Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation

common objects of love o'donovanRecently 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.

Continue reading

An Interview with Dan Siedell on Faith and Art

Last fall I had the chance to meet Dan Siedell, a fellow Lincoln native, when he made a trip back to Nebraska. (Dan teaches classes at both Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale and at The King’s College in Manhattan.) We were able to have lunch as well as organize a brief discussion night at my church on issues related to Christianity and art. After our time together, I had several questions I wanted to ask Dan based on his comments at the event. So Dan and I stayed in touch and over the next few months did a long interview about the relationship between art, worldviews, and the life of local communities.

JM: In an interview in Curator, you said that if your first introduction to modern art had been with Hans Rookmaker, the Dutch critic who influenced Francis Schaeffer so deeply, you would have been forced to either give up your art or your faith. Why is that?

DS: I came to Rookmaaker, like I came to Schaeffer, after I’d already completed my course work for a Ph.D. in the history of modern art, after I’d moved to New York to study with a critic, moved again to pursue doctoral studies. When I was writing my dissertation, I’d already been married for three years, had our first child, and so I already had considerable skin—and bone—in the game. I’d sacrificed so much and knew that I would be called on to sacrifice a lot more to pursue my passion for modern art. [Rookmaker's work] just rang hollow to me.

And I think it rang hollow for me because Rookmaaker’s and Schaeffer’s worldview focus was intellectual—it was about ideas and thoughts—and art was always just an expression of such things. For both [of them] there was a certain distance—art was kept at arm’s length, as it were. And that was not my experience. Now, I’ve had many people who studied with those two men tell me that they were passionate about it and encouraged their students to engage it. But their writing didn’t communicate that to me. I was converted to modern art through writing, through words, and so I’m very sensitive to my own voice and communicating a passion for my subject, a passion that encourages participation, not dismissal. Their work was also about a particular moment in which the “Christian artist” was a viable way to be faithfully present in culture. I don’t think that’s the case now.

Continue reading

Are Millennials Joining High Church Traditions?

high church protestantism

You can reject the faddishness and superficiality of contemporary evangelicalism without rejecting evangelicalism itself.

Gracy Olmstead has written the latest edition of an article that is in danger of becoming a meme amongst traditionalist conservatives: Millennial Christians are, apparently, converting to high church traditions en masse. Rebecca Van DoodewaardJeremy Tate, and Scot McKnight have also discussed this issue recently so it’s hardly a new story. There’s two things that need to be raised every time this article is written and, as best I can tell, none of them are discussed at any length in any of the pieces I’ve found.

First, there isn’t a ton of data showing how many people actually are converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Anglicanism out of more evangelical backgrounds. (And we probably shouldn’t be including Anglicanism with Orthodoxy or Catholicism anyway, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.) Here’s the data we do have: Data from February of 2011 from the Pew Forum found that 9% of all Americans are former Catholics whereas only 7% of Americans are ex-Protestants. Of that 9% that have left Catholicism, 5% converted to Protestantism.

While it’s fair for members of high church traditions to point out that many of the converts to Protestantism are less engaged to begin with, while converts to Catholicism tend to be more noteworthy (Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, Jason Stellman, etc.), that doesn’t change the fact that more people convert from Catholicism to Protestantism than vice versa—a fact that most of these stories ignore completely.

Continue reading

The Invisible Anglicanism of CS Lewis

cs lewis

(image source wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._S._Lewis)

If you spend any length of time interacting with contemporary writing about CS Lewis, you’ll discover one thing almost instantly: Lewis has become a theological Rorshach test for his readers. This was one of the dominant themes of the many tributes published about him on the 50th anniversary of his death this past November.

