Flexible on Lent but not The Wire

Tim Challies thinks Trevin Wax is sensibly moderate about observing Lent:

This much is beyond dispute: Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to observe Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, or any other holy day. Nowhere are we forbidden. For that reason, these are holidays that some Christians may choose to observe while others may choose not to, and both are free to do so according to desire and conscience. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” says Paul (Romans 14:5). If it’s your conviction that observing these days is consistent with the Bible, then by all means do so. If it’s your conviction that observing them is inconsistent with the Bible, then by all means refrain. And as you celebrate or refrain, be careful not to judge or condemn those who choose the opposite. (You couldn’t go wrong reading Romans 14 this time of year.)

I believe Trevin Wax does a good job of cautioning both camps. To his friends who observe Lent he cautions “to not give off the impression that their brothers and sisters who refrain are ‘missing out,’” since if the practice was that beneficial to spiritual growth, God’s Word would have commanded it. He also warns against inadvertently offending “a weaker brother who found their former Catholicism or Anglicanism or whatever high-church tradition they were a part of to be life-draining, rather than life-giving.” Those who observe these days have a loving responsibility toward those who do not. To his friends who do not observe Lent he cautions “don’t impugn the motives of those who have found spiritual benefit in setting aside a time of the year for reflection on Christ’s passion.” I appreciate Wax’s concern and wisdom. Again this is Romans 14 stuff—basic, not advanced, Christianity.

Of course, part of the problem is that Lent used to be more like what Judaizers promoted — a sin that could keep you from heaven. As Philip Jenkins reminds those who practice Lent-lite:

To see just what Lent meant in earlier times – between about 500 and 1600 – we can also look at some ancient churches around the world, like in Christian Ethiopia: “This fast follows the old law, for they do not eat at midday, and when the sun is setting they go to church and confess and communicate and then go to supper.” Even when allowed to eat, “they eat nothing that has suffered death, nor milk, nor cheese, nor eggs, nor butter, nor honey, nor drink wine. Thus during the fast days they eat only bread of millet, wheat and pulse, all mixed together, spinach and herbs cooked with oil.” A Western observer noted that “The severity of their fasts is equal to that of the primitive church. In Lent they never eat till after sunset.” They kept that up for forty tough days.

In medieval times, European Christians also behaved much like that. Some accounts suggest that, especially in Holy Week, Christians were expected to get by on two or three meals in the entire week, never mind in any given day.

Imagine Paul saying, “don’t impugn the motives of the Judaizers,” just use your discernment about additions to the simplicity of trusting Christ alone.

At the same time, why is Challies generally of the conviction that Christians should not watch television shows and movies that include sexual content? How do you recommend moderation for the liturgical calendar but draw clear lines for artistic productions that contain sinful situations?

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What Would it Take for a Minster to Go to Jail?

These days the short answer has something to do with children (or not reporting someone who had something to do with children). But for high minded ministers, what about the ministering word and sacrament could get you locked up?

Doug Wilson’s recent encounter with FBI agents got me thinking:

A few weeks ago, I got a call from an FBI agent (apparently on the road) to see if I would be in my office later that afternoon. I acknowledged that I would be, and we arranged a time. At that arranged time, two field agents showed up, very personable, professional and polite. As far as I knew, it could be anything from running a security check on someone who had me down as a reference to hauling me off for thought crimes against our Brand New Republic.

I asked them if I should have a colleague sit in, and they said that would not be necessary. So then, we sat down, and though I may not have looked like I was all agog, I was all agog on the inside. Imagine my delight when it turned out that our topic was “No Quarter November,” specifically the first post in that series, and more specifically than that, the first paragraph in that post. As you may recall, the title of that post was “Burn All the Schools.” And here is the offending paragraph.

H.L. Mencken once suggested a shrewd educational reform that has somehow not caught on. He said that there was nothing wrong with our current education establishment that could not be fixed by burning all the schools, and hanging all the teachers. Now some might want to dismiss this as an extreme measure, but visionaries are often dismissed in their own day. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”

From this Wilson deduce that:

There are two kinds of Christian leaders in the world, dividing them broadly into two camps. Mention that someone has gotten a visit from the FBI on the basis of something he said in a sermon, on a podcast, on his blog, or in the church newsletter, and Christian leaders will sort themselves out accordingly. One group shakes the head disapprovingly, worried about the testimony, and what does this do to the good reputation among outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7)? The second kind of Christian leader hears of something like this, and his heart sinks. “Why can’t something like that ever happen to me?” And his wife says, “Honey, don’t . . .”

