Why Michelle Higgins Appeals to Evangelicals

Samuel James wrote a piece a few weeks back about the overlapping convictions of social justice warriors and evangelicals (of a Reformedish variety). The link is morality:

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I almost never heard any progressive or non-Christian make a moral case against a film or actor. Critics lauded such movies as American Beauty even as we grumpy fundies were aghast at its deviant themes and explicit sexuality. Fast-forward to 2019: The Me Too movement has chewed up Kevin Spacey, his movie, and his Best Actor Oscar and spit them all out. There’s an air (or pretense?) of spiritual enlightenment in contemporary pop culture. It’s in the sacramental language about inclusivity, in the hounding of sinners and heretics such as Kevin Hart and Henry Cavill, in the somber gender homily of a razor-company commercial.

If 2019 were all you knew of American pop culture, you’d never guess that some of the same institutions now lecturing on the need for more female leadership had financial interests in the porn industry just a few years ago. You’d never guess that “shock comedy” was a hugely lucrative business until very recently, with its bluest punchlines often coming at the expense not of sensitive liberal consciences but of Christians and conservatives. And you’d certainly be surprised to hear the marketing departments that sold their products by associating them with sex now bemoan toxic masculinity.

The idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard seems a novel one to the social-justice generation. It was a given in my childhood. My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.

The rising generation of students is coming to this same realization but without the help of religion’s spiritual insight. The modern campus culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative Evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if SJWism and religious fundamentalism are both expressions of a dissatisfaction with the decadence of modernity: its mindless consumerism, its divorce of virtue from culture, and its kowtowing to profit and power?

While James is looking at the convergence between secular social justice warriors and #woke evangelicals, he misses something that is much more basic, namely, eschatology. Whether you believe that history has a “right side” or you think that improvement in society has some bearing on the return of Christ, you likely are of the conviction that life here on earth mirrors some form of cosmic justice. And from where I sit, that puts you in the immanentize-the-eschaton school of social reform. How utopians come up with an eschaton to immanentize is a true mystery. But not believing in heaven, hell, judgment day, or God has not prevented many on the left from thinking an end to inequality, suffering, poverty, illness, war is possible — even immanent.

In which case, the fundamental divide in U.S. politics and religion is between the Augustinians (liturgicals) and the millennialists (pietists whether secular or born-again). Robert Swierenga’s description of nineteenth-century “ethnoreligious political behavior” remains astute even for our time:

The liturgical churches (such as Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and various Lutheran synods) were credally based, sacerdotal, hierarchical, nonmillennial, and particularistic. These ecclesiasticals were ever vigilant against state encroachment on their churches, parochial schools, and the moral lives of their members. God’s kingdom was other-worldly, and human programs of conversion or social reform could not usher in the millennium. God would restore this inscrutable, fallen world in His own good time and in His own mighty power.

The pietists (Baptists, Methodists, Disciples, Congregationalists, Quakers) were New Testament-oriented, antiritualist, congregational in governance, active in parachurch organizations, and committed to individual conversion and societal reform in order to usher in the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. Pietists did not compartmentalize religion and civil government. Right belief and right behavior were two sides of the same spiritual coin. The liturgical excommunicated heretics, the pietists expelled or shunned sinners. (Religion and American Politics, 151-52)

He left out Presbyterians because they were sort of stuck in the middle, with some Old Schoolers entering the ranks of liturgicals and some siding with the clean-up-America New School.

Since James works for Crossway, I wonder if he should have written more about the links between #woke African-American evangelicals and The Gospel Coalition. And if he had read Swierenga, maybe all the recommendations of Advent and Lent at The Gospel Coalition could turn those evangelicals into liturgicals — those Protestants that compartmentalize faith and politics. If the liturgical calendar would get evangelicals to back away from social reform, then make the church calendar go.

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If Daniel Could Serve a Pagan King, Why Can’t Old School Presbyterians vote for Bill Clinton?

Kevin DeYoung offers some perspective for Alabama voters (though he never mentions Roy Moore):

9. Am I casting my vote for someone who will damage the reputation of Christ and may harm the cause of Christ in the world? While it is often good to vote for other Christians, we have to consider how someone conducts himself in public as a representative of Christian convictions, ethics, and character.

