Looking More and More Like Paul Wrote Romans around 1971 (A.D.)

On the way to church yesterday, I was listening to the latest episode of Mars Hill Audio and I swear I heard Ken Myers complain that modern thinkers do not consider human nature in the light of the incarnation and the resurrection. That would imply an understanding of human nature without sin since Jesus lived a perfect life and since believers who go to heaven will live lives in which it is impossible to sin. If the desire is to call people to live virtuous lives and leave behind the viciousness and debauchery that characterizes modern America, the appeal to something higher is understandable. But it also needs to be plausible. And that means taking sin and unbelief into account when thinking about personal and civic virtue. How much “goodness” is truly possible in a world distorted by sin?

And then at church we read an excerpt from Paul’s epistle to the Romans which made me think he must have been writing at a time when he was observing How (or Why) Liberalism Failed (even though the secular liberals at Columbia University set the date for the epistle around 57 AD):

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:20-32)

Is that a description of Times Square circa 1970 or of Trump’s America? Well, if Columbia University is correct, Paul was actually depicting the society of first-century Mediterranean world. And if Paul was writing about his own time, not the United States with its defective Lockean political theory, then maybe the problems we twenty-first-century Americans face are not the product of bad political theory but of bad people who live at all times.

Notice too, how Paul goes on in that epistle to advise about the remedy for such a sorry state. Is it to have a church that becomes a civilizing force among barbarian tribes? Is it more governmental programs that make two-parent families plausible? Is it reading Aliadair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor on the problems of secular modernity? No. All of these remedies might help to lessen the blows of our fallen estate. But the only solution is — wait for it — justification by faith (chs 4-6) and preachers who will proclaim the good news (ch 10). He doesn’t even invoke the Virgin Mary for help.

But what about politics? Paul even addressed that. Honor the emperor, you know, the one who was not very virtuous and didn’t seem all that interested in rolling back modernity.

Speaking of Transformationalizationism

Ken Myers once upon a time took instruction from Meredith Kline about why the idea of Christian culture is wrongheaded:

The experience of human culture in all its diversity is the way we enjoy being human. And enjoy it we must. Being human is the most profound aspect of the creation for which we ought to give thanks. If we can enjoy the beauty of all else in creation, how foolish to resent or ignore the image of the Creator, the pinnacle of creation. It is being human, not being saved — it is the image of God in us, not regeneration — that established the capacity to recognize the distinctions between the beautiful and the ubly, between order and chaos, between the creative and the stultifying.

We were created beings before we were redeemed beings. God’s benediction on creation has not been entirely erased by the Fall. Jesus Himself is not only divine, He is human. Does he enjoy it, or simply endure it? Until our bodies are made new, like the body Jesus now enjoys, our calling is not to escape fleshly existence, nor to sanctify culture (since it is “common,” shared by believer and unbeliever, and cannot be made holy), but to so influence our culture as to make it more consistent with the created nature of man, and to sanctify our own lives, because we are also living in the Spirit, with our minds set on the things that are above.

We acknowledge this distinction between the holy and the common each time we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Every meal I eat, I eat to the glory of God, under the Lordship of Christ. But not every meal I heat has the significance and the power to transform that the Lord’s Supper has. It is a holy meal in a way last week’s visit to Burger King is not. Not everyone is allowed to eat this holy meal, but everyone is allowed to eat at Burger King. If there are deficiencies within the culture that have produced Burger King, the deficiencies are not due to the fact that it is not a holy place, but because it violates or compromises aspects of our experience as human beings. If we believe that to be the case, our goal as Christians would not be to sanctify the Whopper, to make it into a sacrament, but to attempt to influence our culture to make it more fitting for human beings bearing the image of God.

While our culture may not be holy, it should not be inhuman. (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, 50-51)

When Fundamentalists Do It, It’s not Sexy

It in this case is separatism. Back in grad school days the historiographical truism about evangelical Protestantism was that they were not separatists. Fundamentalists were. And so, evangelicals were good (broad minded) and fundamentalists were bad (intolerant). The dividing line was particularly the question of whether conservative Protestants could cooperate with the mainline (read liberal) Protestant denominations. When Billy Graham did reach out to mainline Protestants during his 1957 New York City Crusade (hee hee), fundamentalists like Bob Jones (harumph) broke with Graham’s evangelism. Thus you have separatism and the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. The latter is an evangelical who is angry. Or, an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham (thank you George Marsden).

You wouldn’t know it, but separatism is rearing its poorly groomed head again and its not fundamentalists’ fault. Consider the following forms of separatism. First, the Benedict Option (as stated by Ken Myers):

The recovery of the culture of the people of God will make us look profoundly different from our neighbors. In a post-Christian society, all faithful people begin to look a little Amish. But we must remember that we are always against the world for the world.

