Dissecting Signers (cont.)

I wonder why John Fea and other signers of the “Open Letter” about racism and Confederate Monuments did not feel the pinch of Matthew Lee Anderson’s criticism of the Nashville Statement. Anderson wrote again:

While forming God’s people is a thoroughly laudable aim, I wonder: why then the website, the press release, and the signatories? The means of communication are not neutral, after all. They deliberately invite attention not just from evangelicals, but the world. If the form of such statements is part of catechesis, then why were Bible verses left off? And why were reasons for each of the affirmations and denials not given, or definitions of terms not supplied? Such additions would dramatically expand the statement’s length. But what does that matter, if the purpose is catechism and not the culture war?

And why is there not more attention to the pastoral dynamics of how these affirmations and denials are to be worked out in the context of local communities? For a statement signed by a heavy concentration of Baptists, its form and substance have little to do with congregational life. It is a “statement” by an evangelicalism that has left ecclesial communities behind in favor of trans-denominational, parachurch partnerships.

That could equally be said of the Christian scholars who signed the letter opposing Neo-Nazis. What about the means of communication? Where are the biblical citations? Why isn’t the “Open Letter” taking a side in the culture wars? One answer could be that the sins are so obvious. So why isn’t it possible to see the self-evident character of the sins enumerated in the Nashville Statement? Only some evangelical scholars are allowed to pontificate, only the smart ones?

When Fea writes that Anderson is observing what evangelical historians are seeing — “Anderson and Gerhz seem to be in agreement that the Nashville Statement reflects what we (and now many others) have been calling ‘The Age of Trump'” — that avoids partisanship?

You could even argue that Anderson’s diagnosis of the subtext and optics of the Nashville Statement apply across the board, even to celebrity Christian intellectuals, like Rod Dreher who is excited about the release of the French translation of Benedict Option. If the means of communication and the publicity machines are not neutral, if they capitulate to the economic structures, inequalities of late modernity, and the desires of consumers, then why not apply that to individuals as much as statements?

But when it comes to Tim Keller, nothing to see (not even the publicity machine, fundraising, digital networks, and fame trafficking that has attended the New York City star):

it isn’t fair to assign blame to a teacher when students do not live up to his standard, particularly in a case like this one where the “teacher” had virtually no personal contact with most of the students and has instead simply attracted a crowd of admirers via publications.

Indeed, if anything I think we should commend Keller for his stewarding of his position at Redeemer. They were very selective in what sermons they made freely available online, he waited a long time to start writing books, and he has put a far greater emphasis on church planting in NYC rather than simply growing his brand as a celebrity pastor. Given what has happened to Mark Driscoll and now Darrin Patrick, we should be profoundly grateful for men like Keller (and John Piper) who manage to be in the spotlight for so long and to do so with relatively little scandal.

I thought Anderson said that publications, lack of personal contact, and crowds of followers were not “neutral.”

The lesson is that the means of production behind the Nashville Statement are flawed. But the means of production behind Keller — well, he arrived ex nihilo.

Doom and Gloom

First the gloom:

. . . the American experiment in limited government requires that the citizenry and those who hold public office honor certain moral virtues and respect the institutions that are crucial for a society to rightly function. Yet, we now find ourselves in a situation where the three leading candidates for president show little to no respect for such institutions in their articulations of public policy.

More:

The central principle of my decision is that Donald Trump is palpably unfit for the office of the President, and unworthy of the vote of anyone who dares think that the name of Christ still must have some salience for our public and political life. Since I posted my original essay on the matter, events have done nothing to dissuade me of this stance: if anything, they have further confirmed it.

Now some doom:

From elite critical theory in the lecture theaters of the Ivy Leagues to the rampant epidemic of pornography on so many computer screens, we live in world that seeks to detach and isolate the present from any accountability to past or future. Ours is the era of the sempiternal orgiast, the true hero of our time.

Is the reason for such despair an application of end-times standards to between-the-times times. Here‘s an example applied not to politics or culture but (Christian, mind you) books:

I find it difficult to read books by authors who have disgraced and disqualified themselves. Depending on the kind of immorality he displayed, I may even get rid of his books. We of all generations are so blessed by good books that I see little reason to even consider ones written by leaders who have made a trainwreck of their ministries. I can’t think of a single category of book that needs the work of a fallen author. There are other great books on leadership, other ones on marriage, on prayer and suffering and Christian living. I do not need to rely on the books of those who have justly been removed from ministry.

