When Did Sex Become Orthodoxy?

This is how you know when the Church of England goes over the cliff:

I left the Church of England when, in 2008, it became clear what the inexorable trajectory had become. Wherever it leads, it doesn’t lead to orthodoxy and will always be shipwrecked on the rocks of secular liberalism and cultural Marxism. Secular liberalism rejects the Church’s notion of the complementarity of the sexes – male and female having separate and distinct roles within the economy of salvation – and cultural Marxism would do away entirely with the biblical teaching on marriage and the family. Both liberalism and Marxism reject the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

Aside from the difficulties that Rome is not enduring with debates about marriage, divorce, and homosexuality (not to mention the sex scandal), why is sex such an indicator of sound doctrine? The only reproduction mentioned in the creed is the divine conception of the incarnate Christ.

But if you want to be on the Christian side of the culture wars, avoiding churches that ordain women and that prohibit abortion is apparently the preferred strategy for those who either have never heard of the NAPARC churches or who think evangelicalism is tacky.

Spring Break with Tim

I did not plan it this way, but Tim Keller winds up being the subject this week. Reasons for further reflection on the oh so successful Manhattan pastor arise from the missus and my visit to Chicago, which has become a tradition. Truth be told, we are urbanists. We met in Philadelphia, knew something was going to knit us together after concluding that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan were about two of the best American movies ever made, and then found that life in the city was simply more intriguing (for us) than the suburbs in which we had both been reared (Levittown, PA and Levittown, NY — the odds?). Even living in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia’s suburb in the city, for almost 15 years, we drew energy and — dare I say — inspiration from residing in the city. Going to Chicago is a way to recharge the urban batteries (though one-day trips to Ann Arbor have to tide us over).

I hope I’m proving my urban bona fides, and in so doing suggesting that Keller’s awareness of the city’s appeal is plausible (though I still don’t see much appreciation for Woody Allen in TKNY).

My criticisms of Keller, then, are two-fold. I object to his failure to carry out his duties as a Presbyterian church officer. He may be a good evangelical, even an urban one, but I don’t sense a minister who willingly conforms and belongs to the limits that come with belonging to a Reformed communion. Keller is not alone in that. Lot’s of Presbyterian pastors don’t conform to communion expectations. But as celebrity-Presbyterian-pastor-in-chief, Keller makes the way straight for coloring outside the lines.

The other objection is the way Keller benefits from being pro-urban New York City. As I indicated earlier this week, if you put Keller in Chicago or Seattle would his following be as large as it is? I doubt it. Along with this goes a sense that Keller doesn’t tell the whole truth about the city. Even as he seems to think he knows how to educate future urban pastors about how to do city ministry, I don’t think he acknowledges one simple reality — the city is gosh darn expensive. And that means you have trouble keeping families in cities once couples start rearing children. In Philadelphia, you may be able to commute relatively easily from the suburbs to Tenth Presbyterian Church. But once you leave New York’s five boroughs, you are a long way from Manhattan.

Now notice this: families are important to covenant religion.

Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness. (Confession of Faith, 24.2)

Families are the only good way of socializing the young. Yes, they have lots of problems. But would you rather the state through its foster system rear children or take your chances with a man and woman who don’t have the true, good, and beautiful figured out? Or how about the church? Is the church better equipped to rear children than parents? I don’t think so.

Why is it then that Keller has so little to say about families? The index to Center Church gives the family only three entries. Google searches reveal only a few sources. Here’s one right from Keller:

Why bring children into such a bleak world? Religious persons, however, have a profound assurance that in the future is final justice, or paradise, or union with God in some form. They have an over-arching hope that makes them more optimistic about bearing and raising children.

At this point you might think I would simply say “Yay for religion, it is the friend of the family!” It is not that simple. While secularism in the West tends to make an idol out of the individual and his or her needs, traditional religion has often made an idol out of the family. According to theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, Christianity was the very first religion or world-view that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life. Jesus himself and St. Paul were single. “One…clear difference between Christianity and Judaism [and all other traditional religions] is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers.” (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174.) Nearly all religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or “legacy” without leaving heirs. By contrast, the early church not only did not pressure women to marry but it institutionally supported poor widows so they were not forced to remarry as they were out in the culture at large.

Notice the standard third-way positioning. I’m not for singles, nor for families, but here is the via media. Great. But tell me how families are going to afford to live in Manhattan. And also why not tell parents how important they are for rearing children, catechizing, setting examples in the home? Any reflection also on if you can afford to live in Manhattan and both parents need to work, what do you do with a hiring a Christian nanny? Family in this Keller post is an abstraction (that does not dent his larger abstraction of the city).

I also found this, the urban pastor who came around to Keller’s idea that it takes a city to raise rear a child:

[Keller] acknowledges that three factors make it a hard place to raise kids. First, because of the prohibitive cost of everything you’ve got less disposable income to invest in your family. Secondly, he talks about the ‘physical logistics on the front nine’ make it harder to get round the city with small kids. In others words transporting small kids in the city can be a real pain. But after that, the ‘back nine’ is a real joy. Thirdly, the educational terrain is complex and hard to navigate since there are so many options and so little cash!