A certain group of Catholic readers—let’s call them “Chesterton’s warrior children”—cannot imagine someone like Lewis writing the things he did and not converting to Catholicism at some point. And since they cannot grant the possibility that one can write like Lewis and be Protestant, they are forced to conjure up fanciful theories to explain Lewis’s Protestantism. The best example of this is the “Ulsterior motive” theory, which claims that Lewis never got over the deep-seated anti-Catholic sentiments of his youth. (These critics conveniently fail to note that his family never seemed to possess any strong anti-Catholic sentiments to begin with, given that their servants were Catholic and Lewis’s parents were not terribly committed to the more radical brands of Irish protestantism.) The warrior children manage to say this with a straight face, which is somewhat remarkable given that many of Lewis’s closest friends were, of course, Catholic.

Meanwhile, American evangelical readers tend to see Lewis as a proto-evangelical, a man utterly committed to classic creedal orthodoxy and utterly uninterested in delving any deeper than that. He is the mere Christian par excellance in their minds and represents a tacit endorsement of the evangelical tendency to avoid the thornier theological questions that usually prompt one to seek out a confessional identity of some sort.

Continue reading

Responses to Why We Need Small Towns

small-town NebraskaOne of the frustrations of a short-form essay is that you don’t get to say all the things you’d like to say about the topic. This in turn leads to responses which actually end up saying many of the things you’d have liked to say if only you had more space. So it is with the responses to my Why We Need Small Towns essay published recently at Rod Dreher’s blog and at Brian Gumm’s Restorative Theology.

The essential point raised in both responses is that it’s lovely to speak of the necessity of small-town life and of what small towns can teach us, but if we don’t have a plan for participating in and preserving the economic life of small towns, we are radically unprepared to actually act upon any of our words in any meaningful way. That’s a true point, and certainly one deserving of a response.

To begin, small towns may not be as doomed economically as they’re sometimes made out to be. One of the blessing of the foodie craze is that more and more young people are looking to farm. While it’s true that the food fad has inspired lots of silliness, it has also pushed us toward a greater awareness of our dependence upon creation and our responsibility to steward it affectionately–and for that we ought to give thanks.

Continue reading

The Abolition of Walter White

In most ways, the debate regarding TV’s big four–The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men–will rage on as each team makes their case for why their show is superior. In many cases, this really will come down to individual taste. But there’s one way in which Breaking Bad, which returns this Sunday night for its final eight episodes, is clearly unique amongst the four. Breaking Bad is a show based on the wholesale rejection of a definitive element of most TV dramas. In conventional TV dramas, characters basically stay the same and the drama comes from watching their true colors emerge over time and seeing what happens as a result, or perhaps seeing what happens as they try to change but prove unable to do so.

The conflict between Lee Adama and his father William Adama in Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of this. Neither Adama changes in some dramatic and undeniable way during the series, it’s simply that eventually certain events conspire to make their differences more apparent and throw them into conflict. You could say the same thing about the fights between Tim Riggins and Smash Williams in Friday Night Lights or the conflict between Toby Ziegler and the other senior staffers in The West Wing. The characters don’t change, but their surroundings do. (A similar thing happens with Don Draper in Mad Men, although it is made more complex by the fact that Don keeps trying to change but so far has struggled to do so, although the end of season 6 suggests that perhaps he’s finally made a breakthrough.) Typically though, when the surroundings change, differences that have always existed bubble up into conflict. The story isn’t about change, therefore, but simply about how events can come together to make what’s been there all along suddenly seem more apparent. But Breaking Bad is different. In Breaking Bad, the entire drama is based around seeing how characters change–something foreshadowed masterfully in the series pilot when Walt gives the following speech to his high-school chemistry students:

“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.”

You could say, therefore, that the entire series is about chemistry. Viewed this way, Walt’s occupation as a chemistry teacher isn’t simply a convenient plot device to explain how he learned to make such a superior version of meth. It’s actually a clue that explains the entire series. Breaking Bad is the story of how a person who has given their life to understanding change is himself changed and how those changes in turn change the people closest to him.

Continue reading

Speaking Prophetically to the Church or Publicly Criticizing the Church?

Derek Webb Prophet

If you want a good example of speaking prophetically to the church… start here.

One of the underlying questions behind the “should the church change along side millennials?” question is what it means to speak prophetically to the church.

