What I Saw in the Shire–JRR Tolkien and the Love of Little Things

Note: It’s March 25 which is the day that the Ring of Power was cast into Mount Doom in JRR Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings. About 10 years ago, a group of Tolkien fans decided to commemorate the day by making every March 25 Read Tolkien Day. So you should go do that.

If you’ve not read  The Hobbit  or  The Lord of the Rings, I can think of no better day to start (and no better time to be reading them than the days of spring and Ascension which is only a week and a half away). If you’ve read those, go pick up  The Silmarillion. It’s a denser book, but the stories are marvelous and they’ll bring you a bit deeper into the imagination of Tolkien, who had a quite remarkable intellect and was a deeply formed Christian.

There’s a scene near the end of The Lord of the Rings when Frodo and Sam are on the slopes of Mt Doom making their ascent to the crack in the mountain into which they hope to cast the Ring of Power, thereby bringing an end to Sauron’s power in Middle Earth. But at this point it seems as if they may not make it. They’ve marched for weeks on weeks with little food or water. They’ve been attacked by giant spiders, taken captive by orcs multiple times, and now appear to have lost their final reserves of energy as they attempt to make the final push up the mountain. But something is able to keep them going–memory.

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Mere Fidelity: The Spirituality of Work

How does work integrate into our spiritual lives?  How should Christians approach their work?  Nancy Nordenson, author of Finding Livelihoodjoins Alastair and Derek to talk about the kinds of rhythms we need in order to work well.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work.

 

The Law and the Burden of Love in Harry Potter

In Les Miserables Victor Hugo told a number of miraculous stories, but none greater than that of its main protagonist, the former convict Jean Valjean. For those who don’t know the story, Valjean was a convict who worked on a chain gang for 19 years in early 19th century France for stealing food and then later attempting to escape multiple times. Upon his release he was granted a yellow passport which freed him, but also marked him as a former convict–thereby ruining his chances of finding good work or a place to stay.

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Mere Fidelity: Can Christians Ever Support War?

Can Christians ever support war? That’s the question we take up with special guest Preston Sprinkle, author of the widely praised book Fight.  It’s a lively, feisty discussion of an important issue and we hope you listen in.

If you want reading from the other side, Nigel Biggar’s In Defence of War is worth considering. (Disclosure:  he’s my advisor.)  You can see my own thoughts on it here.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work.

 

 

The Narrow Vision of House of Cards

Spoilers below spoilers below do not blame me for spoiling it if you read this there are spoilers below. Ahem.

Since the debut of House of Cards‘ third season last week the reviews have been a mostly consistent blend of “meh” and “zzzz.” Those reviews are basically right, but a further point needs to be made about the show’s failings in order to understand why the show has gone from an exciting (if also horrifying) first season to a mostly dull and tedious third season.

It’s become a cliche to contrast the 2010s Washington-based hit TV show about politics, Cards, with the 1990s version of the same, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In most ways the contrasts are obvious–Obama-era disillusionment with Clinton-era hopefulness, Obama-era crises with Clinton-era solutions, etc. But in one way the two shows look more alike than different: for both to be seen and to be in Washington doing political work are one and the same.

Near the end of West Wing‘s run President Bartlett’s former chief of staff Leo McGarry gives a memorable speech to the rest of the Bartlett staffers, telling them that they only have a short time left in the White House and that they can accomplish more good in that limited time than most people can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Though quite different in how it sees the work done in Washington, Cards has a similar tendency.

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The Work of the Church: Once more Around the “Countercultural” Question

Jonathan Leeman has done helpful work clarifying his own view and pressing against my recent series of reflections on the evangelical condition. I will put his comment in its entirety below. But I wanted to make one more go at clarifying my own take on this issue.Leeman-e1412520160937-300x300

But first, I want to highlight Jonathan’s clarification of his understanding of “holiness,” which he suggests has more overlap with mine than I allowed. As he points out, he defined it as “consecrated to,” and so emphasized that it is not primarily a matter of difference or distinction. I apologize for misconstruing his view.