That is the problem. The solution? Kids turn out hip, believers, and real (really!?!).

That said he then lists eight counterbalancing factors that sway the pendulum in favour of staying put and not giving flight.

1. The kids will grow up thinking that they live in the real world rather than growing up in the suburbs and straining at the leash to get to the real world. Of course everywhere is the real world but they don’t think like that. The city is where it’s at and they know that. That’s why they want to escape surburbia or the regions as soon as they can. But if they grow up in the city they know that they live in the ‘real’ world.

2. The kids grow up knowing that you have a real faith. They want to believe that their parents’ faith is disconnected to reality. It gives them permission to be disparaging about Christianity. But they can’t do that if they know that you’ve had to work out your Christian discipleship in the real world. It undermines their desire for unbelief.

3. The kids will grow up and become self reliant, independent and confident because nothing freaks them out. As a country boy who went to sixth form with mates from the city who then moved to the ‘big smoke’ in his mid twenties, I’ve got to say he’s absolutely right on that one.

4. The kids grow up being adept at handling diversity. Most surbuban white kids don’t grow up with Muslim neighbours and Afro-Caribbean mates. But you do in the city. Their breadth of cultural engagement will far outweigh the kids who grow up out of town.

5. The kids grow up being pushed into family. The city is a relationally intense environment. It ‘forces’ families to spend lots of time together. The commute is less, the house is smaller, there aren’t any fields to escape to. It all adds up to lots of ‘face time’. If you’re into relating with your kids, that’s a good thing.

6. The kids grow up with Christian role models. In the suburbs kids grow up with a peer group. But do you really want them learning about the faith from their teenage mates? On reflection, not really. In the city they get to their teenage years and they see the Christian life being modelled by credible ‘trendy twenties’ whom they respect. In the suburbs they get to see the Christian life being lived out by guys with kids. But who grows up wanting to be like their Dad! In the city they don’t have to.

7. The kids grow up facing the issues. They’ll be exposed to a whole range of ethical issues a long time before the suburban or rural kids. Because London is like a massive University Campus we get to go to College with them before they’re even old enough to apply! They’ll come across homosexuality, drugs, alcohol, crime, sex and so on and we’ll be with them when they do. Unlike the parents in the suburbs who live out there to escape from it we have to confront it and get to help them deal with it.

8. The kids grow up without the pressure to conform. The city is so accommodating of diversity that it’s hard to think of a fad, fashion or obsession that it wouldn’t tolerate. And so the kids get to grow up being themselves, without having to become a carbon copy of others.

This is frankly a bizarre recommendation of the city. Great! Let’s rear kids so they don’t want to be like their dads #6.

Great! Billy and Susie grow up surrounded by sex, drugs, and crime #7. Retreating to the suburbs is so squaresville.


What about kids who grow up without a smartphone because parents can’t afford one because rents are so high? Does Redeemer have a diaconate that helps families with the costs of living in the most expensive place in the United States?

And then I also saw this from Christopher Lasch:

If conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth. Historically, economic liberalism rested on the belief that man’s insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine—just as man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project—and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces. For the eighteenth-century founders of political economy, the self-generating character of rising expectations, newly acquired needs and tastes, and new standards of personal comfort gave rise to a form of society capable of indefinite expansion. Their break with older ways of thinking lay in the assertion that human needs should he regarded not as natural but as historical, hence insatiable. As the supply of material comforts increased, standards of comfort increased as well, and the category of necessities came to include goods formerly regarded as luxuries. Envy, pride, and ambition made human beings want more than they needed, but these “private vices” became “public virtues” by stimulating industry and invention. Thrift and self-denial, on the other hand, meant economic stagnation. “We shall find innocence and honesty no more general,” wrote Bernard Mandeville, “than among the most illiterate, the poor silly country people.” The “pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” according to David Hume, “roused men from their indolence” and led to “further improvements in every branch of domestic as well as foreign trade.” Both Hume and Adam Smith argued that a growing desire for material comforts, wrongly taken by republican critics of commerce as a sign of decadence and impending social collapse, generated new employments, new wealth, and a constantly rising level of productivity.

Does living in New York City encourage its people to think about living within limits, to regard progress as folly, to be content with less? Is Keller for the city and all its unlimited possibilities? Or does he encourage self-restraint and find ways for his hearers to resist all of the conveniences and temptations of modern urban life? Isn’t he really in favor of a suburban existence #5 — responsible parents, respectful kids, not going into debt, refusing hedonism (except when recommended by co-ally John Piper) — in an environment that as Lasch indicates pushes residents to want to see material comforts increased. Of course, all of America encourages an identification with progress (unless you live in Hillsdale, Michigan). But in NYC this outlook is on steroids (see Lena Dunham).

What if the dangers of urban life are real?

Thanks to President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “Great Society,” a buffet of new federal programs were established that have been pouring federal dollars into Philadelphia since the mid-1960s. How have those countless billions of tax dollars been spent? In the inner city where the federal dollars were spent by our Democratic politicians, public education is far worse than it was in the mid-’60s; violent crime is far worse; more children are living in poverty; more single-mother families, more homelessness, more hard drug use, more fear, etc. There is not one single criterion under the quality-of-life rubric that has improved in Philadelphia’s inner city since all those billions were brought into the city along with politicians’ photo-ops since the mid-’60s.

