Spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church

Massimo Faggioli complains about Americanism among U.S. Roman Catholics (for more on why this seems odd, see this):

As the Republican Party has been radicalized in the past decade, so have more than a few bishops. During the same period, some prominent conservative intellectuals have embraced Catholicism for reasons that seem purely political. This is not a new phenomenon. It has much in common with Charles Maurras’ Action Française, a nationalist movement condemned by Pius XI in 1926. Maurras had no time for the Gospel but saw Catholicism as a useful tool for the creation of an antidemocratic social order. The new enthusiasm for an older version of Catholicism on the part of conservative intellectuals with no interest in theology also mirrors the rise of Ultramontanism in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Jesuit John O’Malley’s latest book on the theological movements that set the stage for Vatican I helps us see the many similarities between nineteenth-century Ultramontanism and early-twenty-first-century traditionalist Catholic Americanism. In both movements, the game is played mostly by journalists and other lay intellectuals whose understanding of the church is essentially political rather than spiritual.

Notice that Faggioli concedes that we have at least a “newer” version that contrasts with an “older” version of Roman Catholicism. That puts some dent in the idea that Rome is the church Jesus founded.

Even more curious is the how short the life of the newer Roman Catholicism is. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the church was traditionalist and conservative, opposed in most cases to political and intellectual developments in the modern world. Vatican 2 opened up the church’s windows to — wait for it — modernity. For a brief time, between John XXII and John Paul I — 1959 to 1978 — the church experienced a modern Roman Catholicism, one that was more open, gracious, tolerant, forgiving (at least that is how some defenders of Vatican 2 put it). Then came the conservative crack down first with John Paul II and then his successor, Benedict XVI, which ran from 1978 to 2014, a much longer run than the liberal, open phase of “newer” Roman Catholicism. Only since 2014 has the “newer” version re-emerged as the official Roman Catholicism.

That means that, if you add 19 years to 5 years, only for 24 years has “newer” Roman Catholicism been available since the close of the Council of Trent (1563).

If I were in Faggioli’s shoes, or a defender of Pope Francis, I would not throw around words like “new” and “old.” If tradition matters to Roman Catholics, Faggioli’s version of Roman Catholicism has less antiquity than Pentecostalism.

As for Rome’s spiritual as opposed to its political character, why does Pope Francis write encyclicals about markets and the environment instead of Mary and the stations of the cross?

Did P&W Make Straight the Way for BLM and LBGT?

The Lutheran Satirist provides an answer:

Granted, the liberal social justice warriors were not the only ones to inherit the “take, don’t make” mentality. For the past several decades, conservative Christians adopted the parasitic approach, convincing themselves that overtaking secular nests and repurposing them in a “Christian” style was somehow more virtuous than actually making something new.

Having embraced the same mindset as many secular counterparts, Christian parents convinced themselves that creating their own unique faith-driven stories or storytelling genres, like Dante and Milton and Bunyan and Wallace and Lewis and Tolkien had done, would have been too much work and required capital and capabilities they didn’t have, so they churchified the Saturday morning cartoon nest by showing their kids videos of a talking cucumber lecturing them about honesty and fairness with a Bible verse or two thrown in at the end. They swapped out Batman episodes with the adventures of Bibleman and praised themselves for their faithfulness. They put the “Facing the Giants” DVD in the “Remember the Titans” case. They justified all of this thinking rebuilding secular nests with Christian garbage was best for their children.

Likewise, with regard to music, furthering the tradition of legendary Christian hymnists and composers like Paul Gerhardt and Johann Sebastian Bach would have required a skillset these modern Christians were neither taught nor willing to learn, and finding their own voice would have proven just as difficult.

But three chords and pop song structure were pretty easy to imitate, so when they saw their children listening to music that glorified premarital sex and drug use, they parasitically strapped on guitars, infested the pre-existing nest of secular music, and produced awful Christian rockers, embarrassing Christian rappers, and an endless array of Top-40-sounding Christian artists ranging from bad Belinda Carlisle knockoffs to somehow-worse-than-actual-Richard-Marx Richard Marx knockoffs.

The results, however, were disastrous—not just because, in seeking to make Christianity better, they only made rock and roll worse, but also because they rendered us, their children, incapable of knowing any better. Because they settled for secular copycats, they never exposed us to Christendom’s great music, literature, artwork, and architecture. Because of this, we’ve become a bunch of musically illiterate, artistically impoverished believers with no appreciation for beauty who are perfectly content to spend Sunday mornings singing terrible music in repurposed movie theaters or gymnasiums, aspiring to nothing more because it’s never even occurred to us that the Christian faith gives us the power to form culture instead of parodying it.

