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.

Speak the Truth in Beauty: A review of ‘Echoes of Eden’

Rants about the state of evangelical art are a dime a dozen—exceeded in number perhaps only by the kinds of art-as-tract material they critique. Sadly, many of those critiques are justified (even if the ranting tone may not be). Many evangelicals treat the arts not as genuine goods in and of themselves, but instead as only one more way to point people to the gospel. Art certainly does glorify God and may be an element of people’s journey to faith in Christ. Whether it is a book on Finding God in The Lord of the Rings or the kitschy “art” itself, we have a long ways to go. At the same time, critique can only take us so far. We need a clearly articulated, theologically robust aesthetic, and we need to work hard to put that aesthetic into practice.

Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden aims to provide both that clear aesthetic and a pattern to follow. In the first half of the book, Barrs develops a theology of art; the second half looks at an array of literary works to see what that theology looks like in practice.

Echoes of Eden opens with a theology of creation and sub-creation. Barrs draws heavily on both the creation narrative in Genesis and the promise of eschatological restoration to argue that artistic activity as a subset of human vocation in general, is good in and of itself. Citing Tolkien, Barrs describes human artistry as “sub-creation” and argues that it is an essential aspect of the imago dei. Accordingly, he takes issue with any insistence either that art is a frivolity to be set aside or that it is valuable only if evangelistic. God’s creation was good, even before there were people to observe it. Indeed, there are beautiful things in this universe we have never seen and never will—sunsets on faraway planets and a thousand other splendors known only by their Creator—that have no apparent evangelistic purpose. Beauty is not an accident or a merely incidental element of our world. Rather, it is an attribute of the Triune Godhead, one so fundamental to the divine nature that it spills over in uncountable ways into the creation. People create because creating is a God-like thing to do, and we are God-like beings.

To buttress his argument, Barrs leans heavily on others who have written on the relationship of art and literature to Christianity, including John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Schaeffer, and Dorothy Sayers. He rarely makes it more than a page or two in the first half of the book without citing one or another of these theological and literary greats. He draws on Lewis in particular, especially his article “Christianity and Literature”1 and his book An Experiment in Criticism. For Barrs, like his heroes, art is a necessary way of getting beyond ourselves and seeing the world as God has made it. It ought not be the mere reinforcement of what we already know, but something that challenges us and makes us grow in both understanding of and wonder at the world and people and God.

Barrs is not content merely to describe art, though. He also carefully considers artists. He argues strongly that we should see not treat artists as prophets speaking from some place of elevated insight simply by dint of their being artists. Rather, we should value them as craftsmen and craftswomen doing their work well—just as with any other vocation. To some, this might seem a demotion, but Barrs is intent to elevate all those other vocations along the way:

Sometimes Christians will insist that the only work that is truly worthwhile, pleasing to God, and spiritual is the work of serving the proclamation of the gospel across the world. This view suggests that if we were all truly earnest Christians, we would leave our ‘secular” jobs, in which we are simply making a living, providing for our families, and ruling the world, and we would all join the “sacred” work of mission. But if we stop and think about Jesus’s life, we see that he was doing so-called secular work as a carpenter or a fisherman for many more years than he was a preacher and teacher. It would be blasphemous to suppose that during these years Jesus was living in a manner that was not fully godly and completely pleasing to his Father in heaven. (21)

Accordingly, the vocation of the artist is not the calling of the visionary, but of the ordinary person diligently carrying out an ordinary calling. Continue reading

Writing as though History Happened: On Being Countercultural Christians

“We live in a darkening civilization in which worldlings seek to divide Christ’s garments among them…Evangelicals…are beleaguered in China, prohibited from building churches in Saudi Arabia, arrested for distributing literature in Turkey, and no less tragic, are often vilified in the United States.”

That’s Carl Henry in his 1986 book Christian Countermoves in a Decadent Culture. 20 years ago, Christian Smith found that the energetic worries about the world that marks Henry’s quote still animated evangelicals. As Smith wrote, “American evangelicalism…is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is—-or at least perceives itself to be—-embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it.”

counter cultural ChristianityEvangelicals are still well acquainted with these themes. We are frequently reminded these days that we are about to be a church “in exile.” The Benedict Option has become our only hope. Springtime is over: winter is coming. We must be willing, as Owen Strachan writes, to “stand against cultural ideology, not with it,” if we wish to be “true heroes.”

And then there’s the claim that Christianity is “counter-cultural.” David Platt has thrown his hat in that ring, but he’s late to the party. Proving that it’s not just conservative Southern Baptists who have a stake in the term, Gabe Lyons deployed it at Q and in his widely-read book a few years ago. There are few more basic, accepted doctrines of the evangelical world than that the church should be a “counter-cultural” institution. The persistence of this sort of rhetoric may be the best evidence we have that despite evangelicalism’s diffused institutional forms, somehow a tradition of thought keeps getting passed down.

