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.

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This Is Embarrassing

The Protestants who I enjoy criticizing are clear at the same time that Roman Catholics are not. And the editors at First Things are caught.

First, a recommendation of the evangelicals who produced the Nashville Statement:

[Several] critiques have merit, and are especially significant since they come from within the evangelical movement. But in our era of theological mushiness and cultural transformation, even the most imperfect attempt at clarity and doctrinal solidarity is better than soft-spoken obfuscation. Christians committed to historic, biblical doctrine on sexuality should be disposed to approve of efforts to make orthodoxy clear, unequivocal, and pastoral.

Perhaps, as many have said, the timing of the Nashville Statement was insensitive. Waiting a couple weeks after the initial images from Houston had appeared might have muted this criticism. But can we foresee a season when such a clear statement of traditional doctrine would not offend, alienate, or divide?

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity. The document’s fourteen affirmations and denials are short, unequivocal, and to the point.

But Roman Catholics, not so much. Aside from the ongoing dilemma of marriage and divorce that Pope Francis and his synods introduced into the magisterium, individual priests, like James Martin, are signaling virtue but in a very sensitive way:

Fr. Martin notably seeks peace. He speaks reassuring phrases in soothing tones. He prefers the familiarity of a sweater vest and dad jeans to the strangeness of the soutane. In ways superficial and profound, he seeks to render Christianity inoffensive. At a certain level, I understand this desire. The Church may be a sign of contradiction, but it is also a source of consolation. Sometimes we need a Church built on sharp, gothic lines, and at other moments we seek the calm harmony of the classical.

But Fr. Martin’s proposed renovation goes beyond mere ornament, to require the restructuring of the whole Christian edifice. Fr. Martin never says this outright, but the logic of what he does say demands it. Approval of homosexuality is now considered the bare minimum of politeness in the world’s respectable precincts (where one hundred years ago, it would have been thought intolerably rude). If Christianity is to have the manners Fr. Martin values—if is to exhibit perfect “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the eyes of world—it must not only change its phrasing but reverse its teaching on sex.

Fr. Martin is no idle vandal of the Church, even if his critics often take him for one. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I believe that Catholics have something to learn from his argument that the Church treats homosexuality unfairly.

Catholic teaching has not changed, but at the practical level the Church today has made peace with heterosexual desire. Praise of virginity and warnings against lust in the marriage bed have given way to anxious reassurances that Catholics do not hate and fear sex. The Church has largely ceased to speak of sex as dangerous and requiring restraint, even where it is licit. We hear of the dangers of pre-marital sex, of extramarital sex, sometimes even of homosexual sex—but very rarely of sex simply.

Of course, doctrine hasn’t changed. You hear that a lot from those who have to live with modernists — those who won’t live by, defend, or recommend the doctrine that hasn’t changed. But something has.

And I suspect some converts to Rome are having trouble arguing for Rome’s superiority to Nashville.

Signers and Decliners

Now comes another statement, named for a Tennessee city, with the signatures of more Christian scholars attached to it. I wonder if those who signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today” will also sign the Nashville Statement on biblical sexuality. Lots of professors are listed on each statement, and yet I can’t help but think each set has reservations about the scholarship practiced by the signers of the other statement.

What is it about statements? The one time Tim Keller and I agreed came in 1996 at the meeting of theologians and pastors that produced the Cambridge Declaration, a statement that expressed concerns about contemporary worship and megachurches. Keller did not sign. Nor did I. My reasons for not signing went along the lines that Matthew Anderson recently gave for not signing the Nashville Statement:

While I am generally ‘statement-averse,’ it seems reasonable to want a succinct depiction of the theological boundaries on these issues. If nothing else, such statements are efficient: they remove much of the work of retelling all of our convictions on a certain matter by giving us a public document to point to. It’s a lot easier to find all the people who are on board with a certain vision of the home, for instance, by asking what they make of the Danvers Statement.

Yet this virtue is also a vice: by creating a public context in which all the people who affirm certain doctrines or ideas are identified under the same banner, statements tacitly shift the playing field, such that to not sign is to signal disagreement.

Ding ding. Statements imply that those who don’t sign are not of the right outlook because those who sign are right. A lot of signaling going on.

Yet, a curious feature of the Nashville Statement is that it includes the heavy hitters in the Gospel Coalition. John Piper, Lig Duncan, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, even J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul. Tim Keller did not sign.

The problem could be that statements are a problem. But Anderson also explains another reason for the Nashville Statement’s deficiency. It specifies a minimal set of norms while leaving aside a broader sexual ethic and biblical anthropology that should provide the source for specific practices or convictions:

With the signers and the drafters of the Nashville Statement, I am persuaded that the current controversies over sex, gender, and marriage are of maximal importance. With those individuals, I agree that there are matters here essential to the truthful, beautiful articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With those individuals, I agree that the crisis in the evangelical church is real, and that those seeking to alter our institutions so that they affirm gay marriage undermine and distort the faith that all Christians, in all places and times have affirmed.

But issues of maximal importance deserve maximal responses. It is possible to say too little, as it is possible to say too much. If I have sometimes erred toward the latter vice in my exposition and defense of a traditional account of sex and gender, I have done so only because the deflationary and minimalist approach to such questions is itself an intrinsic part of the intellectual atmosphere which has left the orthodox Christian view unintelligible to so many.

Meanwhile, secular academics are trying to defend middle-class virtues:

That [mid-twentieth-century bourgeois] culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.

Imagine if the Christians who signed the Open Letter or the Nashville Statement had joined with Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in a defense of older American norms.

It sure looks like Wax and Alexander could use it:

We, a group of Penn alumni and current students, wish to address white supremacist violence and discourse in America. Even if we are not surprised that Charlottesville can happen, witnessing blatant racism takes an emotional toll on us, some more so than others. And yet, overtly racist acts are identifiable and seem “easy” to criticize. It is nearly impossible for anyone, white, black or otherwise to see what happened in Charlottesville and not admit that a wrong occurred — unless you are a white supremacist yourself, that is.

But at the same time, history teaches us that these hateful ideas about racial superiority have been embedded in many of our social institutions. They crawl through the hallways of our most prestigious universities, promoting hate and bigotry under the guise of “intellectual debate.” Indeed, just days before Charlottesville, Penn Law School professor Amy Wax, co-wrote an op-ed piece with Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, claiming that not “all cultures are created equal” and extolling the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.

Wax’s and Alexander’s claims rely on a simplistic, bigoted and archaic notion of culture; a concept purported to be bounded and discrete, a postulate which anthropologists “dismantled” decades ago by showing how such formulations of culture are embedded in systems of political, economic and social oppression.

Against outlooks like this statements don’t have a snowball’s chance in hades.