As I mentioned in the comment section of the last post, there’s one sense in which RHE’s critique is a very familiar and reasonable one–at times in our recent history American evangelicals have abjectly failed to live up to the moral teachings of our scriptures and our tradition. It’s an indisputable point, which is why Francis Schaeffer raised it in the 60s and 70s, Keith Green raised it in this video from the early 80s, Rich Mullins raised it in the 90s, and Derek Webb has been raising it for the past 10+ years.

So there’s a way to register criticism, sometimes quite severe criticisms spoken in a strong, abrasive tone (go read the prophets… Amos calls the Israelites a bunch of cows and Ezekiel has some downright profane things to say in Ezekiel 23), that is actually a way of showing affection for God’s people. That’s not what’s in dispute here. I don’t think anyone is arguing that you can’t criticize the church. The issue is the manner of the criticism. The question we must ask is whether or not the criticism is embedded within the fact of one’s membership in a local church and a church tradition.

It’s fine to speak of prophecy, but prophecy implies a place and a tradition. When the Old Testament prophets spoke against Israel, they were doing it from the vantage point afforded them by the Torah and their membership in God’s people.

There are things we’re willing to say about family members or close friends that would make us quite angry and defensive if said by someone from outside the family. The point in these cases isn’t whether the criticism is true, but the context in which the criticism is offered.

Tolkien, for instance, was famously defensive of C.S. Lewis despite the fact that he actively disliked the Chronicles of Narnia, thought That Hideous Strength an awful conclusion to a marvelous series, and thought Lewis’s apologetic works were grossly inappropriate works for a layman to write. He even said that Lewis’s Anglican church was a “pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs.”

And yet for all that you would not have found a firmer defender of Lewis and his work at Oxford than the man Lewis called “Tollers” or “Ronald.” Indeed, it was Tolkien who was instrumental in helping Lewis secure a professorship at Cambridge later in life. He knew Lewis’s faults well, but few people loved Lewis like Tolkien. And whatever criticisms Tolkien made happened within the assumed space of relationship and intimacy which they created over many years of friendship.

Continue reading

The Rise of the Chicken Little Evangelical Blogger

John Spong

14 years ago John Shelby Spong said “Christianity must change or die.” Episcopalians have been doing both ever since.

Hebrews 11:32-38:

32 And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:

33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.

34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.

35 Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:

36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:

37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;

38 (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

That account, of course, was written sometime during the 1st century. Since that time, a number of other horrifying things have been done to God’s people–they have been fed to the beasts in the Roman arenas, slaughtered by gladiators, beheaded, roasted in ovens, drawn and quartered, racked, and burned at the stake. They’ve had their eyes gouged out and tongues torn out of their mouths. They’ve been drowned to death. In more recent years, they’ve been cast into prison, whipped, electrocuted, and had slivers of wood driven underneath their finger and toenails, separating the nail from the appendage.

Through all this opposition, the church has survived and even continued to thrive. As the great hymn writer has said, “The church shall never perish / her dear Lord to defend / to guide, sustain, and cherish / is with her to the end.” That is the story of the church up till now. It’s the story of an institution that, despite moral failings from within and sometimes brutal repression from without, has continued to march on and grow. And while those who hated the church have long since died, the church marches on across time, “terrible as an army with banners,” as Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters. Hold these words and stories in your mind (and, for that matter, your hearts) as you read these words:

No, the Church shouldn’t change for millennials…but I think the Church must (and will) change along with millennials. In other words, we need not compromise the historical tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that this generation has something valuable to contribute to the future of Christianity, as does Generation X, the Boomers, and the generations before them. The article wasn’t intended to be a list of demands, but rather an expression of desires, a casting of vision and an articulation of my hope for the Church. Obviously, the real work begins when we come together in community to do the hard, daily work of reconciliation, listening, serving, and worshipping in spirit and truth.