10. Am I willing to consider that thoughtful Christians may answer some of these questions differently than I would? I certainly have my opinions about how these questions might apply in specific instances, but more than a particular vote, I want to encourage Christians to think critically and strategically about their civic participation. There is more to consider than majorities for our side and defeat for theirs.

I am glad he follows point 9 with point 10 because Daniel, the prophet, would have had a hard time answering the ninth question. Not only could Daniel not vote, but he served a King who worshiped and served false gods. Sure, Daniel resisted the king in some ways, but he also excelled in pagan learning (and so distinguished himself for public service):

17 As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. 18 At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. 20 And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.

If not obeying the first table of the law is a big deal — and we’re not simply talking about images of Christ — how could a faithful believer excel in pagan literature and wisdom (which by Neo-Calvinist standards had to be worse than public schools) and then also serve a king whose cult involved idolatry?

I get it, Daniel did eventually disobey, which is music to the socially righteous warriors ears (thanks to one of our Southern correspondents):

We might hide our motives or blanket them in a veil we call authority or expertise. We will always become like the things we worship. Daniel writes about three men who stood in bold ambivalence to the foolishness of a conqueror king, because he was not their true king. They knew who they worshipped, and the more they lived like Him the closer they came to His presence.

Resist!

But that perspective on Daniel entirely misses the prophet’s assimilation to a regime tainted throughout by blasphemy and idolatry. Again, if 1789 affected all of European society, imagine the intersectionality of Babylonian gods and society. What did Daniel do? He cooperated as much as possible.

Don’t resist!

Honor (even the pagan megalomaniac)!

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

In which case, the lesson is that as long as a Christian does not worship the senator, create statues of him for worship, pray to the senator, hand out the senator’s voting guide on Sunday, still honors his parents while working or voting for the senator, is not the senator’s hit-man, doesn’t lust after the senator’s wife, doesn’t embezzle for the senator, doesn’t lie to or for the senator, and doesn’t envy the senator, or his wife, or servants, or property, the a Christian can vote for the senator.

But if you want to be a pietist about it and consider primarily what a vote says (all) about you, then chances are you have the makings for being an Anabaptist.

Would Keller Be Even Welcome in the PCA?

What an odd question, but this group of Presbyterian women might help Princeton Seminary administrators not feel so bad about the kerfuffle over Keller and the Kuyper Prize:

Meanwhile, Todd Pruitt has found another sign of harmonic convergence between women on both sides of the mainstream/sideline Presbyterian divide. Pastor Pruitt writes this:

If you listen to the podcast what you will hear is typical boilerplate liberation theology which is fundamentally unbiblical and incompatible with the gospel and the church’s mission. Sadly this has been allowed a foothold in the PCA. Some of us have been warning about it, apparently to no avail. It is nothing more than the latest incarnation of the social gospel which ironically destroys the gospel by replacing it with something else.

During the discussion the hosts dismiss the biblical pattern of male leadership within the church as nothing more than a manmade rule. They also mock those who uphold that biblical pattern and join that mockery with crude language. Keep in mind that these men and women are members of and serve in churches whose standards uphold those biblical patterns of leadership.

Near the very end of the podcast one of the hosts gives a brief nod of legitimacy to transgenderism. This is not surprising given the radical roots of their categories.

I will not labor over every problem with the content of this podcast. You will be able to hear for yourself if you choose. But be warned. It is very tedious. It is something that would be warmly received in the PC(USA) for sure. What is so troubling is that it is being received by some within the PCA. This will not end well. Experiments in the social gospel never end well.

If Tim Keller had done more to warn Presbyterian urbanists and Neo-Calvinists about the pitfalls of making the gospel social (and political or cultural), he might have shielded himself from recent controversy. That’s right. If he had done that, he’d never have been nominated for the Kuyper Prize.

Did Machen found Westminster Seminary for nothing!?!

What American Jews Might Learn from J. Gresham Machen

Thanks to another of our southern correspondents, we see how even narrowly Protestant concerns may have wider application:

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years debating who’s a Jew, but we’ve neglected to ask the thornier question: namely, what is Judaism? It’s a question that belongs with theologians, a scholastic class that, in our tradition, is sadly more likely to focus on offering a close reading of some sacred scrap of text than on addressing the fundamental relations between the tenets of faith and the earthly soil in which they’re rooted. It’s a shame—we need this sort of inquiry more than ever now that every social-justice warrior fashions our creed into a banner under which to march into battle.

