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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Every Square Inch is a Demanding Taskmaster

Devin Wax is not so happy with the significance attached in the current cultural climate to ordinary choices like where to eat. He wishes a chicken filet sandwich were merely a chicken filet sandwich:

We’re witnessing a convergence of two developments.

Development #1: Consumerism as a Religion

The first development is the lifting up of our consumer choices to the level of religion.

In American society, we are more and more inclined to define ourselves by what and how we consume. We no longer buy things to meet our needs, but to become something, or to express who we are.

“Brands are the new religion,” says Douglas Atkin, writing about customer loyalty. People express their own identities through what they buy.

With an endless sea of choices, Skye Jethani says, “individuality is the new conformity.” Choice is a powerful factor in a consumer society, because more choices provide more ways for consumers to demonstrate their uniqueness.

Development #2: Politics as Religion

The second development is the lifting up of our political views to the level of religion.

In American society, we are more likely to see political views as non-negotiable aspects of our true selves. This is why recent research shows families having a harder time with a son or daughter who wants to marry someone from an opposing political party than from a different religion!

Tell me how Neo-Calvinism did not add momentum to this. When all of our choices have religious significance, how different is that from the “personal is political” that feminists and other politics of identity advocates taught us? Now Mr. Trax wants a cigar (okay, a bubble gum cigar) to be only a cigar?

If more New Calvinists had read 2kers more than Tim Keller, had understood that religion is different from common life, had been content with Reformed worship instead of transformed cities, had valued church officers more than every membered ministry, they might be able to eat tacos without the least concern for larger significance — political or religious.

The 2k Middle Way

This should eliminate the “R” from R2K with help from the Gospel Allies. Trevin Wax mentions three matters where New Calvinists (posing as neo-Calvinists) can learn from Anabaptists (hint, it’s not how to build a gospel barn). If Mr. Wax had spent a little more time with 2K, he might have posed these theses better.

First, “What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.

Reply: what have 2kers been saying but only to hear that Christianity must go beyond the church parking lot? And is it not a tad rich to hear about the importance of the church at a website that puts the RA in parachurch? In other words, a high church Calvinism would help Mr. Wax restore the visible church to its proper significance.

Second, “The church changes the world by being the church.”

Reply: don’t go empire building without referring to your Constantinian playbook. Heck, would the church even have a Trinitarian theology to wind up the complementarians without the emperor calling an ecumenical council? Don’t forget either that the conversion of emperors and kings gave a plausibility to Christianity that made the evangelization of medieval Europe more plausible than it would have been with Christianity as a minority and persecuted faith. Do remember as well that the number of Christians spiked in the first half of the fourth century — from 10% of the population in 300 to 50% in 350 — undoubtedly because Christian politicians made the faith respectable and even remunerative.

Meanwhile, as kind as it is to regard Anabaptists as making a difference, overlooking the enormous influence of magisterial Protestants in so many of the aspects of Christian life we take for granted is unfortunate. Whether you like Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, a Bible in every hotel room, or parachurch foreign missionary enterprises, the evangelicals who read and take heart from the Gospel Allies would have a dry and parched religious landscape if they had had to depend on Anabaptists who went before.

Third, “The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.”

Reply: another kind and generous assertion, but is anyone going to tell me that the OPC has been incredibly strong — compared to Tim Keller, the Gospel Allies, the hipper portions of the PCA, and the behemoth Southern Baptist Convention — because Orthodox Presbyterians have ministered on the margins? Please.

So before anyone tries to buy a farm next to an Amish family, take Mr. Wax’s recommendation of Anabaptism with a grain of salt. If you’re really Reformed, you can chase it with a shot of Rye.

Not New But Laodecian Calvinism

Trevin Wax argues for yet another third-way that keeps Calvinists and Arminians together in the big tent also known as the Southern Baptist Convention. As the second largest communion (if a convention qualifies) in the United States only behind Roman Catholics, forgive me if I seem to yield to the temptation of membership envy.

What if such girth comes precisely because ministers and congregations are free to follow their own theological convictions? In other words, how big would the SBC be if it had to choose between Calvinism and Arminianism?

But Wax doesn’t think that decision is necessary. He even thinks that kind of variety will make the SBC stronger (as in iron-sharpening-iron, I guess):

In the past, I’ve surmised that God may be using our Southern Baptist diversity on this issue for our overall health. I know many disagree with the idea that our diversity may be a good thing. Some Calvinists believe the SBC would be stronger if everyone shared their soteriological views and other Southern Baptists believe the SBC would be stronger if there were no Calvinists at all. I understand these perspectives, but my strong belief in God’s sovereignty gives me confidence that God will use our differing conclusions for the good of His people.

Not to sound patronizing, but Wax clearly ignores Calvinist history. Calvinists and Arminians don’t coexist. Think Canons of Dort. Think Dutch-American Calvinist disdain for “methodism.” Think Orthodox Presbyterian and Christian Reformed Church rejection of invitations to join the National Association of Evangelicals.

Of course, someone could argue that Calvinists and Arminians should put aside their differences and work together within the same commvenion. If I were Wax, I would not want to be in that land of doctrinal goo because the precedents for doctrinal toleration (or indifferentism) are not good. Contrary to Tom Nettles, it’s not departures from Calvinism that lead to liberalism (though positive estimates of human agency generally undermine Christianity). It’s actually calls for people who disagree so fundamentally to “get along” that produce the flabbiness that is Protestant liberalism.

To Which Church Do You Belong?

The fault line that still doesn’t show up on the Allies’ radar:

The recent controversy surrounding World Vision USA’s decision to open employment to same-sex couples and the organization’s subsequent reversal reveals the fault lines in evangelicalism today.