By trying to safely place us into those pre-built but repurposed nests, our parents only succeeded in obligating us to the parasitic tradition. We’re already passing down that tradition to our offspring, and until we learn to stop believing the lie that taking is greater than making, I fear we’ll never recover the ability to create.

I’ve (mmmmeeeeeEEEEE) been trying to make this point for twenty years. Still works.

Have You Guys Heard of Assemblies?

Maybe not among the Eastern Orthodox bishops or the Anglican ones, but it’s not as if Protestants don’t regularly meet to find a consensus on what the Bible means. Even so, Alan Jacobs and Rod Dreher repeat the Roman Catholic charge that you need tradition to augment Scripture (when in fact tradition comes all balled up in the magisterium — read bishops).

Jacobs worries:

The elevation of method to magisterial principle was supposed to make it possible for scholars to discern, and then agree on, the meaning of biblical texts. Instead it merely uprooted them from Christian tradition and Christian practice — as Michael Legaspi has shown in a brilliant book — and left many of them unequipped to understand the literary character of biblical texts, while doing nothing to promote genuine agreement on interpretation. In fact, the transferring of the guild of interpreters from the Church to the University, given the University’s insistence on novelty in scholarship, ensured that no interpretative consensus would be forthcoming.

But if Christians are supposed to take their cues less from the university and more from churches, the latter still exist and provide interpretive consensuses. Maybe the mainstream media and scholars who identify with the academic guild are not impressed by church synods and councils (though they sure were attentive to the Ordinary Synod of Rome; maybe you need special get ups to gain journalists and scholars’ attention, or you need to meet in buildings suffused with Renaissance art — so much for poor church for the poor). But it’s not as if those assemblies even among Protestants have gone away. Given a recent reminder about the illusion of respectability, maybe the work that existing churches still do could receive more credit.

Rod makes Jacobs’ point with flair:

what Protestant churches and organizations are really doing in these debates are trying to find out if its membership wants to change, and if so, how much change will it accept. The truth is, says Beck, is that Protestantism is a “hermeneutical democracy,” in which the individual consciences of believers determine what is true and what is false. This, he says, is the “genius of the tradition,” and having to do all this “relational work” is a key part of what it means to be Protestant. The Bible doesn’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and for Protestants, that means that everybody gets a vote.

“Own your Protestantism,” he says. “The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn’t the Bible, it’s the individual conscience.”

Well, it’s not as if hermeneutical democracy doesn’t afflict churches that have episcopal authoritative structures (where exegeting the Bible is not as important as reading the times’ signs). All churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox are in the same boat of having members who regularly pick and choose, cafeteria style, what they believe and that they don’t. Having tradition, bishops, or councils doesn’t fix any of this. What would fix this is having magistrates who enforce religion and where civil penalties are bound up with religious teaching and practice. But wouldn’t that be Islamic?

At least give Protestants credit for trying to discern what God revealed through the prophets and apostles. Adding tradition to Scripture has generally meant the dog of tradition wagging the tail of the Bible.

National Cliches

President Obama did it again yesterday. The law professor with the most smarts in the nation’s capital (so some think) appealed to the masses by turning Tom Brady’s victory over the NFL into a case for labor unions. As Boomer Esiason pointed out this morning, the president has it all wrong. It was the NFL players union that got Brady into all the trouble with Roger Goodell by giving the commissioner almost complete power to arbitrate player misconduct.

That reminded me of how lame the president’s praise for the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage was. In another cliche that is unbecoming a man of some intelligence, the president used the all too simple ideal of equality to congratulate the court:

Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes, there are days like this when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.

This morning, the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they’ve reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law. That all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they are or who they love.

So we needed gay marriage to vindicate equality? Why not also use gay marriage to end hunger, poverty, and war? Can’t an intelligent man do better than appeal to an ideal that makes some sense to almost every 3rd-grader, an ideal that also needs serious qualification? What about equality for Caitlyn Jenner? Why can’t she become a full woman without waiting a year and having to consult with psychological and medical professionals before having her private parts changed? Where’s the equality in that? Or what about the inequality of a widower father not being allowed to marry his daughter? No peace, no justice.

