Will Piper, Carson, and Keller Alone Be Left Standing (or why don't rappers rap about Native Americans)?

Readers at Old Life know that Puritanism is not on the A-list of favorite topics (unless it is to kvetch about experimental Calvinism). But the recent discussion of Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans,” has me reaching in my apologetics tool box (as if John Frame taught me nothing or that I ever heard of Propaganda before).

The issue so far seems to be whether or not to criticize heroes. Anthony Bradley, defender of Propaganda, argues for a sensible outlook on historical actors:

Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.

Thabiti Anyabwile concurs at his Gospel Coalition blog (though the irony is rich since TGC is pretty averse to criticism of its theological celebrities):

That’s why we need people less infatuated than ourselves to tell us the plain truth we miss. As I read the exchanges, the folks who seem to have the greatest difficulty with the song are the folks who seem (sometimes they say so) to have the highest appreciation for the Puritans. That’s the pedestal Prop mentions. By definition, raising someone to a pedestal means lifting them beyond critique and realistic assessment. If we “pedestalize” our heroes, we’re bound to miss things and we need others to point to it. But, we don’t like to have people kicking around our pedestals. Our idols may topple and fall. For instance, I don’t like people kicking around the pedestal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up with a grandmother who kept a cheesy painting of Jesus, King, and Kennedy hanging on her living room wall. Jesus was elevated in the center of the picture, with the requisite soft yellow halo, while King and Kennedy appeared on his left and right. Makes you wonder if the painter ever heard King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. But many evangelicals have the habit of mentioning plagiarism and adultery and “liberal theology” whenever Dr. King’s name is raised. And there’s something in me that kicks back, defends, guards the pedestal and remembers the painting.

2kers, Matt Tuininga and Scott Clark, approve generally the points made by Bradley and Anyabwile. First Tuininga:

. . . we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this.

And Clark:

If nothing else, this is yet another reminder of the folly of the “golden age” approach to history, the idea that says “if only we could get back to period x.” Such a program will always disappoint because it always depends on a mythologized view of a past, a story about a past that never really existed. Colonial America was not a golden age, not if one was an African bought and sold by “godly men” who, as creatures of their time, were unable to criticize the peculiar institution of American slavery.

What is missing from this discussion is not a defense of the Puritans or of slavery — though I would suggest it is possible to defend the Puritans without defending slavery — but what is lacking is a critique of the holier-than-thou anti-slavery meme. Of course, slavery is unjust and of course, racism is despicable. But is it possible to see problems with the anti-slavery? The charge of slavery, like that of racisim, paints with a broad brush. It lacks nuance. It renders the world manichean, akin to the old line about pregnancy — you can’t be a little bit with child. In which case, if you owned slaves or are guilty of racism, no need ever to consider anything you have to say. You will forever be known as a slaveholder and racist the way that we now know Jerry Sandusky as a one dimensional pervert.

For instance, is it possible to make distinctions between orthodox slaveholders and Unitarian ones? If so, is it possible to say that the orthodox slaveholder’s theology is better than the Unitarians? In which case, is it possible to read slave holders’ theology and benefit from it? Can we separate aspects of historical actor’s life or does his wickedness go all the way down? The differences between Reformed confessionalism’s 2k posture, which separates holy, common, and profane matters all the time contrasts here with Reformed pietism which disdains all such distinctions under the canopy of “all is religious.” Of course, if we can’t separate matters, then readers should avoid Old Life at all cost not because I own slaves but because I — can you believe it — sin.

In other words, inherent in the anti-slavery position is not a form of genuine Christian reflection but one of perfectionism. This is a one-strike and you’re out scorched earth policy, with certain sins achieving red-letter status. If you break those, we’ll never hear from you again. This has happened with the American founders, slaveholders and chauvinists that they were, among large sectors of the academy. It also explained why mainline churches don’t read older theologians — the PCUSA’s awkward attitude to Princeton Seminary’s bi-centennial is an example. This trend seems to be afflicting evangelical Protestants. No surprise there since nineteenth-century evangelicals fell prey to this binary perfectionism back in the antebellum era.

And if a similar cultural perfectionism is seeping into the evangelical world, when will denunciations of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and the West more generally follow? The lyrics of Propaganda’s song point out the problem.

Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.

So what is the pastor to do? If he says, “the English theologian,” before quoting doesn’t he bring up all the enormity that went with English colonialism? What will the Native Americans in the congregation think? Or how about “the Calvinist theologian”? All monarchists who think well of the Stuarts will be put off with that nasty business of regicide. Or how about if the pastor quotes a male theologian, will feminists quiver and melt?

Are all of these offenses equal? Probably not and it would be hard to find any monarchist these days. But other minorities do have their list of offenses and if we only listened to the pristine, we’d be left quoting Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Keller, and Mrs. Carson.

Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to toughen up. After all, how happy were the early Christians hearing the apostle Paul quoted in their worship services? Wasn’t he the guy who helped kill Christians? In fact, if we apply our standards of social justice all the way through the past, we will have to close the good book altogether. The reason is that none of the Bible’s saints could withstand our moral rectitude.

Pugilist, Hit Thyself

Anthony Bradley has been dishing it out pretty good of late against Doug Wilson, almost to the point of making Wilson look like Tom Reagan from Miller’s Crossing. Bradley is alarmed by Wilson’s neo-Confederate arguments. He believes Wilson harbors racism because of his defense of slavery. And Bradley is surprised — maybe even aghast — at the traction that Wilson has among the co-allies of the gospel. These musings have led Bradley to wonder about a conspiracy among Christian Reconstructionists to use social and political issues to gain new recruits, especially among the young, restless, and gullible.