Imagine what does for someone who enjoys Mencken.

Lest readers let doom and gloom pave the way for a bummer weekend, here’s a reason for keeping hope alive:

White Christian traditionalists do not see Jews and Muslims as allies, Inazu said, and non-Christians and non-whites are not engaged in the cultural conflict, even if they agree with traditional morality. But they are not aligned with the liberal/left on these issues either, Inazu claimed. To be more successful, religious liberty efforts need to be made with many groups, with sensitivity to their outlook.

If white Protestants can figure out a way to look at society as less an extension of the church than as a shared space with people who aren’t white and Protestant, they might actually find political and cultural standards to hold them over until that great day.

Does W-w Lack Nuance?

While paranoid observers are still trying to sort out whether “bless you” is permitted in certain classes at the College of Coastal Georgia, evangelicals are upset about Vanderbilt’s decision to prohibit campus organizations from establishing their own standards for student leadership. Matthew Lee Anderson has come to the following realization in the light of increasing hostility to evangelical Protestantism at U.S. colleges and universities:

Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability. The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much. The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws. And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude. . . . the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity. Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

Anderson is echoing a piece at Christianity Today in which Tish Harrison Warren commented on Vanderbilt’s decision:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space. The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus. It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

I empathize with Anderson and Warren, and I can’t deny that a form of anti-Christianism exists in many sectors of the academy that resembles the sorts of prejudices that Protestants used to harbor against Roman Catholics (leaving room, of course, for good sorts of prejudices). But I do wonder why folks like Anderson or Warren are surprised by this outcome. After all, my theory is that gay marriage is simply the push back that evangelicals may be justly receiving for touting family values the way they have for the last three decades. “You want family values? Well, let’s add homosexuality to family values. How do you like them now?”

And now, Vanderbilt’s decision may be simply the consequence of promoting w-w for as long as Tim Lahaye’s wife has been writing about sex. What I mean is that evangelicals, following their neo-Calvinist superiors, have adopted the mantra that faith goes all the way down and separates believers from non-believers. This means that we cannot treat religion as a private matter since it must affect everything a religionist does. It means that the divide between the secular and sacred, between the public square and the church assembly is artificial and arbitrary. It means as well that a Christian scholar will study the arts or sciences differently from the secular scholar, and that the Christian college will be different because faith-soaked institutions will bring religion to bear on every nook and cranny of the curriculum.

In other words, for all the effort to employ “common grace,” the w-w craze has turned Christians into a group set apart on the other side of the antithesis. Even common grace winds up being divisive because it condescendingly grants to non-believers some truth but always reminds them that they really have no good reasons for accessing it. Instead of emphasizing in common spheres like the public square (however naked she may be) or the university what believers share with non-believers, w-w has fed the politics of identity and removed believers into a distinct tribe.

For that reason, can we really blame officials at Vanderbilt for not being able to tell the difference between Joel Osteen and Tim Keller? The way the religious right, with the help of their neo-Calvinist enablers, has carved up intellectual and political life, Vanderbilt is simply following what w-w Christians prescribed. It is further evidence of the old Gypsy curse’s power — “may you get what you want.”

Muslims Have Their Scarves, Christians Their Sandwiches

Political religion takes different forms. For political Islam, a women wearing a head scarf is a symbol of devotion and of defiance against western secularism. For American Christians, it looks like eating a chicken sandwich is a signal of a citizen’s belief, morality, and politics.

All of a sudden, biting into a fried chicken sandwich has become a political statement.

Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain known for putting faith ahead of profits by closing on Sundays, is standing firm in its opposition to gay marriage after touching off a furor earlier this month.

Gay rights groups have called for a boycott, the Jim Henson Co. pulled its Muppet toys from kids’ meals, and politicians in Boston and Chicago told the chain it is not welcome there.

Across the Bible Belt, where most of the 1,600 restaurants are situated, Christian conservatives have thrown their support behind the Atlanta-based company, promising to buy chicken sandwiches and waffle fries next week on “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”

The rest of the news story is here.

