Mere Fidelity: Theosis and the Warning Passages (Ask Us Anything, vl. 2)

In this episode we consider the role the warning passages play in Scripture and the question of theosis.  The conversation takes a hand-brake turn at 16:30, so if you’re only interested in one of those subjects then that’s the place to go.

We mentioned this article by J. Todd Billings, so go read that.  If you’re interested in more, you can read Letham’s Union with ChristHorton on the same theme, and J. Todd Billings again.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

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.

 

Mere Fidelity: The Bible and Dr. Peter Enns

The backstory:  Andrew Wilson reviewed Dr. Peter Enns’s new book.  Dr. Peter Enns responded to said review.  We talked about it (above), and we scheduled it in a hurry so we didn’t get Dr. Enns on.  Our bad.  We’d love to have him join us.  Really.  Then Andrew responded to Dr. Enns.

Confused yet?  Listen in.  It will help everything.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

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 Media, Evangelicals, and Me: On Being a Pessimist in a Progressive Age

The conservative evangelical world has confronted stories over the past two weeks of defectors and would-be defectors to the traditional view of marriage. Hillsong, the mega-mega church from Australia who are re-colonizing the West with their church plants, found themselves under the spotlight precisely by trying to avoid it. Conservatives denounced them, led by one-time Mere-O writer Andrew Walker, and they promptly came out and said that Saint Paul was right, guys, and everything is A-OK. Then Jonathan Merritt wrote a story on David Gushee’s change of heart that was sent around with trumpets and fanfare.

I was mildly critical of both Andrew and Jonathan’s pieces for related but slightly different reasons. I’d like to say one or two more things about my reasons here, not to reopen old wounds but because I think there’s something to learn. And by that I mean I have something to learn, because the Good Lord knows I’m implicated in what I’m about to say.

I was once asked by a reporter whether I thought the “young evangelicals” were going to give up the bigotry of their parents. After I finished laughing, I promptly rejected the question and provide a different one of my own. The poor reporter (probably) wasn’t malicious, but she didn’t have many theological categories either. We talked for an hour…and exactly three of my sentences appeared in print.

I tell that story only to highlight one fact about the press, which by now is well known: many of its members simply don’t “get religion.” Just two days ago, a major news organization published a story that would be laughable, except it isn’t: it’s sad, and media theological ignorance does genuine harm to the cause of Christ.

I say this because I can see at least some decent reasons why a minister of the Gospel might opt to filibuster when the local newspaper reporter asks for his views on sex. The newspaper is not the political authority that Paul preaches to, no matter how much we like to speak of “popular opinion” in juridical terms. The pastor would not be pronouncing the Gospel in unmediated fashion to the world: he’s speaking to a reporter who may or may not faithfully present his views. And neither is the newspaper column the pulpit, which is where the central political and theological (verbal) announcement of the church occurs. He cannot prevent the reporter from listening to his sermons, nor should he try. But he is under no obligation to invite their attention, nor should he feel any compulsion to answer their questions. The Church should proceed on these issues in its own way and time, and that way and time is not that of the press.

Hillsong, of course, brought the media down upon their head and then tried to squirm through their uncomfortable questions, which strikes me as an obvious case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too. But it is the conservative response that interests me most, and the quickness by which people like Walker concluded that Hillsong was simply preparing to change their position. Alan Jacobs, in a more measured fashion, also pointed out that these “journeys” institutions are on only lead to one spot. The point is well made, and I sympathize with it. After all, it has history and statistics on its side—look at those United Methodists and Episcopalians, after all!—and who wants to argue with those?

Except Christians, anyway. Christians want to argue with history and statistics and all the other tools that give off the impression the “journey” inevitably leads away from orthodoxy. I understand (and share!) the skepticism about Hillsong and the concern they will become unorthodox to maintain their buildings and their crowds. But such a skepticism cannot be the first or final word, nor should it pervade our response to their wanderings. Any counsel or response we offer must be saturated in hope, which means we cannot consign people to a path before they have walked it. No institution is on a journey toward a more conservative outlook—yet. They might be, though, if at the moment of hesitation conservatives would walk along side them. Hillsong or any other organization may have a grand reversal, just as there may yet be a glorious revival.