It’s been about 20 years since I first encountered this stuff but I think the combination America’s secularism, masculinity crisis, growing socialistic public policy, and the like, have opened the door for Christian Reconstruction to avail itself to new generation of young Calvinists but not through the front door–“Christian Reconstruction,” “Theonomy,” and the like–but through the back door of apologetics, the family, masculinity, big government, and so on.

Bradley even speculates on a connection between Christian Reconstruction and Roman Catholicism in that both groups use social teaching to gain converts.

What makes Bradley’s criticisms of Wilson, Christian Reconstruction, and the Young Restless crowd odd is that Bradley himself follows the political script that those he criticizes use. Bradley is generally a fan of neo-Calvinism. I have also heard him appeal to the language of cultural transformation in his interview at Christ the Center.

In which case, the problem with Wilson, slavery, the Confederacy and Christian Reconstruction may not be the actual forms these efforts to Christianize the social order take. The problem may be any attempt to read a social order out of Scripture. For instance, it would be interesting to know what Bradley thinks of his fellow Manhattanite, Tim Keller’s programs of word and deed ministry. Or for that matter, what does Bradley do with the use to which the creators of apartheid put neo-Calvinism? Does the gospel have a social program that Wilson, for example, misses or distorts? Or does the gospel have almost nothing to say about a social order?

Either way, it might be helpful to Wilson’s bruised ego to see Bradley acknowledge both men’s common debt to Kuyper.

And for what it’s worth, part of the appeal of the Confederacy, at least among political conservatives as opposed to the Religious Right, is that the South did stand for an understanding of the United States that was closer than Lincoln’s or the Progressive’s to the Constitution. The phrase, states’ rights, generally receives smirks from those who assume it represents a defense of slavery or worse, racism. But the Constitution itself was not particularly clear on how to sort out the relative powers of the states and the federal government, which was a large factor in the sectional crisis. But if folks want to dismiss states’ rights as simply the cant of “Crackers” who wanted to keep African-Americans in place, they should consider the good that states’ rights might serve today when applied to gay marriage and abortion. That may explain some of the appeal of the Confederacy, though I don’t presume to speak for Doug Wilson.

The Gospel Coalition and Race: Part III

The day before Justin Taylor posted about Eric Metaxes’ children’s book on Squanto, the Coalition blogger referenced an explanation about forthcoming changes in translations for the English Standard Version. The biblical words for slave — ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek) have been particularly vexing to the Committee responsible revising the ESV. Taylor cites the Committee’s explanation for their current dilemma:

A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context. Where absolute ownership by a master is in view (as in Romans 6), “slave” is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, “bondservant” is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), “servant” is preferred. Footnotes are generally provided to identify the Hebrew or Greek and the range of meaning that these terms may carry in each case.

The juxtaposition of the post about Squanto and this one about slavery were indeed vexing if not arresting. In the case of a Turkey-stuffed happy ending for Squanto and the Pilgrims, Taylor and the Co-Allies who read him were willing to overlook the enormities of Europeans’ treatment of native Americans, slavery (based on abduction), and death of a native-American village. But in the case of the nineteenth-century U.S. slavery, the Co-Allies cannot prevent the knowledge of white Americans’ treatment of African-American slaves from tarnishing these evangelicals’ reading of Holy Writ. I would have thought that the same stomach that could overlook Squato’s difficult life (not to mention his native American relatives’ lives for centuries to come) might also understand that the biblical references to slavery were part of narrative that resulted in an even happier ending — namely, the redemption of the world through Christ.

In other words, the sensitivity to questions of race and ethnicity at the Gospel Coaltion — if Taylor’s blog is any indication — appears to be selective bordering on arbitrary.

Just as troubling about this post and the translation committee’s discomfort over slavery is what this group of scholars do with the Bible not only when they translate but when they teach, interpret, and preach. After all, slavery in the Old Testament may be different from nineteenth-century American practices — I have no doubt that it was. But it was not any more pleasant or even rational (in the modernizing sense). If Abraham can “go into” his “servant,” Hagar for the sake of fulfilling the covenant God had just made with him, I am not sure that Old Testament saints were any more noble or inspired than Thomas Jefferson dallying with Sally Hemmings. And if just after Israel receives the very tablets containing the Decalogue, God instructs the Israelites through Moses, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do,” (Exod. 21:7), I am not sure that nineteenth-century masters were any more patriarchal than Old Testament patriarchs who sold their daughters into slavery.

The point here is not to bring the Bible down to the level of the antebellum South or to mock evangelicals who feel uncomfortable with the way humans beings treat each other — whether in nineteenth-century Alabama or the eleventh-century (BC) Ancient Near East. Confessionalists and pietists both get uncomfortable with slavery or other expressions of man’s inhumanity to man. Instead, the point is to avoid whitewashing the biblical text for the sake of contemporary race relations. The level of morality among the Old Testament saints was truly low (though I’d hasten to add that contemporary saints are not necessarily more virtuous). But if you read the Bible not for moral heroes or exemplary villains but as the story of God saving moral misfits, then you know that the Bible is not given either as blueprint or justification for contemporary social relations. But if nineteenth-century slavery looms as the most dehumanizing instance of masters’ treatment of servants and if biblical servants are simply forerunners of Squanto, then the most troubling and most glorious features of the Bible will surely be missed.