Yet at the same time, I think Jonathan has misread my own position. I’m not suggesting that we should “do away” with distinctiveness as a category. Instead, I think we ought do away with it as an aim of the church or a marker of the church’s integrity. It is doubtlessly the case that the church must say “no” to the world: the question is whether in saying “no” the church frames will construe itself as an appendage of the world and as such, in a sense, subordinated to us.  It would be better to speak of worldliness as counter-ekklesia than the church as counter-cultural.  The church must remain the primary referent and her inner life securely ordered toward the first things; it may simply be the case that Jonathan and I disagree about whether our current rhetoric of “countercultural” and distinctiveness impinges this ordering.

I should clarify further, though:  I have no interest in ‘forbidding’ evangelicals from using the rhetoric of decline, as Jonathan suggests. I actually think that in certain respects we can say that society is in decline; my point has been that for evangelicals, however, we’ve long overdrawn whatever rhetorical capital that claim has. At least if we are going to behave any differently from our forebearers. (There’s an interesting question as to why despite their fragmentary institutions each generation of evangelicals seems to return to the same rhetorical spring.) And why shouldn’t we?  If we are in a decline, repeatedly reminding the world of the fact did nothing to reverse it.

But in what respects decline? The problem with such architectonic theses like the decline and “counter-cultural” rhetorics is that they are so broad that they’re practically non-falsifiable and subsequently useless. And in the case of ‘decline,’ they also demand that we choose a practically arbitrary point of reference to tell our historical narrative from. So we are “headed downhill,” it is sometimes said; but while we have not eradicated our country’s original sin, we at least don’t have separate water fountains any more. We can look back on history and say things were better; we can also look back on history and say that things were worse. And we probably should do that with the same bits of history because any society is probably getting better and worse in different respects at the same time. The Renaissance produced Shakespeare—we have indoor plumbing and widespread abortion on demand. Advantage: no one, I don’t think.

Now, I think I can say all this and be consistent in my claim that the church should prepare people for persecution. In Mark 4, Jesus identifies “persecution or tribulation” as a potential threat to the souls of those who are converted. But there the formulation does not entail that “persecution” is distinctive to a season of the church’s life, nor does the Beatitudes prepare us in that way. Instead, it treats it as the kind of clarifying “secondary quality” which the church does not order its life around, but simply acknowledges as a possibility while she goes about her business. For that business seems to be the same regardless of the conditions in which she lives: to announce the Lordship of Christ Jesus over all things, and to care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. If the church entered a season where the visible, external persecution or tribulations were relatively benign, then perhaps that was a sign she had done her work relatively well. If that period does not last, then that is perhaps a sign that she had forgotten her fundamental tasks.

But in that latter case, it seems plausible that “decline” is a lagging indicator for the health of the church. The dissolution has already happened, and the church was complicit in it. We are simply bearing the ill-gotten fruit of it now. But then to say that we need to prepare is to read the signs wrongly: the season of preparation has long passed us by; it was back when conservative evangelicals were decrying removing prayer in schools while voraciously consuming sex manuals that further wedded them to the sexual revolution. If we saw our own period rightly, I suspect it would appear not as a time for preparation but for penitence, and our great need not courage in the face of public challenges but integrity in the light of our internal compromises. If our society has become apostate, it is lamentation and sorrow that should mark our witness as much as the rallying cries to remain steadfast, and we should see an eagerness to jettison those practices which have entangled us in the world as it now exists. It may simply be the case that Jonathan and I disagree over whether such a posture now exists among evangelicals; the eagerness to speak boldly about gay marriage in public while speaking only gingerly about contraception or in-vitro fertilization in our churches makes me think we’re not quite where we should be yet.