Bob Jones didn’t withdrawal either. He didn’t even look Amish.

Then consider the academy’s moralism in the case of Yale professor, Thomas Pogge, allegedly guilty of sexually harassing female students:

To some students, responding means boycotting Pogge’s classes. A closed Facebook group called Students Against Pogge asks supporters to stand in solidarity with Lopez Aguilar “and the other foreign women of color targeted by [Pogge] by, at a minimum, not taking any of his classes in the fall.” The page notes that it’s also “a place to brainstorm other means of pressuring the university into making student voices heard and removing Pogge from the classroom,” according to the popular philosophy blog Daily Nous.

Other academics have said they won’t participate in conferences where Pogge is present. Most controversially, some professors have said that responding means eliminating Pogge from their syllabi.

James Sterba, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, for example, told The Huffington Post that he’s no longer including Pogge’s work in exams for graduate students. “You don’t need him,” Sterba said. “He carries too much baggage — he doesn’t have to be cited anymore. … He’s a negative image and we don’t need that. Maybe if he was Einstein we’d have to cite him, but he’s not.”

That sounds like shunning.

But fundamentalists still bear the burden of separatism:

Thus, by the mid to late 1950s, the heirs of anti-modernist “second phase” fundamentalism were divided. An organization such as the American Council of Churches and separatists such as Rice and Jones Sr. and Jr. understood themselves as continuing in the historic line of militant, anti-modernist fundamentalism with a new emphasis on ecclesiastical separation. On the other hand, more open-minded heirs of second-phase fundamentalists, who would lead the neo-evangelical surge, sought to return to the era associated with the nineteenth-century evangelical scholarship of The Fundamentals.

On the verge of the tumultuous sixties, the fundamentalist movement had become deeply divided. Those who affiliated with the positive agenda of the non-separatist faction took the name neo-evangelical (eventually simply evangelical) and the separatists militantly clung to the label fundamentalist. Neo-evangelicals often repudiated the term fundamentalist, and fundamentalists did the same with the neo-evangelical moniker.

What if separatism is basic to what all humans do? We identify with some things and reject others. None of us are tolerant all the way down. We are all fundamentalists.

A Gospel for the King Penguin

This is how providence works. The same morning that I finish an article by Jonathan Franzen on his trip to Antarctica (and birding), I finish an interview that Ken Myers did with Norman Wirzba. The latter is trying to help Christians think wholistically about creation and has written a book about (in part) about the language we use. If we call the world out there “creation” instead of “nature,” will we think about it differently, more in relation to the creator? And then, what happens if we remember that Jesus is not merely savior but also creator? Doesn’t that invite thinking of Jesus as savior of creation? At one point, Wirzba even spoke of a gospel for non-human creatures.

That’s when the jaws clenched and the pace (of the constitutional) quickened. I understand the appeal of thinking about creation in broader terms so that Christians might care about the environment. Heck, I’ve read and still admire Wendell Berry and believe that I should try to live in a way that shows some respect for the created order. But that prevents me from venerating or sacralizing it, the classic way that pietists try to make something more important or permanent than it really is. If we can turn a cause into something holy or sacred or redemptive, then we must support it. If it is great instead of merely good, then not to support it is wrong, wicked, undesirable.

Here’s where Franzen came in as the conversation partner Myers and Wirzba need to have. The birds he adores, king penguins, survive by eating krill:

Krill are pinkie-size, pinkie-colored crustaceans. Estimating the total amount of them in the Antarctic is difficult, but a frequently cited figure, five hundred million metric tons, could make the species the world’s largest repository of animal biomass. Unfortunately for penguins, many countries consider krill good eating, both for humans (the taste is said to be acquirable) and especially for farm fish and livestock. Currently, the total reported annual take of krill is less than half a million tons, with Norway leading the list of harvesters. China, however, has announced its intention to increase its harvest to as much as two million tons a year, and has begun building the ships needed to do it. As the chairman of China’s National Agricultural Development Group has explained, “Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”

So what would Wirzba propose as the gospel for krill? How does Jesus or his followers “save” krill?

One way that Franzen suggests is by humans being less fertile (which poses a few problems for Christians — Roman and Protestant — who believe the chief function of marriage is reproduction):

It’s true that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children. It may also be true that nothing can stop the logic of human priority: if people want meat and there are krill for the taking, krill will be taken. It may even be true that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic: They, too, are our children. They, too, deserve our care.

