On Disrespectable Christianity

Tish Harrison Warren, whose writing I admire a great deal, has an excellent piece over at Christianity Today on Vanderbilt University’s lamentable decision to prohibit campus groups from setting their own standards for student leadership.  Harrison Warren was part of Intervarsity’s leadership during that season, and so had a seat on the front row.  Thankfully, though, she writes with a reflective calm:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Harrison Warren’s reflections are, I think, indicative of the kind of realization that many of the younger-set of evangelicals are going to have to face in the years to come.  Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability.  The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much.  The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws.  And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude.

Those movements for reform and expansion of the evangelical footprint are worthy enough in their own right, maybe.  But Reform has often been laced with the promise of Respectability, and many of us—me included—have swallowed the poison.  I have a vague, half-articulated notion that those King James only communities who have been the butt of so many evangelical jokes will be, when it’s all said and done, some of the only Protestant communities still standing:  they gave up their respectability a long time ago and don’t seem to have missed it since.

Harrison Warren, indeed, mentions the Amish as one plausible path forward for “cultural engagement.”  Few young evangelicals will seriously take that path, though perhaps many more should.  But the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity.  Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

I have had another general impression—and the reader will rightly accuse me at this point of having far too many of those in this post—that what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.  Harrison Warren sounds the martyrs note, without overstriking it:  “Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness.”  Yet if we do not grasp the joy of the martyrs, we do not understand them at all.

I was accused recently, in talking about these sorts of things with students, of being something of a pessimist.  “We ought to keep fighting,” the argument went, “because the world we’re handing down to our children matters.”  Fair enough, and Lord knows that I am not yet perfected in my joy.  But Christians need a flagrant disregard for the coming wave of disrepute, a disregard which quickly turns the pathetic instruments of stigmatization into jewelry and art.  Without that, and without Jove’s presence among us, whatever “argument” we have will come to no effect.  Pessimism and the joy of the martyr may look almost the same, but as Chesterton noted, the one dies for the sake of dying while the other for the sake of living.

Addendum:  While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done.  How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine.

Mere Fidelity: Made for More, with Hannah Anderson

Hannah Anderson’s Made for More is a book I heartily endorsed.  She joins us in this latest episode of Mere Fidelity to talk about the doctrine of the image of God, women, and their role in the church.

Follow Hannah here, and give her (excellent) blog a visit.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelityis 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 Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

 

Mere Fidelity: And who is a person?

We take up, once again, Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made?  We start from the below and carry on:

“The embryo is of interest to us because it is human; it is ‘ourselves’. On the other hand, it is considered a suitable object of experiment because it is not like us in every important way. It has no ‘personality’. It is us and not us. In those two assertions we see the movement of self-transcendence taking shape. The embryo is humanity in a form that is especially open to our pinning it down as scientific object and distancing ourselves from it in transcendent knowledge…

It is enough to point out that the ambiguity of the status of the embryo research subject is precisely what is intended. It is what the task of self-transcendence needs, that it should be ourselves and yet not ourselves. If we should wish to charge our own generation with crimes against humanity because of the practice of this experimental research, I would suggest that the crime should not be the old-fashioned crime of killing babies, but the new and subtle crime of making babies to be ambiguously human, of presenting to us members of our own species who are doubtfully proper objects of compassion and love.”

The iTunes feed 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 Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

Mere Fidelity: What’s Wrong (and Right) with “Relatability”

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.” In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.

So said Rebecca Mead in her widely-read piece on “relatability.”  We naturally decided that the issue needed further dissection.  Go read her full essay, then return and give our latest podcast a listen.

The iTunes feed 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 Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

 

Mere Fidelity: What Adoption Is and Isn’t

Today, the folks of Mere Fidelity tackle adoption. We’re drawing on the following text from Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made:

Adoption is not procreation, and does not fulfil the procreative good of marriage. It is a charitable vocation indicated to childless copules by the personal tragedy of their deprivation in this area. And although it may richly compensate for the sorrow and satisfy the desire to nurture and educate children, it is still a substitute for procreation rather than a form of procreation. This is not to belittle or demean the adoptive relationship. Indeed, it might be said to praise it on altogether a higher level, inasmuch as it points beyond the natural goods of marriage to the supernatural good of charity. But adoption cannot be taken as a precedent for interpreting procreation as a simple enterprise of the will. (page 40)

The iTunes feed 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 Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

Mere Fidelity: On Divine Accommodation

How does God accommodate himself to us? How do we know when he has accommodated himself to us, or when we are projecting ourselves back on him?  In this episode, we take up what has traditionally been called the doctrine of ‘divine accommodation,’ and consider its limits and its abuses.