For the one who is not against us is for us.” That word from the Gospel is not the only word our Savior gives to help us understand how we might relate to those outside the faith, but it is a word which deserves its place. Our Lord goes on to say that anyone who gives us a cup of water because we belong to Christ “will by no means lose his reward.” But the question for conservatives runs the opposite direction: If Hillsong or anyone else who gets weak-kneed on marriage “belongs to Christ,” will we offer them a cup of water or shake the dust from our feet? If they never belonged to Christ, then there is no reason to respond at all: they are who we thought they were, we might say, and go on our way.

Pulling the denunciation trigger quickly is an obvious path toward ensuring the clarifying press release is written, which is the only evidence many conservatives need to show the denunciatory strategy “works.” But the effort will ultimately come to nothing as long as it reinforces the rotten idea that the only movement possible is away from orthodoxy, not toward it. Denunciations and warnings have their place, just as the Bible’s warning passages have a serious place in the life of the church. But those do not come with the overtones of an inevitable apostasy, the way the conservative response to Hillsong did.

Walker’s post was aptly titled a “Church in Exile,” a mentality that unnecessarily hastens the exit of those on the fringes precisely because being a beleaguered minority becomes a necessary part of its self-consciousness. (The language of “faithful minority”, which Russell Moore has deployed at points, has the same kind of effect.) A church in exile will have more of an interest in “shoring up the faithful” than winning converts, precisely because it views its relationship to the surrounding world in necessarily oppositional terms. Yet it paradoxically seems to be proceeding by drawing the lines so narrowly around the “faithful” such that no church or institution who hesitates can have a place. The unintended casualties in such an environment are those who have hesitations and doubts about the traditional view: the stakes on this issue are unquestionably high, but if conservatives decide to greet every organization that seems to waffle with the swift word of warning I suspect they may find themselves much lonelier much faster than they need be.

“Breaking: Leading Evangelical Ethicist Wakes Up Thinking That the Gospel and Gay Marriage are Not Compatible, Just Like Yesterday.”

Besides being much too long, that’s not the kind of headline we’re going to see from the press anytime soon, at least not unaccompanied by a story filled with derision. And that is understandable: It is only news when someone of influences changes their mind. The news exists to tell us things we don’t know, not things we already do.

But therein lies a deep problem for how Christians should think of the media’s involvement in the debates within the church. For Augustine, curiosity is a vice which is marked in part by the aspiration for novelty: it seeks to comprehend that which was previously unknown. Our modern news obsession and the chatter (like this!) which accompanies it are structured by what the ancients considered an intellectual disease. The widespread interest in the “young evangelicals” (or now, “millennial Christians”)—of which I have been one of the main partakers of—is itself simply a part of the pervasively progressive assumptions which underly our media pursuits. There is no story if the young evangelicals are just like the old ones. The media culture depends upon the world being different than it is now, and so they endlessly look for such changes and so help bring them into being.

In that sense, stories about Gushee and Hillsong don’t have the kind of neutrality that newspaper people claim for them. It’s important to understand my point, as I’m not suggesting anything about the intentions of their writers. No journalist worth their salt deliberately sets an agenda that way. But the ‘newsworthiness’ of such accounts depends upon and deepens our fixation with whether evangelicals will stay orthodox on the question of marriage, and as such it has a formative effect as much as it responds to a “market demand.” If the underlying presuppositions of our media diet changed, Gushee’s shift would evoke more of a shrug: it’s not a story if Gushee had gone from being a just warrior to a pacifist, for instance, or vice versa (I don’t actually know his position on the question). We care not just about Gushee changing his mind, but changing his mind in this way because of the pervasive unsettledness on the question of marriage. But the media makes us care, too, in their selection and foregrounding of the accounts that they present.

