The American Conservative’s Case Against the Suburbs

The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.

Reagan and Kirk (photo courtesy Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Center)

Suburban Critics?

In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principlesat least how that term is usually defined in the American political discoursefor they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.

 

Thomistic New Urbanism

The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.

Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Deaths

The stories of two impending deaths has recently come before our society’s attention, and justly so. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old who recently transplanted herself from San Francisco to Oregon, explained why she is planning to commit physician’s-assisted suicide.  Her account was elegantly and movingly countered by that of Kara Tippetts, who has documented her own ongoing struggle with cancer in a forthcoming book.From the publisher

It is nearly impossible to speak well of such matters: there are few aspects of our lives that are as intimate or personal as the manner of our death. Whatever theological claim we might make about it, even if none at all, many of us are gripped by an inescapable instinct that death poses a challenge to us, that it raises a question about the meaning of our lives to which we must provide an answer. We cringe, rightly, at the banality of a ‘funeral selfie’; but we lack a category altogether, thank God, for a ‘dying selfie.’ Television stations still shield us from showing videos where people die, and rightly so. There is perhaps no greater proof of our fundamental and universal commitment to the sacredness of human life than that we endeavor, whenever possible, to protect ourselves from voyeuristic viewings of the moment of its passing. We may wish them to be known, but only by those who already know us well. To have it otherwise is a kind of profanation of the mystery of human life and mortality.

So there is a serious danger about reflecting on the manner of these two coming deaths: to write about them risks trespassing upon the holy and terrible moments that they will respectively face. What is more, my own death is not imminent, at least that I know: while I have reflected more on it as a possibility than most people my age I know, I have been assured (and readily believe it) that there are few matters where the gap between theory and the encounter is wider.

Still, the way they have spoken of what is before them invites such reflection: they have, for better or worse, made available to us the stories they are telling themselves in order to prepare for that final day. Those stories are different, and those differences matter: but there is a kind of boldness beneath each that I wonder whether I would have.  To invite a kind of publicity into one’s own death requires a unique kind of confidence: I would be tempted to falsify my own existence under such scrutiny. That is a temptation for all of us even now, no doubt, but beneath the shadow of death such temptations take on a new force.

But their stories contain two separate worlds. Continue reading

Mere Fidelity: The ‘Ask Us Anything’ Edition

We’ve had a great time recording Mere Fidelity, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of your response and support for it.

Mere FidelityNow we want to hear from you.  We don’t have a show for you this week, so instead we thought we’d solicit questions from you all that we can take up in our next edition.  We’ve wanted to do this for a while, but the timing hasn’t quite been right.  Now it is.

So, ask us anything.  And then vote below in the comments on which questions you like best.  We’ll discuss as manyh of the most popular questions as we can in the time allotted, and all the rest will be thrown into the abyss.  Or we’ll take them up in a future episode. The world is mysterious that way.

Fire away, then.  And if you’re on Twitter and want to pass the word around, feel free to use the #merefi hashtag.  Questions asked there will be unofficially considered, but if you want official recognition you need to come to these here comments and do your thing.

This whole voting thing will go on until next Monday at midnight. Thanks again for your kindness and support.  We’re very, very grateful.

 

The Progressive Evangelical Package

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog, and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. You can also follow him on Twitter.

It’s no secret that Reformed Christians have built their own wing of the internet where they spend their time chatting among themselves. They police certain key boundaries and dissent from some of these can (rightly or wrongly) bring about serious criticism. While there is more diversity among the Reformed than critics usually want to recognize, there can also be a heavy pressure to conform to the ‘standard’. Given the more consciously confessional (and I do use the term somewhat broadly) ethos among the Reformed, it’s rather unsurprising that this should be the case.

The progressive Evangelicals now have their own wing, though, ostensibly with an emphasis on diversity and a marked aversion to foreclosing conversations or policing boundaries. The idea that there is a strict standard, a party line you have to toe in order to be a part of the club, is supposed to be foreign to the Progressive internet’s ethos. That’s for the heresy-hunting, conservative builders of Evangelical empire, after all, rather than the “radically inclusive” prophets of a more Christ-like faith. Unlike their conservative counterparts, Progressives follow a Jesus who came to tear down the walls that divide, not put new doctrinal ones back up.

Those are the stereotypes, at least. But it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this picture if we take a look at the actual situation on the ground.

There may not be a Progressive Gospel(s) Federation with explicit standards we can look to, but there are certain tenets that are increasingly defining what I’ve dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package.” The theological scene is beginning to mirror the political two-party system such that if you hold one or two of these positions, or want to have a voice in the Progressive conversation, it’s likely there is heavy pressure on you to begin affirming all or most of them.

