Why Do Celebrity Pastors Stumble Over “Thus Saith the Lord”?

I am not sure why Eugene Peterson’s flip-flop on gay marriage is such a big deal. But (all about mmmmmeeeeEEE) I’m not in the habit of taking my cues any more from popular Christian authors or personalities. That could be age, temperament (naysayer), or wisdom — and in the right combination separating those traits may be redundant. But I continue to be surprised by what catches on among evangelicals who fret (even if I don’t want to come across as being above it all).

While following some of the reactions, I came across responses from Tim Keller, John Stott, and Sam Allberry. Since Stott is deceased, I should have known that these would not be direct reactions to Peterson. What caught my eye was the link to a review by Keller — can you believe it? There on display is the same affliction that got Peterson into trouble in the first place — namely, failing to minister God’s word and telling us instead about thoughts and reflections based on a lot of stuff you’ve read.

What is especially noteworthy about Keller’s handling of such a controversial subject as homosexuality if he is going to maintain his New York City profile is his ability to quote authors (other than the prophets and apostles).

First some of the debate about homosexuality in church history and antiquity:

These arguments were first asserted in the 1980s by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs. Vines, Wilson and others are essentially repopularizing them. However, they do not seem to be aware that the great preponderance of the best historical scholarship since the 1980s — by the full spectrum of secular, liberal and conservative researchers — has rejected that assertion. Here are two examples.

Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity. Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.

For comparisons of homosexuality to slavery Keller can take you to more scholarly literature:

But historians such as Mark Noll (America’s God, 2005 and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 2006) have shown the 19th century position some people took that the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus. Most Protestants in Canada and Britain (and many in the northern U.S. states) condemned it as being wholly against the Scripture. Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God, 2003) points out that the Catholic church also came out early against the African slave trade. David L. Chappell in his history of the Civil Rights Movement (A Stone of Hope, 2003) went further. He proves that even before the Supreme Court decisions of the mid-50s, almost no one was promoting the slender and forced biblical justifications for racial superiority and segregation. Even otherwise racist theologians and ministers could not find a basis for white supremacy in the Bible.

He even uses awareness of 19th century debates about slavery to take a swipe at Southern Presbyterians:

During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the Scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila — they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible — across diverse cultures and times — ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it is hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.

What are those cultural spectacles? The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe “you have to be yourself,” that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.

As if the Bible supported abolitionists or anti-slavery arguments were immune to “modern western culture’s narratives about the human life.” Sometimes Keller wades into scholarly material superficially so that it agrees with him, but I digress. (Funny how when I bring the Bible into the history seminar it doesn’t gain me any credibility.)

Then you have Keller appealing to more academics to critique these modern “narratives”:

These narratives have been well analyzed by scholars such as Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. They are beliefs about the nature of reality that are not self-evident to most societies and they carry no more empirical proof than any other religious beliefs. They are also filled with inconsistencies and problems. Both Vines and Wilson largely assume these cultural narratives. It is these faith assumptions about identity and freedom that make the straightforward reading of the biblical texts seem so wrong to them. They are the underlying reason for their views, but they are never identified or discussed.

Maybe this is impressive to David Brooks and other columnists and reporters at the Times, but wasn’t Keller called to minister God’s word? Where is Moses, Jesus, or Paul? Nothing wrong inherently with being aware of some of the scholarly and public intellectual literature. But can’t you give us a “thus saith the Lord” pastor Tim?

When he finally gets around to the Bible, Keller accentuates the positive (the way Mr. Rogers did):

The saddest thing for me as a reader was how, in books on the Bible and sex, Vines and Wilson concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality. Both authors rightly say that the Bible calls for mutual loving relationships in marriage, but it points to far more than that.

In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes which generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N.T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.

That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories — they each see and do things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together.

Gee golly williker. Marriage is just one stroll down the trail of delight (or maybe through Homer Simpson’s Land of Chocolate). Where is the grit of NYC? Where is the complicated character of life in the modern world where we have to make tough choices, or recognize the good and less attractive in all people we meet, and the institutions in which moderns operate? Where is the edge that attracts at least some people like Brother Mouzone or Woody Allen to the Big Apple? The view from Keller’s study is awfully pleasant (and crowded with books other than the Bible).