It’s by no means clear to me that this media fixation is healthy for the life of the church, or for our roles within it. It is clear to me that evangelicals have a nasty case of it; our lack of interest in denominational and other institutional structures gives media stories an undue influence. In a weird way, conservative evangelicals fighting proxy-battles for orthodoxy through the media must undermine their own congregationalist ecclesiology, as bloggers claim for themselves the responsibility of shepherds for abstracted flocks which will never meet together, and challenge the authoritative guidance of local church pastors (like Hillsong’s) who have been entrusted by God for the care of their people. And they undermine their own conservative temperament, prescribing for every religious institution a path that pays no heed to how the particularities of time and space might determine the right course. Paradoxically, it’s just in those particular institutions where the long, plodding work of persuasion and discernment on these issues needs to happen. That Hillsong felt compelled to publicly respond with their clarification is, on this score, as troubling as their original statement itself.

Perhaps most troublingly, letting the news cycle determine our debates encourages a widespread hastiness to ‘set the narrative’ and, crassly, capture those retweets. Conservative evangelicals like me who have long mocked being ‘relevant’ are often the first people with a word about the controversy of the day. James 1:19 can mean many things, but at a minimum it seems to mean that we should be slow to speak (there’s your fancy exegesis for those who are scoring at home). The news cycle waits for no one, though, and so we hastily draw our conclusions before all the facts are even in.

I suspect that this media fixation and our curiosity for the ‘new’ breeds a kind of sympathy with progressive intuitions. The media’s interest in ‘novelty’ invariably brings more extreme forms of life into the foreground. The growing interest in polyamory at places like The Atlantic seems to be part of this trajectory: talking about gay unions is so 2000s, after all. The main counterexamples to my thesis, though, are those conservatives who themselves changed their minds, like Rosaria Butterfield. Her astonishing rise is a bit like an oasis in the desert: evangelicals rushed to her story out of a kind of desperation to counter a narrative that seems so pervasive around them. Matthew Schmitz’s account has a similar feeling. But such stories are indications of how deeply saturated by novelty our minds have become. The good news is good precisely because as news it is as old as the universe itself. At the end of the day, orthodoxy is going to be (as C.S. Lewis called it) the “same old thing.”

In a world where progressive impulses dominate, pessimism has an invaluable social role. The optimistic attitude toward ‘change’ is built into the progressive temperament, which loads the dice in its favor and then claims that the game is not rigged at all. (Roger Scruton’s book defending this thesis is the best on the subject.) The effect of this is that people who raise cautions or worries get cast as ‘curmudgeons’ or ‘cranky,’ which is the easiest and fastest way for progressives to delegitimize their critics. Casting those who disagree as “old” is not a mark of respect, even though it should be. It is instead a capitulation to the very culture of youth which flows from the same diseased fixation on the ‘new.’

I have myself been so characterized recently, and I understand well the dynamics that produce the charge. The easiest suggestion is that I am, in fact, becoming a curmudgeon and a crank in my middle age. And that may be right. Those I have disagreed with would probably be happy to so write me off: it is easy to ignore cranks, even when they provide reasons for their objections (which, whatever else my many failures might be, I have always sought to do).

But even if it is true, I am glad to be old ‘before my time’, for I do not view age as the enemy but as the friend of wisdom. I am increasingly pessimistic about the world, which means the triumphalism and rallying charges of ‘courage’ that my conservative friends have sounded ring hollow to me, and it means that my progressive friends who are joyfully ushering in the next phase of history are no more attractive. (You may feel free to characterize me as full of hubris at this point; I won’t deny it, and almost certainly confess it.) I am pessimistic about the quality of my own efforts this past decade to affect any meaningful change, and I am similarly pessimistic of most everyone else’s. I am pessimistic about the evangelical culture’s hurried, frenetic, passion-driven life, and pessimistic that we will discover the deep wellsprings of quiet, unmoving confidence for when we need it most. I am a pessimist in a world where pessimism is one of the only available sins.