These tenets do not mark out a monolith. There are undoubtedly figures who don’t fit the description, just like there are figures who spend lots of time in the Reformed world who don’t fit the characterization above, either. I maintain that they signal a trend, though.

Nor are these tenets necessarily inherently ‘progressive.’ Though one or two of them might be, many non-progressives hold some of them within a more classically Evangelical framework as well. Still, when they come in the broader bundle they take on a different flavor.

I offer, then, seven basic, hot-button theological markers, in no particular order.

Pacifism – Pacifism/non-violence is growing as the default stance of many progressive Christians. Historically, pacifism has not always been linked with progressivism, but there’s a definite presumption against the just-war tradition in progressive circles. This is less likely, though, among those who have a more radical, liberationist streak in them.

Egalitarianism – For most progressive Christians, a complementarian view of marriage or ministry at its best is just patriarchy-lite and contrary to the gospel of equality in Christ. Again, there are exegetical egalitarians who are generally theological conservative, but it’s very rare to find a non-egalitarian progressive, unless they’re Catholic.

Arminian/Open Theism/Revised Theisms – Well, I mean, Calvinists are the worst. But really, Reformed or more classic-style doctrines of providence and sovereignty are very much theologia non grata in progressive wings. They are at odds with the kenotic, self-emptying, freedom-gifting God most progressives know. If you cop to any form of it at all, there has to be a huge amount of bending over backwards to downplay, sideline, or distinguish yourself from those Calvinists. In fact, much theological reflection in the camp works by way of contradiction.

Anti-Inerrancy- The rejection of inerrancy is as much a boundary issue for many progressives as the affirmation is for many conservatives. On their view, we don’t need an inerrant Bible. In fact, for many it’s an idolatrous position that gives us a flat text, open to the many anti-science, anti-gay, anti-intellectual approaches to Christian faith we’re struggling against that have killed the faith of a new generation.

Interpretive Pluralism – Connected to the defeat of inerrancy is a heavy emphasis on interpretive pluralism when it comes to the text of Scripture. I’m not sure which is greeted with more sneers: the doctrine of inerrancy, or the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (which is usually quite poorly defined.)

Anti-Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) – A non-violent, or peace-loving God would not ‘murder his Son’ or buy into the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ or engage in ‘divine child abuse.’ God is like Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount, on a certain interpretation), so he doesn’t kill. Usually PSA is pitted against a Christus Victor model, though some sort of modified Girardianism seems to be the atonement theology du jour.

Marriage Revisionism – Finally, while most may not yet have accepted the revisionist take on same-sex relationships, struggling with the issue or defaulting to silence is the norm. The Progressive Gospel is radically inclusive, and generally so hyper-egalitarian to the point that an appeal to sexual difference as revealed in creation and clarified in Scripture is increasingly difficult and almost incoherent to make.

Of course there are undoubtedly more, but these are the ones that have stuck out to me.

The Package Under the Package
It’s important to note that many people hold these positions all separately for different reasons. What’s more, I’m not looking to settle whether or not any of these positions are true or false. I haven’t offered anything close to an argument on any of these points. The interesting question to ask is why these positions seem to be on the rise? And what seems to be uniting them all into this party-line? Besides the biblical arguments many put forward, or the political dynamics at work in the clumping that pop up on the Right as well, what’s the root package under the package? What makes these positions more attractive now than they were before?

Beneath the marks themselves lie three separate themes which hold them together and form a distinctly ‘progressive’ ethos.

The first is generally what Alastair Roberts has dubbed an ethic of empathy: At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people ‘bravely’ and ‘authentically’ articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either.

Please note that pointing this out isn’t to demean or deny the value of empathy in moral reasoning. I certainly think it has a place. Still, our elevation of it into its own, comprehensive ethic has shaped our current willingness to revise our positions on a number of issues including sexuality, authority, or Scripture.

People’s negative experiences with abuses of Scripture or traditional moral positions weighs heavily in our moral reflection on an issue. If a position has ever been even associated with the emotional or physical harm of an individual, or a group, it is immediately suspect. As one friend put it “my judgment about what is compassionate towards others is sacrosanct.” It’s easy to see where this goes on the sexuality question. Yet from another angle, such an atmosphere inherently privilege pacifistic theologies. When the harm principle is absolutized, force for the sake of justice borders on the oxymoronic. Divine justice that is not only restoration, but includes retribution falls under this as well. Justice that isn’t immediately identifiable as therapeutic or ‘compassionate’ is seen as the result of an unbending, arbitrary abstraction.