But Keller remains optimistic:

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

Keller believes serious Christians still belong in cities in general and New York in particular. But it’s a project that will take many more Tim Kellers and much more time. The results, says Keller, are “hard to see except in hindsight, with the perspective of several decades.”

Speaking of retreating into homogeneity, does Keller look at the church as a place of disagreement and diversity? Or has he led modern church planting into a homogeneous place where disagreement goes unanswered and unacknowledged? Can we have a discussion about Presbyterianism in the city? Can we talk about dying to sin and living to Christ in the city? Can we talk about family visitation and catechesis in the city? Or how about the regulative principle in the city?

I wish Tim Keller would think harder about cities and think about them in the light of critics of modernity like Lasch or Wendell Berry. That doesn’t fit with his ministry paradigm. Not reading those critics or interacting with them does not fit the pastor-who-answers-skeptics paradigm.

Postscript: I’d be glad to offer my services as an urban church consultant. I’m a trained social scientist, I like cities, and I’m even a church officer.

Subsidiarity Matters

What happens when you locate the vitality of your religious tradition in the officers who are far removed from the socializing and rearing of human beings?

American Protestants are keeping their children in the faith at a higher rate than Catholics or the unaffiliated, according to the latest study from the Pew Research Center.

Four out of five children raised by two Protestant parents remained Protestant into adulthood. For those raised in Protestant homes where religion was very important or often discussed, the retention rate jumps even higher (85% and 89%, respectively).

For those raised by a single parent who was Protestant, the retention rate doesn’t dip much. Three-quarters of American adults who had a Protestant single parent still identify as Protestant.
Those raised by two Catholic or unaffiliated parents, on the other hand, were equally less likely (62%) to remain in their parents’ religion—or lack thereof.

A theology of the body for the trenches?

“One pattern regarding the passing on of religious identity from one generation to the next is clear,” Pew stated. “Among those who were raised in a single religious background (especially within Protestantism), the family’s religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one’s religion into adulthood.”

Why Worry About Change?

When you can always interpret.

George Weigel tries to get out in front of Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the family. But he couldn’t beat Cardinal Kasper (and, oh, by the way doesn’t a Cardinal outrank a layman in teaching authority?):

As is his wont, Cardinal Walter Kasper was first out of the starting blocks, announcing that the apostolic exhortation (whose date of publication he got wrong) would be a first step in vindicating his proposals for a “penitential path” by which the divorced and civilly remarried could be admitted to holy communion—despite the fact that his proposal had been roundly criticized and rejected at both Synods and in various scholarly articles and books in between. The Kasper spin was then picked up by some of the usual media suspects, who called on the usual Catholic talking heads on the port side of the Barque of Peter, who took matters further by speculating that the apostolic exhortation would open up even more revolutionary paths, involving the Church’s eventual acceptance of same-sex marriage and other matters on the LGBT agenda.

But not to worry, the Council that many think unsettled the church has actually settled what popes can do:

By declining Paul VI’s suggestion about a papacy “accountable to the Lord alone,” Vatican II made clear that there are limits to what popes can do. On the bottom-line matters at issue in the two recent Synods, for example, no pope can change the settled teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, or on the grave danger of receiving holy communion unworthily, because these are matters of what the Council’s Theological Commission called “revelation itself:” to be specific, Matthew 19.6 and 1 Corinthians 11.27-29. Nor has Pope Francis indicated in any public statement that he intends any deviation from what is written by revelation into the constitution of the Church.

Michael Sean Winters is even later to the pre-publication spin and offers his own prebuttal.

But what if the bishop whose job it is to interpret Scripture and tradition interprets dogma so it doesn’t change but its meaning does? This was the option favored by Protestant and Roman Catholic modernists. If modernism could happen once, why couldn’t it happen again (as if it ever went away)?

And then we have the problem of reason and what people with minds do to texts. Sam Gregg recently invoked Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address to call not his communion but the entire West to its former high esteem for reason:

One of the basic theses presented by Benedict at Regensburg was that how we understand God’s nature has implications for whether we can judge particular human choices and actions to be unreasonable. Thus, if reason is simply not part of Islam’s conception of the Divinity’s nature, then Allah can command his followers to make unreasonable choices, and all his followers can do is submit to a Divine Will that operates beyond the categories of reason.

Most commentators on the Regensburg Address did not, however, observe that the Pope declined to proceed to engage in a detailed analysis of why and how such a conception of God may have affected Islamic theology and Islamic practice. Nor did he explore the mindset of those Muslims who invoke Allah to justify jihadist violence. Instead, Benedict immediately pivoted to discussing the place of reason in Christianity and Western culture more generally. In fact, in the speech’s very last paragraph, Benedict called upon his audience “to rediscover” the “great logos”: “this breadth of reason” which, he maintained, orthodox Christianity has always regarded as a prominent feature of God’s nature. The pope’s use of the word “rediscover” indicated that something had been lost and that much of the West and the Christian world had themselves fallen into the grip of other forms of un-reason. Irrationality can, after all, manifest itself in expressions other than mindless violence.