In point of fact, gay marriage was not conceived way back when by Andrew Sullivan as a way to break down another barrier of injustice and oppression. It was actually intended to be pro-family and help homosexuals walk on something like a straight and narrow path. First the pro-family part of Sullivan’s original argument:

Society has good reason to extend legal advantages to heterosexuals who choose the formal sanction of marriage over simply living together. They make a deeper commitment to one another and to society; in exchange, society extends certain benefits to them. Marriage provides an anchor, if an arbitrary and weak one, in the chaos of sex and relationships to which we are all prone. It provides a mechanism for emotional stability, economic security, and the healthy rearing of the next generation. We rig the law in its favor not because we disparage all forms of relationship other than the nuclear family, but because we recognize that not to promote marriage would be to ask too much of human virtue. In the context of the weakened family’s effect upon the poor, it might also invite social disintegration. One of the worst products of the New Right’s “family values” campaign is that its extremism and hatred of diversity has disguised this more measured and more convincing case for the importance of the marital bond.

Next, the way that marriage restrains the excesses of gay life:

Gay marriage also places more responsibilities upon gays: It says for the first time that gay relationships are not better or worse than straight relationships, and that the same is expected of them. And it’s clear and dignified. There’s a legal benefit to a clear, common symbol of commitment. There’s also a personal benefit. One of the ironies of domestic partnership is that it’s not only more complicated than marriage, it’s more demanding, requiring an elaborate statement of intent to qualify. It amounts to a substantial invasion of privacy. Why, after all, should gays be required to prove commitment before they get married in a way we would never dream of asking of straights? . . .

If these arguments sound socially conservative, that’s no accident. It’s one of the richest ironies of our society’s blind spot toward gays that essentially conservative social goals should have the appearance of being so radical. But gay marriage is not a radical step. It avoids the mess of domestic partnership; it is humane; it is conservative in the best sense of the word. It’s also practical. Given the fact that we already allow legal gay relationships, what possible social goal is advanced by framing the law to encourage these relationships to be unfaithful, undeveloped, and insecure?

Sure, you may not buy Sullivan’s argument and I do not. But at least he is not using the grade-school rhetoric of equality and freedom. He actually is trying to say something about the value of the institution of marriage while also attempting to find a way that the constraints and responsibilities of marriage might domesticate homosexuals. That is too high a price to pay for Christians intent on preserving marriages and one-man and one-woman.

But at least it’s a heck of a lot more interesting an idea than saying that gay marriage is just one more step in the march of freedom and equality. Does the president actually believe that? Do his speech writers?

2 Paradigms and a 2K Wrinkle

Maura Jane Farrelly thinks the difference between the way Roman Catholics and Protestants know God also explains support for political freedom:

What is curious about this unwillingness of non-specialists in American Catholic history to entertain the possibility that nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism might have been rooted in something real is that historians who focus on the American Catholic experience have acknowledged for many years now that there was (and to some extent still is) a fundamental tension between “American” and “Catholic” values. Granted, polemicists like George Weigel and Michael Novak would have us believe that there is a seamless philosophical and even theological line running from “Thomas Aquinas to [the Italian Jesuit] Robert Bellarmine to the Anglican divine, Richard Hooker; then from Hooker to John Locke to Thomas Jefferson.” In an essay kicking off the American Catholic bishops’ campaign against the Affordable Care Act in 2012, Weigel insisted that the United States owes more to Catholics for its tradition of religious liberty “than the Sage of Monticello likely ever knew.”

But among those writers on Catholicism who have been motivated by a desire to engage with a faithful rendering of the past (rather than a desire to use history to dismantle the signature legislative achievement of a Democratic president), the consensus is that American Catholics have been animated, in historian Jay Dolan’s words, by “two very diverse traditions,” one exemplified by “Thomas Aquinas and Ignatius of Loyola,” and the other exemplified by “Jefferson and Lincoln.”

Dolan has been joined by John McGreevy, Jim O’Toole, Mark Massa, and others in acknowledging that—to quote Massa —”in the history of Western Christianity, there have been two distinctive (and to some extent, opposing) conceptual languages that have shaped how Christians understand God and themselves.” The first language—which shapes the world of people who have been raised as Catholics, American or otherwise—”utilizes things we know to understand things we don’t know, including and especially God.” The Church, in this language, becomes an incarnation of Jesus—its community and the doctrines and hierarchies that govern that community and can be known and experienced by the community’s members become a tangible (dare we even say “fleshy”?) way for Catholics to comprehend God and the salvation that God promises. The mindset that emerges from a language such as this, according to Mark Massa, is one that exhibits a “fundamental trust and confidence in the goodness of … human institutions.”