Connected to the triumph of empathy is a deep skepticism about authority structures and the idea of power in general. Suspicion can manifest itself in a hostility toward church authorities, or as an intellectual skepticism about the theological tradition that we inherit. Often skepticism is reinforced by the empathetic focus on the primacy of personal narratives: for many, it’s difficult to accept the Scriptures or the tradition as something that could come alongside and correct and reinterpret our narratives for us.

Beyond that, we can see it play itself out at the theological level in the issues of egalitarianism and divine sovereignty. Even the mildest form of complementarianism becomes unthinkable because any and all relationships that could possibly imply hierarchy, or sexually-ordered division of labor are inherently oppressive. Strong doctrines of providence, especially when held or propounded in the sort of unsophisticated, either-God-has-control-or-I-do fashion it often-times is, is simply tyranny by another name. As Fred Sanders put it, this type of God doesn’t seem to make people ‘FLIRSH‘ per the requirements of modern theology, so it must go.

Finally, the progressive ethos privileges the autonomous self. There is a greater focus on the experience, feelings, thoughts, and judgments of the individual. Of course, this will mean difficulty with constraints from tradition, traditional sexual morality which goes beyond (and includes) consent, or any kind of theological position that emphasizes the gap between Creator and creature in terms of our moral understanding or grasp of providence. It’s increasingly improbable that God would say, do, command, or be in a way that isn’t immediately recognizable from within the parameters of our own privileged experience.

What’s the Point?
I could simply reverse-engineer this analysis and write a dopple-ganger account for the conservative package. So what does the above prove? Well, in one sense, nothing much. Certainly nothing in terms of the correctness of the various positions or trends involved. Addressing the deficiencies or merits of its various components needs to be undertaken elsewhere according to Scripture, reason, and in ways that acknowledge progressives own arguments.

It is, instead, an exercise in clarification rather than one of refutation.

Many of us labor under the illusion that the progressive package, the party line, doesn’t exist. Some of those within the camp take its putative diversity and ideological inclusiveness as a point of pride. I suppose for them my aim is to pop their balloon. For others floating within progressivism’s orbit but not yet diving in head-first, I’m hoping to provide some smelling salts. Those looking in with interest would do well to consider the real intellectual and communal pressure there is to conform to the package and examine whether they find the underlying premises convincing and consistent with the gospel.

And that’s the point we must all consider. Theological development—like all intellectual development—happens within communities, traditions, and cultures whose shifting plausibility structures are often invisible to us as we participate in them. I’ve noticed how the reigning plausibility structures or the ethos of groups I’ve associated myself has affected my own theological trajectory. Often it is only in the criticisms and analysis of those outside my own camp that I begin to recognize them for what they with enough clarity to question them and test them against God’s revelation. I must say I’m not always comfortable with the results.

Whatever “camp”, or tradition we happen to be drawn towards, we need to become self-conscious about our ethical and ideological instincts, trace them back to their sources, and learn to keep them open to critique. Only in this way will we be assuming a posture suited for pilgrims who travel on the way—in via as the old theologians used to say—knowing that our humble theologies must always be fall short of the glory of God in all of his majesty.

Engagement is Discipleship

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

As Christians face more direct opposition from cultural powers, we should consider Rod Dreher’s recent discussions of the Benedict Option and the Jeremiah Option. The former represents a more “separatist” approach to cultural or political engagement and the latter embraces “assimilation” as a means of cultural survival. The struggle to maintain our Christian identity against a cultural onslaught that delights to seduce us into impotence has never been easy. However, it is crucial to recognize that engagement is an element of discipleship and the immanence of our witness is part of our obedience. If the Benedict Option is to represent a faithful community, it must be a witnessing and serving presence that bears the cost of following Christ.

Counterfeit, culturally acceptable Christianity is more dangerous to true faith than active and virulent persecution. This point is not disputed among most thoughtful Benedict Option supporters (indeed, Rod’s post about it is one of the best), but it is important to take up first because isolation from the world is not only unfaithful but poisonous to faith. Heeding James’ command to not be “polluted by the world” will often protect us from the seductive lies of the Satan, but it can also just as easily seduce us into Pharasaism. Most of us have read or met former Christians who have been inoculated against the faith by harsh, legalistic religiosity. In these cases, misapplication of the principle behind the Benedict Option has done harm to souls because of the inherent danger in isolation. Increasing the distance from a world in need proportionately threatens both individuals and communities; we need to intimately know the lost people and broken communities we are called to love in order to temper and strengthen our witness to them.

