The White Man’s Burden

With all the talk of intersectionality and white privilege, it now turns out that white men themselves can play the victim card. We too are oppressed and marginalized as Pete Enns recently discovered:

White male privilege really is a thing, I never see it from the outside in, and I was never challenged to critique white male privilege as an expression of my faith. Rather, it was allowed to fit far too comfortably with my faith.

Not being an oppressed person puts me at a disadvantage. I rarely need to cry out as the psalmists do about being treated with injustice, prejudice, with violence. I don’t need to worry about being pulled over by uniformed protectors of the public. There are many more places I can go and things I can do because I am part of the dominant culture.

And I don’t worry about my competence or value being questioned because of my gender. I am the default, the norm. I do the judging.

An iteration of the Christian faith that doesn’t see the problem here, really see it, is its own refutation.

But here come some complications when men of privilege grasp for the ring of oppression:

Was the fact that Pete was a victim of white male domination at WTS its own form of oppression? On the scales of social justice this instance of maltreatment (according to some) does not itself rise to the level of what people of color have experienced. But Pete needs to see that white male privilege only goes so far when it collides with other white men with privilege. Ten years ago the Psalms would have made total sense of Pete’s experience.

But that raises a question about using as expressions of lament the prayers of kings, which is much of the OT Psalter. Should a victim of oppression really appeal to a prayer from an officer who according to social justice warriors is inherently oppressive? After all, the left has taught us that the wealthy and powerful are chief among the perpetrators of injustice. So how do you sing the songs of lament of the wealthy and powerful, like kings as opposed to the oppressed people (who haven’t left much of a paper trail)?

One last wrinkle: can a white Christian man really appeal to the text of Hebrews even if that is his academic specialty? Isn’t this a form of cultural appropriation? If Oberlin College students have taught us about authentic tacos in the cafeteria, and if Pete wants to approve the arguments that currently fuel the politics of identity, hasn’t he gone to the wrong place if he turns to the Psalms? Wouldn’t T.S. Eliot be a better fit for a white Christian man if he were — hypothetically of course — to experience oppression?

The gods of social justice are a demanding bunch. Call on them at your peril if your complexion is pink or ruddy.

Why Read the Bible?

That’s the question Pete Enns doesn’t answer (unless you are like him and get paid to read it).

He thinks biblical scholarship gives a good answer to the question, “what is the Bible.”

In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. . . . All of us on a journey of faith encounter God from our point of view. . . we meet God as people defined by our moment in the human drama, products of who, where, and when we are. We ask our questions of God and encounter God in our time and place in language and ideas familiar to us, just like the ancient pilgrims of faith who gave us the Bible. . . . This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions, and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. ~ The Bible Tells Me So, pp. 23-24

But I read of encounters with reality, the sublime, the stuff God created, even religious inspiration in Shakespeare, Wendell Berry, and Orhan Pamuk. So why does one set of writings qualify as the Bible when we see so many “religious” “experiences” in so many other places?

This is why the higher critics, as hard headed as they appeared to be on the old theories of divine revelation, were still as sentimental as Sunday school students when it came to offering a reasonable account for the uniqueness of a certain set of religious writings by Jewish people over almost two millennia. Can you really put the Bible up again the Norton Anthology of British Literature unless you think it’s God’s infallible word?

How to Make Mencken a Christian

Turn doubt into fruit of the Spirit:

Doubt signals that this process of dying and rising is underway. Though God feels far away, at that moment God may be closer than we realize—especially if “know what you believe” is how we’re used to thinking of our faith.

Doubt isn’t cool, hipster, or chic. Doubt isn’t a new source of pride. Don’t go looking for doubt; don’t tempt it to arrive out of time. But neither is doubt the terrifying final word.

Doubt is sacred. Doubt is God’s instrument, will arrive in God’s time, and will come from unexpected places—places out of your control. And when it does, resist the fight-or-flight impulse. Pass through it—patiently, honestly, and courageously for however long it takes. True transformation takes time.

