Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance.
Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.
Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.
Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.
I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.
If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
New Calvinists are mean but don’t know it.
Jonathan Merritt was an unlikely person to confirm a point made here before, namely, that when you define orthodoxy you also draw lines that to outsiders will look unloving and mean. (Think undergraduates at Oberlin seeking protection from disquieting perceptions.) For a while New Calvinists and their allies at the Gospel Coalition have portrayed Paleo Calvinists as mean. Now with Merritt what goes around comes around.
He observes that New Calvinists are full of criticism (and instructions on how to do it):
The website’s archives read like a how-to handbook for criticizing. TGC managing editor Matt Smethhurst tackles how to criticize fellow Christians. Blogger Jared Wilson lays out when you should criticize your pastor. Popular blogger Justin Taylor explains how to criticize your non-Christian friends and how to criticize another person’s theology and how to criticize the evangelical movement at-large.
Their rebukes are not always theoretical. TGC bloggers regularly express sharp disapproval of theologians, pastors, authors, and politicians using strong language. When writer Thabiti Anyabwile wanted to criticize homosexuality, for example, he encouraged readers to recover their “gag reflex” and focus on the “yuck factor.” Setting aside the many–and I mean many–problems with this way of thinking, Anyabwile’s approach is not exactly a silver-plated conversation starter in a non-Christian culture. You can’t transform a culture while you’re browbeating, rebuking, name-calling and gagging. That’s not a recipe for cultural engagement, but rather cultural enragement.
Then there is New Calvinists’ refusal to entertain criticisms themselves:
Most people who have been blocked by TGC say they were punished for questioning the coalition’s disastrous defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a prominent Calvinist ministry that was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. TGC personalities connected to SGM continued to express support and friendship for those involved with the scandal even as it became clear that Sovereign Grace leaders were complicit. Many who questioned TGC’s stance were blocked. Some who merely used Twitter handles such as #istandwithsurvivors were similarly punished by TGC.
TGC’s blocking spree has swept in countless pastors, seminary professors, bloggers, and others. One person told me they were blocked for challenging their comments about transgender people, while another said they were punished for questioning their stance on “biblical masculinity.” Several told me they were blocked for retweeting someone else’s critique, while others — like Northern Seminary professor Geoff Holsclaw — said they had no idea why TGC blocked them. . . .
A pattern of offering criticism while not being able to receive it, according to Dr. Leon Seltzer of Psychology Today, is a characteristic trait of narcissism. As Seltzer writes, “Deep down, clinging desperately not simply to a positive but grandiose sense of self, [narcissists are] compelled at all costs to block out any negative feedback about themselves.”
Finally, Merritt points out the problem of belonging to a club instead of a church:
TGC has established a system where in order to be a part of the network, one has to believe a set of doctrines that are more specific than some denominations. Basically, you have to be a conservative Calvinist protestant who holds particular views about gender roles, reads the Bible in a certain way, understands human sexuality like they do, etc. If you don’t agree to these positions, you’re out. And those who add their church to the directory of TGC-approved congregations are encouraged to police others. The site asks members to “report a church that doesn’t align with TGC’s Foundation Documents.”
The word “coalition” is defined as “a combination or alliance, especially a temporary one between persons, factions, states, etc.” But the structure of TGC allows for almost no diversity among its members–certainly none that would be noticeable to anyone who is not a Christian insider. So, technically-speaking, The Gospel Coalition is not a coalition at all; they are a club.
If the New Calvinists were more ecclesial and less parachurchian, they might not lose their critical side. And contrary to Merritt who thinks engaging culture is a positive, if New Calvinists were churchly they wouldn’t worry about the culture so much. Belonging to a church and working within its structures would not make them less critical, though Robert’s Rules supplies a structure for critique that takes away some of criticism’s sting. The best thing that might happen to New Calvinists if they looked to the church instead of the club, they would not be so doctrinaire about so many peripheral matters. The visible church has a way of focusing your outlook (not sure what happened to Pope Francis).
But who the hades is Jen Hatmaker?
I confess. I study religion in the United States and had never heard of this Hatmaker person until she made “mainstream” news by affirming the LBGT community.
This got me thinking once again about the networks, ecclesial affiliations, and sources of information available to American Christians. I wonder, for instance, how many members of NAPARC churches have heard of or follow Jen Hatmaker. Conversely, how many of Hatmaker’s followers and readers have ever heard of Dick Gaffin? What does it say about a group that they don’t know about the other group? And how might a group change if it knew about figures from the other? Would Jen Hatmaker’s readers leave her if they read Dick Gaffin on union with Christ? And if Orthodox Presbyterians read Jen Hatmaker, would they sing more worship songs accompanied by guitars?