But I have hope, and while my pessimism takes hold my hope grows stronger yet. I once heard Oliver O’Donovan suggest that at the start of the 20th century no one could have predicted that one of the great works of the Spirit would involve a faithful, hitherto unknown Anglican nurse introducing hospice care into the world. And likewise few of us may have eyes to see the great work of God that lies ahead of us. The great crisis of marriage which is now in its final stages (it’s final stages, mind you, not its first) may precipitate the renewal of the church. The explosion of singleness may move evangelicals to recover the witness of celibacy (as, indeed, I’m told ERLC emphasized in their conference this week). The escape from our bodiliness that our culture is awash in may awaken the deepest commitments to the flesh of our Savior in us. The exhaustion from our media-info-tainment diets may deepen our longing for the permanent things and the quiet stillness of prayer. In all this, and in so many more ways which are not now known to us, the Lord may come and renew our world. And the great number of evangelicals who are currently waffling and hesitating on the matter of marriage may awaken once again too, and find themselves on the side of the right. I have no confidence that this will happen: I am increasingly pessimistic about our efforts to bring it about. But I have a growing hope that this or much more may yet come to be.

A final, brief, and personal word: the above reflects my own failures and sins as much or more as it does any of my disagreements. If you wish to find places or ways that I have myself been complicit in the very mentality which I examine here, you will not have to look very far or very long ago (some may say yesterday, even!). My path through this world has been uneven: it has been marked by petty vices and failures, which I have no need to confess here. They are known well enough to myself, to God, and to those who have suffered them. But the one grace I have long thought God has given me was the willingness and strength to plumb those petty sins near to the bottom, to discover within them a path toward becoming more securely wise rather than a path toward my destruction. I have always found it easier to write from my failures, and to urge others away from them with as much grace as I can have.

The simplest explanation for the above is that I simply have a critical spirit with a heart that revels in controversies. That conclusion is not far from the truth, though not nearly so close as people might think. I have always felt free to say what I think, and received my most formative education in an environment where blunt disagreement was a sign of respect. I have never felt the impulse to join the team-mentality that pervades the conservative evangelical world (and which I have oft criticized before), and have been happy to dissent when I have thought dissenting needed to be done. I have always been more inclined to criticize when the format is limited: I save my substantive, positive proposals for the places where I can work them out in full. None of this fits very well in an environment where ‘nice’ is the currency of the day and fawning praise must precede and accompany every disagreement.

But still, you will find places that I count as failures. This post itself might be read as one, in its own way. The paradox which I face, and which I cannot escape, is that in bearing the message I engage in the same vices. The messenger is, in this case, highly unsuited for the task he discerns necessary. Such are, perhaps, the deepest and most profound sources for my pessimism. I am what’s wrong with the world, and I always have been. But so also my hope: the glory and the grace that are not of my own provide assurance and hope that despite all my worst efforts to the contrary, all things will one day be well.

 

Mere Fidelity: On Multiple Denominations (Ask Us Anything, vl. 1)

In this installment of Mere Fidelity, we take up the first of the questions which were put to us by you, our listeners:  what do we make of multiple denominations?

We didn’t get very far down the list of questions, so we decided that we needed to devote additional shows to them.  Turns out we either talk too much or your questions were too hard to sort out in five minute answers.  I’m going with the latter, myself, but listen and judge for yourself.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

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.

 

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 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. 

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.

 

The Death of Adulthood

We’ve reached the end of adulthood in America according to AO Scott. Or at least of the patriarchal version of it, anyway, which Scott sees in three paradigmatic dramas of our era—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, whose protagonists and their downfalls allow us to “marvel at the mask of masculine incompetence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly.”  On Scott’s reading, “in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”  It’s a provocative, sweeping hypothesis of the sort that are useful for engendering conversations, even if it doesn’t stand up under analysis.

And it may not:  David Marcus intemperately lambastes the essay, describing Scott’s style as “equal parts snobbery and self-effacement,” and his thesis a “crisis of the elites” rather than of “common folks.” Marcus presses the details of Scott’s historical case, and at some points makes appropriate corrections:  Scott’s description of the ‘Founding Fathers’, for instance, as “late adolescents” conflates rebellion against a paternalism of political authority with a dismissal of paternal authority per se, a move that at best seems highly tendentious without any further justification for it.