Meanwhile, Russell Moore made a decent point about Peterson when he compared the evangelical celebrity to Wendell Berry’s own flip-flop on gay marriage:

And now Peterson says he’s willing to walk away from what the Scriptures and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching affirm on the conjugal nature of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman reflecting the mystery of Christ and the church. I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books. I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me. Should I stop reading him, since he has shown a completely contrary view on an important issue of biblical interpretation—and, beyond that, of the very definition of what it means to repent of sin?

This is the same sort of conversation had a few years ago among those of us who’ve been taught much by novelist and poet Wendell Berry when he, too, embraced the zeitgeist on marriage and sexuality. Some said we should throw out our Berry books and never read him again. Others, I’m sure, seeing how much they’d benefited from Berry on place and memory, probably decided to follow him right into this viewpoint. Maybe the same will happen with Peterson now.

True enough, but when Moore says we should not throw Peterson’s books away (who am I to adopt such a move since H. L. Mencken sets on my shelf of worthies right next to Machen — alphabetically anyway), I wonder why Mr. Southern Baptist doesn’t distinguish Peterson as a would-be pastor and theologian from Berry who simply is a writer and farmer. Berry makes no pretension to issue “thus saith the Lord’s” based on his reading of Scripture. Peterson, however, operates in the world of Scripture and theology (and all you usually get — my impression — is “the Lord would be really happy if you might ever consider this and you may also flourish forever and ever”).

Spring Break with Tim

I did not plan it this way, but Tim Keller winds up being the subject this week. Reasons for further reflection on the oh so successful Manhattan pastor arise from the missus and my visit to Chicago, which has become a tradition. Truth be told, we are urbanists. We met in Philadelphia, knew something was going to knit us together after concluding that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan were about two of the best American movies ever made, and then found that life in the city was simply more intriguing (for us) than the suburbs in which we had both been reared (Levittown, PA and Levittown, NY — the odds?). Even living in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia’s suburb in the city, for almost 15 years, we drew energy and — dare I say — inspiration from residing in the city. Going to Chicago is a way to recharge the urban batteries (though one-day trips to Ann Arbor have to tide us over).

I hope I’m proving my urban bona fides, and in so doing suggesting that Keller’s awareness of the city’s appeal is plausible (though I still don’t see much appreciation for Woody Allen in TKNY).

My criticisms of Keller, then, are two-fold. I object to his failure to carry out his duties as a Presbyterian church officer. He may be a good evangelical, even an urban one, but I don’t sense a minister who willingly conforms and belongs to the limits that come with belonging to a Reformed communion. Keller is not alone in that. Lot’s of Presbyterian pastors don’t conform to communion expectations. But as celebrity-Presbyterian-pastor-in-chief, Keller makes the way straight for coloring outside the lines.

The other objection is the way Keller benefits from being pro-urban New York City. As I indicated earlier this week, if you put Keller in Chicago or Seattle would his following be as large as it is? I doubt it. Along with this goes a sense that Keller doesn’t tell the whole truth about the city. Even as he seems to think he knows how to educate future urban pastors about how to do city ministry, I don’t think he acknowledges one simple reality — the city is gosh darn expensive. And that means you have trouble keeping families in cities once couples start rearing children. In Philadelphia, you may be able to commute relatively easily from the suburbs to Tenth Presbyterian Church. But once you leave New York’s five boroughs, you are a long way from Manhattan.

Now notice this: families are important to covenant religion.

Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness. (Confession of Faith, 24.2)

Families are the only good way of socializing the young. Yes, they have lots of problems. But would you rather the state through its foster system rear children or take your chances with a man and woman who don’t have the true, good, and beautiful figured out? Or how about the church? Is the church better equipped to rear children than parents? I don’t think so.

Why is it then that Keller has so little to say about families? The index to Center Church gives the family only three entries. Google searches reveal only a few sources. Here’s one right from Keller:

Why bring children into such a bleak world? Religious persons, however, have a profound assurance that in the future is final justice, or paradise, or union with God in some form. They have an over-arching hope that makes them more optimistic about bearing and raising children.