The second language, utilized by Protestant theologians from Martin Luther and Jean Calvin to Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, emphasizes the “fact of human estrangement and distance from God.” In this language, it is the Word—the message of judgment and grace, embodied in Christ and found not in the institution of the Church, but in the sanctified lines of Scripture—that convicts the soul, convinces it of its sinfulness, and “prepares us for an internal conversion that makes us true children of God.” The mindset that emerges from language such as this is one that tends to be suspicious of institutions and sees them as distractions that stand between the individual and the Word. Doctrines and hierarchies are “potentially an idolatrous source of overweening pride,” Massa writes; the danger in them is that they are corruptible examples of human beings’ mistaken belief that they can save themselves.

(Parenthetically, if a difference does exist between American and Roman Catholic ideals, then Pope Francis’ encyclical may be another indication of such.)

Farrelly goes on to use this difference — between respect for institutions and hierarchy and promoting civil liberties — to conclude that the U.S. bishops Fortnight for Freedom is more American than Roman Catholic:

It is probably still true that the politicians and religious leaders who railed against Catholicism in the first half of the nineteenth century were motivated by a certain degree of status anxiety—some, perhaps, such as Lyman Beecher, more than others. But it is also true that these leaders were motivated by a real sense that the Catholic understanding of freedom was different from theirs, and they were right to see Catholics’ support of the institution of slavery as the embodiment of this difference. Freedom, for Catholics, was corporate; it was born of the “reciprocal duties” that one priest from colonial Maryland insisted all people had to one another. Freedom, for Catholics, was not “personal,” the way it was for Protestants like Theodore Parker.

It is no small irony, therefore, that modern-day Catholics like Bishop William Lori of Baltimore have been appealing to personal freedom in their attempt to protect the collective freedom of the Catholic Church from the mandates of a law that supporters say defines healthcare as a “requirement of a free life that the community has an obligation to provide.” In 2012, on the eve of the Church’s first “Fortnight for Freedom”—a now annual event that highlights “government coercions against conscience” such as the birth control provision in the Affordable Care Act—Lori made his reasons for opposing the healthcare overhaul clear: “If we fail to defend the rights of individuals,” he warned, “the freedom of institutions will be at risk.”

The problem with this analysis is — see what I’m doing here — two-fold.

Conceptually, a religious conviction need not — and here I duck because of the A2K blow back — require a political practice or ideal. At least for confessional Protestants who distinguish between the civil and spiritual realms, one can, for instance, advocate aristocracy (Presbyterianism) in the church while still supporting monarchy in the kingdom (most Scottish Presbyterians did this). And if Roman Catholics were 2k, you could conceivably support hierarchy and submission in the church (say hello to papal monarchy) and republicanism in society. Think Richard John Neuhaus.

Practically, Farrelly’s distinction also fails to make sense of American Protestants and the civil religion they have cultivated. If God is only known in Scripture, then why can his ways be discerned either in the “redeemer nation,” the United States, or in the God-and-country party, the GOP? If only Protestants were as wary of nation-states and political parties as Farrelly suggests they are.

The difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants is this. The former are conflicted about the United States. The options appear to be either a sloppy wet kiss of America and its ways, or an ultramontanist critique of the United States as a land of self-centered, imperialistic ambition (see Laudato Si). Protestants are also conflicted but not in the same way. Evangelical and liberal Protestants think of America as a Christian nation — either it is a beacon of truth and liberty and justice or it should be condemned for failing to be such. Confessional Protestants who reside in America think about the nation not redemptively but politically and so appear to be insufficiently patriotic.

The European Roots of American Christianity

As I walked around Rome this morning I could well understand the appeal of Roman Catholicism to Christians in the U.S. who desire a faith more profound than James Dobson’s or even Tim Keller’s. (TKNY’s historical vibe does not seem to be any older than 1990s New York, despite the comparisons of him to C. S. Lewis.) Heck, part of the appeal to me of Reformed Protestantism was that it situated me in a set of debates and a system of Christian reflection and ministry that went well beyond 1938 — the year my parents’ Baptist congregation started (we had no clue about Roger William and Rhode Island). So with Zwingli and Bucer I get almost five hundred years of tradition (or records, anyway). And for a U.S. Presbyterian who just spent a week in Edinburgh, arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world with a population of less than 600,000, to walk through the streets and read through the archives and be reminded of arguments and assertions that still hold sway in some American communions sure beats following a trail that ends in some recent odd American locale.