Other details worth noting:  the iTunes feed is here (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts about theology and the world.

Mere Fidelity: On Marriage and Donated Gametes

This week’s conversation continues through our reading of Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? with a conversation about the ways in which the possibility of gamete-donation by third parties to married couples has reshaped our understanding of marriage and its goods.

We take as our launching point this meaty bit from O’Donovan:

“For such a thesis forces the sharpest of dividing lines between the procreative and the relational goods of marriage.  It invites us to think that if the relational good is fulfilled in an exclusive communion of sexual love, then the procreative good may be fulfilled in any way at all, not necessarily by an exclusive communion of procreational power. 

It must follow from this, firstly, that the procreative good of marriage ceases to be the natural fulfillment of the relational good. As I argued in Chapter 2, when procreation is divorced from its context in man-woman relationship, it becomes a project of marriage rather than its intrinsic good; the means to procreation becomes the instrumental means chosen by the will, rather than themselves being of the goods of marriage. 

Correspondingly, sexual union itself is deprived of the features that give it its importance in human affairs. It can no longer be the case that the mingling of life in sexual union is a mingling that has both relational and procreative implications. It is no longer the case that the gift of self in sexual communion is at the same time a gift to the other of the possibility of parenthood. The divine blessing of children is no longer a blessing conferred upon this relational union of bodies with its promise of permanent affection and affinity. Children are now to be given (if the verb is still appropriate) by quite a different route.

It would seem to me that those who insist that [artificial insemination by a donor] should be available only to married couples, do not value the direct contribution of sexual communion to procreation, but only the indirect contribution which it makes by establishing a secure and stable domestic context for a child to grow up in. That is what gives this insistence its slightly ‘moralistic’ flavour. It defends the link between married love and procreation only at the level of social order, while abandoning the underlying conception of that link as part of the ontology of marriage, the conception which originally made that form of social order seem necessary and right.”

Other details worth noting:  the iTunes feed is here (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts about theology and the world.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton editing the audio. 

NT Wright and his Reformed Critics

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This week’s show follows up on the conversation about NT Wright and locates him among his Reformed critics.  Who’s right, who’s wrong, and are there paths between that can learn from both?

Various links from topics that came up during the show.

1. N.T. Wright on Penal substitution.
2. Wright’s most recent stand-alone summary article on justification.
3. D.A. Carson’s The Vindication of Imputation on the difference between exegetical and theological levels of discourse.
4. Michael Horton’s Review of Wright’s Justification.
5. Michael Bird’s comparison of John Piper and N.T. Wright.

Other details worth noting:  the iTunes feed is here (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts about theology and the world.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton editing the audio. 

 

Mere Fidelity: The Transgender Question

This week’s conversation continues through our reading of Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? with a discussion of the questions that have come to the fore in recent weeks about transgender people.

We take the following excerpt from O’Donovan as our way in to the subject.

The sex into which we have been born (assuming that it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as a gift of God. The task of psychological maturity–for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire–involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems.  Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations.  

Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgment on those for whom accepting their sex has been a task so difficult that they have fled from it into denial.  No one can say with any confidence what factors have made these pressures so severe.  

Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits.  Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature–to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given. And that implies that we must make the necessary distinction between the good of the bodily form as such and the various problems that it poses to us personally in our individual experience.  This is a comment that applies not only to this very striking and unusually distressing problem, but to a whole range of other sexual problems too. 

My personal apologies for cutting out during part of this quote, and for the clicks during my talking.  That’s totally my fault.

Other details worth noting:  the iTunes feed is here (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts about theology and the world.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton editing the audio. 