Gregg warns rightly that “irrationality is loose and ravaging much of the West—especially in those institutions which are supposed to be temples of reason, i.e., universities.”

But if Father Dwight is any indication, irrationality also has its moments well within the confines of Roman Catholic parishes (even beautiful ones). If you wonder why the virgin Mary is the Queen of Heaven, just take a rational look at your Bible:

We simply have to read the Scriptures with Catholic eyes and understand the Jewish context of the Scriptures to see how the Catholic beliefs about Mary are all contained in the Scriptures. The problem is, they are not stated explicitly. Instead they are locked in the Scriptures to be understood and teased out. As the church came to understand more fully who Jesus really was they then began to understand more fully the role of his Mother, and as that became clear they also began to see that these truths were already there in the Scriptures. . . . The truths about Mary are subservient to the truths about Jesus because she is always subservient to her Son and always points to her Son. It is about him. It is not about her. . . .

Luke chapter 1:26-38 and Revelation 12. Consider first the passage from Luke. This is, of course, the story of the Annunciation of Jesus birth by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. . . . The angel Gabriel is called “the Angel of the Lord”. He is the main messenger direct from God. Therefore his words can be taken as a direct revelation from God. His message to Mary is therefore God’s message to the world. He declares solemnly that Mary’s Son will be the Son of the Most High, but he will also be the heir of David and the King of the Jews and furthermore his kingdom will have no end. In other words, he is king of heaven.

In the Jewish understanding of monarchy the Queen of heaven was not the king’s wife, but the king’s mother. Solomon’s mother Bathsheba played this role in the Old Testament. It follows therefore that if Jesus is to be the heir of David’s throne and be king, then his mother would be the Queen. Furthermore, if Jesus is also to reign over the kingdom of heaven, then his mother would be the Queen of Heaven.

At some level, Christians on both sides of the Tiber need to give up the idea that their convictions are rational in the sense that people with well functioning minds will recognize the point of Christianity. Aside from the noetic affects of the fall which predispose unbelievers to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, Christians also affirm truths that defy reason — like the resurrection and the Trinity.

But if what Father Dwight does with Scripture is any indication of the interpretations that attend sacred and infallible texts, no amount of bishops and cardinals bringing their conciliar foot down on papal authority will prevent interpreters from interpreting.


Who Is Scratching Whose Head?

A number of bloggers are struggling with Pope Francis’ comment about family planning and Roman Catholics “breeding like rabbits.” On the one side are those who think Francis is only speaking to the wider public and would choose his words more carefully if addressing the faithful exclusively:

When Francis speaks to the mainstream media, like it or not, he is choosing to speak to non-Catholics. Faithful, practicing Catholics are not his primary audience. If you are expecting Pope Francis to be speaking to you as a practicing Catholic when he addresses the media, you will be devastated.

From the other corner comes the spin that those outside the church don’t know how to take Francis’ off the cuff statements:

The Church has never taught that Catholics are to have as many children as possible. They can use abstinence, including the selective abstinence of “Natural Family Planning,” to limit the number of children they bear.

Yet such nuance is bound to be lost on the Pope’s secular audience. Just as his comments saying that Catholics should not be “obsessed” with abortion have been used as cudgels against political candidates who oppose abortion and gay marriage, Francis’s rabbit comment is likely to be used as yet another weapon against Catholics faithful to church teaching.

Damned if we get it, damned if we don’t.

But the point about Pope Francis saying things the way he does because he is speaking to non-Roman Catholics raises an interesting (to me) question. Why does the pontiff carry on a conversation with the wider world and how do I get to join it? I mean, if the pope’s jurisdiction is truly universal, then he is my pope as much as Jason and the Callers. In which case, if I have to listen to him, shouldn’t he have to hear from me once in a while?

Or is it the case that the universal jurisdiction of the papacy only extends to a spiritual authority which Francis has by virtue of certain Christians being in fellowship with him?

It seems to me that papal discourse is still caught between the older Unam Sanctam outlook of the papacy as the highest authority even above temporal authorities, and the newer Vatican 2 conception that sees church power largely in spiritual terms (except within Vatican City which has its own police, prison, bank, and postal service). Protestants in the United States took a long time to figure out that when Reinhold Niebuhr spoke, he wasn’t speaking for or to all Americans. But the coverage and following of the papacy surely hasn’t captured the distinction between the real power that the papacy has over Roman Catholic life and institutions, and the apparent moral authority that appears to give the pope permission to speak about everything Satan to tsunamis. Meanwhile, no one seems to notice that no one cares what other bishops might have to say. For all of Francis’ talk of collegiality, he is hogging the limelight. And do journalists actually realize that even if they don’t believe in papal supremacy the way the cover the Holy See indicates they support papal supremacy.

I’m sure Jason and the Callers could clear all of this up (if they ever commented on the contemporary state of the communion to which they call).

Speaking of Paradigms

What on earth would the magisterium have to learn from Southern Baptists about the family and marriage?

The Vatican will host religious leaders from across the religious spectrum later this month for a conference where they are expected to defend traditional marriage as between a man and a woman.

While hosted by Vatican officials and scheduled to open with an address by Pope Francis, the conference will include Muslim and Jewish representatives, as well as American leading evangelicals like megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore.