Even so, with Rome, you get a lot more and a lot more grandeur, and if you are simply in the who’s-got-the-oldest-church-cornerstone mode, Rome beats Geneva and Edinburgh (though the latter has more polish than Rome which seems to suffer, along with Istanbul, from being too old; when you get used to having ruins around, you may also become accustomed to a place being a tad disheveled). Still, I’m not sure how Rome beats Jerusalem or Antakya except that western Europe has more cultural cache in the U.S. than Asia Minor (Turkey).

Amid these reflections on Europhilia, David Robertson came to the rescue to keep European Christianity real:

Put any group of Christians together and you will get a wide variety of opinions – some of them contradictory. That is particularly true when we are trying to assess the state of the Church in Europe today. On the one hand there are the doom and gloom merchants, the Jeremiahs, full of facts and figures about numbers and visions of the past, pointing out that the church is dying and we are all “doomed, doomed”. On the other there are the “God is doing a new and greater thing” brigade, the revivalists who are also full of facts and figures but their visions are visions of the future. They assure us on the basis of what is happening in a couple of churches, and a dream that they had that victory is just around the corner, revival is on its way and all we have to do is help their ministry. Isn’t it strange how both the “realists” and the “revivalists” seem to be able to justify their own ministeries because of their prophecies? We are told that we need to support the realists because only in that way will the remnant hang on until the Lord returns. On the other hand we had better support the revivalists because we don’t want to miss out on the revival.

So maybe European Christianity isn’t all that we Europhilic Christians in the U.S. make it out to be. It sure has more history, better architecture, and civilizational presence. But freed from all the baggage of Christendom, perhaps Christianity is better off. That’s not an expression of American Christian exceptionalism. Nor is it an assertion that American Christianity is somehow independent from Europe’s churches. Unmoored from Europe’s tragedies and buoyed by America’s can-do (Pelagian) spirit, mixed with a blasphemous belief in the nation’s divine purpose, American Christianity (Protestant and Roman Catholic) has no room to gloat (even though we usually gloat in spades). At the same time, returning to Europe and its Christian ways won’t do either.

Where Is the Bishop of Rome When You Need Him?

Stellman thinks the Westminster Divines differed from the early church fathers on the Eucharist. He relies on J.N.D. Kelly to make his point and lists quotations from various early church fathers.

But since Stellman is a high papalist, what difference does it make if Augustine or Ambrose or Ignatius held a certain view of the sacrament? The task of the pope is to interpret infallibly the Christian faith. All other interpreters are fallible, right?

So which is it?

Jason may think this is just more Hart-kvetching, but he really should get his argument straight about Protestantism’s defects. Are we suspect because we don’t line up with the church fathers? Or are we deficient because we are not in submission to the pope?

He also needs to think through the exact relationship between the early church fathers and the papacy. J.N.D. Kelly is not at all clear that the early church was as on board with high papalism as Jason and the Callers are.

The crucial question . . . is whether or not this undoubted primacy of honour was held to exist by divine right and so to involve an over-riding jurisdiction. So far as the East is concerned, the answer must be, by and large, in the negative. While showing it immense deference and setting great store by its pronouncements, the Eastern churches never treated Rome as the constitutional centre and head of the Church, must less as an infallible oracle of faith and morals, and on occasion had not the least compunctions about resisting its express will. (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 407)

Stellman belongs to the party of reason and we to the one of skepticism. So reason up. If you follow the church fathers on the Eucharist, why not on the See of Rome?

How Can We Make the Pagans Conform to Our Rules When We Won’t Play By Our Rules?

I have made this point several times, but I think it bears repeating. Evangelicals and cultural transformers spend a lot (inordinate, in my estimation) telling the wider culture how it needs to follow God’s law. Much of this activity happens during the ordinary days of the week. When James Dobson calls for a Justice Sunday or some such, it also happens on the faithful’s lone holiday.