At this point you might think I would simply say “Yay for religion, it is the friend of the family!” It is not that simple. While secularism in the West tends to make an idol out of the individual and his or her needs, traditional religion has often made an idol out of the family. According to theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, Christianity was the very first religion or world-view that held up single adulthood as a viable way of life. Jesus himself and St. Paul were single. “One…clear difference between Christianity and Judaism [and all other traditional religions] is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers.” (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174.) Nearly all religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or “legacy” without leaving heirs. By contrast, the early church not only did not pressure women to marry but it institutionally supported poor widows so they were not forced to remarry as they were out in the culture at large.

Notice the standard third-way positioning. I’m not for singles, nor for families, but here is the via media. Great. But tell me how families are going to afford to live in Manhattan. And also why not tell parents how important they are for rearing children, catechizing, setting examples in the home? Any reflection also on if you can afford to live in Manhattan and both parents need to work, what do you do with a hiring a Christian nanny? Family in this Keller post is an abstraction (that does not dent his larger abstraction of the city).

I also found this, the urban pastor who came around to Keller’s idea that it takes a city to raise rear a child:

[Keller] acknowledges that three factors make it a hard place to raise kids. First, because of the prohibitive cost of everything you’ve got less disposable income to invest in your family. Secondly, he talks about the ‘physical logistics on the front nine’ make it harder to get round the city with small kids. In others words transporting small kids in the city can be a real pain. But after that, the ‘back nine’ is a real joy. Thirdly, the educational terrain is complex and hard to navigate since there are so many options and so little cash!

That is the problem. The solution? Kids turn out hip, believers, and real (really!?!).

That said he then lists eight counterbalancing factors that sway the pendulum in favour of staying put and not giving flight.

1. The kids will grow up thinking that they live in the real world rather than growing up in the suburbs and straining at the leash to get to the real world. Of course everywhere is the real world but they don’t think like that. The city is where it’s at and they know that. That’s why they want to escape surburbia or the regions as soon as they can. But if they grow up in the city they know that they live in the ‘real’ world.

2. The kids grow up knowing that you have a real faith. They want to believe that their parents’ faith is disconnected to reality. It gives them permission to be disparaging about Christianity. But they can’t do that if they know that you’ve had to work out your Christian discipleship in the real world. It undermines their desire for unbelief.

3. The kids will grow up and become self reliant, independent and confident because nothing freaks them out. As a country boy who went to sixth form with mates from the city who then moved to the ‘big smoke’ in his mid twenties, I’ve got to say he’s absolutely right on that one.

4. The kids grow up being adept at handling diversity. Most surbuban white kids don’t grow up with Muslim neighbours and Afro-Caribbean mates. But you do in the city. Their breadth of cultural engagement will far outweigh the kids who grow up out of town.

5. The kids grow up being pushed into family. The city is a relationally intense environment. It ‘forces’ families to spend lots of time together. The commute is less, the house is smaller, there aren’t any fields to escape to. It all adds up to lots of ‘face time’. If you’re into relating with your kids, that’s a good thing.

6. The kids grow up with Christian role models. In the suburbs kids grow up with a peer group. But do you really want them learning about the faith from their teenage mates? On reflection, not really. In the city they get to their teenage years and they see the Christian life being modelled by credible ‘trendy twenties’ whom they respect. In the suburbs they get to see the Christian life being lived out by guys with kids. But who grows up wanting to be like their Dad! In the city they don’t have to.

7. The kids grow up facing the issues. They’ll be exposed to a whole range of ethical issues a long time before the suburban or rural kids. Because London is like a massive University Campus we get to go to College with them before they’re even old enough to apply! They’ll come across homosexuality, drugs, alcohol, crime, sex and so on and we’ll be with them when they do. Unlike the parents in the suburbs who live out there to escape from it we have to confront it and get to help them deal with it.

8. The kids grow up without the pressure to conform. The city is so accommodating of diversity that it’s hard to think of a fad, fashion or obsession that it wouldn’t tolerate. And so the kids get to grow up being themselves, without having to become a carbon copy of others.