The gathering comes just weeks after Pope Francis and senior Catholic leaders wrapped up a two-week Vatican Synod of Bishops on the family, which highlighted tensions within the Catholic hierarchy over gays and lesbians and cohabiting couples.

Despite initial overtures toward gay and lesbian Catholics and the “gifts and qualities” they had to offer the church, the final synod report scaled back that language. Conservative and traditionalist Catholics said any attempts to soften the church’s teaching on homosexuality was a “betrayal” and akin to heresy.

Organizers say the new conference will show that while the Catholic hierarchy is split on how to address contemporary challenges to marriage and family life, the church can nonetheless seek common ground with religious leaders outside the Vatican.

If all those claims that Bryan Cross makes about logic and paradigms is true — and nothing I have posted has yet to disprove such truth — then why do his church rulers act like they aren’t?

Degrees of Pain

Ligon Duncan links to a piece by Bryan Loritts on his reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown. Loritts explains why others need to hear him about his pain:

If you sense exasperation from we African-American’s over yet another news story of a black man slain at the hands of a white man, this is a wonderful opportunity to grab some coffee and seek to understand our hearts. I need my white brothers to know how I felt as I sat in the preaching classes in Bible college and seminary not once hearing examples of great African-American preachers. I need you to know how I felt when I was forced face down on the hard asphalt of Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, 1993 all because I was nineteen and driving my pastor’s Lexus, a year after the Rodney King riots. I need you to ask how I felt when I walked into a Target recently behind a white woman who took one look at me and pulled her purse tightly.

I wonder, though, if Mr. Loritts feels this death the way Michael Brown’s family and friends do. I understand that an African-American male may be able to imagine what Michael Brown experienced before being shot in ways that white Americans cannot. But I wonder if Mr. Loritts distracts us from a much deeper pain when he likens this news to his own experience. Not to sound disrespectful, but Michael Brown’s experience seems to me to be in a fundamentally different category from Mr. Loritts’. One man is dead, the other is alive. Recognizing that difference may help a lot of people on both sides of the racial divide remember the family and friends in this situation who lost a loved one. Heck, some of those family and friends may even be of European, Asian, or Latino descent.

What Machen Should Have Said

About the value of Christian education (if he were a neo-Calvinist):

This, then, is the point. The war between Christ and Satan is a global war. It is carried on, first, in the hearts of men for the hearts of men. Through preaching and teaching in the church and in the home, through the witness borne individual men everywhere, the allegiance of men is turned away from Satan to Christ. But the warfare is also carried on where you might least expect it. It is carried on in the field of reading and writing and arithmetic, in the field of nature study and history. At every point Satan seeks boys and girls, as well as men and women to take the attitude that he got Eve and Adam to take at the beginning of history. Everywhere and at every point Satan’s theme-song is: “Let’s be broad-minded; at the beginning of our research your hypothesis about God’s creating and directing the course of history is as good as mine and mine is as good as yours. Now let’s
be open-minded and find out from the facts, whose hypothesis fits reality.”

And now the reason why we are willing as Christian believers in general, and as Christian parents in particular, to sacrifice so largely for the sake of having Christian schools is that we want our children with us to see the vision of the all-conquering Christ as he wrests the culture of mankind away from Satan and brings it to its consummation when the new heavens and the new earth on which righteousness shall dwell, at last appears.

We would have our young men and women become true soldiers under Christ as with him they go conquering and to conquer every domain of life for Christ. When they thus become good soldiers of Christ, they will be free and be truly themselves. They will share in the trophies which Christ wrests from Satan’s power: “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death, or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:22) (Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education)

Well, maybe Van Til would not have been so antithetical in testimony before Congress. But since neo-Calvinists keep telling us that religion must not be cordoned off behind the church parking lot fence, that dualism is anathema, that we need more religion in public, I wonder why it would wrong to think that Van Til would have said this in Congress. Not that there is anything with saying this in Congress. It is a free country. But this is clearly not the way Machen chose to address matters of public life, whether education or the Sabbath.

In which case, it is striking how Machen did address the Christian school teachers (in the quotation that neo-Calvinists love to cite). This is how the talk begins (no antithesis, just American politics):

The Christian school is to be favored for two reasons. In the first place, it is important for American liberty; in the second place, it is important for the propagation of the Christian religion. . . . In the first place, then, the Christian school is important for the maintenance of American liberty. We are witnessing in our day a world-wide attack upon the fundamental principles of civil and religious freedom. In some countries, such as Italy, the attack has been blatant and unashamed; Mussolini despises democracy and does not mind saying so. A similar despotism now prevails in Germany; and in Russia freedom is being crushed out by what is perhaps the most complete and systematic tyranny that the world has every seen.

But exactly the same tendency that is manifested in extreme form in those countries, is also being manifested, more slowly but none the less surely, in America. It has been given an enormous impetus first by the war and now by the economic depression; but aside form these external stimuli it has its roots in a fundamental deterioration of the American people. Gradually the people has come to value principle less and creature comfort more; increasingly it has come to prefer prosperity to freedom; and even in the field of prosperity it cannot be said that the effect is satisfactory.