And yet to imagine a world without young people is to imagine living on a Lindblad ship forever. My godmother had had a life like that, after her only child was killed. I remember the half-mad smile with which she once confided to me the dollar value of her Wedgwood china. But Fran had been nutty even before Gail died; she’d been obsessed with a biological replica of herself. Life is precarious, and you can crush it by holding on too tightly, or you can love it the way my godfather did. Walt lost his daughter, his war buddies, his wife, and my mother, but he never stopped improvising. I see him at a piano in South Florida, flashing his big smile while he banged out old show tunes and the widows at his complex danced. Even in a world of dying, new loves continue to be born.

The article makes perfect sense of the references to Franzen’s uncle here, a person who left the author enough money to splurge on a cruise to the South Pole and endure a long trip with very few young people (as the slide show on the last night of the cruise revealed).

The article also makes sense of a tragic dimension to creation that Wirzba’s inspiration neglects altogether. What if Darwin was right? What if nature is red in tooth and claw? And what if God created and sustained the world to run that way, not in a theistic evolution way, but in a way where critters survive on other critters? Even in a vegetarian world, plants die, humans cut down trees for warmth, and carnivores still eat critters. A gospel of creation does not fix that fundamental problem of survival. Granted, I’ve not read Wirzba’s books (reviews are here and here). But once again I am struck by the way people in the name of Christ blur fundamental distinctions (ecclesiastical-civil, sacred-secular, human-natural, redemption-creation) seemingly to transcend the very creatureliness they recommend.

Would the Benedict Option Allow for Gay Abbots?

Not to be a mean Calvinist jerk, but the discussion of Christians leaving the cultural mainstream for a Christian enclave — the so-called Benedict Option — strikes me increasingly as just one more way that modern Christians can think of themselves either as superior or victim while paying not much heed to the idea of living quite and peaceful lives in the existing world. Rod Dreher compiles a number of quotations among Roman Catholics and Episcopalians about the Benedict Option and has extensive quotations from Ken Myers. Among them are the following, which includes first a brief against modernity:

The “counter” in counterculture sounds, as I’ve suggested, a prophetically constructive note. It is a necessary note because of the disorder of the modern West, and I think any effort to define and embody a counterculture for the common good has to work to understand the nature of that disorder. In a chapter called “The redemption of society,” in his book The Desire of the Nations, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan observes that many thinkers from diverse intellectual disciplines and philosophical or theological points of view have converged on a critique of “modernity.” They disagree about many finer points and some larger ones, but they all agree that the social and cultural phenomena of our times need to be understood as “part of a greater historical totality — one which they date variously, but always in centuries rather than in decades. What makes life in the late modern period different — its high level of technologisation, its sexual permissiveness, its voluntarisations of birth and death, its concept of politics as economic management — can all be traced back to seed-thoughts that were present at the beginning of the modern era, and are aspects of a necessitating web of mutual implication.”

I agree that modern life poses challenges for Christians (as it does for Bunk and Jimmy — ahem). But weren’t things pretty bad going all the way back to the fall? Think Cain and Abel. Well, maybe the medieval era of Christendom was better. What about Pope Alexander VI? I don’t mean to suggest that all cultures are equal and that the current moment is no better or worse than any other. I for one think that our society has declined since the 1970s. But can we really blame modernity? Don’t Christians have to blame sinners? Democracy?

To the idea that Christians should promote the common good, Ken responds:

Actively, systematically, and consistently promoting the common good will produce enemies and possibly invite persecution in modern America because our society is deeply committed to the premise that we should share no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common. The American understanding of freedom — an understanding shared by many professing Christians — was articulated by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This so-called “mystery passage” has received a lot of mockery from conservatives of various stripes, but I think it is profoundly accurate statement of the flowering of a seed-thought central to the character of modern culture. This radical privatizing of all metaphysical commitment is not the tyrannical expression of an elitist court, but the precious conviction of a majority of Americans.

Is it true that our society is “deeply” committed to this premise that we share no goods in common? We may live that way de facto. But are Americans deeply committed to this the way that the Gospel Coalition is deeply committed to avoiding the question of baptism? Aaron Sorkin in his popular television shows like West Wing and Newsroom actually seems to portray an understand of America that underscores and longs for a shared understanding of national greatness and his main characters, whether presidents or news anchors, seem to operate as if such a shared vision is still possible (except for the baleful influence of the Tea Party). Ken’s description of America strikes me as a form of overstatement that you might hear from the meaner sectors of Protestantism but not within the Episcopal Church.

And speaking of the Episcopal Church, which does ordain gay bishops, is what Ken says about liberal democracies also true of liberal Protestant communions?

The orthodoxy of all liberal democracies requires that religious convictions — or any beliefs that even appear religious — be segregated from private life. Religious convictions cannot be regarded as having public consequence. As John Milbank has noted, “in principle, a state can adopt any ideology it chooses, except a religious one.” And yet, a Christian understanding of human flourishing and the common good must be founded on the affirmation of our creation by God.

