Making Special Ordinary

If the Corinthian Christians got in trouble for turning the Lord’s Supper into a feast, what happens when you turn the sacrament into a cultural mandate? Peter Leithart may be working too hard to justify transformationalism:

Not only on the Lord’s day, but every day: We offer our works to God in worship, specifically with an act of thanksgiving. When we bring bread and wine – and, by implication, everything we make and do – before the Lord, we do it with thanksgiving. This is remarkable: After all, we made the bread and wine. And yet we thank God for them. We thank Him for the products of our hands, because even the things we make – even our works – are His gifts to us. Paul says that thanksgiving is an act of consecration: Every created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; because it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer. When we give thanks for what we have made, we are consecrating the works of our hands to God. And having given thanks at the table, we are trained to live lives of continuous Eucharist, continual thanksgiving, giving thanks, as Paul says, for all things at all times.

A lesson learned from John Frame: everyday is holy. All activities are worship.

We bring what we have made to God. But He doesn’t take it from us. We bring what we have to God, and He shares it with us. And so the things we make become means of communion with God.

Isn’t this a recipe for idolatry? Math, auto repair, fishing are “means of communion”? So we don’t have to gather with the saints on the Lord’s Day for worship?

The Eucharist is the way the world ought to be: Raw creation cultivated to grain and grapes. Cultivated creation brought to its fulfillment by cooking. Cooked creation enjoyed in the presence of God. Cooked created enjoyed together, by a community of worshipers. Cooked creation given in praise and received with thanksgiving. The final end of all things is the marriage supper of the lamb, and in the Lord’s Supper we anticipate that final feast, the feast that is the culmination of all creation. History is heading toward a wedding and eternal wedding reception, and our lives are to be spent readying the world for the wedding feast, a wedding feast that we are already enjoying now.

Wouldn’t it be better to say the wedding supper of the lamb is the culmination of redemption? After all, not everyone invited to the wedding accepts. All creatures won’t be at the wedding reception.

In the Eucharist, we bring creation to its fulfillment. We transform the creation into things useful and enjoyable for us, and we give thanks.

And so the Supper Supper reveals us to ourselves. This is what we are created to do: To be priests and kings, ruling the earth, transforming it from glory to glory, and joining it all in one great Eucharistic banquet.

At the Lord’s Supper, where we remember Christ’s death for our sins, we are impressed by how powerful and creative we are?

Yikes.

Dr. Leithart has his problems, but in this case he needs Christian editors who can tell the difference between cult and culture.

H. L. Mencken Wasn't Roman Catholic and He Could Write

First Christian presidents and now Peter Leithart explores Christian writers. Why do Christians feel the need to describe human activities in the context of sanctification? Isn’t that a tad provincial?

Leithart’s argument is that because Roman Catholics rely more on sacraments than Protestants who treat them as merely symbols, Roman Catholicism produces better writers:

Marburg is important not so much for what it achieved but as a symbol of what it failed to achieve. It provides a symbolic marker not only for the parting of the ways between Lutheran and Zwinglian, but also, for Zwinglians, the final parting of the ways between symbol and reality. J. P. Singh Uberoi claimed that “Spirit, word and sign had finally parted company at Marburg in 1529. For centuries, Christian sacramental theology had held symbol and reality together in an unsteady tension, but that alliance was ruptured by the Zwinglian view of the real presence. For Zwingli, “myth or ritual . . . was no longer literally and symbolically real and true.” In short, “Zwingli was the chief architect of the new schism and . . . Europe and the world followed Zwingli in the event.”

For many post-Marburg Protestants, literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods, and they definitely inhabit different academic departments.

Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.

And Reformed Protestantism is particularly lacking:

Many Protestant churches (often the didactic ones) celebrate the Eucharist infrequently; many are deliberately, self-consciously anti-sacramental. Their worship consists of teaching but not doing, word but not sign. When they do celebrate the Supper, many Protestant churches are informed that it is a sign rather than a reality.

This is a simplification of what goes on in many Protestant churches. It is not, I think, a caricature.

The argument, based on the assumption and the assertion, comes in several stages: Churches whose worship focuses on didactic, doctrinal teaching are going to shape minds, imaginations, and hearts in a particular way. Churches with infrequent communion, and churches that treat communion as “mere sign” are also shaping the imaginative lives of their members.

Churches with didactic preaching and unsacramental worship, I submit, do not produce poets.

