future…

… Yeah ole daddy Earth fixin’ to start one mo’ trip ’round the sun, an’ evvybody hopin’ this ride ’round be a little mo’ giddy,
a little mo’ gay…

Yep… All over town champagne corks is a-poppin’.

… Over in the Waldorf the big shots is dancin’ to the strains of Guy Lombardo… Down in Times Square the little folks is a-watchin’ and a-waitin’ fo’ that big ball to drop…

… They all tryin’ to catch holt a one moment of time…

… to be able to say — ‘Right now! This is it! I got it!’

‘Course by then it’ll be past.

Maybe He Needs MmmeeeeeEEEEEE

Scott Sauls may have spent too much time with Tim Keller, the author of Center Church, because Pastor Sauls seems to think that he is at the center of Presbyterianism. The reason for saying this is that he admits that he needs to hear from those with whom he differs. Here’s his list:

I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of CS Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of GK Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the honesty of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.

In the world of hipster Protestantism this is cool but not Snapchattingly trendy. If I were to assemble my own list of those with whom I disagree theologically but who have shaped my thinking in profound ways it would include: Orhan Pamuk, Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Aaron Sorkin, Wendell Berry, Michael Oakeshott, Edward Shils, David Simon, John McWhorter, Andrew Sullivan, Louis Menand, David Hackett Fischer, Henry May, Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Epstein, and Ethan Coen. See what I did there? I went outside Christian circles with most of that list. Do I get points for being really cool and cosmopolitan?

The thing is, none of those writers really helped me understand the nature of the Christian ministry as Presbyterians understand it. I’ve learned greatly from these figures about being human, which comes in handy for overseeing a congregation or participating in a church assembly. But I don’t look to these people for my life in the church.

But here’s the kicker for Pastor Sauls: what if he learned from those with whom he disagrees about Presbyterianism like Old Schoolers? What might his ministry look like then?

My sense is that because Pastor Sauls via Keller thinks he is in the heart of Presbyterianism or conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism, he already has his Presbyterian bases covered.

And in that case, boy does he need to understand the nature of disagreement.

Do I Need a Strategy for Dining on Sweetbreads?

After having seen Inside Llewyn Davis for a second time — it is growing on the Harts — I am intrigued by the exchange between Trevin Wax and Alissa Wilkinson about Christians watching movies. Wilkinson advocates seeing movies, in part, as a way of knowing what our neighbors are talking about. This facility will allow us to love them better and perhaps even evangelize. Wax thinks the idea of watching The Wolf of Wall Street as either neighbor love or pre-evangelism is a stretch. In the narrow confines of this debate, Wax largely has a point, though his fears of “heading down a rocky terrain without any brake system working on our vehicle” is at odds with the no-brakes approach of the apostle Paul who said everything is lawful. (Paul’s brake was whether something was beneficial either for us or other believers — a pretty complicated question but not necessarily so if you’re not blogging about what movies you see.)

What is missing from this classic evangelical approach to culture — either it helps with evangelism or it needs to bolster our moral posture — is (all about) I. What if I watch a movie simply because I like it, that is, I enjoy certain actors (George Clooney) or directors (Joel Coen) or writers (Ethan Coen) and I go out of my way to follow what they do. It is like acquiring a taste for a kind of food that some people might find objectionable — like sweetbreads (the thymus and pancreas of calves or lambs). If it’s on the menu, I generally order it. And if the Coens come out with a movie I see it. Why? A theological explanation could be that this is how God has providentially overseen my life so that I am predisposed to sweetbreads and the Coens.

That is way more theology than I think is necessary to justify such mundane affairs as food and movies. I understand that simply “enjoying” something can be a route to escapism or obesity — that is, not critically reflecting on what we watch or eat. But I see no reason why we can’t have a fuller account of enjoyment as a sufficient reason for seeing a film. If all things are lawful, maybe they are also enjoyable.