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.

Church Planters in the City Have it Rough

But is that because the city is so tough or because the folks who go into urban church planting actually believe the hype?

City people are fast paced. They adapt to change without giving too much thought to it and that’s why life becomes chaotic and out of control in the first place. When city people end up pausing to think about their overwhelming state, it’s usually too late. Ministry in the city requires a lot of reflection, prayer and, Scriptural meditation. It’s much easier to be in sync with the pace of the city than the pace of God’s heart for the city. . . .

Cities demand quality, often without compensation. Think of the talented 50 year old sax player in the subway. Get the point? Pastors in cities have to find a healthy way to deal with slow growth and even failure. Unless they do so, they will likely hit the bottle, the spoon, their wives and kids or, the x-rated sites. . . .

The city demands that you give a good reason for what you do and say. At the same time it’s always bargaining with you ideologically. It’s very hard not to compromise biblical doctrine in exchange for the approval of its inhabitants and even harder to find an honest, respectful, clear, and contextual way to communicate truth. . . .

Woody Allen would be embarrassed.

Would urban church planters have an easier time if they simply ministered to people rather than urban people? At a time when race, partisan politics, immigration, and sex balkanize people into their segregated affinity groups, do really need to add cities to the list of characteristics that isolate us from a common humanity (or nationality)? Whatever happened to neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free? But urban or suburban (don’t even think about rural) abideth.

The Antithesis for Foodies

Another attempt to blame it on the French Revolution (but which trencherman would not, with Woody Allen, prefer the Napoleon to Beef Wellington?):

“A retrospective examination that goes from today back to the Middle ages immediately reveals that our notion of cooking, the system of flavors that seem to us ‘naturally’ desirable, is significantly different from the one that for ages—not only during the Middle ages, but even a few centuries ago as well—people considered good and looked for in foods. Contemporary cooking (in Italy and other european countries) has a primarily analytic character that tends to separate sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and spicy, reserving for each one an autonomous place, both in individual foods and in the order of the meal. This kind of practice is allied with the idea that cooking must respect, insofar as possible, the natural flavor of each food, different and particular from one time to the next, and for that reason keep each one separate from others. But these simple rules do not constitute a universal archetype of cooking that always existed and was always the same. They are the result of a minor revolution that took place in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. . . . Renaissance cooking, medieval cooking, and, going back even further, ancient Roman cooking had evolved a model based principally on the idea of artificiality and the mingling of flavors. The preparation of a single foodstuff, as well as its position within the meal, corresponded to a synthetic rather than an analytic logic: to keep together rather than separate.”

This was not merely a philosophy of cooking. Medieval cooking was “a cuisine of contrast that is in search of balance, the ground zero where distances between flavors are abridged.” Cooking aimed for that balance of contrasts not only for culinary reasons, but for moral and ethical reasons: Diet was embedded in a notion of the soul as well as of the body.

I’m not sure these guys have been watching Chopped.

Does It Fall Short of Objectionable While Also Qualifying as Inspiring?

Wilbur Cross issued the following Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1936 as Governor of Connecticut (thanks to Michael Sean Winters):

Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the twenty-sixth of November, as a day of Public Thanksgiving for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved State with the favored regions of earth – for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives – and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man’s faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his spirit to do the great work still before him: for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land; – that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home.

I myself (all about me) like this because Cross, who held a Ph.D. in English from Yale and was dean of the University’s graduate school for almost 15 years, used imagery that maybe doesn’t soar but does turn down a road generally not taken in expressions of civil religion. I also prefer such proclamations to come from state governments rather than the Feds.

But I do wonder if such an expression of thanksgiving to the divine would be sufficiently devout for the BeeBees, for instance. At the same time, I can’t help but think of Jewish Americans, like the ones portrayed in Avalon and Annie Hall, who could never figure out why they needed to eat Turkey once a year.

Admirable Atheists

A number of Christian bloggers have felt obligated to comment on Christopher Hitchens’ recent death. Doug Wilson, who wrote the obituary for Christianity Today (and subsequently prompted Baylyan angst — how could a transformer write for a squishy evangelical publication?), set the tone for most Christian reflections:

Christopher knew that faithful Christians believe that it is appointed to man once to die, and after that the Judgment. He knew that we believe what Jesus taught about the reality of damnation. He also knew that we believe—for I told him—that in this life, the door of repentance is always open. A wise Puritan once noted what we learn from the last-minute conversion of the thief on the cross—one, that no one might despair, but only one, that no one might presume. We have no indication that Christopher ever called on the Lord before he died, and if he did not, then Scriptures plainly teach that he is lost forever. But we do have every indication that Christ died for sinners, men and women just like Christopher. We know that the Lord has more than once hired workers for his vineyard when the sun was almost down (Matt. 20:6).

In other words, the tendency for Christians has been to look at Hitchens through the lens of redemption — he did not confess Christ as Lord; he actually vigorously denied Christ; so Hitchens’ meaning is bound up with eternity.