One kind of Christian leader thinks that it is an honor to be honored. The other believes that it is an honor to be dishonored, a grace to be disgraced. There is obviously more to it, but that basic division explains a lot of other things too.

Now someone might be ready with a quick comeback. “Yeah, Wilson, but you didn’t get visited by the FBI because of Jesus. You got visited because you quoted that old reprobate Mencken.”

To which I reply that perhaps a lot more pastors ought to be quoting Mencken.

That’s a strange admission that preaching Christ and him crucified will not land you in jail. It may in China. It may in Eritrea. But in the United States it won’t. Even the little old ornery OPC, for all of its warts and few crackpots, is able to minister scripture as a confessional Presbyterian communion without fear of police raids or federal penalties. Is the United States great, or what?

And yet, to maintain the narrative that the United States (and liberalism) is the second coming of the fall, and to prove their bona fides as “real” male ministers, some pastors get Chris Matthews tingle up the leg at the thought of going to jail.

Now, I like Mencken as much as the next white male Protestant, but I have never advocated preaching him. Yet, while Wilson entertains preaching Baltimore’s bad boy, Tim Bayly reached for Herman Melville:

In my first message at the conference, I quoted Melville’s maxim, “the pulpit leads the world.” During the Q&A afterward, a pastor ministering in a hipster neighborhood of an eastern seaboard city was quite exercised over the statement, calling out “what’s your authority for saying ‘the pulpit leads the world’?”

I answered that I hadn’t cited it, but my source was Melville’s Moby Dick, leading him to interrupt saying he didn’t care where the quote came from, following with “where does it say that in the Bible?”

To which I responded that the entire Bible says it, from the prophets through the book of Acts where we read of the preaching of the Gospel turning the ancient Roman Empire on its head and getting the Jewish leaders to gnash their teeth.

He continued adamant in his denial, at which point I probed whether he was an R2K acolyte of men like Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen?

Bingo. And later in the conference, this pastor interrupted my message on the sin of effeminacy, saying I should stick to preaching the simple Gospel. He was quite adamant about it and I had to ask him if he’d please let me finish and we could talk afterward?

This is the preaching of Reformed pulpits in our nation today, and it leads me on this morning following our midterm elections to make the obvious point that everything going on in these United States right now, from our White House to our Congress and Supreme Court down to our state capitals and governors’ mansions down to our mayors and school district superintendents, even to the words squawking in our police cars and the smiles and frowns of our crossing guards, is the product of our pulpits.

Notice the concession to the spirituality of the church (and its foundation in the sufficiency of Scripture). If you want to preach about politics, you need to look beyond the Bible to American authors. Mencken and Melville are preferable to Charles Dickens and Flannery O’Connor, though Christians reading non-Christian fiction is generally a good thing. But not in the pulpit, not even The Wire.

What I Loved about Leo Ribuffo

Bruce Kuklick captures it superbly:

As I grew close to Leo over the years, I saw more and more how much of him was shaped by hostility to social and economic status. He saidabout his own essays: Never underestimate spite as an engine of intellectual achievement. He was infuriated by “the cronyism” of leading figures in the history profession, their self-aggrandizement and careerism dressed up in the fake language of meritocracy. One of Leo’s mantras went: “My Uncle Tony” had a more “nuanced” view of race relations in the United States than all the liberal historians writing on the topic.He wrote a scathing attack on me at one point, claiming that my views about the profession reflected “an educational background and academic career spent entirely at elite universities.” In his last days he talked about organizing a session at the 2019 USIH conference that would get old-fart intellectual historians to talk about the field in the 1970s. He absolutely refused to consider several prominent historians whom he judged as well-to-do and orthodox net-workers. About Washington, D.C., he said many times words to this effect: “I associate with lawyers, assistant secretaries of some agency or other, national security talking-heads, Clinton partisans waiting for work. Many are my friends. But I don’t like the class.” While his kindness and self-knowledge allowed him to value the individual, he forever felt alien from an upper crust.