This is frankly a bizarre recommendation of the city. Great! Let’s rear kids so they don’t want to be like their dads #6.

Great! Billy and Susie grow up surrounded by sex, drugs, and crime #7. Retreating to the suburbs is so squaresville.

Sheesh.

What about kids who grow up without a smartphone because parents can’t afford one because rents are so high? Does Redeemer have a diaconate that helps families with the costs of living in the most expensive place in the United States?

And then I also saw this from Christopher Lasch:

If conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth. Historically, economic liberalism rested on the belief that man’s insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine—just as man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project—and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces. For the eighteenth-century founders of political economy, the self-generating character of rising expectations, newly acquired needs and tastes, and new standards of personal comfort gave rise to a form of society capable of indefinite expansion. Their break with older ways of thinking lay in the assertion that human needs should he regarded not as natural but as historical, hence insatiable. As the supply of material comforts increased, standards of comfort increased as well, and the category of necessities came to include goods formerly regarded as luxuries. Envy, pride, and ambition made human beings want more than they needed, but these “private vices” became “public virtues” by stimulating industry and invention. Thrift and self-denial, on the other hand, meant economic stagnation. “We shall find innocence and honesty no more general,” wrote Bernard Mandeville, “than among the most illiterate, the poor silly country people.” The “pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” according to David Hume, “roused men from their indolence” and led to “further improvements in every branch of domestic as well as foreign trade.” Both Hume and Adam Smith argued that a growing desire for material comforts, wrongly taken by republican critics of commerce as a sign of decadence and impending social collapse, generated new employments, new wealth, and a constantly rising level of productivity.

Does living in New York City encourage its people to think about living within limits, to regard progress as folly, to be content with less? Is Keller for the city and all its unlimited possibilities? Or does he encourage self-restraint and find ways for his hearers to resist all of the conveniences and temptations of modern urban life? Isn’t he really in favor of a suburban existence #5 — responsible parents, respectful kids, not going into debt, refusing hedonism (except when recommended by co-ally John Piper) — in an environment that as Lasch indicates pushes residents to want to see material comforts increased. Of course, all of America encourages an identification with progress (unless you live in Hillsdale, Michigan). But in NYC this outlook is on steroids (see Lena Dunham).

What if the dangers of urban life are real?

Thanks to President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “Great Society,” a buffet of new federal programs were established that have been pouring federal dollars into Philadelphia since the mid-1960s. How have those countless billions of tax dollars been spent? In the inner city where the federal dollars were spent by our Democratic politicians, public education is far worse than it was in the mid-’60s; violent crime is far worse; more children are living in poverty; more single-mother families, more homelessness, more hard drug use, more fear, etc. There is not one single criterion under the quality-of-life rubric that has improved in Philadelphia’s inner city since all those billions were brought into the city along with politicians’ photo-ops since the mid-’60s.

But Keller remains optimistic:

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

Keller believes serious Christians still belong in cities in general and New York in particular. But it’s a project that will take many more Tim Kellers and much more time. The results, says Keller, are “hard to see except in hindsight, with the perspective of several decades.”

Speaking of retreating into homogeneity, does Keller look at the church as a place of disagreement and diversity? Or has he led modern church planting into a homogeneous place where disagreement goes unanswered and unacknowledged? Can we have a discussion about Presbyterianism in the city? Can we talk about dying to sin and living to Christ in the city? Can we talk about family visitation and catechesis in the city? Or how about the regulative principle in the city?

I wish Tim Keller would think harder about cities and think about them in the light of critics of modernity like Lasch or Wendell Berry. That doesn’t fit with his ministry paradigm. Not reading those critics or interacting with them does not fit the pastor-who-answers-skeptics paradigm.

Postscript: I’d be glad to offer my services as an urban church consultant. I’m a trained social scientist, I like cities, and I’m even a church officer.

Why Read the Bible?

That’s the question Pete Enns doesn’t answer (unless you are like him and get paid to read it).

He thinks biblical scholarship gives a good answer to the question, “what is the Bible.”