For inspiration, then, we ought to look to our Christian brothers. In 1923, American Christendom received a master class in doctrinal clarity when a perfervid Presbyterian named John Gresham Machen wrote a short book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Too many of his contemporary faithful, he argued, have come to look at their religion as a blank screen on which to project the values of progressive liberalism. They’ve come to see Christ as a metaphor, not a deity, a gentle reminder to always be good and kind because kindness and goodness were just, you know, right. They read the Bible for affirmation, not for instruction, and they were always ready to ignore its teachings if those clashed, however mildly, with modernity’s latest edicts. Liberals who could not abide by Christianity’s essential truths, Machen argued, were many wonderful things, but they were not Christians. And everyone, the fiery theologian concluded, would be better for it if they stopped pretending that their values corresponded in any but a tangential way with those of the core Christian faith.

You can imagine how well Machen and his ideas were received. Rejected and dejected, Machen quit his perch at Princeton and was soon thereafter altogether defrocked of the ministry for his refusal to compromise his beliefs. He traveled extensively to minister to the few who still supported him, and died on one of those journeys, on New Year’s Day of 1937, in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was 55. On his grave was inscribed, in Greek, the motto that captured him best: “Faithful Unto Death.” In a warm obituary several weeks later, H.L. Mencken advised his readers that the deceased “fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.”

What fun Machen would have had, then, had he stuck around long enough to witness Judaism today and see it turned, by and large, into just such an enfeebled club. Had he walked into our shuls or read our publications, he would’ve despaired to hear so many of us speak reverentially of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, as if it alone stood at the core of our ancient faith, or as if world-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, were anything more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect. Saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system, and that so many of us are so frequently unable to tell the difference is dispiriting.

Problem is, Machen wouldn’t have fun with the social justice transformers and postmillennial urbanists that seem to have become the mainstream in the PCA. Would a little Jewish love get him a hearing from the warriors and urbanophiles?

So Now the Covenanters are the Standard?

At the Shiloh Institute this week I (mmmeeeeEEEEE) played around with the question of center and periphery in conservative Reformed Protestantism in the United States. For some (not at the conference), the PCA is in the mainstream. One explanation is its size — it outflanks all of the other communions that belong to NAPARC. Another is that the PCA has anywhere between six and a dozen celebrity pastors (with none having the star power of TKNY). Another is that New Calvinism is popular and the PCA is in tune with that immature and attention-deficit-disordered (read young and restless) brand of Calvinism. Related is the Gospel Coalition factor. By virtue of encouraging and defending New Calvinism, PCA officers have seats at the table of a website parachurch endeavor that is seemingly big, popular, and influential.

If you want to put the OPC at the center of conservative or confessional Calvinism, you need to ignore the numbers and pay attention to history and language. The OPC has been around longer than the PCA. In 1937 the OPC coughed up a big wing of the PCA — the RPCES portion of the Bible Presbyterian Synod — that in turn equipped the PCA with its educational institutions, Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary. The OPC continues to draw upon the Reformed past as it attempts to understand God’s word. The variety of views on creation, the presence of two-kingdom theology, and the recent report on the doctrine of republication all indicate ways in which the OPC keeps alive expressions of Reformed Protestantism older and in many cases more substantial than twentieth-century conservative Presbyterianism.

As for language, English is the OPC’s native tongue, which means the OPC has never had to think of itself explicitly as an ethnic communion. And it is ethnicity in part that hurts the URC’s chances for defining the center and periphery in American Calvinism.

That leaves communions like the RPCNA (Covenanters) and ARPC (Seceders), both of Scottish extraction, on the margins of contemporary American Calvinism. They may be bigger or smaller than the other churches, but their histories are different from the OPC, PCA, and URC. All of the latter communions started in opposition to liberalism within an older denomination. The RPCNA and ARP don’t have the same dynamics and so don’t resonate as well with other NAPARC members.

But having said all that, shut my mouth. Now we hear from a PCA source that the RPCNA is at the center of contemporary Reformed church life:

The reason I know this is because the most Confessional denomination in NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) is the RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America). The RPCNA is the most historically confessional church in this council (which the PCA is a member), and yet, those who are claiming to be the confessionalists in the PCA, would not join with this, the most confessional denomination. Why? It is because they ordain women to the office of deacon. Yes, that is right. The most confessional of all the denominations in NAPARC ordains women to the office of deacon. They have practiced this since 1888, and have done so because it was studied, and found to be biblical. They have kept their strong confessional nature all this time, while still ordaining woman to be deacons.