If we look to the Bible, we see that this is because God’s commands to evangelize and disciple are consistently linked with our prosperity as the people of God, from The Great Commission to the Kingdom parables or God’s instruction to the church in Philadelphia. Our faithfulness to doctrine is inseparable from our engagement with the world; as Jesus’ power was so great that the touch of the bleeding woman made her clean rather than Him unclean, so our interactions with the fallen world participate in God’s redemption of it. This is not a call to passively consume cultural products or merely imitate trendy practices, for a facile familiarity with other perspectives will only breed more ignorance. Instead, we need to spend time listening carefully to people whom we know and speaking boldly once we have demonstrated our commitment to them.

A community that is consistently interacting with lost neighbors and taking our stand at the gates of Hell must also hunker down regularly for the sort of intense reflection and spiritual isolation that the Benedict Option cherishes. This is where the Benedict Option apologists are most insightful: it is in contemplation, rest, and tightly-knit community that we are primarily given what God entrusts us to give away in turn. However, without a constant inflow of both needy souls to bless and lost opponents to challenge us, our faith will become as atrophied and grotesque as an athlete who eats the 10,000-calorie Olympic diet but never competes in a race. Just as our questions and doubts are shaped by the ends to which we ask them, so our rest and retreat are shaped by the ends for which we undertake them. Continue reading

Marry or Burn?

Hannah R. Anderson lives in Roanoke, Virginia, with her husband and three young children. In the in-between moments, she is a freelance writer and blogs at www.sometimesalight.com. She is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, 2014). You can follow her on Twitter.

I recently read an article that argued against early marriage as a way to fight sexual temptation. It seems that in response to the cultural trend to delay marriage, some evangelical churches have started promoting early marriage as a way of pursuing sexual purity. The author took issue with this approach, noting that marriage itself is not enough to ensure virtue because it can’t change the heart; it simply changes the boundaries of chastity.

A lot of my friends read the piece as well. Several responded with hearty amens while others wisely pushed back a bit. In our ensuing conversations, one question kept recurring: “Didn’t Paul advocate for marriage as a way to fight temptation in I Corinthians 7? Didn’t he write: ‘But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion’?” Privately, Mere-O’s own Matt Anderson even suggested that the author had committed a part/whole fallacy, arguing that:

the recommendation to marry young isn’t rooted in the notion that marrying will solve *all* your problems with respect to lust or sexual temptation or anything else.  But it seems like it actually does in fact solve some of those problems.

I’ve thought a lot about the piece, in part, because I myself was married at the ripe old age of 22. I’ve also thought about it because in the decade plus, I’ve seen too many early marriages disintegrate—most often because of sexual sin. But I suppose the main reason I’m still thinking about this piece is because I wrote it.

Core Assumptions

Since writing “Getting Married Is Not Enough to Fight Sexual Temptation,” I’ve realized that I made certain assumptions that I did not articulate well, assumptions that are essential to explaining why I both embrace Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation as well as why I’m uncomfortable with evangelicals offering the very same advice. Truthfully, it has little to do with the timing of marriage so much as the presuppositions we have about marriage, singleness, and sexuality.

My main concern is that when evangelicals suggest early marriage as a means of fighting sexual temptation, we are not actually suggesting the same thing the Apostle Paul is because we do not (by and large) share his core assumptions about the goodness of singleness, submission to God’s providence, the inherent difficulties of marriage, and the rightness of sexual passion. Detached from these things, the current advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation plays out very differently than Paul’s does. This does not mean that I Corinthians 7 is irrelevant to our current dilemma but that we will only profit from it if we embrace the whole of Paul’s sexual ethic. That means several things.

First, we must develop a robust understanding of marriage and singleness as equally beneficial for kingdom living. For various reasons, evangelicals tend to privilege marriage over singleness—a far cry from what Paul writes in I Corinthians 7. For example, it’s not unusual for evangelicals to question whether a man could be a pastor if he is not also “the husband of one wife.” Paul, however, indicates that family life can actually be a distraction to service.

The problem for us is this: In a subculture that can easily idolize marriage, further promoting marriage as a way to fight sexual sin may confirm for young people that their greatest good is indeed found in marriage—including their ability to live a pure life. But for Paul, our greatest good is found in serving the kingdom, with the choice of whether or not to marry always being subject to what will best facilitate God’s work. In fact, Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual sin is not an end in itself but a means to an end; we fight for purity—whether in singleness or in marriage—because sexual sin will undermine the cause of the kingdom.