But on other points, Marcus (weirdly) buttresses Scott’s case even while attempting to dismiss it. As Marcus writes, “The last sitcom dad to get any kind of vaunted respect was Hugh Beaumont in ‘Leave it to Beaver.’” Technically, I suppose this contradicts Scott’s thesis that the past decade of television signals the “end of an era.”  But that the symptoms were present in previous generations isn’t exactly encouraging news, and makes me disposed to think that even if Mad Men is more the fruit of a long degeneration rather than an epochal revolution, Scott’s main point that we have a crisis of adulthood has some merit to it.

Yes, it is tempting to speak as though nothing in our culture has changed.  Every age has its antecedents, after all. We can speak of contemporary movie violence as though it is a Brand New Thing, but have you seen Titus Andronicus? Everyone dies, and in the most horrific of ways. Was that an outlier, or was the range of ‘acceptable’ simply that broad? If we take the movies as indicative of anything about a culture—and I’ll need some persuading that we shouldn’t—it’s hard for me to imagine Billy Madison or Borat finding a meaningful audience within the same culture that made and enjoyed Leave it to Beaver. The “Overton Window” for acceptable behaviors on screen has shifted, and certainly that means something. 

Ignoring that shift, and so leaving it unexplained, is the weakest part of Marcus’s response. He may consider the crisis of adulthood to be an “elite” phenomenon, a symptom of a liberal progressivism which wants its liberation and equality while having its dignity too.  Yes, NCIS is popular:  but so is Castle, and is there a show that better highlights the kind of adolescent-adulthood that is, for many young men, aspirational?  And “bro comedies” exist, which Scott deploys but Marcus does not mention. The aforementioned television dramas may have relatively small audiences: but a culture is made of its comedies as well, and on Scott’s hypothesis the emasculation of men in our highbrow dramas and the crass, juvenile antics of our cheap comedies are but two sides of the same adolescent coin.

Scott himself is aggravatingly ambivalent about these changes (contra Marcus’s description of him as “rooting for it”), even to the point of incoherent. “Just as men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive to a stage of infantile refusal,” he writes, “so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression.” I think that’s supposed to be an artful phrase, but what on earth does it mean?  Have there been benefits to the new culture?  Unquestionably.  But for whom, and at what cost?  If Scott’s own thesis is right, we can have our liberation from the patriarchy and all the benefits that accrue to women, but apparently only at the expense of everyone’s adulthood.  (Or that has been the cost, anyway:  we may be able to conceive of a different path to where we’ve come, now that we are looking back upon it.) Still, is there a point where the cost for such “progress” becomes simply too high to pay?  It’s not fashionable for Scott to shout “get off my lawn”, but progressives are not immune to the possibility of “buyer’s remorse.” Scott’s piece reads like someone who has woken up to what the progressive cultural temperament has wrought, and is somewhat unsettled by it.

My initial disposition, unlike Marcus’ slash-and-burn approach, is to welcome Scott as a potential cultural ally:  “Come on in, sir, the conservative water is fine.”  Or something like that. It ought to be a welcome sign that an admittedly progressive writer at the New York Times has been reduced to sounding crankier than many conservatives manage to. In this world, we cannot have too many allies.

But more interesting, and difficult, questions emerged once my smug schaudenfreude passed:  I mean, it’s great and all to point to the costs of our current culture, but we clearly aren’t going back. Manhood will inevitably take its form now in a “post-patriachal” age, and that has to mean something for how conservatives think of and conceive of adulthood.  Even if we think that the forces that undermined adulthood in America are rotten to the core, we’re all living in the environment they created. And neither Marcus’ optimistic account that the death of adulthood has been “greatly exaggerated” or my gut “we told you so” meaningfully solve the more pressing question of what shape adulthood should take in a world of creeping adolescence, and where the pressures on men and women are different than any they’ve known before.**

*Yes, Castle has the luxury to play with his toys and hard-working ‘Muricans don’t have time to worry about the death of adulthood. But toys and fun are what we want these days, even if we have to spend our days working to get them.

** This is a generalized claim, which may or may not be true about any particular person or even specific sub-communities.