That comes from Rachel Held Evans, in a follow-up post to her CNN article that was shared over 150,000 times via Facebook. Upon reading such a post, one is tempted to simply point out that if you compare the churches that accommodated modernity with those that made some effort to resist it, it’s the accommodationalists that are dying out, with the Episcopalians leading the way. They’re on pace to be completely extinct by 2037.

Continue reading

Short-term Missions Trips and Cultural Institutions

money and short-term missions

What is the best way for us to use our money to serve and promote the kingdom of God and the common good in our home places?

In a recent piece for Christianity Today, Doug Banister described one of the problems with short-term mission trips:

I spent many years taking mission trips to Tulcea, Romania. We shared the gospel, cared for orphans, and started a medical clinic. It seemed that God moved in powerful ways. Then my friends Jon and Toni moved into one of Knoxville’s marginalized neighborhoods. Jon invited me to go on prayer walks with him on Wednesday mornings. I saw syringes on playgrounds, prostitutes turning tricks, hustlers selling drugs. Our walks led me to volunteer at the elementary school in Jon’s neighborhood. I’d assumed all the schools in our city were pretty much the same. They aren’t. Kids with B averages in Jon’s school score in the 30th percentile on standardized tests. Kids with B averages in my neighborhood score in the 90th percentile.

Along the way, a pastor named Johnny began showing me what the city looked like from the front lawn of his cash-strapped inner-city church. As I spent more time in Knoxville’s at-risk neighborhoods, I realized that I knew more about poverty in Tulcea than I knew about poverty in Knoxville. I was pursuing the common good of a city across the world while neglecting the common good of the place where I lived.

Banister went on to talk about all the things that the $3,000 used to send one teenager or college kid overseas could do in Knoxville. And Banister isn’t the only one rethinking the short-term missions trip. Banister raised many of the most common objections to short-term trips and they’re all sound, but I want to expand on his point just a bit.

It’s common for evangelicals in thinking about the best way to use their resources to look for discrete, one-time actions they can take with their money. So we can spend three grand to go on a trip to Poland or we can spend three grand to buy books for a local school or put a roof on a widow’s house. These are all worthy pursuits and no reader should think that I’m condemning any of them. But just as we can say “spending locally may be better than spending internationally,” on these sorts of outreach, I want to push it still further and say “spending on local institutions may be better than spending on discrete, one-time events.”

To take only one example, what if instead of spending thousands of dollars on mercy projects for area families living in poverty, we started spending money to set up a vocational training program to teach home improvement, maintenance, and other handy-man type projects? Obviously we’d still need to do something different to help the elderly widow who needs a roof (and that may well be simply buying the roof), but what if you hire someone to teach workshops for people in your area on doing general home improvement projects?

By approaching it that way, you’re equipping people to promote the common good of the city from the bottom up, rather than the top down with one well-moneyed social body throwing money at social problems. You’re also empowering them to take care of themselves as much as they’re able, rather than depending upon assistance from some well-intentioned patron who can quickly turn into a tacitly dangerous paternalist.

But we can push this idea a bit further too. As Christians, we believe that any social problem is at its roots a worship problem. People misplace their love and that drives them to making socially and individually destructive choices. So what if we pursue setting up programs and institutions that help shape our loves in healthier, Gospel-shaped ways? Toward this end, I can think of few investments more worthy of our support than setting up inner city Christian schools that offer affordable–or even free–tuition so that poor families can send their children to a school that will train them to live well in God’s world. (On this note, may works like the one being done at Restoration Academy continue to flourish.)

Next to that, we’ll need to have educated leaders in our local churches with that rare combination of deep knowledge of the Christian faith and church and of the unique realities of life in their particular community. This will mean having something like seminary-level theological education available locally to church leaders.

And yes, everything I’m proposing will cost a decent chunk of change. But, to take only one example, sending myself and five friends to Zambia six years ago cost American Christians around $24,000. As much as I enjoyed my time in Zambia, I can’t help wondering if there may have been better uses for that money. Suppose American Christians simply scaled back their short-term missions trips and used that money to build local institutions–how much money would that free up? If the stats cited by Banister are accurate, even a 25% reduction in short-term mission trips costs would free up $400 million. I can think of a few seminaries and universities that could use that money–and a few cities that could use schools, vocational training programs, and seminary-type education who could use it too.