Second, we must cultivate an appreciation for the difference between natural passion and lust. Unfortunately for many young evangelicals, the rhetoric of the purity culture has collapsed these two categories into one, so that it’s hard for some to tell the difference between being attracted to a woman and lusting after her. In certain quarters, the rhetoric has been so strong that young women, after years of being taught to view their bodies and longings with shame, find it difficult to embrace sexual desire even within marriage.

Paul, on the other hand, understands the goodness of natural passion and argues for marriage as a way to preserve it, to protect it from evil. But for those who do not have such a category, marriage becomes a way to legitimize sex, to take something that is “wrong” and make it “right.” So when we tell young people to marry in order to avoid temptation, they hear “marry to fix sexual sin” simply because they cannot conceive of a category where sexual longing isn’t sinful. As a result, those entrenched in true sin (such as pornography or promiscuity) logically believe that marriage has the capacity to heal them as well because we have not clearly articulated the type of sexual longings that marriage can fulfill—sexual longings that are already good and natural.

Whole > Sum of the Parts

In order for us to benefit from Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation, we must understand that it is contingent on the other truths woven throughout the rest of the chapter. Apart from them, it becomes meaningless. We will never understand the value of marriage to the kingdom if we do not also understand the value of singleness to the kingdom. We will never understand the destructiveness of deviant sex unless we understand the beauty and honor of married sex. At the same time, we can’t accurately celebrate the blessings of marriage—of which sex is one—unless we also articulate the stresses of marriage. Because if we’re completely honest, we must acknowledge that in the very same passage in which Paul advocates for marriage, he also advocates against it.

Held in tension, the opposing truths of I Corinthians 7 present a robust picture of the place of marriage, sex, and celibacy in the kingdom. When taken as a whole, this Scripture may be among the most relevant for a generation plagued by confusion on these issues. On the other hand, if we ignore the broader context and simply co-opt Paul’s advice to “marry to avoid sexual temptation,” we may accomplish the exact opposite of what we hope for. Young evangelicals may indeed marry early, but don’t be surprised if they also end up marrying “early and often.”

The Fatal Tensions of the Fight Churches

“It’s physics, basically.  You bend the guy the other direction than God intended.”

Or so says Paul Burress, pastor of Victory Church and central character in Fight Church, the new documentary co-directed by Brian Storkel.  Like Holy Rollers, Storkel’s previous effort, Fight Church is a sympathetic-but-not-uncritical account of an unconventional religious practice—that is, an entirely conventional practice which some Christians have dressed up with a patina of theological justifications and clichés. Burress’s church is one of some alleged 700 churches in the United States that have taken to the increasingly popular sport of mixed-martial arts as a form of Christian witness.  Fight Church doesn’t pull its punches: “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, while at the same time kneeing him in the face…as hard as you can?  is the question that the trailer poses and which the film carefully considers.Fight Church

The filmmakers chart a few pastors closely, and put their justifications in a nice dialogue with a movement to keep MMA illegal in New York.  The close-up on the lives of these pastors is undoubtedly helpful:  it’s not easy, after all, to understand the texture of the beliefs and commitments of those engaging in practices we find idiosyncratic (at best) from a distance.  And with one or two exceptions, most of the pastors featured seemed like nice guys, with supportive families and an intense sincerity about their convictions.  At least as much as the film showed us, anyway.  A cynic might allege that some pastors master the art of faking the authenticity required for the job, and cynics aren’t always wrong. But part of the conflict the film induces, in fact, for some Christian viewers may be to wonder how nice guys could go so far wrong.

But the filmmakers may also make their study too close to engender a proper understanding of why MMA has moved nearer the center of American religious communities. There are the occasional and expected bits about how the church has ‘feminized’ men, but almost no exploration of what this means. I was surprised, and mildly impressed, to realize at the end of the film that Tyler Durden hadn’t been mentioned at all.  The narrow focus of the filmmakers leaves so many questions about MMA itself unexplored: the film almost makes it feel like MMA has always been there, rather than being itself a recent phenomenon with its own intrinsic meaning and questions. Whatever else we make about it, Fight Club found its way to a sympathetic male audience somehow.  Without more broadly contextualizing the kind of life which fight clubs are a reaction against, it’s harder to properly understand the tacit and embedded reasons within the practice that those Christians who undertake it must assume.  MMA itself may be innocuous, or only superficially so, but it’s easier to tell when we understand the conditions of its emergence.