It may surprise readers to find out that I have little objection to these formulations of our state in the world today, at least in theory. I am happy to accept the sociological observation that conservative Christians are under some kind of interesting pressure these days. After all, I’ve made that argument myself. And I have spent the better part of my adult life working to strengthen the confidence of the evangelical witness, a task I only undertook because I was convinced the evangelical kids were not alright. The two books I have written may not have been (widely) read, but put together they contain diagnoses and constructive treatments for our evangelical lassitude.

But I am interested in writing as though the past happened, and that means acknowledging the limits of such ‘declinist’ discourse. I don’t begrudge my peers for looking a bit squinty-eyed at the anxious rallying cries we’re hearing about gay marriage within the church. I wager few of today’s college students know the Religious Right ever happened, and sometimes I’d like to forget about them myself. But they did. And like it or not the image—regardless of its accuracy—of the fearful evangelical leader shouting about decline still pervades our media world.

And here is the unfortunate effect: by overreacting against various non-offenses and impotently shouting about real shifts in the world that they had no real power to prevent ruined the rhetoric of ruination and decline for the rest of us. Having played the same song so often, evangelical writers—like me—invariably have a credibility gap with anyone who isn’t already convinced. Young conservative evangelicals have been placed into a relatively tricky conundrum: the misuse of narratives of decline have left us without a potentially helpful tool to overcome and resist the naivety of our peers about the social transformations afoot. But carrying on as usual gives such rallying cries the atmosphere of a winnowing, so that anyone who demures is de facto on the outside. And therein lies a path where the declinist narrative becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy: embattled and thriving, until it’s only we happy few who exist to die.

In this vein, Laura Ortberg Turner uttered her own exasperated sigh about the rhetoric of “counter-cultural,” pleading for a commitment to the centrality of love within the evangelical world. Of course, everyone in the argument is going to claim love as their grounds and motivation, even if it’s not the word that shows up most often on their blogs. And they have good reason to be wary: like it or not, the rhetoric of “love” is just as empty as that of decline and “counter-culture,” and we do face real divisions over what the boundary and shape of love must be. Liberal Protestants tried out an amorphous “love ethic” which knew little besides the hippy inclusiveness of the 1960s: situation ethics was a thing, after all, even though it is no ethics at all.

Suppose it is the case that for the past 30 years the rhetorical environment of conservative Christianity has emphasized narratives of decline with the corollary that our Christian existence was in kind of jeopardy. James Davison Hunter described the evangelical political character as being pervaded by ressentiment, or the sense that “injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible.” Only Hunter was more sophisticated than many of his critics: ressentiment describes a political culture, not necessarily the recognized motivations of its participants.

Hunter wrote many footnotes, so I’ll not repeat his evidence here. But the tricky business about the world is that perceptions actually kind of matter, and like it or not, Hunter identified the kind of atmosphere evangelical rhetoric has been perceived as promoting. The question I have pursued in its political aspect the past decade is whether that rhetorical environment ought have any effect on how we go about our business. The answer my fellow conservative evangelicals seem to be resoundingly giving is, “Nope. Once more unto the declinist breach.”

I suppose I have my own worries that being “counter-cultural” has such rhetorical appeal. If the logic of being a counterculture becomes a part of the church’s essence on earth—and given its unexamined status within the evangelical world, it is hard to see how it has not so become—then when the Church becomes the majority, something has gone deeply wrong. But by distancing ourselves from the Christianity of our predecessors, we also do not have to acknowledge or confess their missteps. Now that we are becoming a minority, we can go on as always without recognizing our own complicity in the falsehoods embedded in the worldview we have inherited. If we are entering a winter, it may be because in our spring and summer we had already swallowed a pill that would lead to our eventual demise. Conservative evangelicals cannot decry accommodators until we have confessed the means and manner of our own predecessors accommodations. We cannot write as if history has not happened.

But the logic of being ‘counter-cultural’ also frames the church-world relationship exclusively in terms of negation, so that the affirmations become the kind of qualification which gets tacked on at the end. Only the paths of affirmation and negation don’t merely need each other, nor do they exist in some kind of yin and yang-like symmetry. The “no” might establish our distinctiveness, but then integrity and not distinctiveness is the point of the church’s moral life. (Disclosure: that formulation is my advisor’s, but it happens to be right. And so I agree, fundamentally, with Laura’s concern.) By turning our attention toward “counterculturalness,” we potentially blind ourselves to real works of good happening in the world to which we can offer our “Yes and Amen” to the glory of God (followed, if you are a good Calvinist, by the hasty reminder that all that good stuff is only dirty rags).

But I might also be so bold as to suggest that our “yes” should be the most fundamental thing about us, which means we may want to make it the loudest. The striking thing about the evangelical rhetorical environment among those who write about these matters is not that conservative Christians are necessarily wrong: it’s that the whole business sounds so cheerless. With a few exceptions, no one seems to be having much of a good time.