So when Christians do hunker down in the separated fortresses, will Christian orthodoxy prevail? I know, having just attended my first international presbytery meeting (The Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario), that even disciplining Orthodox Presbyterians, who are generally a pretty Bible revering bunch, can be a challenge. So when the Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholics, or mainline Protestants withdraw into their separated spaces and ghettos of virtue, will the lack of discipline that afflicts those communions also show up? That’s another way of asking which Christian group has the chops to produce a rule as strict as Benedict’s? (And let’s not forget about reproduction and what happened to the Shakers.)

To be sure, having a society that doesn’t undermine what parents try to pass on to their kids (but which parents and which kids) is appealing. But Christianity came into the world in such a social setting. Why should we expect more than the original followers of Jesus?

The Four-Fold State of Musical Appreciation

Ken Myers’ recent visit to Hillsdale College to deliver lectures on Music and the Great Tradition, has me thinking about the relationship between Christ and culture, or at least the way some Christians conceive of it. Ken persuaded me of the importance of music in the created order, why harmonic structures parallel mathematical forms, why singing is such an important part of creation (soulful and soulless) giving praise to God, and why music can have such a profound effect on listeners. He also was convincing that some forms of music are superior to others, that a predilection for some kinds of music reflects a disordered soul, and that appreciation of good music requires education and discipline. (I hear but do not know when these lectures will be available on-line.)

Where I have questions is in trying to correlate musical aesthetic with Christian truth or conviction. I wonder for instance, if we could do for the musical soul what Thomas Boston’s Four-fold State of Man did for the human soul. We might imagine humanity divided up into the following categories

1) Good Music Lovers
a) regenerate
b) unregenerate

2) Bad Music Lovers
a) regenerate
b) unregenerate

In category 1a, we have people who know and love God and also know and appreciate good music. But we can’t regard musical appreciation as a fruit of the Spirit because of category 1b — that is, people who are not saved but appreciate music even more than some of the saints. What accounts for this love of good music is not something spiritual but a natural capacity by which a person with the right training (and some natural abilities) can learn to understand the way music works and revel in its beauty and forms.

The natural aspects of musical appreciation are all the more apparent when we turn to the category of 2a — that is, the Christian who has no ear for the great musical traditions and actually regards people who celebrate good music as elitist. Here, the work of sanctification has no apparent bearing on musical appreciation. If it did, we might expect a believer to listen to more and more good music as he or she dies to self and lives to Christ. But in point of fact, no church in human history has ever countenanced musical taste as evidence of God’s grace. (And I am not saying the Ken thinks it is.) If a church were to do that, we face the uncomfortable reality of regarding Beethoven or Wagner as Christians.

As I say, Ken was not arguing for musical appreciation as a form of sanctification. He was, though, talking about what music and its place in the universe says about the human soul and its relation to the creator. Without sufficient care and theological rigor, such considerations can lead to blurring the lines between what happens in sanctification and what occurs with a well-ordered natural soul. At the end of the day, it seems to me that confessional Protestant culture vultures need to be content with Christians who don’t appreciate good music and humble around non-Christians who understand much of creation and its creator better than most believers. In 2k parlance, culture is part of the ordinances of creation and fallen humans, who bear the image of God still, participate in and enjoy culture as part of their creatureliness. Cult, however, requires more than nature; it requires a supernatural reordering of the soul which may or may not lead to good culture.

Ken Myers on the Bible

BibleMany years ago – too many for those of his vintage – Ken Myers, the talking voice behind Mars Hill Audio, wrote a piece that should be more widely known and read, “Christianity, Culture, and Common Grace.” It is available in pdf at the Mars Hill website. Ken is one of the best students of culture, as attested by his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, a work in which he draws explicitly upon the arguments of Meredith Kline about cult and culture. (Kerux readers beware). Those same insights inform Ken’s essay on common grace and lead him to write the following about the sufficiency of Scripture:

We don’t hear much about the “insufficiency of Scripture.” But it is an important point to keep in mind when thinking about Christianity and culture. Scripture does not present itself as the only source of truth about all matters. It does not even present itself as a source of some truth about everything. It presents itself as the only authoritative source of truth about some things, and they are the most important things. But the Bible does not claim to teach us the fundamentals of arithmetic, of biology, of engineering, or of music. About most of the matters of culture, the Bible has little explicit to say. Many people insist on taking implicit statements from Scripture (or allegedly implicit statements) and deducing from them an entire theory. This is often done in the name of a high view of Scripture, but it is rather to treat Scripture as a magic book. It is a superstitious view of Scripture, not the view God has himself presented. The belief that all the blueprints for all of life are in Scripture is in part derived from the notion that reason and general revelation are not to be trusted.

Makes sense to me.