Jonathan also wonders about my eschatology.  I don’t think anything I’ve said commits me to a post-millennial view. I’m interested (for now) in leaving eschatology outside history and subsequently viewing every age as a hodgepodge: society is always in decline, it is always in ascent. It is always winter for the church, but also always Christmas. The principalities and powers make their war against the church, and the church carries on its business triumphing in the victory it knows has been won while waiting for its consummation. The eschaton relativizes every gain the church makes, for it orients the church’s life away from history toward the final word that shall be uttered. And it relativizes every season of “decline,” precisely because it reminds us that the path toward the end of all things is undetermined by us and unknown to us.


For those who are interested, I strongly commend this conversation that we had recently on the subject.  I say a bit more about all this there. 


Jonathan’s comment in full: 

1) I’d like to point you again to my definition of holiness. It comports with yours more than you let on. I decidedly did not define it as “set apart from.” Rather, I defined it a “consecrated to” (i.e. devoted to or given over to), a definition which works in eternity past before sin entered that world. From eternity past, the Son was consecrated to the glory of the Father, and the Father to the Son, and both to the Spirit. So the call to holiness is most fundamentally a call to be consecrated to the glory and beauty of God. Which means, yes, the notion of holiness being “set apart from” is a derivative, consequential, or “a secondary” feature, as you put it. And this further means, the church’s call to be distinct is not primarily a matter of negation (“be UNLIKE them”) but even more fundamentally a matter of affirmation (“be LIKE him”). But in the context of a fallen world, that secondary feature is an inevitable and necessary feature, unless you want to do away with the sinfulness of sin. My caution, therefore, is that in your critique of distinctiveness rhetoric, which evangelicals can surely overdo, don’t do away with it altogether. The Bible uses it, and it’s a necessary feature of the fact that there is sin in the world from which we must be set apart–individually, socially, corporately, institutionally.

2) I’m not equating distinctiveness rhetoric and declension rhetoric. The first describes the state of things. The second describes historical movement. These belong to different categories. With regard to the latter, I agree utterly that we don’t know what season it is: winter? spring? That’s precisely why the 9Marks Journal I referred to in point 1 posed the matter as a question (“Vanishing Church?”) and then provided a series of articles that emphasized hope and affirmation. That said: I maintain that, in principle, we are capable of looking backward, assessing the moral and spiritual movement of a people, and arriving at the conclusion, “Hey, things really are getting ‘worse’!” Any given diagnosis might be mistaken, but it also might be correct. And if things can get “worse,” and if we are capable of observing as much, it strikes me as strange to say that people shouldn’t say it. Your two blogs strike me as trying to forbid people from saying “Things are getting worse!” Surely things sometimes get worse, no? So I agree that we should say “Things can get better!” But why would forbid the opposite? Now, you concede that we should prepare people for persecution. It seems to me, then, that there’s some tension between what I understand your blog post is trying to do, and this same concession.

3) You write: “On my reading of such exhortations, the “world” and “this age” against which Christians are meant to stand do not necessarily and always perfectly correspond with the institutions outside the church.” Certainly I have no disagreement with that historical claim. I would still make the theologically positional and ethical claims that the church has been made the true, born-again, new-creation humanity, and therefore that it should live as this new creation humanity. And these two claims (positional and ethical) admit of both like and unlike, or continuity and discontinuity, with fallen humanity. Like: humanity. Unlike: new. And it’s within the element of “unlike” that we must maintain some room in our rhetoric for talk of distinctiveness and sometimes decline–for the “counter” in the phrase “counter-cultural.”

4) Bottom line to all this: I’m arguing for a both/and (like and unlike; separated from and separated to; ascension and declension), whereas I feel like you’re arguing for an either/or. Is that an unfair characterization?