Those in the PCA who are claiming the moniker of Confessional, taking it from anyone else who doesn’t agree with them on the issue of women’s roles, should in fact stop being so disingenuous. Instead of confessional they are more closely identified as Old School Southern Presbyterians, which is fine. But, please stop using Confessional like you have something that no one else does. It’s disingenuous and you are making a non-confessional issue, the defining issue.

Speaking of disingenuousness, does Jon Price really want to embrace the National Covenant (1581) to which the RPCNA still swears allegiance, as ground zero of Presbyterian confessionalism? And is he ready to put away the hymnal and the swaybabes?

Hey now.

At least the PCA is not the PCUSA (at least until Michelle Higgins gets her way):

Followers of Jesus Christ know that no person can claim divine favor through personal merit, but only by the grace of God. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acknowledges that actions we and our members have taken over the years have at times led God’s beloved children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning to feel that they stand outside the grace of God and are unwelcome in the PC(USA). We deeply regret that, due to human failings, any person might find cause to doubt being loved by God. We affirm the God-given dignity and worth of every human being, and renew our commitment to ‘welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God.’ [Romans 15:7]

How Far Will Racial Reconciliation Go?

Michelle Higgins and her father want it to go far:

Perhaps we evangelicals are silent – some refusal to acknowledge the whole identities of LGBTQ+ people – because we are bigoted terrorists too.
Our propaganda: circulating a petition to boycott Target. Our victims: image-bearers whose souls conditions are neither revealed to or controlled by us. We live as if faith gives us the right to direct people’s bodies. This is not faith-filled living. It is oppression.
And much like the realization breaking upon us in the current political climate: this is not evangelicalism. At all.

Evangelicals are a diverse group, thankfully some of our circles include the LGBTQ+ family. Many of us are showing up in solidarity with queer communities around the world, grateful for the invitation to grieve together. But many others in our evangelical family walk a dangerous path of passing judgment before showing compassion. If we readily proclaim that LGBTQ+ people are sacred image-bearers, we must also confess and dismantle our participation in the long history of hatred that has them scared. It is easy to express sympathy for our fellow humans. But we are called to a greater task: to confess that the lives of our gay, lesbian, queer, and trans friends are sacred. We must be willing to say that the lives of queer people of color matter to God.

What if Muslims are people of color?

That Clears It Up (for the PCA)

Among the matters that Greg Jao, vice president of InterVarsity, clarified to Rod Dreher:

You state that Michelle Higgins spoke as a representative of BlackLivesMatter. That is not correct. Michelle Higgins primary affiliation from Urbana’s perspective is as a minister of South City Church, a PCA congregation which engages in justice activism in St. Louis as part of its ministry. She spoke as a Christian minister (who does affirm our Doctrinal Basis) from the St. Louis area who has worked alongside the BlackLivesMatter movement. The distinction is important.

Advancing the Conversation?

It was not so long ago, after Michael Brown’s death, that lots of people in Reformed circles were calling for a conversation about race. After almost two years and after listening to some of the chatter, I am not so hopeful. Anyone who wants a version of how that conversation is going among people without faith — in this case a journalist and an Ivy League student newspaper editor — give a listen and embrace the suck.

But in the interest of avoiding a bad ending for the PCA, where the conversation has escalated more than anywhere else in NAPARC circles, I offer the latest musings on blackness from Michael Eric Dyson:

There is the symbolic blackness that the president perfectly embodies. By this I mean the representative sort, in which his blackness is the blackness of the masses; his lean body carries the weight of the race, and the words of James Baldwin meet those of pioneering scholar Anna Julia Cooper: To paraphrase Cooper, when and where a black figure like Obama enters, black folk automatically enter with him, as he bears what Baldwin termed the “burden of representation.” Like other symbolic blacks before him, Obama has no choice in the matter—one fittingly symbolized in nonnegotiable terms of existence that are nearly Cartesian: he is, therefore we are.

There is, too, substitute blackness, in which luminaries like Michelle Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder supply the blackness—the resonant cultural tropes, the signifying gestures, the explicit mention of race in context—that a figure like Obama, bound on all sides by demands and constraints, can barely acknowledge, much less embrace. Historical contingency and political necessity meld to determine Obama’s role, versus that of substitute blacks, when it comes to speaking about race: he can’t, but they can.

