In 1948 the Bible Presbyterian Church, a quasi-fundamentalist evangelical denomination, sent a 36-year-old pastor and his family to Europe to check on the state of the church after World War II. The family settled in Switzerland and worked mostly in child evangelism before coming back to the United States in the early 1950s on furlough. They returned in 1955 and settled down in a village called Huemoz, a small Swiss village about one mile up into the Swiss Alps near Lausanne. At that time their oldest daughter began attending university and would bring her friends back home with her to visit on weekends.
One point that deserves special mention with the ongoing conversation about “respectable” Christianity concerns the plausibility of “orthodoxy” in the minds of many of our non-Christian neighbors. One of the unique challenges facing Christianity in the coming years is that the very notion of religious orthodoxy doesn’t really make sense to many contemporary Americans.
We understand the idea of orthodoxy in some spheres, particularly in politics. Most Americans would find it quite odd if, for example, a gun-loving libertarian wanted to run for the Senate as a Democrat. We recognize that in politics certain beliefs tend to belong to certain groups. So if you favor a single payer healthcare system, that’s fine, but you probably should hang out with the Democrats rather than the Republicans. But we generally don’t have a similar understanding of this when it comes to religious identity.
Part of the issue, no doubt, is that many strands of American Christianity have defined themselves more in terms of methods and techniques for doing ministry rather than well-defined theological creeds. As a result, many Christian young people have grown up in the church without developing a robust understanding of Christian theology or why we do the things we do.
A related issue is the problem of how many churches have tended to fall back on business jargon as a way of talking about church life, which merely makes explicit the sense that Christian faith isn’t really about articles of belief so much as it is about achieving certain results for yourself and your community. This is one of the troubling under-currents to the ongoing Mark Driscoll saga, for instance, as Doug Wilson wisely noted in his post on the issue last week.
Today we live in a world where pastors of churches large and small post their sermons online almost immediately. Many live-stream and some churches even offer sophisticated viewing experiences allowing viewers to provide feedback. What’s more, the advent of smart phones and social media has made Sunday sermons an interactive experience. Social media on Sunday is filled with comments and quotes drawn from the church service. Christian conferences are chronicled live on Twitter with special hash tags, Instagram pictures, and commentary.
Some lament (link mine) this new reality. They say we are eroding the value of the incarnational experience of hearing a message. This is a valid concern, but pastors and church leaders must deal with the world that is: a digital conversation that is here to stay. So preachers must reckon with reality: when you walk up to the pulpit or lectern, you are not merely speaking to the room. You are speaking the outside world as well.
This reality shouldn’t change the substance of the old-time gospel story. But it should cause us to think through the content we deliver, knowing we are often speaking simultaneously to both the choir and to outsiders, some of whom are ready to pounce on every stray word.
So far as it goes, this communications advice Dan Darling offered to pastors on preaching in the age of podcasting is sound. If you’re a public figure who makes a living communicating, you should follow his advice unless you want to end up with a massive PR nightmare on your hands. Yet what’s troubling about the piece is perhaps precisely that point: I could give the exact same advice to any other communications professional without really changing any of it. Note how effortlessly Darling assumes that pastors do record their sermons and make them available as podcasts. The unjustified assumption behind this piece–left unjustified, one assumes, because no one bothers to argue against it these days–is that pastors should make their sermons available as podcasts. But why do we make that assumption so effortlessly? Why should we record and podcast sermons? There are, after all, very good reasons not to record them–we just have forgotten them.
I have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.
I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism
While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.
Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.
Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books. Continue reading
In The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry Anthony Esolen notes that Berry’s longest Port William novel, Jayber Crow, is in many ways a modern day retelling of Dante. Berry’s own language throughout the book suggests the comparison, as his narrator, the novel’s subject and namesake, makes frequent mention of “the Dark Wood of Error.” What’s more, it’s hard not to note the similarities in Jayber’s relationship to Mattie and Dante’s to Beatrice–in both cases the story’s narrator is drawn to God via the love he has toward a godly woman he will only know from a distance. To understand the broader argument, you should just buy the book.
But here I want to focus on the particular question of what specifically brings about Jayber’s conversion and what exactly Jayber is converting to. The setting of the novel is mid 20th century small town Kentucky, particularly the small town of Port William. The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Jayber Crow, is a seminary dropout and barber who is in his early 40s and has been back in the Port William area for about 20 years. In the opening scenes of the novel, we meet a character who embodies the independent spirit we often associate with Kentucky. In one scene he describes sitting in a classroom at the orphanage where he grew up, staring out the window, longing to be out in a field instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom going over boring lessons.
In another scene, the young Crow actually makes a run for it and gets some distance from the school before the headmaster, who bears the the wonderfully Dickensian name “Brother Whitespade,” sees him and chases him down, dragging him back to the school. Crow describes his deep-seated fear of sitting at the foot of a desk staring up at his superior and so “the man behind the desk” becomes a shorthand in the novel for all things modern, bureaucratic, and confining. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the decisions made by Jayber in the novel’s early days are built around resisting the man behind the desk and protecting his own independence and autonomy at any cost
Normally this would go up over at Notes, but we wanted to be sure that everyone sees the full roundup of responses (so far) to last week’s Future of Protestantism event at Biola. There figure to be more responses in the weeks to come so we’ll keep this piece updated as new responses are published.