A poetic imagination is cultivated in churches where the beauty of Scripture is as important as its truth. Poetic imagination is cultivated in churches that celebrate Eucharist regularly. Every week, their worship climaxes with a great sacramental metaphor, a metaphor that is more than metaphor, a metaphor that also states (in some fashion) what is the case: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

By this argument, some forms of Protestantism – Anglicans with their prayer books and Eucharistic piety, Lutherans with their ins-withs-unders – are more conducive to cultivating poetic imagination than others.

What Leithart doesn’t consider apparently is that the logocentric quality of Protestantism, attention to the meaning of Greek and Hebrew involved in the study of Scripture, consideration of different biblical genres, or even the oratory involved in preaching — all of these could fire the imagination and fascinate young boys and girls with words in a way that could create good writing every bit as much as looking at statues, paintings, a wafer, and a chalice from which you’re never served.

At the same time, what does Leithart do with all those good writers who have no dog in the hunt of Christianity, like H. L. Mencken, who somehow learned to write even without going to church:

. . . the people of New York do even worse; they eat Chesapeake soft crabs fried in batter! What is cannibalism after that? I’d as lief eat a stewed archdeacon. Think of immersing a delicate and sensitive soft crab, the noblest of decapods, in a foul mess of batter, drenching it and blinding it, defacing it and smothering it — and then frying it in a pan like some ignoble piece of Pennsylvania scrapple. As well boil a cocktail, or a smelt, or a canvasback duck.

There is, of course, but one civilized way to prepare soft crabs for the human esophagus, and it goes without saying that it is the one way never heard of by the Greek bootblacks who pass as chefs in New York. It is, like all the major processes of the bozart, quite simple in its essence. One rids the crab of its seaweed, removes the devil, and then spears it with a long, steel fork upon the prongs of which a piece of country bacon, perhaps three inches long, has already made fast. Then one holds the combination over a brazier of glowing charcoal or a fire of hickory . . ., say three or four minutes.

What happens belongs to the very elements of cookery. The bacon, melted by the heat, runs down over the crab, greasing it and salting it, and the crab, thus heated, greased and salted, takes on an almost indescribable crispness and flavor. Nothing imaginable by the mind of man could be more delicious. It is a flavor with body, delicacy and character. Slap the crab upon a square of hot toast and then have at it. (“Callinectes Hastatus,” from The Impossible Mencken, 449)

The man could write and eat.

Speaking of Using History

Peter Leithart comments on the way that American Protestants have immanentized the eschaton:

In the introduction to What Hath God Wrought, his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, Daniel Walker Howe quotes an 1850 Methodist women’s magazine’s ecstasies over the telegraph: “This noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this might influence. . . .” The magazine continued:

The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and Christian. . . . Wars will cease from the earth. . . . Then shall come to pass the millennium.

Americans never change. A century and a half from now, historians will be able to dredge up quotations very like this from our own day, banging the same drums: The conflation of Christianity with civilization, specifically American republican civilization, and the corresponding hint that the rest of the world is divided into barbarians and semi-barbarians; the enthusiasm for “spreading democracy” (here republicanism); the faith in technology, which could be a plug for the World Wide Web; the religious tenor of the whole statement, reminiscent of Bush’s abortive “Operation Absolute Justice” campaign or the Obamessianism of 2008; the prediction of a technology-driven American globalization.

Problem is, isn’t this what Eusebius — ahem — did with Constantine?

But lest the neo-Puritans take too much glee, just remember what a mixed bag the Puritans can be for making us feel comfortable with ourselves:

Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentences was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. . . .

[The Puritans] found a clear rule in Genesis 38, where Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground” in an effort to prevent conception and the Lord slew him. In Massachusetts, seed-spilling in general was known as the “hideous sin of Onanism.” A Puritan could not practice coitus interruptus and keep his faith. Every demographic test of contraception within marriage yields negative results in Puritan Massachusetts. . . . Samuel Sewall, at the age of 49, recorded the birth of his fourteenth child, and added a prayer, “It may be my dear wife may now leave off bearing.” So she did, but only by reaching the age of menopause. (David Hackett Fischer, Albions Seed, 91, 93)

There Goes Peer Review

Peter Leithart warns about the danger of Christians taking their complaints before the court of bloggers:

Paul urges that it is better to be defrauded and wronged than to take a brother to court: “It is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another” (v. 7). Paul urged the Corinthians to follow Jesus by suffering shame, rather than seeking vindication before unbelievers.

Many Christians today are resolved not to take a brother to a civil court, but try to solve disputes through arbitration or through church-courts. That is highly commendable.