The result of this decadence in the American people is seen in the rapid growth of a centralized bureaucracy which is the thing against which the Constitution of the United States was most clearly intended to guard.

Machen goes on for several pages to discuss various legislative initiatives at the state and federal level. Still no mention of God, theology, w-w, or the antithesis except the one between liberty and tyranny:

But someone will say, Congress will never in the world be so foolish as that; the amendment does give Congress that power, but the power will never be exercised. Now, my friends, I will just say this: when I listen to an argument like that, I sometimes wonder whether the person who advances it can possibly be convinced by it himself. If these stupendous powers are never to be exercised, why should they be granted? The zeal for the granting of them, the refusal of the framers of the amendment to word the amendment in any reasonably guarded way, show plainly that the powers are intended to be exercised; and certainly they will be exercised, whatever the intention of the framers of the amendment may be. I will tell you exactly what will happen if this amendment is adopted by the states. Congress will pass legislation which, in accordance with the plain meaning of the language, will be quite unenforceable. The exact degree of enforcement will be left to Washington bureaus, and the individual family will be left to the arbitrary decision of officials. It would be difficult to imagine anything more hostile to the decency of family life and to all the traditions of our people. If there ever was a measure that looked as though it were made in Russia, it is this falsely so-called “child-labor amendment” to the Constitution of the United States. In reality, it can hardly be called an amendment to the Constitution. Rather is it the complete destruction of the Constitution; for if human life in its formative period — up to eighteen years in the life of every youth — is to be given to Federal bureaucrats, we do not see what else of very great value can remain. The old principles of individual liberty and local self-government will simply have been wiped out. . . .

Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest. In doing so, it is no real enemy of the public schools. On the contrary, the only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised.

For Machen, education was primarily a family matter and it needed protection from the ever-reaching arm of the state:

I believe that the Christian school deserves to have a good report from those who are without; I believe that even those of our fellow citizens who are not Christians may, if they really love human freedom and the noble traditions of our people, be induced to defend the Christian school against the assaults of its adversaries and to cherish it as a true bulwark of the State. But for Christian people its appeal is far deeper. I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism. If, indeed, the Christian school were in any sort of competition with the Christian family, if it were trying to do what the home ought to do, then I could never favor it. But one of its marked characteristics, in sharp distinction from the secular education of today, is that it exalts the family as a blessed divine institution and treats the scholars in its classes as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Kuyper too feared state overreach and on this they agreed (though I don’t think Machen would have cared for Kuyper’s progressive reforms as prime minister). But when thinking about public life Machen did not wield the antithesis the way that Kuyper and neo-Calvinists do. I suspect that a major difference on this score is that Kuyper, being European and therefore much more philosophical than Americans like Machen, looked at most things philosophically, or he tried to see things whole. Machen, whose background both at home (legal) and in the church (Old School), thought about matters much more as an attorney and so what was legal according to the constitution of something. The U.S. Constitution secured religious freedom. The church had a definite constitution that prescribed its functions and defined its ministry. American constitutionalism may have had a weak philosophical basis (or so I’ve been told since my mind doesn’t really work philosophically). That didn’t trouble Machen. He tried to play by those rules and those rules governed both God’s friends and enemies, at least within the borders of the greatest nation on God’s green earth.

Postscript: for those wondering where Machen defended communists, they need look no farther than his essay, “The Relation between Christians and Jews”:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Selected Shorter Writings, 418-19)

Interesting to see that Machen’s reason for opposition socialism is not the law of God, w-w, the cosmic contest between God and Satan oozing out of 1789, but a love of freedom. But of course, Machen is no libertarian.

An Acquired Taste that May Not Last

The missus and I finished the first two seasons of The Killing (better than Breaking Bad, not nearly as good as The Wire) and turned last night to the third season of Downton Abbey. After two episodes, I like the presence of Shirley Maclaine far more than I expected. The differences between Yanks and Brits on tradition and history is particularly intriguing and definitely ironic. Most citizens of the United States (Canadians are Americans after all) sympathize with the idea of ending tradition and letting estates like Downton be relegated to the ash heap of housing developments, representative government, and wireless internet. At the same time, the ongoing appeal of the British royalty and the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey prove that for all the common sense of equality, merit, and reason, many moderns still enjoy having around a ruling class with its pomp and circumstance. Perhaps that kind of tradition sets a standard that provides order even for those outside the ruling class, and it is a desire for order that keeps institutions like the British and Dutch monarchies alive. Whatever the explanation, I am betting the executives at BBC know that a series based on the Earl of Grantham and his estate will always pull in better ratings than a show based on Sybel’s husband, Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who can’t help spouting republicanism at family dinners and making uncomfortable all guests of aristocratic backgrounds, along his former peers among the downstairs help.

That appeal of estates, titles, wood-paneled libraries, grand dining rooms, dutiful servants, and formal dinner attire may explain why some Protestants find Rome or Canterbury a better brand of Christianity. Roman Catholics and Anglicans simply set a better formal dining room table than Presbyterians. Just compare the altar and Mass to the table and the Lord’s Supper. One is grand, the other is ordinary. It is comparable to the difference between Tom Branson and the Earl of Grantham. I might feel more comfortable having a pint with Tom, but I’d rather watch a series about the Earl.