In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. . . . All of us on a journey of faith encounter God from our point of view. . . we meet God as people defined by our moment in the human drama, products of who, where, and when we are. We ask our questions of God and encounter God in our time and place in language and ideas familiar to us, just like the ancient pilgrims of faith who gave us the Bible. . . . This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions, and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. ~ The Bible Tells Me So, pp. 23-24

But I read of encounters with reality, the sublime, the stuff God created, even religious inspiration in Shakespeare, Wendell Berry, and Orhan Pamuk. So why does one set of writings qualify as the Bible when we see so many “religious” “experiences” in so many other places?

This is why the higher critics, as hard headed as they appeared to be on the old theories of divine revelation, were still as sentimental as Sunday school students when it came to offering a reasonable account for the uniqueness of a certain set of religious writings by Jewish people over almost two millennia. Can you really put the Bible up again the Norton Anthology of British Literature unless you think it’s God’s infallible word?

A Gospel for the King Penguin

This is how providence works. The same morning that I finish an article by Jonathan Franzen on his trip to Antarctica (and birding), I finish an interview that Ken Myers did with Norman Wirzba. The latter is trying to help Christians think wholistically about creation and has written a book about (in part) about the language we use. If we call the world out there “creation” instead of “nature,” will we think about it differently, more in relation to the creator? And then, what happens if we remember that Jesus is not merely savior but also creator? Doesn’t that invite thinking of Jesus as savior of creation? At one point, Wirzba even spoke of a gospel for non-human creatures.

That’s when the jaws clenched and the pace (of the constitutional) quickened. I understand the appeal of thinking about creation in broader terms so that Christians might care about the environment. Heck, I’ve read and still admire Wendell Berry and believe that I should try to live in a way that shows some respect for the created order. But that prevents me from venerating or sacralizing it, the classic way that pietists try to make something more important or permanent than it really is. If we can turn a cause into something holy or sacred or redemptive, then we must support it. If it is great instead of merely good, then not to support it is wrong, wicked, undesirable.

Here’s where Franzen came in as the conversation partner Myers and Wirzba need to have. The birds he adores, king penguins, survive by eating krill:

Krill are pinkie-size, pinkie-colored crustaceans. Estimating the total amount of them in the Antarctic is difficult, but a frequently cited figure, five hundred million metric tons, could make the species the world’s largest repository of animal biomass. Unfortunately for penguins, many countries consider krill good eating, both for humans (the taste is said to be acquirable) and especially for farm fish and livestock. Currently, the total reported annual take of krill is less than half a million tons, with Norway leading the list of harvesters. China, however, has announced its intention to increase its harvest to as much as two million tons a year, and has begun building the ships needed to do it. As the chairman of China’s National Agricultural Development Group has explained, “Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”

So what would Wirzba propose as the gospel for krill? How does Jesus or his followers “save” krill?

One way that Franzen suggests is by humans being less fertile (which poses a few problems for Christians — Roman and Protestant — who believe the chief function of marriage is reproduction):

It’s true that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children. It may also be true that nothing can stop the logic of human priority: if people want meat and there are krill for the taking, krill will be taken. It may even be true that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic: They, too, are our children. They, too, deserve our care.

And yet to imagine a world without young people is to imagine living on a Lindblad ship forever. My godmother had had a life like that, after her only child was killed. I remember the half-mad smile with which she once confided to me the dollar value of her Wedgwood china. But Fran had been nutty even before Gail died; she’d been obsessed with a biological replica of herself. Life is precarious, and you can crush it by holding on too tightly, or you can love it the way my godfather did. Walt lost his daughter, his war buddies, his wife, and my mother, but he never stopped improvising. I see him at a piano in South Florida, flashing his big smile while he banged out old show tunes and the widows at his complex danced. Even in a world of dying, new loves continue to be born.

The article makes perfect sense of the references to Franzen’s uncle here, a person who left the author enough money to splurge on a cruise to the South Pole and endure a long trip with very few young people (as the slide show on the last night of the cruise revealed).