Being conscious of this process does not relieve the pain of doubt, but it may help circumnavigate our corrupted instinct, which is to fear doubt as the enemy to be slain. Rather, supported by people we trust not to judge us, we work on welcoming the process as a gift—which is hard to do when our entire life narrative is falling down around us. But we are learning in that season, as Qohelet did, to trust God anyway and not to trust our “correct” thinking about God.

Doubt is divine tough love. God means to have all of us, not just the surface, going-to-church, volunteering part. Not just the part people see, but the parts so buried no one sees them.
Not even us.

Imagine how great it must be to have faith.

This is America, not The United States of Monotheists

I am still trying to wrap my mind around the Christians who are rallying to Dr. Larcyia Hawkins from Wheaton College for her decision to wear a hijab during Advent to show solidarity with Muslims. During Advent? Whatever happened to the integrity of the church calendar!!!! What about the feelings of high church Anglicans? We’re not even supposed to sing Christmas carols before Christmas day, but an Islamic head covering in anticipation of celebrating Christ’s birth? Someone’s feelings are always going to be hurt.

The trouble I’m having is that such shows of solidarity with Muslims come most recently after the shootings in southern California, the shootings in Paris last month, and the Charlie Hebdo killings of over a year ago. And then there is ISIS and ISIL — hello. Are all Muslims guilty of all these circumstances? Of course, not. But why do some evangelicals have such trouble understanding why Americans (not to mention Frenchmen and women) are a tad worried about Islamism and don’t know for the life of them exactly how to tell the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist (especially when some of the Muslims most likely to turn radical are the least observant)? Why also is it so easy for evangelicals to know that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is unworthy of solidarity if he recommends carrying guns when some Muslims actually do carry guns and use them?

The best I can do is come up with two American traits. The first is the American habit of identifying with the underdog. We like to root for the team with a remote chance of winning (except for Roman Catholic converts). Muslims are a small percentage of the American population. That makes them an underdog (though resorting to acts of terrorism does not).

The second trait is tolerance. All Americans, both on the left and right, affirm freedom of religion and speech in some fashion. We have a Bill of Rights and everyone loves liberty. Christians don’t celebrate freedom for gay rights activists and gay rights activists don’t go out of their way to protect the freedoms of cake decorators. Consistency is not the point. America should not exhibit bigotry. We should welcome anyone and not profile on the basis of race, religion, economic status, or place. Profiling on the basis of political party (Hilary identifies Republicans as her enemy) is fine. But no one teaching at an institution of higher learning wants to be confused with Donald Trump.

Still, Dr. Hawkins’ decision about how to observe Advent and the Christian support for her seems to go beyond these basic American ideals. It suggests an identification with the exotic, opposition to bigotry, and displaying one’s own progressive credentials. After all, it’s the Fox News watchers who are worried about Islam. It’s Jerry Falwell, Jr., a fundamentalist, who is seeming guilty of Islamophobia. So the logic seems to go — I’ll run the other way to show that I am not like them. Why showing solidarity with Christians who are afraid of political Islam doesn’t also display love and empathy is not at all obvious.

For Pete Enns, it’s a classic case of inerrancy vs. xenophia:

People are watching, and they haven’t read Wheaton’s statement of faith or the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

They’re just interested in seeing how Christians respond to a global crisis right here at home.

They want to see whether the rumors are true and their suspicions accurate, that Christians are as bigoted and xenophobic as they accuse others of being.

They want to see whether our actions are different from those of any other ideology.

As if not identifying with killers in southern California is bigoted.

Miroslav Volf tries for an analogy between Islam and Judaism, as if to suggest Christians should grant the same breadth to Muslims that they do to Jews:

Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?

Well, some Christians don’t think Jewish people and Christians are people of the same faith; they’ve read Paul (for starters).

John Fea, who quotes Volf, wonders if Hawkins is simply trying to say something generic by resorting to theology:

I think Hawkins is trying to say that we all belong to the same family–the human family. And there are times, even in the life of an exclusively Christian college, when those human connections should be acknowledged. And they should be acknowledged, and even celebrated, for Christian reasons–namely the Imago Dei. So I am not sure that someone saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a statement that is necessarily out of bounds at a Christian college, but it must be carefully nuanced and explained.

Fea is on to something, more below, but should theology really function like this precisely when doctrine has historically divided people(even Christians)?

