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.

The Expansion of the Good: On the Moral Universe of Prudence

“There may be many ways to do wrong in this world, but there are also many paths to the right; those governed by prudence are willing to at least admit the possibility.”

That’s from my recent article at Comment Magazine, a subscription to which would make an excellent Christmas gift to the thoughtful Christian reader in your life.  I sent them a piece that was wreckage, and they graciously helped me work through my intuitions.  I write to learn, sometimes, and this was one of those cases.

Still, I want to say one or two more words about this above line, as the thought beneath it has been rattling around upstairs for a while.  It is tempting to think of ‘prudence’ as virtue which is perpetually guarding against a nearly limitless number of wrongs, which make any action perilous at all. Aristotle famously sums up the intuition by suggesting that “there are many ways to be in error…but there is only one way to be correct.”  Beneath this lies the Pythagorean notion that the bad is boundless and undetermined, but the good has a kind of limited and determined nature: whereas the wrongs are infinite, the good is finite and bounded.*

Now, I am half disposed to grant that this is not merely true, but obviously so:  in evaluating a particular situation, it’s easy to think that the wrongs can multiply, as every husband frantically attempting to find a Christmas gift for his wife will unhappily attest to. From the standpoint of the person who is just or courageous, there may only be one path through certain difficulties, where the goods involved are obscured or limited by the magnitude of the moral dangers and wrongs that such a situation involves. There may be no apparent good to a pregnant woman with cancer who is deliberating about her course: or if there are, it certainly seems like the number and gravity of potential wrongs vastly exceeds them.

But if we remove ourselves from deliberating about the tragic situation, things seem different: it is, in the course of our normal life, the goods that are boundless and infinite and under-specified and the wrongs limit and constrain us. Consider all the goods which might be undertaken in the time it takes to read these musings:  you might enjoy a cup of tea, or donate some money to a charity, or buy a Christmas gift on Amazon, or write a note to your loved ones.  Or perhaps you might undertake a few moments of prayer, or reflect on your own path, or comfort a friend who is in sorrow. There are so many goods in this world that we can fulfill: to consider the opportunities to do good even within a single life is almost immobilizing.  Determining which goods to pursue is at least as difficult as discerning which wrongs to avoid.

I have vague, inarticulate suspicions that the moral atmosphere generated by each of these two outlooks will be very different, and that they matter for what form we imagine the virtue of prudence to take. Asking about the goods I might participate in is a generative question: it is a question which expands our imaginations and turns our attention away from the wrongs which might beset us toward the opportunities to partake in the growing goodness of the world that we have been given. “Let us not become weary in doing good” is a bit of psychological counsel that has deep metaphysical roots: it is tempting to allow lassitude about the goods before us to take over, and to allow our entire spiritual and moral horizons to be overwhelmed by avoiding the sheer volume of potential wrongs before us.

George MacDonald’s little novel sums up the danger in a way that has haunted me since I first read it:

‘I didn’t mean to do any harm, ma’am. I didn’t think of its being yours.’

‘Ah, Curdie! If it weren’t mine, what would become of it now?’ she returned. ‘You say you didn’t mean any harm: did you mean any good, Curdie?’

‘No,’ answered Curdie.

‘Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. But I try to give everybody fair play; and those that are in the wrong are in far more need of it always than those who are in the right: they can afford to do without it. Therefore I say for you that when you shot that arrow you did not know what a pigeon is. Now that you do know, you are sorry. It is very dangerous to do things you don’t know about.’

“Did you mean any good, Curdie?”  It is the good which is boundless, which is infinite, and which if we participate in is a source of endless youth and renewal and joy.  Prudence must, first and foremost, be an activity of mind which turns toward the goods within a particular situation and determines which of them should be undertaken.  And if we will so direct our minds, I suspect we will discover a more varied and colorful universe, full of possibilities for action and imagination, than we had previously known.

*Aristotle is considering the nature of virtue, which is an agent-centered concern and may explain why he is interested in a more limited form of the good.

Mere Fidelity: Teens and Sexting

Hanna Rosin’s recent article at The Atlantic on teens and sexting is a long, disturbing look at a widespread trend. It’s definitely worth a read, though that isn’t necessary to listen to our conversation about it.

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: 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.

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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