No nudity or foul words, but being with Leo was as invigorating as watching The Wire.

I Understand The Wire, but The Crown?

What should we stream on Netflix or Amazon Prime? Should we do what the Puritans did (even though they didn’t have wifi)?

Here’s one piece of advice on what to watch:

Does this [movie] increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come?

Remember that this world is not our home. The fact that we are forgiven sinners, purchased by Christ and bound for heaven should impact every aspect of our lives.

Additionally, we know from Scripture that we have an adversary who is determined to take Christ’s soldiers out of the fight. What soldier would spend time in activities that weaken his armor?

Be critical of the choices you have when deciding what to watch. Does this movie help you to better appreciate the truths expressed in Scripture, or is it void of redemptive elements? Does this show encourage you to snuff out sin in your life, or does it entice you to see how close you can get to the flame without getting burned? Does this film make you long for God’s kingdom, or does it merely increase your desire for the things of earth?

Okay. I can understand (and always have) why some people won’t watch The Wire. As much as I appreciate the show, I don’t recommend it to all Christians. It’s like meat offered to idols. Some people can’t handle it (and those who can aren’t superior, just different).

But The Crown? Why not watch a series that is highly suggestive about the English monarchy and its responsibilities, recent British history, the nature of British politics and the decline of Britain’s empire, not to mention very revealing about human nature (nor to mention exquisitely accomplished). None of this is particularly edifying or redemptive. The Crown doesn’t make me a better Christian.

But God is not merely a redeemer. He’s also the creator and that means — doesn’t it? — he’s also involved with and oversees the non-redemptive parts of human history. In that case, watching The Wire and The Crown makes me a better human being because they help me understand God’s creation and providence.

If you only take spiritual cues from the Puritans, you’ll have Christian duties figured out (perhaps) but you’ll still need to get a life.

Bodie and Jimmy Are Back

Here’s some of the dialogue I plan to include in my talk on Saturday for Mencken Day. Its title is “When America Was Great and Baltimore Knew Better.”

Scene 1:

Bodie: The radio in Philly is different?

Shamrock: N-word, please, you gotta be f-word with me. You ain’t never heard a radio station outside of Baltimore?

Bodie: Man, I ain’t never left Baltimore except that Boys Village s-word, one day, and there wasn’t no radio up in that b-word.

[Shamrock starts to hit the pre-set buttons.]

Bodie: Come on, man, you’re killin’ me.

[Shamrock tunes into Prairie Home Companion and viewers hear Garrison Keillor say, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town. It’s been
perfect tomato weather out there. . .]

Bodie: This a Philly station?

Shamrock: How the heck should I know?

Bodie: Why would anyone ever want to leave Baltimore? That’s what I’m askin’.

Scene 2:

McNulty: I feel like I don’t even belong to any world that even bleeping matters.

Greggs: ‘Cause you’re a cop?

McNulty: Nah, it’s not just that. It’s like, I went to meet her once; she was in a hotel room on the top floor. I punched the button on the elevator and it doesn’t even go there. You gotta have some kind of special key to even get to that special f-word floor. So I go to the front desk, some sneering f-word calls upstairs, gives me permission to go and get laid. I listen to the s-word she talks about and it’s the first time in my life I feel like a f-word doormat. Like anyone else with any smarts would do something else with his life, you know? Earn money, or … get elected. Like I’m just a breathing [sex] machine. I’m serious; I’m the smartest a-hole in three districts and she looks at me like I’m some stupid f-word playing some stupid game for stupid penny-ante stakes.

Jimmy and Bodie seem to have the same outlook that led Mencken to write this:

Human relations, in such a place, tend to assume a solid permanence. A man’s circle of friends becomes a sort of extension of his family circle. His contacts are with men and women who are rooted as he is. They are not moving all the time, and so they are not changing their friends all the time. . . . In human relationships that are so casual there is seldom any satisfaction. It is our fellows who make life endurable to us, and give it a purpose and a meaning; . . . What I contend is that in Baltimore, under a slow-moving and cautious social organization, touched by the Southern sun, such contacts are more enduring than elsewhere, and that life in consequence is more agreeable.