But here’s the thing. While many Christians are trying to distance themselves from xenophobia and bigotry, are they really prepared for the illiberality of Islam? After all, it’s not as if Islam is on the side of liberty, democracy, equal rights, and progress — all the things that those identifying with Muslims would likely affirm in the most whiggish of terms.

Consider, for instance, the current political footprint of Islam in nations where its followers have power. Again, I am not trying to engage in outrage porn. But consider the people who monitor liberal causes and then see if the Christians identifying with Islam are ready for everything involved with that identification.

For example, have these folks considered the significance of wearing a head scarf in Iran?

Women’s rights are severely restricted in Iran, to the point where women are even forbidden from watching men’s sports in stadiums. That ban includes Iran’s national obsession – volleyball.

Human Rights Watch is launching a new campaign, #Watch4Women, to support Iranian women fighting this ugly discrimination. What we’re asking is simple: that the International Volleyball Federation, known as the FIVB, uphold its own rules and agree not to allow Iran to host future tournaments – unless it allows Iranian women to attend. . . .

You see this played out across women’s lives. Women in Iran are forced to wear the hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, in public. This even applies to young schoolgirls, who are required to wear the head covering to attend elementary school.

Moreover, married women can’t even leave the country without their husband’s permission. In fact, in September the captain of Iran’s female football (soccer) team, Niloufar Ardalan, couldn’t play in an international tournament in Malaysia because her husband forbade her from traveling.

Iran does allow women to play sports, like football and volleyball. But none of these women are allowed to do something as simple as watch men play volleyball, even if their brothers, sons, or husbands are playing. In fact, Ghoncheh Ghavami, 25, a dual Iranian-British national, was arrested when she tried to attend a volleyball game in Tehran. Police are often posted around stadiums, in part to keep women out.

Or what about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia under the rule of an Islamic monarchy?

At last, Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record is getting media scrutiny, thanks in part to news that Saudi authorities plan to lash 74-year-old Karl Andree, a British cancer survivor, 350 times for possessing homemade alcohol. Flogging in the kingdom entails a series of strikes with a wooden cane, with blows distributed across the back and legs, normally not breaking the skin but leaving bruises.

This ruling comes after a year of bizarre and cruel punishments meted out by the Saudi judiciary, including the public flogging of liberal blogger Raif Badawi in January and a death sentence for Ali al-Nimr, a Saudi man accused of protest-related activities allegedly committed before he was 18 years old.

Or does identifying with Islam include the anti-blasphemy laws in Islamic Pakistan?

Earlier today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the death penalty conviction of Aasia Bibi, the first woman in Pakistan’s history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Bibi fell afoul of the law in June 2009 following an altercation with fellow farm workers who refused to drink water she had touched, contending it was “unclean” because she was Christian. On November 8, 2009, the Sheikhupura District Court convicted her under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, and ruled that there were “no mitigating circumstances.” In January 2010, a security officer assassinated the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, for visiting Bibi in prison and denouncing her conviction.

Do evangelical academics really want to show solidarity with Muslims now? Some journalists even question whether the progressive New York Times should sponsor tours to Iran because of the authoritarian character of the nation’s Islamic government. Do folks like Hawkins, Enns and Wolf read the news? Showing solidarity with Islam now seems as confused as identifying Woodrow Wilson as the most profoundly Christian statesman of the twentieth century at precisely the same time that people at Wilson’s university don’t share that opinion.

Once again, as is so often the case when Christians opine about matters of common interest, the real problem is a confusion of categories. So two-kingdoms theology again to the rescue. What’s wrong with showing solidarity with Muslims a little more narrowly than John Fea proposed? Why can’t we identify with Muslims living in the United States as Americans (or people who want to be citizens)? As such, Christians and Muslims would be people who support freedom of religion, speech, association, as well as laws against murder. The way to do this might be to wear the hijab or (for men) shemagh on Presidents’ Day, July Fourth, the three weeks of March Madness. What does Advent have to do with it? And such an identification allows us to affirm something that we really do have in common — the greatest nation on God’s green earth as opposed to the places of worship that actually keep Muslims and Christians separate.