That complaint aside, though, the film succeeds at doing what Storkel and company do so well: provoking interesting questions and presenting a range of opinions on them, which makes excellent fodder for thought. I said, though, that the filmmakers are not entirely uncritical: they are in a corner, and that corner is sparring with the fight church guys. The film tacitly raises the question of how children are being formed in these communities, but does not (alas) deal extensively with it.  Which is too bad, because it’s one of the most troubling aspects that shows up on screen, and by leaving it tacit in the images it seems as though Storkel and company are making the critique more effective than if they dealt with it explicitly.  The camera stays on one young fellow who takes a turn in the ring and sits crying afterward. While that’s an unhappy image, it’s also not so nearly as disturbing as the image of an eight-year old or so boy out shooting guns with his father (who is so amped up that he couldn’t even imagine critiques of fight churches, unlike the others in the film). Yes, he’s supervised, but it’s still jarring to see. Why are they out shooting?  There is no reason given, and the viewer is left to assume that there’s a short line between the kind of hyper-masculinity that partakes in fight clubs and the violence that guns at least signify.

Of course, nothing I’ve said actually addresses the substantive question of whether Christianity and MMA inherently conflict with each other. For that, I would encourage readers to consider the most astute theological analysis of the question I’ve read, which was written by a one-time participant in the sport and which endeavors—rightly—to take its Christian advocates and practitioners seriously as dialogue partners:

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!…

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

I have no way of telling whether this recounting of MMA’s effects is accurate, nor have I any reason to doubt it. But I’d note that this kind of ‘disintegration’ from the sport seems like an exaggerated form of the kind of distancing from our bodies that we experience in any sort of pain. Physical suffering has that kind of effect: we say “my arm hurts” when our pain sensors intrude on our conscious experience, rather than “I hurt.”  Nor is such momentary fragmentation necessarily vicious:  a person who is ‘out of shape’ may not feel like getting out of bed the day after an intensely difficult workout, after all, even though overcoming that kind of pain and the distancing from our bodies it entails may be what they need to achieve a more healthy integration. (If you ask me whether I have experience of this, I will say that I am well acquainted with being ‘out of shape’ but not so much the latter phenomenon.  Draw your own conclusions.)

Still, MMA is not a workout, and whether it is licit for Christians to undertake has to involve considering how we treat our neighbor within the practice.  Not every contest of strength is wrong, it seems to me:  wrestling as an activity aims at throwing one’s opponent to the ground and immobilizing them. Arm wrestling is a contest of strength of an even more benign sort. Such demonstrations of strength and weakness are enjoyable to some men and women (and highly dubious to others), and while I’m strongly averse to infusing them with testosterone so that they become litmus tests of manhood, it’s hard to think of a serious objection to them, either.

Whether MMA falls along this spectrum or is of a different kind of thing is a difficult question. The fusion of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling and the aesthetics of the cage and the ring give it a gritty atmosphere (which was unquestionably pronounced in its early years, but I understand has been sanitized somewhat to reach a more mainstream audience) that seems to want to incorporate the no-holds-barred mentality of a street fight and its taboo connotations into the living room. I’m an outsider both as a viewer and a participant, but from a distance the sport seems to thrive on a kind of bloodthirstiness that aims at harming one’s opponent (like boxing) and winning submission not necessarily through immobilizing or overpowering one’s opponent but incapacitating them such that, if the defeat is serious enough, their body temporarily loses the ability to function altogether. And therein, it seems to me, lies a moral world of difference.

I’m an MMA skeptic, then, and this film doesn’t help persuade me not to be from a theological standpoint.  But then, I came into it having written a book on a closely related subject, and so am in danger of confirmation bias.  Take that as you will.  But the kinds of justifications offered by pastors were most frequently just the sort of pragmatic, anti-theological ‘reasons’ that come up in related discussions like tattoos, which leave no room for any kind of limits on our “Christian witness” besides those which are unquestionably explicit in Scripture itself.  Yes, tough guys need Jesus: but surely starting a fight club in the church basement is not the only way (or even the best) to reach them, is it?  Perhaps we should think about that for a while sometime.  After all, in my experience the pragmatic justification for these kinds of programs is always the least creative and least innovative. Such justifications somehow manage to presuppose the worst of the very people they’re trying to reach—namely, that they are interested in and would only be fully satisfied by a church which can slake their thirst for just this kind of practice. And they infantilize the churches that undertake them, for they cheapen the very mysteries and sanctity of holiness which they have been entrusted to bear witness to.