By the way, Machen is also part of the talk. Can you believe it?

When the Gospel (Coalition) Needs Conservatism

At a time when out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing (forty percent in 2013) and straining urban life in major ways, Bethany Jenkins, who writes with the blessing of the Gospel Coalition and who swims the the heady streams of New York City evangelicalism, considers being a single mom:

These days it almost seems passé to talk about needing marriage before having children. Today’s single woman doesn’t need marriage—or even a man.

Single mothers by choice (SMBC)—in contrast to by circumstance or chance—are single women who have chosen to have children through sperm donation (75 percent) or adoption (25 percent). The difference between these women and women like me who choose to remain childless, says Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is desire:

Again and again, the [SMBC] I spoke with described how they’d wanted to be a mother for as long as they could remember and how the urge to get there became so overpowering, it felt less like a rational decision than a compulsion. This conviction—that no matter what, they would have a child—is, I’ve concluded, the most common denominator uniting all choice moms.

Such women are praised for their courage and confidence. One SMBC, who became a mother through sperm donation, says her friends called her “amazing” and “brave.” Yet she confesses she didn’t feel brave. “It’s not about being brave—it was about wanting to stop feeling like a childless mother, and take the next step before I ran out of time.”

My single friend, Christine, on the other hand, became a mother by adoption. Her journey was less a pursuit of self-actualization or self-fulfillment and more a response to a need—not a need she felt within herself, but a need she saw in someone else.

While working with high schoolers through the faith-based nonprofit Young Life, Christine met Ana, a 15-year-old expectant mother. When Ana’s water broke, her mother refused to take her to the hospital. That’s when Ana called Christine. Christine drove her to the hospital and stayed with her through the birth, holding her hand in the delivery room. Over the next few years, it became apparent that Ana and the birth father couldn’t care for their daughter, María.

It wasn’t easy, but Christine stepped up. At one point, she and María shared a 425-square-foot apartment and, since María’s biological familial ties weren’t completely severed, there were some relational challenges, too. But Christine says María is the greatest joy she has ever known—in spite of the obstacles. She also says she didn’t stumble into motherhood: “I longed to become a mom, so I diligently prayed for God to give me a child. When this opportunity arose, I had eyes to see it. If this hadn’t happened, I believe I’d have seen another opportunity. I was on the lookout for it.”

Hasn’t she heard about the importance of fathers in socializing children (especially boys)?

Meanwhile, Gracie Olmstead who writes regularly for American Conservative, puts motherhood in perspective, as in it’s not all about her but about the child:

Motherhood is not easy. It is often painful, frustrating, and difficult. It involves a host of unpleasantries. In our age, in which the self reigns supreme, motherhood runs counter to every society-endorsed impulse and mantra. Motherhood is all about sacrifice—from the moment our bodies begin to reconfigure themselves in order to grow a new human being.

Motherhood means sleepless nights, sore nipples, baby blues, weight gain, aching backs, temper tantrums, frightening doctor’s appointments, endless laundry, constant cleaning, incessant worry, near heart attacks, and lots and lots of money. Motherhood isn’t about self-filling. It’s about self-emptying.

That isn’t to say motherhood can’t be fun and joyous. It truly is and can be. But in order to embrace it, one must believe that all of the pain and hardship involved in motherhood is good, and that the child that results from all our work and hardship is inherently, intrinsically good as well. One must have a moral imagination, a “stable sentiment.” Mothers must have chests.

Olmstead adds that today’s decision to have a child could turn into tomorrow’s regret at giving birth:

As soon as we take away the idea of virtue—the idea that an act, despite the pains and sacrifice it might require, is objectively good and worth pursuing for its own sake—we permanently impede humankind’s ability to pursue selfless action. It does not matter if you tell a woman she should procreate “for the good of the species,” or tell her that she’s biologically predisposed to want children. If there is no overarching moral code related to the bearing and raising of children, then motherhood is subjugated to the wild and changeful whims of human emotion and desire. One second, you might want a baby; the next, you might spurn your child—and there is no law or code that can suggest you should do otherwise. “Instinct” becomes “impulse,” and so we waffle from whim to whim.