 

33 Under 33 at Christianity Today: A few quick thoughts

Christianity Today’s new cover story is a list of 33 “young believers who [they] think are leading today’s church in key ways—and who embody what it will look like in the years to come.”  Or, as my good friend Eric Teetsel humorously put it on Twitter, a list of 32 “incredible folks”….and me.

There are, indeed, some fantastic people on the list.  Eric himself has done incredible work taking up the mantle of a new social conservatism and Peter Blair has made Fare Forward  one of the best places in the conservative intellectual pantheon.  I had the good fortune of meeting Brannon McAllister recently, and walked away awed by both his work and his character. Trevin Wax is well known to readers of Mere-O, and Wesley Hill’s unquestionably one of the best writers and most astute theological minds of the younger crop of thinkers.

And those are just the people that I know. The rest seem to be similarly impressive.  You can read the whole thing here today for free.  After that, it goes behind the paywall.

Since I am (somehow) on the list, let me offer a few further thoughts about it.

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My photo:  Yes, that photo is taken in Oxford.  Yes, I am very lucky.  But what you can’t see on the website is that my shirt is untucked.

Like, one side is sticking out.  I’m serious.  I noticed it when I got home and uploaded the pictures and, frankly, find this particular detail amusing.  And maybe a metaphor for something.  I feel like you, the internets, need to know these things, especially when I show up on a list like this.

My heading:  Just to clarify things, I am not a historian by profession. I just happen to think that history matters and that a core part of my vocation is to function as something of a pointer toward those who not only came before me, but have more depths to offer than I do.  Like Oliver O’Donovan, who is thankfully still living but who models far better than I what a mind saturated in Scripture and tradition looks like.

Gratitude:  It’s neat to have my (mostly underserving) work recognized for this sort of thing.  I try not to put too much weight on these sorts of things, as youth is a fickle thing and the real meaning of my life will not be known until the end of it (and even then, it will only be known to those like my wife who know whether this kind of attention is truly deserved).  But it would be a disservice to those who have formed me if I did not extend the commendation where it properly belongs:  to my parents and family, to the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola who gave me such a great education and who continues to support me, to my many friends and interlocutors who I have learned so much from, and to all of you readers here at Mere-O for sharpening my thoughts along the way.  There’s a “we” that stands behind the “I,” which is never to blame but which invariably sets the conditions for success and so necessarily shares in the reward.

Other thoughts:  Is it too self-serving to commend my two books to you?  I still like ‘em.  I hope you do too.

Also, I got asked a few questions in preparation for the piece about Mere-O and my take on “millennials.”  So for the sake of posterity, here are the answers to those questions.

What’s the inspiration behind Mere Orthodoxy? What do you hope readers take away from the site?

I set up the site a decade ago to carry on in my own way the kind of cheerful, thoughtful, culturally astute observations that made both C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton such important figures in 20th century Christianity.  But I can’t escape a strong self-consciousness about the gap between us and them, which is why one of my main hopes is to always function as something of a signpost for other readers.  There aren’t many people among the living who can think and write with the depth that previous generations of Christians had, so if my only legacy is introducing a few people into that tradition then I’ll be a relatively happy man.

As a writer and a student of Christian ethics, you’re aware of the unique cultural setting today’s Christians find themselves in. What gives you hope about this generation and the future of our faith? 

The ground for hope that I have been able to stand on without hesitation is the promise that Christ will not depart from his church and that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.  If we step beyond this to evaluate whether we should have hope based on a particular generation’s or society’s qualities, and stay there for too long, we will be prone to overinflate both our virtues and our vices.  If I am cheerful about the future of Christianity, it is only because I am aware that Christianity has been dying in every age….and being reborn in the same, even if not in the same spot.  We have a faith that takes the same shape as our Savior’s life:  It is new in every generation, yet still (and must be) the “same old thing.”  If I am hopeful for my own generation, I am so because the whole business is true–really, deeply, down-to-the-molecules-true, and whether in this lifetime or five hence the truth will always win out.  Many of my peers have demonstrated a heightened desire to inquire into that truth and understand it, and as long as we do so from within the community that has been authorized to proclaim it then our future will be secure.