I come now to the end (really): the Fight Church phenomenon is really nothing more than a passing fad and will be forgotten in a decade by everyone except those laborious historians of religion on their never-ending quests to dissect the nature of American evangelicalism. So let me write the obituary now, if only for posterity:  at the heart of the fight churches were both the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical world. Its best and most reasonable proponents (which are featured in this film) were motivated by an interested seriousness to reach their neighbor with a message that has captivated them, yet were simultaneously unrestrained by any form of moral reasoning other than that which lies on the surface of the Bible and so unable to untangle their own praiseworthy motivations from the problematic and troubling practices which they took shape within.  The Christianity of the fight churches deluded itself into thinking it was strong, while it was actually weak, and into believing that in its battle for the world it had managed to overcome its brittle frailties. And when the struggle with this contradiction wore the fight churches out, they fell to the ground exhausted where they yet lie, exhausted, beaten, and alive only in the knowledge of the God who forgets nothing and those researchers who strive to imitate him.

Fight Church is a film that you should watch.  It’s available both digitally and on DVD.  I received access to a copy for free:  whether my review is worth the money I was paid is a question I leave entirely up to you. 

Medical Missionaries and the Role of Evidence

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

Slate’s Brian Palmer is right: missionary medicine in Africa is largely unregulated, unstudied, and understaffed. I have seen with my own eyes—and performed with my own hands—clinical decisions that would rightly be considered malpractice in a developed setting because they required that procedures or medications used reserved for specialists be attempted in order to save a life (ask me sometime about the time I did hand surgery.)

What’s more, I did so in Jesus’ name, praying with and for patients whilst frequently consulting a chaplain to do some heavy-duty proselytization. Doing good for the sake of others doesn’t require that one believe in Jesus; there are plenty of organizations and individuals who are providing medical care without any spiritual strings attached. But neither does believing in Jesus necessarily inhibit people from doing good, as Palmer seems to suspect.

This, however, is not the end of the story, though it’s about all that Palmer bothers to talk about. The story of missionary medicine is more complicated— and expansive—than he realizes. One might think that a writer ostensibly dedicated to reason and scientific study might want to investigate the evidence that does exist—sparse as it may be—on the role of faith-based organizations and Christian missionaries within the medical systems of developing countries. Unfortunately, Palmer is content to fire off a few statistics about this bizarre tribe of missionaries and their backwards religious customs, then revel in horror at their unquantified habits of practice.

I have personally sat in meetings and seminars dedicated solely to exploring the ethical issues raised by practicing medicine in limited resources, using Biblical principles to sort out how to best care for patients in a way that is sustainable and merciful. I have listened to countless Christian medical professionals discuss the lengths that they go to in order to invest particularly in professional development for indigenous health practitioners. I have even been party to forums in secular professional meetings where the benefits and risks of an explicitly religious approach to medicine were openly debated. What’s more, these aren’t just my personal vignettes—they are an essential part of the numerous institutions that Christian missionaries train and serve in.

I certainly appreciate the historical nods that Palmer gives in his piece, acknowledging that criticism of missionary doctors goes back a long way. What he doesn’t mention, however, is the fact that the modern enterprises of community health and international development were not only founded on the precepts of missionary medicine, they continue to be shaped by the work of missionaries. Much of the evidence regarding community-based primary health care strategies comes from Christian projects. The Alma Ata Declaration—a WHO document that lays out the foundational principles for evidence-based primary care health systems—was based strongly on the work of Christian missionaries who helped to convene multiple conferences in the 1960’s and 70’s on international health. As Carl Taylor, who helped write the Declaration, stated:

“Coming out of the conference, the entire global health community, developed and developing, was energized to ramp up health care around the world. The tenets of serving the poor, service to the community as a whole, disease prevention, and the pivotal role of women in health, developed following [Christian medical conferences] and refined by Christian Medical Commission, were firmly built into the evolving framework of Primary Health Care.” from The Christian Community’s Contribution to the Evolution of Community-Based Primary Health Care (PDF)

Beyond the crucial role that Christian missionaries played in helping shift the WHO’s conception of health from the previously dominant compartmentalized, top-down model of care delivery to a more generous understanding of health as a function of human flourishing that must be secured as part of a social justice agenda, there are numerous initiatives within missionary organizations today to carry on this legacy. For example, both the ongoing Global Missions Health Conference and the recently launched Christian Journal of Global Health are dedicated to the exact sort of research, analysis, and quality improvement that Palmer thinks are missing from modern missionary medicine– which makes one wonder how hard he (or his editors) actually bothered to look into this subject. Most of the residencies dedicated to training indigenous physicians in Sub-Saharan Africa–whether surgeons or family doctors–are linked to one missionary organization or another. The “current emphasis of international health delivery” of education and training that he mentions? The Christian Medical and Dental Association even has a whole enterprise dedicated to it. A study to quantify who is working where and what they are doing that he hasn’t seen? It’s been out for 4 years! All of this is still bare-bones, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that medical missions is “a mystery,” as Palmer does.