But if you think that Christian identity goes all the way down, if you fear the dualism of the sacred and secular, if you want religion in the public square, if you think faith must inform your judgments even as you carry out duties as a citizen, then you will have to resort to something like theology to identify with Muslims.

This is all the more reason why recognizing the difference between the secular and sacred realms frees Christians to be Christians rather than having to smuggle it in to do something it was never designed to do — turn Islam into Christianity.

Westminster II

Looks like (and we’ve known this for some time) that Protestants have as much trouble with hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity as Roman Catholics. Something funny happened in the 1960s. Bishops met in Rome — was it hard to get a cab, a table at a trendy Italian restaurant? And at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) the second generation of faculty came along, most of whom had studied with the first generation. But the second generation decided it wouldn’t color within the lines drawn by the original faculty. Sounds like Vatican II, doesn’t it?

Evidence of the challenges of historical and institutional continuity comes from a post on Facebook at Tremper Longman’s page (made available at Greenbaggins). Tremper calls it Middle Westminster, an odd phrase if you think in historical categories of the West. Weren’t the Middle Ages also the Dark Ages? That surely is not what Tremper means to communicate since for him, Middle WTS is the good WTS. For support, he includes comments by Clair Davis:

The history of WTS divides itself naturally into three great epochs: before me, during me, after me. I came on faculty in 1966 at the same time that Ed became the first president, and retired as Sam was taken away as our leader. So Middle WTS is the same as My Time! Ed had a broader agenda than showing up liberals, so closely related to his own powerful work with the Word. He got around in the broader evangelical world and appreciated what we could give them. I give him so much credit along with Ed Clowney Redivivus George and Sam for broadening us up to look at the Bible itself, but I suspect that growing evangelical desire for more than the old WTS offered also played a large part.

Especially after Meredith moved on Ray Dillard became our leader, in OT and also in godly theology for life generally. The OT people had the only departmental prayer meeting! I am so glad they had room for Erik Davis too. Al led them and us all on after Ray’s early death. But what an amazing crew: add on Tremper Longman, Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, Doug Green, and Mike Kelly, and so many great grad students.

It was all about learning more and more about God’s Word, with all that learning other Semitic cultures could provide. I hope my Church History big picture way of thinking doesn’t blur the uniqueness of our OT—but the rise of Jay Adam’s and David Powlison’s and Ed Welch’s biblical counseling was going on at the same time. Then add in Harvie Conn, with his provocative questions and deep answers. I see our Old Testament department leading the way, but so many “cultural” things were happening at the same time! We all knew our God-given calling was to be “relevant,” to push the evangelical and Reformed world to think bigger than it ever had, to go far beyond hassling liberals and getting the grammar right. I believe myself that we succeeded mightily. To God be the glory, with credit to Ed Clowney and George Fuller and Sam Logan and Harvie Conn and CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) and those amazing students, asking better and deeper questions of us and demanding answers.

Clair’s reflections come at the conclusion of Doug Green’s teaching career at WTS. As Tremper explains, Green’s departure is one more piece of the “Westminster Diaspora.” I agree with Clair and Tremper that it is sad to see Doug leave WTS. I consider him a friend, thanks in part of the placement of the coffee maker in the work room outside my office in Montgomery Memorial Library which allowed him and me to talk about any number of things. At the same time, I’m pretty sure Doug would concede that WTS in the 1990s was a shaky place where confessionalists like myself and envelope-pushers like him (and Tremper, and Pete Enns, and Clair Davis) co-existed but rarely found themselves on the same page.

The question I had then is the same question I have now: why did administrators and board members think you could sow the fabric of continuity onto the inherent discontinuity between Old School Presbyterian types and New Life folks who were in awe of Tim Keller (the elephant in this historical room)? As if TKNY would bring us all together.

If Clair can lament the loss of Middle Westminster, can’t folks who think as Machen did that the Reformed faith is grand bemoan the loss of Early Westminster? What exactly happened to make the convictions of the original faculty either wrong or irrelevant? And did anyone actually make a case for changing course, pointing out where the older generation was wrong or shortsighted, and chart a better way based both on Reformed heritage and biblical teaching? Of course, John Frame has picked his winners and losers among the original faculty and derided those (like mmmeeeEEE) who still see merit in Machen’s founding vision for Westminster and his forthright defense of Reformed Protestantism. But Frame was not at Westminster Philadelphia in the 1990s. He didn’t need to be. The clear sense was that the Machen thing was passe.