What accounts for the difference between an evangelical and conservative outlook on motherhood? Could it be that born-again Protestants really put the mmmmmeeeEEEE in all about mmmeeeeEEEE since personal experience and fulfillment is so important to being an evangelical? In contrast, conservatives (who may also be evangelicals) tend to think about the traditions and webs of social networks that go with marriage and rearing children. If the New York evangelical intelligentsia had given Bethany more instruction in conservatism than the gospel, maybe she’d see the problem with single parenthood.

Cop in the Hood Smoh-Kin

Peter Moskos was on a roll yesterday.

First, he brought up the problem that police fired by one city sometimes acquire jobs in another city. The Department of Justice used to have a database to track cops who lost their jobs, but that’s too expensive:

The Justice Department, which gave the association about $200,000 to start the database in 2009, no longer funds it. The department declined to explain why it had dropped its support, but a spokesman said the goal was “ensuring that our nation’s law enforcement agencies have the necessary resources to identify the best qualified candidates to protect and serve communities.”

If Washington can put a transgender in a bathroom dot dot dot

Second, Moskos linked to a story about the growing rates of heroine additionaddiction and overdoses. He added the insight that the criminal justice system will not fix this (nor should it try):

There’s still the basic and false belief among too many people that somehow, somewhere, there are “programs” to help people. Or that the criminal justice system is a system with so single goal in mind. Like police arrest you, you do time, and you come out better for it. It’s not true. And it never has been true. Sure, sometimes there’s a program here or a grant-funded thing there, but basically, no. There’s nothing. It doesn’t matter what the problem is — crime, drugs, mental illness, poverty (or all of the above) — when somebody calls 911, police will show up. But then what? A lot of people need help. But it’s not the kind of help police officers can give. Especially when police departments themselves need help.

Last, he recognized the growing interest in American hillbillies and pondered why murder rates among poor whites in Columbiana County, Ohio don’t reach the level of urban blacks in places like Baltimore. It’s not the economy, stupid, but the culture (and we’re not talking Shakespeare or Beethoven):

Baltimore City has more unemployment (7.4 percent vs. 5.3 percent). Yeah, sure. And there’s more poverty and extreme poverty in Baltimore. I’m not saying that doesn’t matter. But deep down, no. Poverty is a red herring. Culture matters. Columbiana County’s unemployment could be 20 percent and the murder rate would still be lower that Baltimore City.

There’s something else going on. The nexus of violence is not poverty and racism but public drug dealing and drug prohibition. I suspect addicts in Columbiana County buy their heroin from friends and family and coworkers. Not from Yo-Boys on the corner. Push drug dealers inside and violence plummets. But when police try and do that in Baltimore, the DOJ complains about systemic racism.

Turns out Bunny‘s problem wasn’t creating Hamsterdam but not moving drug dealers inside to the vacant houses.

Full and Unequivocal Equality for Calvinists

Should Calvinists also demand transdenominational bathrooms?

That’s one question that I pondered after reading David Gushee’s simplistic brief for LBGT (via Alan Jacobs). Why Gushee felt he could leave off Q from LBGT suggests that he is himself opposed to full and equal treatment for Queers. But that’s not the point.

Gushee is an ethicist so political philosophy may not be his strong suit. It’s not mine. But when he celebrates prohibitions against discrimination you begin to wonder if he has thought through a society where government is reluctant to throw its authority around, where civil society functions as a buffer between citizens and government, and what federalism might mean. In other words, Gushee seems to have in view a society unlike the United States — where many divisive matters become either-or, winner take all policies. We used to call that Communist Russia.

But most visible institutions of American life had abandoned discrimination against LGBT people before that. Today, these same groups are increasingly intolerant of any remaining discrimination, or even any effort to stay in a neutral middle ground. As with the fight against racial discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s, sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination is rapidly being rejected by society.

Institutions where full LGBT equality is mandatory now include any entity associated with the federal government, including the military and the civil service.

What I (mmmeeeEEE) don’t understand is why sexual orientation needs to be the basis for the identity of citizens. Why cannot a person claim their rights by virtue of being a person and let other attributes dangle (as Tom Regan put it).