This is all true. But Christians eager to defend the gospel often miss the creational side of Hitchens’ meaning. My one personal encounter with him came the year he gave the annual Mencken Lecture in Baltimore. It was one of the shortest forty minutes of my life (almost as quick and as witty as a talk my wife and I heard from Calvin Trillin almost thirty years ago in Boston). Hitchens seemed to be introducing the substance of his remarks the entire time and yet it turned out that his rapid-fire, riveting, and provocative introduction was the substance, and it left us wanting more. Hitchens then consented to sign books despite his obvious need for a cigarette (and probably a drink). His was a wonderful performance and would likely have received a hearty wink from Mencken himself.

The Mencken association is poignant for this blogger since this semester I offered a seminar on the Baltimore bad boy who was also a naysayer of God — often wittily, provocatively, and even thoughtfully. One of the aspects of Mencken that I came to admire — which applies to Hitchens as well — was the sheer ferocity and volume of his output. Although both men had “no reason” to work, or saw no ultimate meaning in their labors, that did not prevent them from continuing to sit at the key board and pound out essay after essay, book after book.

Another figure who fits here from my semester of teaching is Woody Allen, another skeptic well on record about his disbelief. Despite worries about the universe expanding and anguish over the miseries of life (humanity is divided into the horrible and the miserable), Allen has continued to write, direct, and star in movies at a pace unrivaled in the history of cinema.

We often hear of the Protestant work ethic but do we ever notice that prominent atheists have remarkable energies and discipline as well? Mencken may be the most remarkable because he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1948 that prevented him from writing for the last eight years of his life. How he went on is unimaginable, especially since he contemplated suicide, at least as a topic, in one of his 1920s essays.

The universal wisdom of the world long ago concluded that life is mainly a curse. Turn to the proverbial philosophy of any race, and you will find it full of a sense of the futility of the mundane struggle. Anticipation is better than realization. Disappointment is the lot of man. . . .

Yet we cling to it in a muddled physiological sort of way — or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way — and even try to fill it with gaudy hocus-pocus. All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowsmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acides. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in a state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worled so hard for thirty years, deperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I am after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleastant to me, and I avoid it as mush as possible. Then is it yearing to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convineced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste. . . .

I work a great deal, but working is more agreeable to me than anything else I can imagine. . .

Whether or not Hitchens or Allen would share these notions, they do bear remarkable similarities to Mencken. And their work ethic is something that Christians should appreciate because — even though Hitchens, Mencken, and Allen would deny this — of their creatureliness. All people have been created to work. Some people excel at work more than others. Hitchens certainly did that (as did Mencken and as does Allen). Whatever these figures might say about God as redeemer, they do testify in important ways about God as creator, making is appropriate for Christians to give thanks for the incomparable product and productivity of these God deniers. After all, if Christians are only known for giving thanks for redemption, onlookers might reasonably conclude that believers are ingrates when it comes to all the other blessings of this mortal existence.

My (all about me) Latest Man Crush

Last week my better half and I went out for two first run movies. Descendants, which stars George Clooney, was satisfying and opened up the history of Hawaii and its European settlement in ways that many Americans who (like myself) know only about Pearl Harbor should find enlightening. But the real gem of the holiday week was seeing My Week with Marilyn. As a heterosexual male who has never figured out the appeal of platinum colored hair, I was not so keen on seeing a movie about Marilyn Monroe as I was to see Kenneth Branagh play the role of Sir Laurence Olivier. The film is about the making of a 1956 movie in which Olivier and Monroe were co-stars. Talk about discordant divergence. And yet the 2011 movie was thoroughly enjoyable both as a vehicle for the remarkable talent of Branagh and as a charming story of an unlikely encounter between celebrities from opposite sides of the Atlantic and opposite brows of the culture. Two vigorous thumbs up for My (not about me) Week with Marilyn.

Speaking of Hollywood, the Mrs. and I were also in range of cable television last week and so had access to a documentary on Woody Allen that aired on PBS. I understand that many film goers may have grown tired with Woody’s recent productions (not to mention his love life), though his using European cities as opposed to his beloved Manhattan seems to have energized the seventy-five year old. But what younger viewers don’t understand — myself included — is how remarkable his career has been. For my wife and I, Annie Hall and Manhattan were the beginning of a new era in American cinematography, analogous to what micro-breweries did for beer in the United States. But what I had not realized was how Woody had a different career for twenty years before working on films. He started as a joke writer, eventually working on the “Sid Caesar Show.” Working as a stand up comic came later and with much reluctance from Allen. And that happened largely at the cajoling of Woody’s handlers, Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe. One of the most memorable old clips from the documentary was from the Perry Como Show which featured Woody doing a song and dance number with leggy, busty dancers. Woody was dressed in top hat and tails and hamming it up with the best of variety show schmalzt. It was the kind of television that Woody would later ridicule over and over again in his film directing and writing.

Woody Allen’s career as a movie maker only came at the end of these other phases. No one would have ever predicted that he would wind up as a cinematographer and make (arguably) more movies than even Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini. It’s as if Jerry Seinfeld had gone from doing stand-up to his situation comedy and then decided he wanted to get in to the film business. And that does not even begin to describe Allen because Woody did not use Hollywood as a stepping stone to another form of entertainment — say an HBO series or two. Instead, Woody found the medium in which he would thrive and sometimes only survive. averaging one film per year for four decades (and still counting). But to think of American cinema without putting Woody Allen high on the list of American screenplay writers, directors, and actors is impossible.

Even so, I’d rather watch Kenneth Branagh on the big screen.