5) Last thing: have you become post-millenneal or something analogous to it? That’s not a critique or “gotcha” question. It’s a genuine question, based on the overall argument and your last couple of paragraphs especially, esp. with the talk of the boundaries of history and what they will or won’t maintain. A friend who read this reply asked if you were an Anglican (which, of course, would be a critique. ;-) I am wondering how much of the eschaton you are willing to bring into this world and present age. Maybe you’d bring more than I would? If so, then that is where our fundamental disagreement might lie. I’m not looking to argue that point; I’m just trying to locate our disagreement. So when Jesus says in John, “You will have trouble in this world,” I take that to mean, the world, the flesh, and the devil, the principalities and powers, will conspire against the Lord and against his anointed, as well as against their people, until Christ’s second coming. Sometimes things will get a little better, sometimes a little worse–who can predict what tomorrow will bring. But the saints should expect the general opposition of these forces as those forces manifest themselves outside the membership of the church, sometimes within the membership of the church, and, frankly, yes, even daily within our hearts (old man vs new man). So unless you want to argue that “the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Christ” (Rev. 11:15) little by little in our present age, then I still don’t understand how you get around maintaining some space for both the rhetoric of distinctiveness and the occasional rhetoric of declension. Both should maintain a quieter place in the orchestra than the trumpet blasts of hope and kettle drums of confidence, but they still belong in the orchestra.

Mere Fidelity: Lament and the Church

Theologian Todd Billings new book on lament stems from his personal struggle with cancer, but explores it theologically.  In this episode, we talk with him about the nature and meaning of lament and why our culture may not leave much room for it.

See Derek’s review of Rejoicing in Lament here.  But more importantly, get the book.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work.

 

The Hope of the Church and the World: Once more on “Countercultural”

Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks left a comment on my previous post that I think worth highlighting in full. He writes:

Thanks for the post, Matthew. Many things I agree with. A couple thoughts:

(i) We tried to adopt an anti-declinist posture in this 9Marks Journal. See especially the articles by Larson, Dever, McCullough, and Kidd. So I agree with this instinct to couple the decline narrative with something which affirms.

(ii) Counter-culture (or distinctness) should not be equated with a decline narrative, per se, nor should it be treated as a matter of negation. Rather, counter-culture, to a biblical way of thinking, is a property of holiness, which I would define as being consecrated to the glory of God. Counter-culture, in the best sense, is nothing other than eyes straining to see the beauty of the glory of God, and a stomach longing for the food of the messianic table.

(iii) The formulation “integrity not distinctness” feels logically reasonable, but we can trust that the authors of Scripture had a pastoral rational for so often employing the metaphors of distinctness (salt, put off, be not conformed, two ways in Ps. 1, etc.). In other words, Scripture offers us ample precedent for the pastoral power of the language of distinctness.

(iv) The language of distinctness (as well as a decline narrative) is part of what prepares a congregation for persecution—tarring the ark, Dever calls it. And the best undershepherds prepare their churches for persecution, like the good shepherd faithfully did. Now, that work of preparation also needs to be balanced with a posture of hope and confidence, one that knows deep in the bones that Jesus wins and the church will be built. Combining this preparatory work with this posture yields hope-filled, happy people who hold onto this world with a loose grip as they await a better city, a people of whom this world is not worthy.

Bottom line: you’re right, evangelicals can overemphasize the “woe is us” declension narrative. But we can underemphasize it as well.

I appreciate the criticisms here (and the others in the comments), which have spurred my own thinking further on these matters.  It’s entirely plausible that Jonathan and I agree on the kind of rhetoric we need and are, as he indicates in his bottom line, simply accentuating different aspects of it. But let me say a bit more to clarify more where I am coming from.9marks_Journal_cover_fall_2014_amazon

First, Jonathan’s right that the “counter-culture” and decline can be conceptually unlinked. It is a historical accident that they come together for us:  a counter-culture could exist in a society where no further “decline” could seem imaginable, after all.

But I’m not convinced that the holiness of God (or the church) consists primarily in distinctness: the consecration of certain aspects of the world may make them distinct, yes but that distinctness is a secondary feature of them, not their fundamental meaning. The holiness of God is the perfection of his Being: his holiness is not diminished if there is no creation for him to be distinct from. And likewise the holiness of the church consists not properly in the church’s “set apartness” from that which she is not, but in her orientation toward the God and the subsequent perfection of her inner life. The emphasis on holiness or integrity does not foreclose the possibility of distinctness from the surrounding world, but it orders the church’s inner life toward her first and proper end—being the people who rightly worship God, and who do so now and always. Distinctness is a byproduct; it comes in its proper form not by seeking it, but by ordering ourselves toward a third thing, the person and work of Jesus.