The same goes for my identity as a Reformed Protestant. If I apply for a job at a university, a government contract, or a mortgage and identify myself exclusively as a Calvinist, I know there’s a good chance I’ll get turned down for at least two of those applications. In fact, one recent writer, a criminology professor no less, blamed America’s rates of incarceration and punitive criminal justice system on Calvinism. Imagine what Gushee would say if anyone blamed LBGTs for anything. To attribute blame is discrimination.

Which is also life. People discriminate all the time. Breaking Bad stinks compared to The Wire. Wilt Chamberlain was way better than Bill Russell. Harvard University is better than Liberty University.

What Gushee might do instead is be discriminating about discrimination. When is it appropriate? When isn’t it? He might even want to think about ways that all of us can resist foregrounding those parts of our identity that are the most objectionable to others. Some things we do have something wrong with them (and there is something wrong with that). So we make adjustments. Civility rarely comes with getting up in someone’s grill.

If Department of Justice Had only Watched “The Wire”

Peter Moskos continues to dissect the Department of Justice’s report on the Baltimore Police Department. It sounds just like the HBO series:

The system has several key deficiencies. First, BPD sets thresholds of activity that trigger “alerts” to supervisors about potentially problematic conduct that are too high. Because of these high thresholds, BPD supervisors often are not made aware of troubling behavioral patterns until after officers commit egregious misconduct. Second, even where alerts are triggered, we found that BPD supervisors do not consistently take appropriate action to counsel the officer, consider additional training, or otherwise intervene in a way that will correct the behavior before an adverse event occurs. Third, critical information is omitted or expunged from the EIS that could help address officer training or support needs or help prevent future misconduct.

It is clear that the Department has been unable to interrupt serious patterns of misconduct. Our investigation found that numerous officers had recurring patterns of misconduct that were not adequately addressed. Similarly, we note that, in the past five years, 25 BPD officers were separately sued four or more times for Fourth Amendment violations.

Minus the sex, of course:

Officers suffer from being supplied with outdated, broken, or in some cases, no equipment. As one officer noted to the Fraternal Order of Police in a focus group, “How am I supposed to pull someone over for having a taillight out when my car has two?”

Officers have no computers in their cars, forcing them to return to the district station to type reports, and even those computers are often not working…. Taking officers off the street to type reports at the district takes away from time that could be spent on law enforcement or community building activities. It also creates inefficiencies for officers who often must write reports on paper in the field while their memories of incidents are fresh, and then type the same information into computer databases after arriving at the district station at the end of their shift.

Jimmy and Freamon Never Had It This Good

Back then they needed a search warrant. Not now:

Shemar Taylor was charged with robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. The police got a warrant to search his home and arrested him after learning that the cell phone used to order the pizza was located in his house. How the police tracked down the location of that cell phone is what Taylor’s attorney wanted to know.

The Baltimore police detective called to the stand in Taylor’s trial was evasive. “There’s equipment we would use that I’m not going to discuss,” he said. When Judge Barry Williams ordered him to discuss it, he still refused, insisting that his department had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.

“You don’t have a nondisclosure agreement with the court,” replied the judge, threatening to hold the detective in contempt if he did not answer. And yet he refused again. In the end, rather than reveal the technology that had located Taylor’s cell phone to the court, prosecutors decided to withdraw the evidence, jeopardizing their case.

And don’t imagine that this courtroom scene was unique or even out of the ordinary these days. In fact, it was just one sign of a striking nationwide attempt to keep an invasive, constitutionally questionable technology from being scrutinized, whether by courts or communities.

The technology at issue is known as a “Stingray,” a brand name for what’s generically called a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. By mimicking a cell phone tower, this device, developed for overseas battlefields, gets nearby cell phones to connect to it. It operates a bit like the children’s game Marco Polo. “Marco,” the cell-site simulator shouts out and every cell phone on that network in the vicinity replies, “Polo, and here’s my ID!”

Thanks to this call-and-response process, the Stingray knows both what cell phones are in the area and where they are. In other words, it gathers information not only about a specific suspect, but any bystanders in the area as well.

And they wouldn’t even need Pryzbylewski to break the code.

No peace, no justice.