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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan’s comment in full: 

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

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

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

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

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

Mere Fidelity: Lament and the Church

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mere Fidelity: Our Culture of Public Shaming

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

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

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

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


Mere Fidelity: Living through the Church’s Exile

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

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

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

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

Writing as though History Happened: On Being Countercultural Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mere Fidelity: The Skeletons in God’s Closet

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

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

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

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

Mere Fidelity: Christmas


In this episode, the gang celebrates Christmas by teasing Derek, talking about their favorite books of the year, and engaging other various and sundry topics.

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: Atonement

What shape should the atonement take as a doctrine?  Is penal substitutionary atonement an appropriate account of the doctrine?  Derek and I are joined by not one, but two guests for a conversation about the doctrine of the atonement.

Adam Johnson is a professor at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute (my alma mater), and is the author of God’s Being in Reconciliation and The Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (forthcoming). He also gave this interesting lecture on angels and the atonement, for those who are interested.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is (among other things) a writer and cultural critic.  He writes regularly at Patheos and has a column at The Week as well (which I highly recommend).

During the show, we talked a little about this post by Pascal.  See his follow-up as well.  And if you’re looking for a post that’s way too long on the subject, check out this missive by Derek.

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 Derek for more tweet-sized brilliance.

Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry

Some conservative evangelicals have been revisiting whether it’s permissible to be gay and a Christian recently. I generally try to steer clear of that discussion, as I find it often reinforces notions of ‘identity’ that are too underdeveloped to be helpful. “Identity” language is a virus in the church that addles the brains of otherwise very intelligent people.* The old forgotten terminology of virtues, character, acts, and so on was much clearer and did not have the incantatory effect ‘identity’ clearly does within the evangelical world, and if I had my way we’d all return to it.

World MagazineThis latest round of discussion was prompted by Julie Roys’ article at World about Julie Rodgers, a chaplain at Wheaton who identifies as gay while being staunchly committed to traditional Christian norms of chastity and celibacy.** This is a position that has become identified with the excellent blog “Spiritual Friendship,” which my friends Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill have run. But according to Roys, this way of dividing things up is unorthodox. Or as Owen Strachan puts it, evangelicals who take this stance are “playing with theological fire.” While I agree with Strachan up to this point, I’d add that so are those who reject it: to think theologically at all is to play with fire.  The only question is whether we shall all be sanctified by the process of such thinking, or burned to ashes and left in a heap.

Having noted my general reluctance to taking up this issue, though, allow me to wade in more directly on the question, as to this point I’m not at all persuaded by Roys or Strachan that conservative Christians should be Really Worried about Rodgers’ view. Strachan laid out ten theses on the subject in order to pursue some desperately needed clarity, including definitions of the contested terms ‘orientation,’ ‘temptation’, and ‘desire.’ Of course, definitions can be used in a lot of ways, and Strachan loads the dice against Rodgers in a way that is simply not helpful. He suggests that ‘orientation’ is a pattern of desires “oriented toward an end,” which in this case is same-sex sexual activity. I say it’s not helpful because if that’s what an orientation is then I doubt Rodgers (or Wesley Hill or Ron Belgau: hereafter Rodgers and co.) thinks, in the final analysis, that it would be compatible with the traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality, teaching which they clearly affirm.*** Let me put it this way: while Michael Hannon wants to destroy the ‘orientation’ regime altogether, Rodgers and co. want to reform it by untethering the term ‘gay’ from its common association with sex acts or the desires that may lead them. They have inflationary aims for the term: they want to fill it in with lots of other content that is morally commendable, even while they recognize that their usage may be idiosyncratic given its common associations.

Now, there are aspects of this approach that are entirely commendable and seem to me to be far more psychologically palatable than the negation-focused strategy of ‘identity curation’ that Roys and Strachan seem to be endorsing. The good has its own internal power, and growth and expansion is its inner law. This is the basic rule which C.S. Lewis famously alluded to in suggesting that we sin not because our desires are too strong, but because they are too weak: we go on “making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” By orienting ourselves wholeheartedly toward goods, we can crowd out—or severely diminish—the strength that wrongs have over us. By attending to and focusing on what is lovely, true, and worthy of affirmation within the cluster of thoughts and desires that come with occasionally or frequently experiencing same-sex attraction—being ‘gay’—while simultaneously affirming the order which God has established, gay Christians are attempting to establish the very conditions which Roys and Strachan would want to affirm, namely the possibility that disordered desires would fade away. If nothing else, the gay Christian strategy (of the Rodgers and co. variety) is at least biblical in this respect: it takes Paul’s admonition to attend carefully to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…excellent or praiseworthy.”