We often hear in this age of the internet how the old gatekeepers (magazines and newspapers) have vanished and readers are left with Google searches to figure out what’s important. And yet, the case of Jen Hatmaker suggests a world of gates with keepers that don’t regularly come onto my reader. Apparently, Jonathan Merritt thought Hatmaker was sufficient newsworthy and he’s at one of the old gatekeepers, The Atlantic. Plus the editors at Christianity Today also know about Merritt and Hatmaker to feature the story in their updates. For some reason, they didn’t feature Old Life’s series on Nelson Kloosterman.
In which case, mainstreams, creeks, and banks still seem to exist. Every once in a while we receive a reminder that we are several ditches away from the creek that runs into the river.
On the other hand, does Jen Hatmaker know about Glenn Loury? Would she be less popular if she did? Perhaps, the evangelical mainstream is several miles away from conversations that are arguably more central to life in the U.S. than dipping into the Bible for tips about “relationships, work, stress, sexuality, and forgiveness.”
Sure, forgiveness is weighty. Not sure it should be paired with stress.
It’s a bit stale now, but Jonathan Merritt’s post about New Calvinism made the rounds and seemed to reassure those outside the New Calvinist world that they were fine if they weren’t following John Piper’s tweets. I for one needed no persuasion about the New Calvinists’ ordinariness, but I was curious to see Merritt fault the young restless sovereigntists for being tribal. He also believes they are isolationists. Merritt thinks of tribalism as being unwilling to criticize members of the group publicly (well, there is Matthew 18, hello). Isolationism afflicts the New Calvinists when they fail to interact with other ideas:
One of the markers of the neo-Calvinist movement is isolationism. My Reformed friends consume Calvinist blogs and Calvinist books, attend Calvinist conferences, and join Calvinist churches with Calvinist preachers. They rarely learn from or engage with those outside their tradition. (My feeling is that this trend is less prevalent among leaders than the average followers.)
The most sustainable religious movements, however, are those which are willing to ask hard, full-blooded questions while interacting with more than caricatures of other traditions. When neo-Calvinists insulate and isolate, they hyper-focus on those doctrines their tradition emphasizes and relegate other aspects to the status of afterthought. The Christian faith is meant to be lived and not merely intellectually appropriated. This requires mingling with others who follow Jesus, are rooted in Scripture, and are working toward a restored creation.
Gregory Thornbury, a Calvinist and president of The King’s College in New York City, told me, “I think the ‘young, restless, and reformed” are different than the Dutch stream in that they tend to stay with authors and leaders that they know. It does run the risk of being provincial, but I don’t think it is intentional. There are universes where people stay, and they read the things they know.”
In other words, Merritt does not appear to approve of separatism (thus identifying himself squarely with the neo-evangelicals who did not like the limits that fundamentalists set for Christian fellowship).
The idea that Christians need to interact with alien ideas and people is also what drew Merritt from Atlanta to New York City:
New York is also a place where cultures and ethnicities and ideas collide. One cannot afford to self-segregate and self-insulate in comfortable cultural or religious echo-chambers like other places.
As White once remarked,
“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”
There are also spiritual impulses behind my decision. Christians have formed a felt presence in New York City for as long as its existence, but in recent years, the city’s evangelical community has quietly flourished. In some ways, New York City represents the fringes of the Kingdom. The faithful there are asking questions that others are not yet asking and attempting to discern what following Jesus might look like in a pluralistic, postmodern context.
This excites me because my work as a writer—particularly my column at Religion News Service—is devoted to exploring those spaces where the Christian faith intersects culture. In New York City, religion collides with music, art, politics, public opinion, and current events with regularity. Rooting myself in this richly diverse context will enable me to better probe the questions of faith others may be afraid to ask.
We may conclude, apparently, that Merritt favors cosmopolitanism to sectarianism.
But what sense does this make of biblical calls for God’s people to isolate themselves. The Israelites weren’t exactly interested — or weren’t supposed to be — in a Jerusalem that featured the best pork barbecue in the Middle East or that encouraged Plato to relocate his academy there. The New Testament threw out the older ethnic hostilities between Jew and Greek, but Paul’s instruction that believers should be separate and distinct from non-believers (2 Cor 6:17) is not necessarily a call to go cosmopolitan. Some believers like Merritt may be strong enough for the collisions with a spectrum of ideas and artistic expressions. But is he a pastor looking out for the good of his flock?
After all, even politicians know that tribalism is what makes groups tick. As Nick Clegg, the British deputy Prime Minister, recently admitted, “at the end of the day, you’ve also got to look after your own side, your own tribe, your own values.” Merritt should not fault New Calvinists for doing something so basically human, not to mention something so obviously important to the integrity of the church, unless he expects Christians to live like writers who reside in New York City.