Dr. Sanders has written his own reflections on the event here.
There’s a further Tolkien-related question that needs to be discussed after last week’s comments by George RR Martin, concerning the role of violence in Tolkien’s legendarium. Martin asked in the interview if Aragorn hunted down and killed all the orcs after his ascent to the throne, “even the little baby orcs in their orc cradles?”
As it happens, this is a terrible way of raising an interesting point. We need to talk about violence in Tolkien if we are to talk intelligently about his politics, but talking about the orcs is the wrong way of doing that. Tolkien is fairly dodgy about the origins of the orc, but the best hints we have are that orcs were originally elves who joined with Morgoth, the original Dark Lord for whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant. Due to their allegiance to Morgoth, the orcs were, by definition, evil to their core and were incapable of redemption. So the only thing left was to fight them and attempt to eradicate them. You can find ambiguity in Tolkien’s work regarding violence, but if you go looking for it in his treatment of the orcs you’re looking in the wrong place.
Martin’s comment about “little orc babies” is especially telling as it betrays a surprising ignorance of Tolkien’s world—it’s far from clear that there ever were such things as baby orcs. Tolkien never describes how exactly an individual orc comes to be, but there’s some reason to suspect that Peter Jackson’s view that orcs were made rather than born is correct. Indeed, if one reflects on the fact of Tolkien’s Catholicism it’s not hard to imagine him thinking that orcs, by virtue of their essential selfishness and lack of even the most basic form of affection or love, would be incapable of having sex and giving birth in the same way as the free peoples of Middle Earth. The simple act of sex, as Tolkien understood it, would have been the least orc-ish thing one could possibly do. (It is perhaps unsurprising that a man who writes sex in the way that Martin does would fail to pick up on this point.) So while it may seem an obvious place to go in thinking about violence in Tolkien’s work, the orcs are not the best place to begin.
“Port William repaid watching. I was always on the lookout for what would be revealed. Sometimes nothing would be, but sometimes I beheld astonishing sights.”
The lesson from that quote (from Wendell Berry) is that fidelity to a place, a people, or a tradition is often its own reward. This is because learning to actually see something takes a great deal of time. It is only through the virtues of patience and affection that we can come to truly know a place and find our home in it. Seeing these things properly is something that takes a great deal of time to do, and the longer you take at it the more apt you are to realize how much more there is to see. This was the thought I continued to have as I watched the Future of Protestantism event earlier this week.
The event seems to have been prompted by two things: The first, and more acknowledged, of the two was the discussion stirred up last year by Dr. Peter Leithart when he published his “End of Protestantism” piece for First Things. But the second point, which stood behind much of the discussion and was explicitly mentioned by Dr. Trueman on several occasions, is the increased trendiness amongst younger evangelicals of swimming the Tiber in hopes of finding a more historically informed, sacramentally-grounded church home. Recently on Twitter Alan Jacobs pointed out that the two trends he sees regarding Protestant-Catholic relations are that evangelicals are friendlier to Catholics while the Catholics are becoming ever more critical of the evangelicals. As a result, many younger evangelicals are (reputedly at least, we still don’t have any good data on this) crossing the Tiber as they become more interested in Rome and Rome develops a stronger polemic against their Protestant tradition. One day a curious evangelical college student decides on a whim to read Thomas and within a week they’re convinced that the Roman church is the only holy and catholic church.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone George RR Martin had this to say about the differences between his work and that of JRR Tolkien.
“A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”
To some degree, Martin’s point is well-taken. For all the detail of his worlds, Tolkien doesn’t often wade into the more prosaic details that some find so interesting. (Although I do suspect the rise of the wonk probably exacerbates this issue–few eras have been more obsessed with prosaic detail than our own.)
That said, I think he sells Tolkien a bit short as well. It’s actually not as hard to deduce Tolkien’s politics as is sometimes said. To take one example, consider Aragorn’s decree about the Shire after the Ring has been destroyed. He decrees that the Shire will be kept for the Hobbits alone, with no “Big People” being allowed in. In fact, Tolkien points out in one of the appendices that Aragorn himself never entered the Shire again after making that decree. That suggests that Tolkien believed a just king is a king who respects the way of life of other places and, as much as he can, attempts to protect it from outside forces, including himself.
Recently my friend and occasional Mere O contributor Alastair Roberts exchanged a few emails about Lent that then turned toward a broader discussion of Christian piety and individualism. The exchange is shared below. I’ve slightly indented Alastair’s responses in order to make it a bit more clear where my part ends and his begins. (And if you missed Keith’s post from a few weeks back, do go and read that too.)
Alastair – I’ll kick things off.
My best guess as to why we’re seeing more evangelicals embracing Lent is that many of us have a reasonable desire to embrace a type of Christian piety with roots in the historical church. Many of us grew up with a piety which was often disconnected from historical church practices, particularly on matters related to liturgy, the sacraments, the church year, and so on. At the church I grew up in we had the Eucharist once a quarter. The largest church here in Lincoln, meanwhile, has one baptism service a year.
I suspect–or I hope–that more and more younger evangelicals are coming to see the lack of historical roots in our piety as a problem and so they are trying to do something about it–hence, Lent (amongst other things).
But it seems like there’s two main problems with this. The first is that most of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.