But when many evangelicals and culture transformers gather for worship (or for church business – namely, ordination, instruction of the youth, Bible studies, etc.) they do not do as they say – they don’t follow God’s word but they follow their own rules. An obvious example is contemporary worship led by non-ordained church members. Another example is the Reformed or Presbyterian congregation that follows the praise & worship methods of charismatics and Pentecostals. Such Reformed Christians are awfully serious about husbands and wives respecting their marriage vows. Do they actually worry about the vows their pastors and elders make to uphold Reformed teaching and practice?

I wrote these paragraphs even before reading a juicy example of this very inconsistency at the blog of the Brothers Bayly. Pastors Tim and David are apparently big fans of contemporary Christian music in public worship. I cannot tell what their services are like entirely but I have seen clips of worship bands in their services and have followed links to the Good Shepherd Band’s page at Myspace. (Church of the Good Shepherd, by the way, is the name of Pastor Tim’s congregation in Bloomington, In.) So readers of their blog naturally receive the sense that services in the Baylys’ congregations is up-tempo.

The Baylys left no one to wonder about their worship preferences when this past week they posted a piece in which they divided the world between the effeminate traditionalists/classicalists and the manly singers and performers of contemporary Christian music. In particular, Tim faults Reformed Protestantism for simply being a stop on the ladder of upward mobility:

The Wesleyan or Southern Baptist moves up to Presbyterian. And there in his new Presbyterian church, our convert finds the accoutrements of his new social class wonderfully reassuring. It’s the church’s zip code, the minister’s Genevan gown or collar, the frequent repetition of those peaceful words ‘providence’ and ‘sovereignty,’ the high priority placed on the education of the congregation’s Covenant children, the preacher’s thoughtful message and splendid vocabulary, and of course the high classical style of music.

Musical style is simply an expression of socio-economic status. Could the Marxists teaching down the road at Indiana University have said it any better? This led to remarks, one part anti-intellectual, one part anti-elitist (and therefore egalitarian), that contrasted the snobbery of Reformed upper-middle classness with the poor and uneducated apostles whom Christ turned into fishers of men. “ Our converts don’t take pride in the foolishness of the Cross,” Tim writes, “so much as the wisdom of Calvin and their senior pastor’s earned doctorate from somewhere across the pond.”

This standard leftist cultural analysis in turn led to a brief on behalf of contemporary Christian music:

Speaking specifically of the music of our worship, Reformed pastors would do well to consider whether it isn’t time to stop despising the musical vernacular of our own day. There may be some congregations where musical archaisms have put down such deep roots that it would split the church to turn the clock forward, embracing the musical vernacular. But I’m betting use of the amplified instruments, tunes, and vocabulary of the common man in worship won’t happen in most of our Reformed churches for the same reason preaching against the heresy of egalitarian feminism doesn’t happen. Elisabeth Elliot put it well some years back when she said the problem with the church today is that “it’s filled with emasculated men who can’t bring themselves to say ‘no’ to a woman.”

Thus, when we set the musical forms and instrumentation of our other six days a week beside the musical forms and instrumentation of our Sunday worship, we find our Sunday worship to be cloyingly feminine, an historic specimen best suited to be trotted out by the curator for occasional museum exhibits.

So important is the fork in the liturgical road prompted by contemporary Christian music that Tim thinks fidelity to the gospel is at stake:

We must stop trying to kill two birds with one stone. Either we seek to make men into disciples of this Jesus Who chose tax collectors and fishermen to be His Apostles, or we make men into disciples of these archaic liturgies and exquisite musical forms that have evolved across centuries of Western culture. Yes, they’re true and good and beautiful. But what is the cost of making them the focus of our churches’ culture?

Somehow, the Baylys think the only alternatives are the praise band or the robed (see, they really are effeminate) four-part choir accompanied by an organ. They don’t seem to know or allow for the cultural idiom between high-brow and mass culture which is folk or common. (Ken Myers is brilliant on this point in his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes.) And if Reformed have a folk culture certainly one part of it psalm singing (another is the high-carb, low ruffage, pot luck supper). As Shaker furniture can well teach us, simplicity and order can reveal treasures of great beauty, and clearly the Reformed are on the side of decency and order and should be seeking simplicity.