But Strachan’s article goes on, and unfortunately it does not get better. Strachan lays down his definitions in order to pursue clarity, but then in a key passage introduces more terms that leave his position at best ambiguous, and at worst a confused muddle. I quote in full:

    1. But here we must be careful: attraction or interest is not the same thing as sinful desire. It is right for a man to want one-flesh union with a woman, and vice versa. But there is only [one] person with whom such love may be consummated (Genesis 2: Matthew 19:3-6). All who are not our spouse, therefore, must be treated like a brother or a sister. We might be oriented to be attracted to the opposite sex (this is God’s creational purpose, after all), but this does not mean that we desire in an actional way all women. In fact, regeneration means that we actively fight our desire for all members of the opposite sex who are not our spouse.

      So here we see the distinction that must be drawn between heterosexual attraction or interest and homosexual attraction or interest. Heterosexual interest is God-glorifying. It is right in terms of God’s creational purposes for men, in general, to have an interest in women–to be drawn to them in some way. This interest must be bounded, though, by Paul’s admonition to treat all non-spousal members of the opposite sex as “sisters” or brothers with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:2). So there is an appropriate outlet for heterosexual interest, which is not necessarily wrong but must be directed toward a God-glorifying end.

      Heterosexual attraction or interest is not by nature wrong. But when we cross over the “treat women or men as sisters or brothers” line, then such morally praiseworthy interest has become sinful. A man may find his sister pretty, for example, but he is never able to sexually desire her. The same is not true for homosexual interest; there is nothing creationally right about it. The woman was made for the man, as Genesis 2:18 shows. There is no appropriate outlet for homosexual interest. It is not morally praiseworthy by its nature. A man who desires another man, for example, is morally complicit. Of course, a man might find another man to be handsome, but this is not the same thing as desiring him; it is by definition not SSA or “gayness.” The presence of desire, which is the very nature of SSA and “gayness,” indicates that we have crossed the line into sinful behavior.

Strachan introduces new terms here, ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’, which he had not previously defined. Those terms allow him to create an asymmetry between “heterosexual attraction” and “homosexual attraction” in a way that I don’t think is justified. For Strachan, ‘attraction’ seems to be functioning in a proto-sexual kind of way: men are ‘attracted to’ women as a class of people, even if they might sexually desire individuals. Now, that may be true of men “in general”, or as a general class. But it’s hard to know what it means for any particular male to be ‘attracted to’ women as a general class of people, especially if that ‘attraction’ is not yet a sexual attraction or desire. Strachan never says in what way it is right for a male to be drawn to a woman, but his mention of sibling-relationships creates a real problem for what I take to be his view. If the ‘attraction’ is proto-sexual, then it’s hard to see how having an attraction to one’s sister is permissible. If the attraction is not-sexual at all, though, such that a male can have this ‘attraction’ to his sister in a way that’s licit, then it’s not obvious to me why the same man might not have a similar attraction to a member of the same sex. Strachan seems to intuitively recognize that the ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’ terms don’t quite get him where he wants to go:  he slips back into the category of desire in speaking about same-sex ‘interest’. For heterosexuals the two categories are held apart, but for gay people they are collapsed together.

Similarly, Strachan’s notion that there is an appropriate ‘outlet’ for this interest—namely, treating each other as siblings—raises the same question about whether or why the same ‘outlet’ could not be appropriate for the interest in the same-sex. Again, if this ‘interest’ is tied to sexual desire, then it seems like the appropriate “outlet” of it would be the marriage of a single woman. I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to tie the norms of ‘siblinghood’ to this proto-sexual ‘interest.’

If anything, the imagery of siblinghood works against such a conjunct: even today, there are strong taboos against anything hinting of sexual attraction between siblings. But then again I’m left wondering, if these ‘interests’ or ‘attractions’ are not sexual (or, as I’ve been calling them, proto-sexual) then it’s not clear why they cannot be had between the sexes licitly, or why the norm governing them for members of the same-sex would not also be siblinghood.

Allow me to try to tease out what I think Strachan is trying to get at in a scenario that I present in far too attenuated form here. In the first, a young man sits in a coffee shop reading David Copperfield while listening to music. He is, by all external appearances, lost to the world. Yet as often happens in coffee shops, the door opens and he glances up to see a woman he does not know, but who he finds unspeakably beautiful, walk in. After she orders, she sits at the armchair across from him and opens up a copy of Bleak House and begins to read. From this point on, we might say he is lost to the world: he has noticed her, and feels as though he can’t help but attend to her, so taken he is by her charm and by her literary interests. He wishes, above all, to speak to her and find out her name and to understand what her interest in Bleak House is. Yet being of the bashful sort, he suppresses any thought of saying ‘hello’ and continues in vain to read the same page over and over.