Yet many Christians are perfectly content to take disputes with their brothers to the web, presenting them before the court of public opinion, before unbelievers.

What should we say about that? Does that come under the same Pauline strictures? The web, after all, is not only filled with unbelievers but is a notorious free-for-all. Civil courts have rules of evidence and mechanisms to confirm or refute allegations. The web has none of these controls, and taking a case to the web is like taking it to a court where everyone is judge, jury, and executioner. People who have no right to have an opinion get to express an opinion. Is that a good place for Christians to be wrangling with each other?

Is there a difference between public theological debate and public airing of grievances and complaints against a church or a pastor? Am I contradicting my own principle by blogging about this?

I understand the temptation to take it to the Court of Google. Resolving disputes through church channels is laborious, slow, unsatisfying. Church boards and courts make mistakes, and, as in civil courts, decisions often leave all parties frustrated and unhappy about the outcome. Many churches in the United States are nondenominational churches that don’t present any obvious way of resolving conflicts that are unresolved in a local church.

I get the point. If we lived in a world of Caesaro-papism, maybe all aspects of life would be overseen by the emperor/bishop.

But not taking every dispute to the church also pertains to a whole host of modern conveniences. Do we not solicit a second opinion about a surgery? Do church courts decide? Do scholars not seek publication in journals reviewed by experts in the field?

And why can’t the Internet just be a place to have a conversation? Do we really need to check with session or consistory about what the family might discuss over dinner tonight? Peter’s point seems a tad pietistic, which is surprising since I suspect he has frequently found himself, independent of church oversight, in a bar gassing on with friends about various foes.

Congregationalism as Constantinianism

Peter Leithart wants to add to my work as clerk of session. First, he’s reading a lot of sociologists of religion (would John Milbank approve?) on the capacity of congregations to function like families and provide for members in similar ways:

This social capital is not merely intangible. Congregations offer material support to needy members: “When people in congregations talk about building relationships and creating community, they are talking about more than warm, fuzzy feelings. These relationships often take on a depth of mutual obligation that involves pain and sacrifice, as well as joy and celebration. Once having entered these communities, participants are challenged to care for each other, in good times and in bad, and most of this caring takes place informally, rather than through organized programs” (65). Tangible support is particularly beneficial to immigrants: “In Chicago we encountered a congregation whose religious roots are in Nigeria—the Holy Order of Cherubim and Seraphim. There we heard, ‘Our church has a lot of immigrants that are coming to this country. Some of them are very young families. . . . So, you have the church trying to be like a family structure. To be able to mend all of this together so they can have a life.’ Mending together a life often requires informal assistance, rituals of healing and mourning, and the timely visit of a pastor”

Next, he thinks congregations can contribute to a number of the policy questions before the nation:

The US faces policy challenges of gargantuan proportions. Immigration, social security, drugs, race, crime and prison reform, health care, Islamicism and other international challenges. I’d put same-sex marriage, the ethical issues surrounding biotechnology, and abortion high on that list, and some would add environmental issues to the short list.

For ordinary Americans, that list poses two challenges. First, each is a hugely complex, apparently insoluble problem. A health care reform bill has been passed, but many doubt whether it will improve health care or lower costs. The difficulty of formulating a policy on immigration that answers to all American interests and values is evident in the fact that no such policy has been formulated and legislated. There are limits on what a war-weary America can do about ISIS.

Second, ordinary citizens don’t have the capacity to do much about any of them. We can vote, but few have the ability or opportunity to do much else. At best, we respond by bitching about the state of the world or engaging in Facebook polemics; at worst, we throw up our hands and find some way to avoid thinking about it.

For Christians, there is an alternative approach that disaggregates the problems and opens the possibility of constructive action. Instead of treating these issues as questions of national or state policy, we can examine them as ecclesial questions, questions about the ministry and mission of the church.

I don’t mean that we stop debating the merits of policy proposals. Institutional and legal patterns are critical, and there are definitely healthy and unhealthy, good and bad ways to organize our life together. But public policy isn’t the only way to address social needs, and for the church, legislated policy isn’t the primary way to address social needs.