As theatrical as the controversy over Chick-fil-A may be (and the company may actually do well from the adverse publicity which is still publicity), one point stands out, though by now it may be a little stale. According to this news story, the mayors of Boston and Chicago have said that Chick-fil-A is unwelcome in those cities. According to Rahm Emanuel, “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.” The mayor likely said this thinking that he was taking a courageous stand for diversity and tolerance. But he was also expressing great intolerance in the name of diversity and tolerance.

That may be the intellectual hobgoblin that haunts everyone living in a liberal democracy, though usually only libertarians see that tolerance means toleration even for groups or persons whose views are nutty or objectionable. But it is odd that bright people like Emanuel don’t see that they are erecting a form of intellectual orthodoxy that is just as inflexible as anything the Religious Right might construct.

What Emanuel also fails to see is truth that Thomas Jefferson recognized as basic to living in a free republic. The president’s line about the irrelevance of religion would seem to apply here: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Does Chick-fil-A actually hurt Emanuel or other residents of Chicago just because the owner objects to gay marriage? Ideas are supposed to be freely held in America, as long as they don’t hurt others. (Hurt feelings don’t count since we all face people, ideas, and acts in the United States that don’t empower and affirm us.) Since Chick-fil-A provides a service that many use, and creates jobs that produce tax-payers, why does Emanuel actually care about Dan Cathy’s ideas?

Yes, liberals can be hypocritical. But so are conservatives. What’s surprising is that liberals can be as dumb as (they think) their political opposition.

Postscript: Matthew Lee Anderson makes a good point when he distinguishes “tolerant” (i.e., liberal) from “intolerant” (i.e. Religious Right) consumer boycotts. The latter objects to specific products, the former to ideas. So it’s not the chicken sandwich that offends, but the ideas of the guy who makes it. Perfectionism lives.

If Wrapping Yourself in the U.S. Flag is in Bad Taste, What About Wrapping Yourself in the Gospel?

Matthew Lee Anderson has a series of posts in which he responds to Jared Wilson’s new book, Gospel Wakefulness. Since I haven’t read the book but have only seen a few posts about its argument, I can’t take Anderson or Wilson’s side (not as if they are all that antagonistic).

But one thing caught my (all about me) eye in Anderson’s second post. It concerns the way in which attaching ourselves to the “gospel” can be as exclusive and self-righteous as it appears to be warm, fuzzy, and edifying.

. . . my concern is that when not properly constrained, the conceptual use of “Gospel wakefulness” becomes a back-pocket trump card that can be deployed to end an argument before it begins.

Jared runs the same sort of argument when describing the marks of those who haven’t yet attained Gospel wakefulness. Last on the list? “The idea of gospel centrality makes no sense to you.” This allows him to suggest that, “The critic of the one-note Johnnyism of gospel-centrality just doesn’t get it.”

This is, from what I can tell, leads to full-on epistemic closure, with the walls about as high as you can build them. The quality of people’s arguments about gospel centrality would have no bearing on their epistemic standing–they’re wrong from the outset because they’re still in their slumber.

In other words, the criticism of gospel-centrality as it gets thrown about is itself a sign that Gospel wakefulness has not yet occurred. Wilson has functionally removed the possibility of plausibly suggesting that the gospel can be reduced to an idol, and to even raise the question is to demonstrate one’s own lack of spiritual awakening.

This is a reminder about the care Protestants and the organizations they create should take in applying the “Gospel” to themselves. It is an immediate galvanizer, like so much of pietistic piety. If you don’t join or support an organization committed to the gospel, then you must not be for the gospel yourself. That is usually not the intention. But the cloying link of such identifiably good things as the gospel with any one institution divides as much as it unites. Think of the Mom Coalition, or the Hot Dog Coalition, or the Apple Pie Coalition. Who would ever not rally to support these worthy organizations? Well, lots of people, including some reasonable folks, such as those who believe in the import of fathers, those who keep a kosher kitchen, and those allergic to gluten.

Which is why instead of using “Gospel” to describe an organization, a book, or a movement, I prefer “Presbyterian.” Being Presbyterian is all about believing and proclaiming the gospel, as well as discipling those who believe the gospel. But “Presbyterian” is not as self-congratulatory or as self-assured as “Gospel.” Presbyterians understand that Christianity is contested.