It is true, of course, that Scripture does offer language that entails distinction:  but distinction from what and how? On my reading of such exhortations, the “world” and “this age” against which Christians are meant to stand do not necessarily and always perfectly correspond with the institutions outside the church.

Indeed, it is possible that such patterns may make their presence known even within the institutional life of the church. Judgment begins at the house of God, after all, and there is some good sense to the advice that if decline is upon us then Christians should take up a season of penitential self-reflection. Is there anything more ‘counter-cultural’ than willing self-mortification? Either way, I’d press back at Jonathan and suggest that we untether the logic of being distinct from “the world” from the sociological framings embedded within the rhetoric of being “countercultural.”  To do otherwise potentially blinds us to the real spirit of our age and our own complicity with it.

What of persecution? It may surprise readers, but I am happy to affirm that pastors should prepare their people for persecution; to do otherwise would be spiritual malpractice. The question is what form such “preparation” takes, and whether it requires a kind of formation that is different from the kind of formation which the church should always be pursuing for its people. I’d amend Jonathan’s suggestion that such preparation needs to be “balanced with” hope and confidence: there is no preparation to speak of besides one that is rooted in hope.* Hope is the grounds of the church’s good cheer. We are “saved in hope,” and if the virtue takes on a new character and meaning in times where despair runs rampant, it still must be a quality that marks out the church in every day and age.

Still, that minor adjustment aside, it’s not obvious to me that the rhetorics of decline and distinctness function the same way at all times. The early Christians, for instance, may have thought the whole world mad. But they bore no responsibility for its making, and so their martyrdom could be free from confession. Our situation is not quite the same:  if  persecution comes upon us, it will in part because of our own steps and missteps. And, like it or not, one of those missteps may have been the overuse of the very rhetoric of decline we now need in seasons where it simply did not fit.

But most pressingly, what if all of our best cultural predictions turn out to be wrong? What if we stand not on the cusp of the persecution of the church, but its purification and renewal?  What if we stand not at the beginning of winter, but in springtime, only having become so comfortable with the rhetoric of decline we have none of us eyes to see it? Shall we, in our rhetoric and our preparation, foreclose the possibility that the “counter-culture” might become the culture, that the powers of our day might yield their rebellion against the Almighty and confess with us that Jesus is Lord?

The qualifications inevitably come at this point: “Well, it’s possible, but…” On which plane does the church speak, though: on the plane of having already handed our society over to darkness, or on the plane of suspending judgment about its inevitable perdition because of the power inherent in the gospel? Is the hope which is the substance of the church’s life also the hope of…the world? My central contention about the rhetoric of decline and of being “counter-cultural” is that it presumes too much and asks too little. By keeping our affections and attentions firmly located within the boundaries of history, it appeals to and deepens a sub-theological mindset within the evangelical world, and so fails to treat the diseases it claims to diagnose.

Update:  Jonathan has responded in the comments.  It’s worth reading his thoughts in full.

Mere Fidelity: Our Culture of Public Shaming

We have a growing culture of public shaming.  Or at least that’s one possible conclusion from an interesting NY Times essay on the phenomenon.  We decided that we should take up the question of what such public shaming means for us as Christians.  So we did.

Jonathan Chait’s essay on “political correctness” also makes an appearance or two, so it’s worth reading as well.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work.

 

Mere Fidelity: Living through the Church’s Exile

We’ve heard a lot lately about the church in North America being in exile, or it being winter, or about how we all need to be “countercultural.”  So we decided to discuss it.

If you haven’t already, read Andrew Wilson’s post on the church’s winter and then my own take on the rhetoric of being countercultural.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work.