Then there is surplus blackness, which is too much blackness for many outside the race, and some inside it. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are some noted examples, figures whose blackness is never in question, even if the use and force of it depends on the situation at hand or the need of the group at the moment. If substitute blackness is a conditional stand-in for blackness, surplus blackness is the display of blackness—in fact, blackness as display. The nearly exclusive imperative of surplus blackness is to stand up for black folk in public, whether after a police killing of an innocent black or a neighbor-to-neighbor murder or a cry for racial justice in the courts. Obama’s symbolic blackness also sometimes takes up the cause of black folk, but more often judges them. When it comes to defending black people: he won’t, but they will.

Finally, there is subversive blackness, glimpsed most recently in the activism of Black Lives Matter, where the meanings of blackness compete and collide, where blackness is at once self-subverting and self-regenerating. Subversive blackness glances sideways at symbolic, substitute and surplus blackness, preferring, instead, to grasp what’s been left out of the official narratives of blackness and to fill in the blanks. It is perhaps summed up in Kanye West’s credo, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” which nicely captures the irreverence that Obama spurns but subversive blackness embraces: he isn’t, but they are.

I assume Michelle Higgins wants subversive blackness. But is that what Ligon Duncan, Jemar Tisby, and Sean Lucas were bargaining for?

Why This Won't End Well For Wheaton

If Bill Smith thinks Michelle Higgins’ endorsement of Black Lives Matter at Urbana won’t end well for the PCA, imagine what will happen when the BLM folks figure out that a black professor may be about to lose her job at a white-dominated college. An African-American tenured professor!!!! HELLO! And students at Princeton think they need to be worried about “safe” spaces.

And if that happens, it is really too bad. I was almost persuaded by Dr. Hawkins’ theological explanation of her remarks. I am convinced that she is trying in thoughtful ways to maintain the College’s standards. When she said, “I understand that Islam (and Judaism) denies the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and leaves no room for the Cross and the Resurrection,” I was encouraged. She seemed to be ready to recognize the particularity of Christianity and the uniqueness of Christ.

But then she added, “my statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety. When I say that ‘we worship the same God,’ I am saying what Stackhouse points out, namely that ‘when pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply, God.'”

Well, what about a piety that embodies soteriology or the Trinity? How can you have a Christian devotion that only embodies the first article of the Nicene Creed?

Hawkins continued by trying to justify her remarks on the basis of the doctrine of creation: “it is on the basis of our very statement of faith that ‘We believe that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness,’ that I am compelled to address all human beings as my ‘brothers and sisters.'”

For nine years I have signed a statement of faith which avers that all human beings originate from the same parents and bear the unalterable imago Dei – though no specific reference is made in the statement as to the process of that historic, original creation. Yes, when we Christians speak of our unity in and as the body of Christ, of course our unity stems from our identification with Christ. But my statement is not a statement of ecclesiology or baptismal regeneration or identification with Christ. It is simply and clearly a statement on the imago Dei, and a reflection of my African-American cultural heritage. It should not be misconstrued as anything different.

So, yes, when I call “fellow humans who happen to be Muslims [or Jews or atheists] my brothers and sisters” I am standing in full agreement with the Wheaton College statement of faith, identifying each person as an image-bearer of God.

Why can’t the distinction between creation and redemption (think 2k) supply the way out here? Why can’t Hawkins recognize the unity of the human race in the ex nihilo creation of the world by the only living and true God? Why isn’t that enough to affirm the worth of Muslims? Why not even appeal to the status of Muslims as citizens of the United States?

But as is so often the case with those who don’t distinguish between the temporal and eternal, the affirmations of unity based on creational norms lose momentum for accomplishing something truly noteworthy. Hawkins wants to seem to say this unity with Muslims goes somewhere special, so the sphere of redemption comes to the rescue. But that is precisely the area — in Christ — where Christian unity excludes Muslims. The former worship on Sunday in a church. The latter on Friday in a mosque.

Why can’t they simply get along on all the other days? Hawkins is right to resist letting redemption separate Muslims and Christians in creation. What she doesn’t seem to recognize is that the unity of creation can’t make up for the antithesis that Christ introduced:

34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt 10)

No matter what Black Lives Matter finds out about Hawkins, Christ’s words don’t encourage me to think this will end well.