But what may be most troubling about the Bayly post is how much they imitate the academic left that they believe has led the culture astray. The Baylys reduce culture to socio-economic and gender categories. They are as egalitarian and radical as the lefties they oppose. And just as these sorts of arguments have ruined the study of the liberal arts in universities and colleges, so they are also responsible for ruining our churches and undermining any credibility about the church as pilgrim people set apart from the world. In fact, if you see the embarrassing antics of worship leaders and praise bands you have all reasons you need for Keller’s arguments for using professional musicians in services. Again, the choice isn’t between the dudes and the pro’s; the psalter or hymnal accompanied by one instrument or sung acapella depends neither on the failed rock star or the conservatory student.

Which leads to the following excerpt from a piece written fifteen years ago that still seems as fresh as it was then pungent:

Why is it, then, that when evangelicals retreat from the public square into their houses of worship they manifest the same hostility to tradition, intellectual standards, and good taste they find so deplorable in their opponents in the culture wars? Anyone familiar with the so-called “Praise & Worship” phenomenon (so named, supposedly, to remind participants of what they are doing) would be hard pressed to identify these believers as the party of memory or the defenders of cultural conservatism. P&W has become the dominant mode of expression within evangelical churches, from conservative Presbyterian denominations to low church independent congregations. What characterizes this “style” of worship is the praise song (“four words, three notes and two hours”) with its mantra-like repetition of phrases from Scripture, displayed on an overhead projector or video monitors (for those churches with bigger budgets), and accompanied by the standard pieces in a rock band.

Gone are the hymnals which keep the faithful in touch with previous generations of saints. They have been abandoned, in many cases, because they are filled with music and texts considered too boring, too doctrinal, and too restrained. What boomers and busters need instead, according to the liturgy of P&W, are a steady diet of religious ballads most of which date from the 1970s, the decade of disco, leisure suits, and long hair. Gone too are the traditional elements of Protestant worship, the invocation,confession of sins, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and the Gloria Patri. Again, these elements are not sufficiently celebrative or “dynamic,” the favorite word used to describe the new worship. And while P&W has retained the talking head in the sermon, probably the most boring element of Protestant worship, the substance of much preaching turns out to be more therapeutic than theological.

Of course, evangelicals are not the only ones guilty of abandoning the treasures of historic Protestant worship. Various churches in the ELCA and Missouri Synod have begun to experiment with contemporary worship. The traditionalists in Reformed circles, if the periodical Reformed Worship, is any indication, have also begun to incorporate P&W in their services. And Roman Catholics, one of the genuine conservative constituencies throughout American history, have contributed to the mix with the now infamous guitar and polka mass. Yet, judging on the basis of worship practices, evangelicals look the most hypocritical. For six days a week they trumpet traditional values and the heritage of the West, but on Sunday they turn out to be the most novel. Indeed, the patterns of worship that prevail in most evangelical congregations suggest that these Protestants are no more interested in tradition than their arch-enemies in the academy.

A variety of factors, many of which stem from developments in post-1960s American popular culture, unite evangelicalism and the cultural left. In both movements, we see a form of anti-elitism that questions any distinction between good and bad (or even not so good), or between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Professors of literature have long been saying that the traditional literary canon was the product, or better, the social construction of a particular period in intellectual life which preserved the hegemony of white men, but which had no intrinsic merit. In other words, because aesthetic and intellectual standards turn out to be means of sustaining power, there is no legitimate criteria for including some works and excluding others.

The same sort of logic can be found across the country at week-night worship planning committee meetings. It is virtually impossible to make the case — without having your hearers go glassy-eyed — that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a better text and tune than “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” and, therefore, that the former is fitting for corporate worship while the latter should remain confined to Christian radio. In the case of evangelicals, the inability to make distinctions between good and bad poetry and music does not stem so much from political ideology (though it ends up abetting the cause) as from the deeply ingrained instinct that worship is simply a matter of evangelism. Thus, in order to reach the unchurched the churched have to use the former’s idiom and style. What is wrong with this picture?