No group of citizens can build a wall along the Mexican border, and few contribute in any meaningful way to formulating immigration policy. But nearly everyone lives in a town with a Hispanic minority. In addition to (or before) asking, “How can America control immigration?” Christians should ask, “What obligations do churches have toward immigrants? What can we do to proclaim the gospel to them in word and deed?” We shouldn’t merely ask how Federal or State governments can make health insurance available, but how churches can provide affordable basic medical care to the poor in a local area. We may not have the policy answers to the drug trade, but many churches support or provide help for addicts and some have effectively intervened to reduce gang violence. We can’t stop ISIS, but churches can send and support missionaries in Islamic countries, and churches can mount targeted evangelistic campaigns to Muslims in our neighborhoods. We can think of Muslim immigration to the US as a threat to our Christian heritage; we can also recognize it as one of the greatest opportunities for Muslim evangelism since the sixth century.

Well, one relief is that the economy is so bad in this part of Michigan that we don’t have that many Hispanics, so that round of meetings is not needed (even if it means finding a good Mexican-restaurant is a challenge). But how in the world if congregations barely agree on the order of service are we now supposed to find consensus on drug treatment procedures?

Plus, I’m not going near Islam (except when having drinks with our Muslim neighbor). Hasn’t Peter seen any of those ISIL videos?

Just this morning I was reading an almost twenty-year old verdict on the effects of modernity on Dutch Reformed churches:

Whereas once (and still in some isolationist communities) there was considerable homogeneity of perspective on virtually all matters of faith — that is, the Reformed message was uniformly accepted throughout the Reformed community — that is no longer the case. Among respondents in each of the countries under consideration, there is immense variation in matters of belief. Whether considering new understandings of Scripture or new formulations of divinity or new attitudes about the fate of nonbelievers, consensus is rare. On matters of political and moral concern, Christians of the Reformed churches have significant differences of opinion. (Rethinking Secularization: Reformed Reactions to Modernity, 281)

So do members of most communions (Roman Catholics included where they put the “it” in unity). But now Peter wants us to take on social policy? How much free time does he have in his new position?

The Death of Christian America

Peter Leithart gives a clue. It has to do with ways of relating churches to the culture, coming along side it to use the vernacular of the Vatican, that would wind up devastating the Protestant mainline:

The growth that swelled the mainline during the 1950s was fueled by people looking for “a more relaxed, less legalistic, less dogmatic version of the faith.” Despite numerical growth, the mainline churches didn’t grow “stronger” during the 1950s; their grown “concealed an ongoing weakness that a few years later produced an unprecedently steep decline in membership” (194).

The authors see the drift in the mainline as an accommodation to cultural trends: “The American cultural climate has shifted during the twentieth century in the direction of greater relativism and skepticism in matters of religion, and toward greater degrees of individualism. Acceptance of diversity in belief, lifestyle, and ethnic and racial background has broadened markedly.” Initially promoted by elites, the shift became popular, and “the leadership of the mainline Protestant churches accommodated the shift within their own ranks.” When the Sixties hit, the mainline Protestant churches were already sailing with the same wind that carried the sexual revolution and the challenge to settled authority: “The mainline Protestant churches did not initiate the new shift, but they were unable and unwilling to resist it” (198).

Not surprisingly, Presbyterians lost the next generation: “The children have asked over and over what is distinctive about Presbyterianism – or even about Protestantism – and why they should believe it or cherish it. The answers have apparently not been very clear. Today Presbyterians should not bemoan the lack of faith and church commitment exhibited by their youth, since they have no one to blame but themselves. No outside power forcibly pulled their children away from the faith”

And what happened to the mainline in the 1960s, happened to Roman Catholics in the 1970s once the bishops at Vatican II opened the windows to modern society and hoped for a more relaxed church. (By the way, it could happen to all the folks inspired by TKNY. Some think it already has.)

Once again, it’s the progressives who pave the way for “progress” among Roman Catholics.

Why is it that the more you try to make Christianity relevant, the less Christianity you have left?

Woe to Dualism

Is Neo-Calvinism the gateway drug to Islam?

Here‘s why I ask:

Western observers have difficulty making sense of this Renewal because of our Western biases concerning religion and politics: “The most important source of Western confusion about the meaning of the Renewal is the insistence on distinguishing between Islam as religion and so-called political Islam. Neither of these characterizations is in fact applicable. Islam is far more than a religion, and its political dimensions have no such autonomy. Islam is a pluralistic way of life that in all its varieties is insistently holistic and therefore unavoidably political. . . . Islam as lived faith refuses any division between the religious experience and human efforts to act in this world. In short, there is no such thing as political Islam. There is only Islam, although it is subject to adaptations and a wide variety of human interpretations.”

“Insistently holistic.” Every square inch.

Of course, other ways exist for affirming Christ’s lordship and recognizing the sacred-secular dichotomy. But those are radical.