The article also makes sense of a tragic dimension to creation that Wirzba’s inspiration neglects altogether. What if Darwin was right? What if nature is red in tooth and claw? And what if God created and sustained the world to run that way, not in a theistic evolution way, but in a way where critters survive on other critters? Even in a vegetarian world, plants die, humans cut down trees for warmth, and carnivores still eat critters. A gospel of creation does not fix that fundamental problem of survival. Granted, I’ve not read Wirzba’s books (reviews are here and here). But once again I am struck by the way people in the name of Christ blur fundamental distinctions (ecclesiastical-civil, sacred-secular, human-natural, redemption-creation) seemingly to transcend the very creatureliness they recommend.

Maybe He Needs MmmeeeeeEEEEEE

Scott Sauls may have spent too much time with Tim Keller, the author of Center Church, because Pastor Sauls seems to think that he is at the center of Presbyterianism. The reason for saying this is that he admits that he needs to hear from those with whom he differs. Here’s his list:

I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of CS Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of GK Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the honesty of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.

In the world of hipster Protestantism this is cool but not Snapchattingly trendy. If I were to assemble my own list of those with whom I disagree theologically but who have shaped my thinking in profound ways it would include: Orhan Pamuk, Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Aaron Sorkin, Wendell Berry, Michael Oakeshott, Edward Shils, David Simon, John McWhorter, Andrew Sullivan, Louis Menand, David Hackett Fischer, Henry May, Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Epstein, and Ethan Coen. See what I did there? I went outside Christian circles with most of that list. Do I get points for being really cool and cosmopolitan?

The thing is, none of those writers really helped me understand the nature of the Christian ministry as Presbyterians understand it. I’ve learned greatly from these figures about being human, which comes in handy for overseeing a congregation or participating in a church assembly. But I don’t look to these people for my life in the church.

But here’s the kicker for Pastor Sauls: what if he learned from those with whom he disagrees about Presbyterianism like Old Schoolers? What might his ministry look like then?

My sense is that because Pastor Sauls via Keller thinks he is in the heart of Presbyterianism or conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism, he already has his Presbyterian bases covered.

And in that case, boy does he need to understand the nature of disagreement.

The Third Sacrament (or 8th depending on your Western Christianity)

Doug Sikkema follows up on his previous post about the earth as a sacrament, with acknowledgement to Wendell Berry. He explains why the language of sacramentalism is good for promoting care of creation:

I like this word, sacrament, because it demands a certain seriousness towards the necessity of death through which we have our life—a truth as physical as it is metaphysical. I also like its suggestion that there are not really sacred and unsacred places; rather, there are only sacred and desecrated places. There are places where we have abused water with toxic chemicals and waste; places where the air is so polluted we now have smog advisories to warn us to remain indoors; places where topsoil depletion, extreme deforestation, and mountain-top removal irrevocably alter—and diminish—landscapes for future generations. Such desecration is sickness. It’s a working “against the grain” of the natural processes of the created world within which we were made to move and have our being. It’s a breakdown of shalom.

And yet, he concludes this post with a point about the importance of language:

. . . language is important, and if we were to look back at the older meanings of certain words being tossed around, it might shape how we interact with our places today and change the landscape we pass on to those of tomorrow.

For starters, economy, from oikos (house) – nomos (law), is rooted in an understanding of household management. It’s a word rooted in local community, devotion to place, and the long labour of properly caring for a home that is passed down for future generations. Because of this, economics has always been tied to resources, much like it still is today. However, from the Latin resurgere (to rise again), resources are not simply commodities—although they must be used as such. Resources are meant to be replenished, to be a source we can return to repeatedly and, given the proper care, last as long as the sun gives us energy. Yet both words are tied together to sustainable home building.

If the industrialization of everything first ushered people off the land, the commodification of everything is keeping people off, to the land’s—and, subsequently, our—detriment. Yet if we are interested in our place, economics and resources might be the very new language we need. For if we will buy the lie of consumerist monoculture that we can be at home anywhere, one day we might realize, too late, we’ve been sold a bill of goods.

So if language is important, then perhaps someone with Sikkema’s last name should be careful about words like sacrament. I may be presumptuous in thinking Sikkema from a Dutch Calvinist background, but the name and the operation fit. In which case, he should need no reminder about what sacrament means:

We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith.

He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.