The traditionalists are of no help here. Rather than trying to hold the line on what is appropriate and good in worship, most of those who are devoted full-time to thinking about liturgy and worship, the doorkeepers of the sanctuary as it were, have generally adopted a “united-colors-of-Benetton” approach to the challenge of contemporary worship. For instance, a recent editorial in a Reformed publication says that the old ways — the patterns which used Buxtehude rather than Bill Gaither, “Immortal, Invisible” rather than “Do Lord,” a Genevan gown instead of a polo shirt — have turned out to be too restrictive. Churches need to expand their worship “repertoire.” The older predilection was “white, European, adult, classical, with a strong resonance from the traditional concert hall.” But this was merely a preference and reflection of a specific “education, socio-economic status, ethnic background, and personality.” Heaven forbid that anyone should appear to be so elitist. For the traditional “worship idiom” can become “too refined, cultured, and bloodless. . . too arrogant.” Instead, we need to encourage the rainbow coalition — “of old and young, men and women, red and yellow, black and white, classical and contemporary.” And the reason for this need of diversity? It is simply because worship is the reflection of socio-economic status and culture. Gone is any conviction that one liturgy is better than another because it conforms to revealed truth and the order of creation, or that one order of worship is more appropriate than another for the theology which a congregation or denomination confesses. Worship, like food or clothes, is merely a matter of taste. Thus the logic of multi-culturalism has infected even those concerned to preserve traditional liturgy.

The Baylys would have us believe that 2k and the spirituality of the church are responsible for moving the church in radical and liberal directions. As Tom McGinnis would say, “Are you kidding me!?”

Deconstructing Evangelicalism

BE074639Philip Yancey writes at Christianity Today one of his last columns for a while. He is not entirely encouraged by what evangelicalism has become, though he also finds room for encouragement. As is typical of so much writing about evangelicalism, Yancey notes the ying and yang that at once makes evangelicalism successful and destructive.

On the yang, Yancey writes, “In the past year I have visited the Middle East, India, Africa, Latin America, and Europe as the guest of churches and ministries. In each place, evangelicals exude life and energy. While staid churches change slowly, evangelicals tend to be light on their feet, adapting quickly to cultural trends.”

But for yang Yancey also observes that evangelicals are slaves to innovation (some might call it idolatry but we refuse to use such freighted language — good for us!). “The Jesus movement,” he writes, “the house-church movement, seeker-friendly churches, emergent churches—evangelicals have spawned all of these. In their wake, worship bands have replaced organs and choirs, PowerPoint slides and movie clips now enliven sermons, and espresso bars keep congregants awake. If a technique doesn’t work, find one that does.”

Yancey cautions “that mimicking cultural trends has a downside. At a recent youth workers conference I attended, worship meant a DJ playing techno music at jet-engine volume while a sweaty audience crowded the stage, jumping up and down while shouting spiritual one-liners. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I couldn’t help questioning the depth of worship.”

Well, I’m sorry but you can’t have it both ways. Innovation means a certain kind of vigor, one that attracts “new” followers. Innovation also means you disrespect tradition and also that you have no tradition – other than a perpetual quest for innovation. Evangelicalism as conservative Protestantism — are you kidding?

But none of this prevents Yancey from staying the course with evangelicalism, and advising against not abandoning the name, but “living up to it.” In fact, he observes one encouraging trend, namely, the evangelical embrace of the Social Gospel. “The fundamentalist-social gospel divide that marked the church a century ago has long since disappeared. Now evangelical organizations lead the way in such efforts as relief and development, microcredit, HIV/AIDS ministries, and outreach to sex workers.”

What Yancey fails to realize is that the Social Gospel was originally an evangelical enterprise that married word and deed in such a way that evangelicals gave deeds of mercy equal weight with word and sacrament. Over time this evangelical wedding of evangelism and reform led to an inability to see that the eternal things of word and sacrament were truly more important than temporary forms of relief and development. In other words, evangelicalism became the path to liberal Protestantism. Evangelicalism as conservative Protestantism — are you still kidding?

Along with the email that included a link to Yancey’s article came other links to other CT articles on evangelicals. One of those by Kevin Offner in 1995 – almost 15 years ago!! – included yet another depressing assessment of evangelicalism:

Just how does one define “evangelical” today? Until recently it was clearly understood, implicitly if not explicitly, that evangelicals were fully committed to two truths: the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth. And the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who saves us from our sins, was the common object of adoration. One evangelical might disagree with another on secondary matters but they both shared a common, nonnegotiable center.

Today this center has become fuzzy and elusive as American pluralism hits evangelicalism with a vengeance. Lines are being drawn not over whether one does or does not wholeheartedly affirm the gospel but over secondary matters, which in turn are often set up as litmus tests for unity.

All of this invites the question: why is anyone still considering “evangelical” a meaningful Christian identity? I sort of understand why CT does, it being the flagship magazine of “the movement.” But if Yancey and Offer see these problems, what good is keeping the evangelical moniker in use? Even more poignant is why conservative Presbyterians would continue to want to call themselves evangelical.