And as I often said to friends and wife during the 1900s, the Machen thing may well have been irrelevant. But that requires an argument especially at an institution that prides itself on intellectual achievement. And an argument requires some awareness of what Machen tried to accomplish, and the context in which he tried.

Above all, shrugging off Machen and the original faculty of Westminster required a degree of loyalty for those whose work took place in places like Machen and Van Til Hall. I mean, if students at Princeton University can insist on removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from all associations with the institution, can’t Westminster faculty and administrators come up with a way to rid themselves of the bad parts of their institution’s past (Machen was after all a racist by today’s standards and even a family friend of Wilson)?

Or could it also be that the same sort of candor that Machen demanded of liberal Presbyterians has been in short supply among those Middle Westminster types who benefited from the institution’s reputation but failed to acknowledge it — even worse, disparaged it?

I wish Doug all the best. But the history of Westminster demands more scrutiny and awareness than those from the Middle period have been capable of producing.

Did the Desert Monks Blog?

Pete Enns appeals to mysticism but it sounds like sentimentality and even a tad anti-intellectual:

I have come to believe that the life of Christian faith is not fundamentally “rational,” by which I mean faith in God is necessarily trans-rational (not anti-rational) but not “captureable” by our minds. It’s mysterious. It’s mystical. After all, this is a faith that calls upon its adherents to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

It proclaims God as the creator of all there is, and the more we learn about that creation, the more we are—or should be—at a loss for words. A universe that is about 14 billion years old and 100 billion light years across, containing billions of galaxies—the closest one to ours is 2.5 million light years away—with each galaxy containing billions of stars—the closest one being 4.2 light years (= about 25 trillion miles) away. At the other end of the spectrum are subatomic particles—the very phrase defies comprehension—and now we hear of string theory and the multiverse (or meta-universe).

If God exists, what can any of us possibly add to the conversation? The God who did this is the one we are aiming to understand. So, “mystery” seems to be an operative category for thinking about theology.

That’s an odd observation for someone who writes as much as Pete does, and for someone whose job is to study a book. It feels like a dodge. But it does confirm the old observation that liberal Protestants were not really rationalists. They were Ph.D.s who wound up appealing to mysticism as their justification.

I wonder how that plays in grad school.

Playing By An Old Playbook

I’ve already indicated that Protestants were making theological arguments for protecting the environment well before Laudato Si. But noooooo. No one gives us credit because we only capitulated to modernity well before Roman Catholics did. Now, Pete Enns reminds us that Pope Francis’ regard for the poor and desire for a poor church for the poor was only what an Orthodox Presbyterian minister was saying thirty years ago (though for some reason, thankfully, Pete leaves out ecclesiastical affiliation):

Below are some words of wisdom from Harvie M. Conn (1933-99) from his book Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. Conn was one of my theology professors in seminary, who spent 12 years as a missionary in Korea to women in prostitution, seeing them as victims of sinful societal structures rather than simply “sinners.”

For too long evangelical white churches in the United States have had a “come” structure. . . . One cannot be a missionary church and continue insisting that the world must come to the church on the church’s terms. It must become a “go” structure. And it can only do that when its concerns are directed outside itself toward the poor, the abused, and the oppressed. The church must recapture its identity as the only organization in the world that exists for the sake of its non-members.

I am drawn to this quote. It captures for me a bigger vision for how to spend our time on this earth–for others. I often lose that sense when I am doing repairs on my house, getting ready for classes, balancing our check book, or writing blog posts.

Conn was a bit of a radical back in the day, and many of us loved him for it. He was always pushing us vanilla white Presbyterian males to get over ourselves and our strangle hold on intellectual orthodoxy. Following Jesus meant venturing out of our ivory towers, getting dirty–and exposing our familiar theological categories to scrutiny.

By the way, Conn was the inspiration for TKNY who kept the urban theme but seems to have lost the oppressed meme.

#cherrypickersall