For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. So they are not empty and hollow signs to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing.

Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments that Christ our Master has ordained for us. There are only two: the sacrament of baptism and the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ. (Belgic, Art. 33)

Again, I have no objections to looking to Wendell Berry for instruction about the dangers — even evils — of industrialization, nor do I believe Sikkema’s concerns about the environment are off. I just don’t know why he needs to import the language of redemption to justify an earthly conviction that generally makes sense to most creatures. We don’t like it when people dump trash on our front lawns or in the hallway outside our front door. Why would the inhabitants of a region or the God who providentially (not redemptively) put them there object to people exporting waste to these inhabitants’ homeland? I don’t know why you need to gussy this up as some kind of gracious or salvation activity, unless, that is, if you’re used to blurring the temporal and the heavenly as so many neo-Calvinists are.

I Thought Canadians Were Smarter than This

But w-w seems to obscure the clarity that comes with distinguishing between the heavenly and the earthly.

Over at the Cardus Blog, Doug Sikkema employs Wendell Berry with a view toward a higher estimate of the environment. He goes as far as to liken the earth to a sacrament:

Religion is an elusive term. Bron Taylor, author of The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, has traced the term’s origins to Roman rituals (religio) and sacrifices (sacra), and to the Latin leig, meaning “to bind fast”—definitions which place religion in opposition to mystical beliefs (superstitio). If religion, then, is concerned with unifying actions as well as unifying beliefs, it coincides nicely with Berry’s notion of caritas, a love that extends to creatures and the land. Also, this love is not meant to be abstract, but particularly applied to actual places and creatures within our purview.

. . . [Berry believes that] the Bible, read deeply and sympathetically, gives powerful support to appreciating the world’s sanctity. One of Berry’s strengths in this regard is to go beyond the conventional discussions of stewardship towards a sacramental vision of the environment. In “The Gift of Good Land” he writes: “[T]o live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully reverently, it is a sacrament.” Berry is not asking us to run from use, but to exercise discretion and self-restraint and to recognize the necessary limitations we face as creatures in a fallen world.

I don’t object to Berry‘s critique of the industrial economy nor to Sikkema’s effort to prompt Christians to think of their responsibilities to planet earth as stewards. What does concern me is a blurring of the spiritual and temporal that apparently elevates creation care to the Lord’s Supper (remember the quote from Belgic 35).

I would argue that Abraham Kuyper turned neo-Calvinists down that path when he likened every vocation to a sacred obligation:

Thus domestic life regained its independence, trade and commerce realized their strength in liberty, art and science were set free from every ecclesiastical bond and restored to their own inspirations, and man began to understand the subjection of all nature with its hidden forces and treasures to himself as a holy duty, imposed upon him by the original ordinances of Paradise : “Have dominion over them.” Henceforth the curse
should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life. (Lectures on Calvinism, 30)

Which makes the frequent charge that folks who distinguish the temporal from the spiritual are fundamentalists. Kuyperianism strikes me as a form of fundamentalism that instead of drawing the line between the movies and worship, draws the line between all legitimate activities and sin (such as prostitution, theft, card-playing, theater, and dance). Neither fundamentalists nor Kuyperians make room for those earthly activities that are common, basic, and ordinary, neither holy nor profane, the things that sustain pilgrims on earth who await a heavenly home.

Postscript: Here is Kuyper’s brief against cards, theater, and dance (in case you think I was taking a cheap shot):

. . . scarcely had Calvinism been firmly established in the Netherlands for a quarter of a century when there was a rustling of life in all directions, and an indomitable energy was fermenting in every department of human activity, and their commerce and trade, their handicrafts and industry, their agriculture and horticulture, their art and science, flourished with a brilliancy previously unknown, and imparted a new impulse for an entirely new development of life, to the whole of Western Europe.

This admits of only one exception, and this exception I wish both to maintain and to place in its proper light. What I mean is this. Not every intimate intercourse with the unconverted world is deemed lawful, by Calvinism, for it placed a barrier against the too unhallowed influence of this world by putting a distinct “veto” upon three things, card playing, theatres, and dancing — three forms amusement. . . (74-75)