To give but one example, I am on record suggesting that Christians ought to respond to the charge of “bigotry” for our views on sexual morality with a hearty laugh and a, “Oh, if you only knew!” Thinking gay sex is wrong is, after all, probably the least crazy of our views. We think the guys who say they can “look but not touch” are wrong, too. And I’ll even argue that auto-eroticism is wrong. Opposing gay marriage these days is a gateway drug to a whole world of outlandish and hopelessly outdated moral conclusions which turn out to be the most sensible positions in the world. We need courage: but we also need a sense of humor, because if we don’t have that the world is not really worth fighting for.

(Somewhat surprisingly, my argument has at times been turned against me, as it allegedly demonstrates I’m nothing more than a “defeatist.” I will save you a long excursus on why taking up the question of whether Christians are ‘bigots’ is itself a losing cultural strategy. You can thank me later.)

Now, I will grant that it is a tricky thing to be cheerful about the world whilst trying to persuade others that our doom is afoot. (Note to readers: rhetoric means exaggeration, so read “doom” as “bad things that will probably be imperceptible on a wide scale for a generation or two, a la divorce”.) It is the kind of thing which I have not perfected, but have gotten somewhat better at over the years. Reading Dickens is a great help: it’s hard to be unhappy about the world whilst being perpetually amused by it. In fact, reading anything for pure entertainment is a help. The real point of the culture wars is to destroy culture, and it’s impossible to fight well if we’ve forgotten what we’re fighting for.

Nor do I think such cheer incommensurate with a real lamentation about the effects of sin: I have myself sought to suck the marrow out of my limited sorrows and found within them the wellsprings of life. But it is that kind of cheer which evangelicalism’s greatest virtue—its legitimate and real concern about the world and its inhabitants—potentially throttles. In this case, we may have to be good pagans before we can be good Christians: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they’re gonna come for your tax breaks.

I’d note as well that it’s this kind of cheerful disregard for things which Chesterton aptly said was the heart of courage, a virtue which we have heard much of and will doubtlessly hear more about. It cannot be quoted too often, for it is the finest thing Chesterton ever said:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

And here I signal my last worry about the way the rhetoric of “countercultural” has functioned within the evangelical world. By drawing our energy out of the opposition to the world—by thriving in the embattlement—we tend to foreclose the possibility that we could win, finally and decisively, the very cultural struggle we are waging. By enshrining its status as a cultural minority, the ‘countercultural’ approach contributes to the conditions which ensure nothing changes. The culture war is self-perpetuating (and the one sound it cannot fathom is genuine laughter at its pretenses).

I remember reading a history of early Christianity during the summer after my freshman year of college. I don’t remember which one, because I am no scholar. But the astounding conclusion of the author was that it was not their love which made the early Christians such an irrepressible force. In the midst of an over-stretched empire that had grown decadent and fat off of its own success, and which had ceased to see any life beyond its own horizons, it was the hope of the early Christians that allowed them to kiss the dying, to hold their own bodies in chastity, and to turn their martyrdoms into murals.

I have never forgotten that, even while I have imperfectly lived it. The hope of the church breeds energetic action, Barth puts it, and so it should. But I fear the evangelical rhetoric of decline and persecution and marginalization and exile and all the other ways of putting things these days casts a dark shadow over our hope, making it appear less vibrant and cheerful and alive than it should be.

Such a word of hope sounds a note of peace and good will to all men, and resolutely keeps open the possibility that the conclusion of efforts here and now might be approval rather than denial. “Do what is good,” Paul tells those minority Romans, “and you will receive [the ruler’s] approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.” And of internal church matters he’ll say later that “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” This too has been ruined by a different strain of the evangelical world, namely those notorious health-and-wealthers. But Paul still full-throatedly leaves that possibility open, and does so without hemming and hawing about it.

Is such a transformation unlikely? Sure. But sociology is not the plane from which the Christian proclamation goes forward. Was the path for the Roman church one of suffering and martyrdom? Unquestionably. But it was the manner of their death, not merely the fact, that bore witness to the triumph of the gospel. The announcement that ‘all will be well’ is the final word which encompasses all others; in pointing toward the life wherein all will be made new, it opens up the possibility that the new could arrive here and now, in dress and visage that we may not foretell. It reminds us that the church is the culture, and the form of world that now counters it speedily passes away.

Mere Fidelity: The Skeletons in God’s Closet

And, we’re back.  After a long break, Mere Fidelity returns with a doozy.  We invited Joshua Ryan Butler on to talk about his new book The Skeletons in God’s Closet:  The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War

Listen in to our conversation and if you’re still not persuaded you should read the book, check out Derek’s review of it. Then go ye forth, take up, and read.

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.

The Forgetfulness of Love in Harry Potter

There are two scenes in the Harry Potter series when Harry is able to successfully block the mental connection he shares with Lord Voldemort. The first is at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Voldemort tries to possess him in the Ministry of Magic:

The second is halfway through Deathly Hallows after their escape from Malfoy Manor where Bellatrix Lestrange killed Harry’s friend, the house-elf Dobby. What drives Voldemort out? Initially Harry thinks that it is intense experiences of grief. But then he remembers Dumbledore and thinks that his former headmaster would that it is love.

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