Rebecca VanDoodewaard picked up on this dynamic somewhat in her reflections about why low-church Protestants turn to high-church communions:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

Missing from this description is a recognition of the difference between liturgical styles in historic Christianity. The options are not simply high-church liturgies over against megachurch informality. Another layer of difference is one between simplicity and ornateness. Reformed Protestants have been sticklers for simplicity in worship. Reformed worship has plenty of reverence and transcendence but it comes from the word, read and preached, with the sacraments as illustrations. Anglicans and Roman Catholics derive reverence and transcendence from the show of the architecture, vestments, images, music (not Roman Catholics post Vatican II), and THE sacrament. It is like the difference between folks songs and opera. For Christians who want a sensual experience in worship, a Reformed Protestant service will come up short — too didactic and logocentric. For those same Christians, the P&W worship service will simply be tacky.

VanDoodewaard is on weaker footing when she goes on to commend Reformed churches for holding on to their children in ways that evangelicals do not:

But not all kids who grew up in American evangelicalism are jumping off into high church rite and sacrament: congregations that carefully teach robust, historic Protestant theology to their children are notably not losing them to the Vatican, or even Lambeth. Protestant churches that recognize their own ecclesiastical and theological heritage, training their children to value and continue it in a 21st century setting, usually retain their youth. These kids have the tools they need to think biblically through the deep and difficult issues of the day and articulate their position without having a crisis of faith.

I would like to see some statistics on this, but my own sense is that communions like the OPC (perhaps not representative but certainly one where a lot of theology is taught) do not retaining their children. For instance, at the recent General Assembly, roughly one-in-ten of the commissioners was a child of the OPC. All others had jumped from somewhere else to benefit from the OPC’s dedication to doctrine. Not even the attempts of the OPC to create something of a brand with its history (the OPC has to have more pages of history per capita than any other Presbyterian denomination) — not even all that history has left the next generation (or their parents) with a sense that they have joined a tradition that is bigger than they are. Sure, 1936 is not as impressive a starting point as 1857, 1618, 1560, 1534, or 33 AD. But conservative Reformed denominations generally have no fixed sense of identity apart from family ties. When membership is part of ethnic identity (say in the case of the Covenaters or the URC), the next generation is more likely to recognize a denomination as being bigger than its teaching and ministry. But when it is limited to teaching the truths of the Bible and the catechism, children after leaving home need only look for another church that teaches the Bible.

I don’t know what the fix is. I really don’t know how to create ties of institutional loyalty among teenagers and young adults who have only been in a conservative Reformed or Presbyterian denomination for possibly only half their lives. If mom and dad switched from an independent Bible-believing church to a Presbyterian communion, why can’t those parents’ children switch to another Bible-believing church? In other words, how do you connect family loyalty to church membership? Or should you when you consider what happens to ethnic denominations? At the same time, without some sort of link between blood and creed, middle-class Christians like Reformed Protestants are never going to set a table as elaborate or refined as the upper-class communions.

Ideas Have Consequences for Genes

The following was originally intended to appear in the next issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal. But when my father died on April 28th, the timing for tributes changed. Since today is the birthday of Ellen Marie Hart (nee Jones), it seems a fitting day on which to run it.

Within thirty-six hours of my mother’s death on March 26th, 2010, I was responsible for teaching a lesson in Sunday school on J. Gresham Machen. Since this was the second of a thirteen-week series, I needed to cover his upbringing, education, and church background. This meant that I was going to be talking about Machen’s relationship to his mother, Mary Gresham Machen, aka Minnie. In turn this involved talking about her background as a native of Macon, Georgia, her father’s business and political activities, the townhouse of the Greshams, now a four-star Bed and Breakfast – the 1842 Inn – that still features photographs of young J. Gresham Machen attired in a dress (the custom of the day), and Minnie’s own literary pursuits; she wrote The Bible in Browning and was published by MacMillan – the same company that published her son’s Christianity and Liberalism two decades later.

As I prepared and taught I became aware of a major problem in my own existence, namely, that I know more about Machen’s mother and family than I actually do about mine. This reality became all the more glaring on the day of my mother’s burial when one of her sisters and one sister-in-law traveled to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from Green County, North Carolina for the service. I had not seen these aunts for almost four decades. They seemed to revel in catching my brother, wife and me up on family news. And through it all they let us know, not in a didactic way, but simply as part of the ordinary quality of their lives, that all of my mother’s siblings had remained in North Carolina, reared their families there, and that most of their grandchildren were still in the Tar Heel state. Not only was I jealous of this side of my humanity – after all I am as much a Jones as a Hart. But the Jones and the Crawfords and the Murphys and the Sullivans and the Pridgeons – the other families with whom they had bonded in marriage – were practically the embodiment of the localism, agrarianism, and family ways that I have come to admire and be haunted by in the writings of Wendell Berry.