For the evangelicals distraught by World Vision’s initial decision, the controversy was never about the legitimacy or worthiness of people with differing views of marriage doing good work around the world. We should applaud good deeds of relief and compassion wherever we see them and wherever they come from. No, this particular controversy was about the meaning of evangelical.

Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical? Related to this discussion are questions about the authority and interpretation of Scripture, cultural engagement, and institutional power. All sides of the debate recognize that the definition of evangelical is at stake, which is why some are now publicly casting off the term altogether.

The World Vision decision was a tremor that warns us of a coming earthquake in which churches and leaders historically identified with evangelicalism will divide along all-too-familiar fault lines.

At the risk of sounding proud, Protestants who actually believe that church membership and ordination matter, the World Vision kerfuffle was just more background noise.

Do I Need a Strategy for Dining on Sweetbreads?

After having seen Inside Llewyn Davis for a second time — it is growing on the Harts — I am intrigued by the exchange between Trevin Wax and Alissa Wilkinson about Christians watching movies. Wilkinson advocates seeing movies, in part, as a way of knowing what our neighbors are talking about. This facility will allow us to love them better and perhaps even evangelize. Wax thinks the idea of watching The Wolf of Wall Street as either neighbor love or pre-evangelism is a stretch. In the narrow confines of this debate, Wax largely has a point, though his fears of “heading down a rocky terrain without any brake system working on our vehicle” is at odds with the no-brakes approach of the apostle Paul who said everything is lawful. (Paul’s brake was whether something was beneficial either for us or other believers — a pretty complicated question but not necessarily so if you’re not blogging about what movies you see.)

What is missing from this classic evangelical approach to culture — either it helps with evangelism or it needs to bolster our moral posture — is (all about) I. What if I watch a movie simply because I like it, that is, I enjoy certain actors (George Clooney) or directors (Joel Coen) or writers (Ethan Coen) and I go out of my way to follow what they do. It is like acquiring a taste for a kind of food that some people might find objectionable — like sweetbreads (the thymus and pancreas of calves or lambs). If it’s on the menu, I generally order it. And if the Coens come out with a movie I see it. Why? A theological explanation could be that this is how God has providentially overseen my life so that I am predisposed to sweetbreads and the Coens.

That is way more theology than I think is necessary to justify such mundane affairs as food and movies. I understand that simply “enjoying” something can be a route to escapism or obesity — that is, not critically reflecting on what we watch or eat. But I see no reason why we can’t have a fuller account of enjoyment as a sufficient reason for seeing a film. If all things are lawful, maybe they are also enjoyable.

By Implication

A couple of posts by the Gospel Allies caught my eye this week. The first, by Trevin Wax, wonders in a John Piper like manner, about the worldliness of watching movies.

I never subscribed to the fundamentalist vision that saw holiness in terms of cultural retreat or worldliness as anything that smacked of cultural engagement. I don’t subscribe to that position today.

But sometimes I wonder if evangelicals have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, to the point where all sorts of entertainment choices are validated in the name of cultural engagement. . . .

So, please don’t hear me advocating for a simplistic denunciation of Hollywood films. I am not. But I am concerned that many evangelicals may be expending more energy in avoiding the appearance of being “holier-than-thou” than we do in avoiding evil itself.

Yes, Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation. Cultural engagement is important and necessary. But church history shows us that for every culture-engager there’s also a Gregory of Nyssa type who saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment.

Is there justification for viewing gratuitous violence or sexual content?

At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?

So if Wax is willing to question a believer’s participation in Hollywood’s products, why not by extension wonder about baptizing the modern metropolis as evidence of God’s kingdom coming? After all, Paul says nothing is unclean. And U.S. laws instruct us that Hollywood’s movies are legal. So too is New York City not unclean (nor is it holy like Jerusalem was), and the city is legally part of New York State (though residents in upstate New York bemoan it) and also belongs the United States. If Christians are doing nothing inherently wrong by living, working, or visiting New York City and its attractions, why doesn’t the same apply to Hollywood’s movies? Even better, if God is making himself known through major metropolitan centers like New York City of Sao Paulo, why can’t we in good neo-Calvinist fashion say that God is revealing himself through motion pictures?

The second piece was by Kevin DeYoung on the dangers of antinomianism:

People like John Cotton and Anne Hutchinson were arguing that we should not look for evidences of grace in our lives as confirmation of our election and justification. The antinomian impulse was one which maintained that good works were not necessary for salvation, that God delights in all Christians in the same way, that God does not see sin in the believer, that the moral law is no longer binding for Christians, that law and gospel are diametrically opposed in every way, that to strive after holiness smacks of legalistic effort, that we should not speak of spiritual duties or spiritual progress, that the subject of spiritual activity is not the believer but Christ. Clearly, antinomianism was much more complicated and went much deeper than a simple indifference to sin.

. . . antinomianism is not a phantom, a straw man, or an unheard of error in our day. Throughout history we see that the recovery of grace and the triumph of gospel-centrality are often accompanied by confusion surrounding sanctification and less than careful statements about the nature of obedience, the love of God, and human exertion. We need to know our Bibles better, our history, and our confessions.

By implication, what does this mean for participating in a denomination or a parachurch organization that does not show itself to be disciplined, that is, a church or body that does not follow its confessional standards or even disregards them? Isn’t the lack of discipline that comes with a mainline denomination or with evangelical lowest-common-denominator cooperationism “for the sake of the gospel” a form of institutional antinomianism?

I’d like to see Gospel Allie videos address these topics.