Research and quality improvement are indeed lacking in Sub-Saharan Africa (although Palmer’s mention of PubMed is laughable because you can use PubMed to find all sorts of papers written by missionaries, they just don’t write “Christian Missions” in every title.) This is largely due to funding; most African countries have yet to devote the state funds necessary for ensuring basic healthcare provisions for their people, much less an ample funding source for research akin to the vast resources that NIH, charitable foundations, and pharmaceutical companies pour into investigation in the First World (and let’s not forget that in America we have to have big public campaigns to get our highly educated professionals to actually follow the evidence that has been amassed because said professionals are so bad at following it). Many missionaries—already working long hours with limited resources—still find the time and money to collect clinical data, report it to whatever entity is willing to crunch the numbers, and use the results to shape their practice.

Beyond these concerns—which Palmer freely admits he might relinquish if secular physicians were carrying out the work—lies the question of faith. His willingness to admit that his discomfort about this issue won’t motivate him into an ideological crusade against health professionals who proselytize is certainly commendable. For a non-religious person steeped in a non-religious environment, it certainly seems apropos to be skeptical of missionaries who are open about their faith and wag a finger at those who would dare to use their position as a medical provider to share their beliefs with others. However, such an outlook is downright ignorant of non-Western conceptions of health and disease, which are far more open to spiritual causes of disease and more frank discussions of faith as it relates to health. In a world where cell phones and reverence for one’s ancestors are equally valuable and many people inquire of a witch doctor before seeking medical attention at a hospital, it is not at all unusual or inappropriate to practitioners to discuss their own religion and how it might offer a better perspective on the suffering and fear that their patients are facing. I don’t know if Palmer’s piece was vetted by any Africans, but it doesn’t seem to reflect any understanding of the holistic worldview that I have encountered among non-Western health professionals.

We do need to address the disquieting motivations that medical missionaries sometimes have for their work. Again, the white and wealthy cultural milieu finds animating spiritual convictions frightening for legitimate reasons and has ample historical basis for such fear (although the legacy of colonial missionaries is far more positive than most give credit for.) However, the dedication with which missionaries apply themselves to their work and the places that they choose to invest their labors are inseparable from the theological distinctives of evangelical Christianity. Just as the American Civil Rights Movement or the British anti-slavery movement cannot be understood without a deep appreciation for the religious teachings that shaped them, so missionary medicine is inseparable from the doctrines discerned from the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing are inseparable—the Gospels are full of incidents where He challenges, exhorts, encourages, or rebukes one who has been healed or a crowd around Him as a part of the healing. At the very heart of Christian doctrine is the understanding that as Christ’s suffering delivered us unto life, so our suffering as believers can produce similar fruit in others. Kent Brantly, Olivet Buck, and Jerry Umanos stand as excellent examples of such Passion-motivated compassion. Dr. Brantly survived his suffering for others, but Drs. Buck and Umanos did not—these theological convictions are what make Christian missionary medicine uniquely effective and continue to drive the disproportionate (but still insufficient) number of religiously based medical providers.

The deficiencies that Palmer notes in his piece are real, and mission work is desperately in need of the sort of resources we apply to Western medicine. However, both the spiritual aspects of Christian mission work and the rigor already applied to such medical endeavors are indispensable to the story of healthcare in Africa—even if if Palmer can’t be bothered to discuss them when he bemoans the lack of data plaguing health care abroad. Rather than casting aspersions and “standing aside,” those who love evidence-based practice ought to celebrate what has been done through missionaries, apply what they have to teach us, and follow them to places where just and equitable health systems are still being built.

Mere Fidelity: Should we hope to die at 75?


Should we hope to die at 75?  That’s the premise of a long and provocative article at The Atlantic.  As Ezekiel Emanuel, its author, writes:

Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime. My daughters and dear friends will continue to try to convince me that I am wrong and can live a valuable life much longer. And I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous and reasoned defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.

What should we make of this?  That’s what Derek, Alastair and I discuss on this week’s episode.  Give it a listen and let us know in the comments what you think.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

Mere Fidelity: On Friendship

Wesley Hill is one of the brightest and best young writers evangelical Christianity has. His recent cover story at Christianity Today on friendship raised some interesting questions, which we consider in this episode.  Listen in as we discuss friendship’s proper shape, its limits, and its role in our late-modern world.

My own previous essay responding to Wesley came up.  Read it here if you haven’t yet.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.