One of the most pressing questions I have had about my mother which bears directly on my growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia rather than in the land of Jesse Helmes, is why she decided after graduating from high school in 1941 to move to Washington, D.C. and work first as a telephone operator and then for the federal government in the accounting office. It made no sense that a woman, the oldest of ten children, would leave a farm and nine young siblings to work in the “big” city. Since she was a born-again Christian, it made even less sense, given the fears that evangelicals generally have of cities, combined with the unwritten code governing a young single woman’s opportunities. My aunts, however, made some sense of the move by explaining that mother had moved to Washington with her oldest sister, and that they lived with one of their future aunts. So it was not a career move but a family connection that brought my mother to the nation’s capital during wartime.

But that move was decisive for her and me because she met a man in a Marine’s dress-blue uniform at a Baptist church (Mark Dever’s, by the way) and fell in love. That man, my father, hailed from southeastern Pennsylvania and after he served in the Pacific and then attended college at Bob Jones University, thanks to the G.I. Bill, they bypassed North Carolina on the way to “go” in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the armpit of Bucks County and the horror of post-war suburban development. But much like my Jones relatives in the South, my parents didn’t know any better. They hadn’t read Jane Jacobs or Howard Kunstler or Wendell Berry or Russell Kirk. They simply did the best they could to rear a family. For the Harts that meant finding affordable housing near a good church and close to kin; for the Jones that meant rearing families and supporting them in the opportunities provided by ditch digging, tobacco farming, auto sales, and real estate brokering.

Unlike my kinfolk, I am a deracinated academic who knows how to find literature on family ties or who devoted a good portion of his life to the life and writings of one man and became so enamored of those ideas that he found out more about Machen than about either of his grandfathers, Robert Jones or Clyde Hart. I suspect that this is a problem that afflicts many aspiring intellectuals – the lure of some author or thinker from the past whose writing has changed their outlook on the big questions. In turn object of intellectual desire directs and guides the student more than the pupil’s own parents and family. Ideas do have consequences. They help to define our understanding of ourselves, and our situations, and become the motive for action. They even tempt us to discount the influence of parents and the legacy of families.

In my own case, I continue to regard Baltimore as more of a home than either Levittown or Greenville, North Carolina. Part of that owes to spending six years there while in graduate school. But a good chunk of it also stems from the subject of my studies during that time – Machen, whose family residence was four blocks from our first apartment, not to mention the reading and writing I did on H. L. Mencken, the bard of Baltimore whose home was only two blocks away from our grad school dwelling. Some of us eggheads get so caught up in a historical figure’s life that we actually place ourselves in their narrative. Meanwhile, the real story to which we belong lies strewn across the informal conversations and fading memories of aging aunts, uncles, cousins, and grand parents.

One way to try to justify this identity confusion is to portray myself as the victim of declining family ties. Whatever the legitimate reasons my parents may have had for moving to Levittown, they did not choose a place that would sustain links to kin (for starters). Again, they were not in the habit of considering pedestrian-friendly streets, interconnected street grid networks, mixed-use zoning, increased density, or “green” transportation when looking for a place to live. They had experienced a depression and a war. Having survived Iwo Jima my father had freedom to buy a home where he darned well (humanly speaking) wanted. He and mother didn’t need some guilt-ridden baby boomer historian of a son to come along and claim his rights as a victim of poor parental housing choices and the accompanying industrial military complex.

That said, as soon as I saw the city I knew I wanted to get out of Levittown as fast as I could because it had none of the interest or energy that people living together in one relatively self-sustaining polity had. And once that switch flicked on, gone were circumstances that would sustain identification at least with the Harts, not to mention the Jones.

Then again, maybe my loss of roots stems from my mother’s own decision to leave the farm in Green County where her grandmother Jones (nee Crawford) was born and move to Washington. Is it too tidy to think that she passed on to me through her egg the appeal of urban life and the dislocation that cities yield? After all, when she moved to D.C. her life would not be the same as her siblings. (The one sister who moved with her married a soldier from North Carolina, thus making easier a return to her native state.)

And what of my mother’s temperament and interests that might have predicted my interest in Machen? Mother’s disposition was toward stubbornness and contrariness, attributes that many have attributed to the Presbyterian “bad boy of Baltimore.” Mother was also militant about the Christian faith in modest ways that resemble Machen. At the same time, she was generous to a fault, something that she also shared with Machen. As difficult as my relationship could be with her – she was the bad cop always telling me to cut my hair, wear a tie to church, and hang around more with Christian friends while my dad was the good cop (except for the execution of corporal punishment, a decidedly male activity), always telling my mother to relax and not be overbearing – she was always sending me back to college stocked with food, clean clothes, and a couple of extra ten dollar bills shoved in my coat pocket.

Of course, it is a stretch of cosmopolitan proportions to attribute my intellectual interests to my genetic inheritance. Too easy is it to let myself off the hook for following ideas more than family. But from the perspective of providence, the gap between ideas and genes is not terribly great. If God could take a privileged, smart, and indecisive son of an urbane and hospitable southern lady from Baltimore and turn him into one of the giants of American Presbyterianism, he can also take the shy, sports-absorbed and sometimes bookish son of a southern exile in the Philadelphia suburbs and turn his life around through studying the kid from Baltimore.

God works in mysterious ways, his wonders and horrors to perform.

P.S. Mother’s birthday is actually June 15th. Having been in Maine for an OPC affair, the sense of the heavenlies caused me to lose track of time on planet earth.