Now, it’s just in such an experience that we might say there is some kind of ‘attraction.’ Is it sexual? The thought is almost offensive: it is a strong interest, one which the fact of her beauty doubtlessly plays a role in and which may be converted to a sexual desire under the right conditions, but there is no reason to think that it is at this point. Is it benign? Not necessarily: it is an asymmetrical, non-reciprocal interest at this point, which may actually be unwelcome and has not been invited. And he may be in the conditions where its development into a sexual desire would be imprudent, and so if he recognizes that he is eager for it to become a sexual desire, he may wish to avoid conversation altogether. But ‘potent’ is not the same as ‘morally wrong,’ and there is no reason yet to think that such an attraction is wrong. Does it change the moral analysis if the person across the table is the same-sex, and our young man identifies as ‘gay’ and sometimes or frequently experiences same-sex sexual desires? It seems to me the answer is clearly not: this kind of magnetic interest (call it ‘chemistry) seems to be able to be untethered from sexual desires rather easily, even if this kind of experience happens more frequently with the same sex among those who are ‘gay’ than those who are not.  The only way in which it does become morally problematic is if all such moments are inherently ordered toward sexual fulfillment: but there is a vast continuum of ‘attractions’ and ‘interests’ before the pursuit of sexual activity comes on the table, and it is just this continuum which Rodgers and co. seem to (rightly) want to draw our attention to.

And there are good reasons for them wanting to. If a young man who identified as gay experienced this kind of magnetic attentiveness with members of the same-sex on a regular basis, he might be aware of certain dynamics within same-sex relationships that those who do not so experience it are not. He may not necessarily have a ‘privileged insight’ into friendship that heterosexual people lack: but then, I’ve learned as much about the structure of marriage from a man who was single his whole life as I have anyone else, so it’s not clear to me that ‘experience’ of any sort necessarily provides privileged access. Our capacity for empathetic imagination and our ability to understand each other is much greater than we realize. But even if his access into (say) the structure of friendship isn’t necessarily privileged by virtue of this regular occurrence, he may have an acute sensitivity or awareness of its structure that others lack. The absence of any threat of sexual attraction in a relationship may actually have a dulling effect on its possibilities or its dangers: paradoxically, the person who never experiences same-sex attraction at all may more easily presume that they understand friendship in a way that someone who must be constantly vigilant about the possibility of eros arising cannot be. And in this way, the gay Christian might remind other Christians of certain aspects or possibilities of non-sexual relationships that we may be prone to forget otherwise. That is, at least, my reformulation of the kind of ‘gay Christianity’ that I see Rodgers and co. advancing at its best.

The unhappy fact from the point of the theorist is that sexual desires emerge in us along within a whole cluster of thoughts, sentiments, anxieties, fears, intentions, and other psychological apparatus. Strachan is right that we need more clarity in our concepts as we unravel all of these, but I don’t think he’s delivered on it. (Until I put together my own etiology of sexual desire, which I’ve wanted to do for years, readers should read Roger Scruton’s book.)

Either way, Rodgers and co. are on the side of the angels, and conservative evangelicals would do well to listen attentively to their experiences and theorize and reflect along with them. No, I’m quite serious: they are literally on the side of the angels, for they all are all working within their own lives to point toward the resurrection, when we “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” It may sound strange to the evangelical ear that their resolute commitment to the norms of chastity can sit side-by-side with a term that is associated with desires and acts that we have moral objections to. And no, Rodgers and co. are not above critique: I myself have wondered (in private correspondence) whether other terms might serve their ‘reclamation ends’ better than a term already as loaded as ‘gay’, if only because reclaiming terms is hard and making new ones is easy. But at the same time, had they taken my path I suspect that we would not be having this discussion. And how to think about sexual desire is a discussion evangelicals still need to have.


*Yes, if you search the archives you will quickly discover that the ferocity of my judgment is rooted in the severity of my own penitence for my culpability in the crime.

** I don’t know Julie Roys, but I have been on her show a few times and have enjoyed it immensely. I don’t know Julie Rodgers either, but based on her writings she seems very smart and kind.

*** I’m making my claim here based on reading them. I may be wrong, though, and would be happy to be corrected.