(For further reading: CT has covered the issue in the past and Relevant looked at the topic earlier this week as well.)

photo credit: epSos.de via photopin cc

Two scholars debate violence and the nation state

In the past month there has been a fascinating exchange going on between occasional Mere O contributor Brad Littlejohn and DePaul’s William Cavanaugh. It started with this critique of Cavanaugh’s work by Littlejohn:

In his 2004 essay “Killing for the Telephone Company” (Modern Theology 20:2, reprinted inMigrations of the Holy) Cavanaugh seems equally uninterested in both the theoretical (and very theological) issue of legitimacy, and in the empirical history of violence in pre-modern and early modern times.  The rise of the early modern state is described in terms of an escalation of military violence, and, following the work of Charles Tilly, Cavanaugh goes so far as to say, “The claim that emerging states offered their citizens protection against violence ignores the fact that the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.  What separated state violence from other kinds of violence was the concept of legitimacy, but legitimacy was based on the ability of state-makers to approximate a monopoly on violence within a given geographical territory” (p. 249).   Cavanaugh’s dismissive attitude toward the concept of legitimacy is a topic for another day; what I am interested in here is the breathtaking historical claim that “the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.”

Cavanaugh responded:

Even if Pinker were right, however, Littlejohn is wrong to think that it would refute the central thesis of my book on “religious violence.”  My book is not an attempt to prove that modernity is more violent than previous epochs.  It is indeed not an exercise in “modernity criticism” at all.  It is a critique not of modernity as such, but of one of the primary ideological defenses of modern liberal politics, that is, the idea that there is a transhistorical and transcultural something called “religion” that must be tamed by the secular nation-state because religion has a peculiar tendency to promote violence.  My point is not that violence is a creation of modernity or that things in general used to be better than they are now.  My argument is negative: the myth of religious violence is false.  There is no coherent way, either now or in previous eras, to separate religious violence from secular violence in such a way that the former is peculiarly more pervasive or more virulent than the latter.

Littlejohn replies:

In his response to my post, Cavanaugh tried to insist that his main point had been only to decry the violence of war which early state-makers created, a violence which he says, according to Muchembled, simply redirected young men’s killing energies from neighbors to foreigners.  I would contest this defense at both levels.  First of all, that is not really Muchembled’s main argument, and if it were, it would be considerably overstated.  While there are some areas, such as Scotland, in which internal violence was essentially just redirected into military service, standing armies were too small a proportion of the early modern population for that to be the main explanation in most places.  Nor am I convinced that war deaths increased dramatically from, say, the 15th to the 17th century, cancelling out the plunging homicide rates, as Cavanaugh seems to want to argue.  Medieval wars were smaller and more local but more frequent and often quite brutal.  Second, however, I’m not convinced by Cavanaugh’s claim that he was only “referring to one specific kind of violence, that is, war between sovereign states.”  Although Tilly’s account, on which Cavanaugh is relying in “Killing for the Telephone Company,” is quite one-sided, Tilly talks not only about state-makers offering protection against external threats, but internal ones as well.  In his essay, Cavanaugh then goes on to blame the war of individuals against one another within society as a product of the state, as we saw in the quote above: “this reconciliation  [of many into one] only comes after the creation of a prior antagonism, the creation of a novel form of simple social space that oscillates between the individual and the state.”  To this I simply point out again that the antagonism was already there—the local forms of authority that predominated in medieval times were no guarantee of social harmony.

In a discussion of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation held at the University of Chicago, Brown University’s Rachel Fulton Brown raised an interesting possibility about Gregory’s argument that would apply to William Cavanaugh’s work as well, I think: Gregory’s book is less about romanticizing the medieval period and is much more about a certain wistfulness for a world that never had the chance to exist. In other words, certain cultural and philosophical movements in the late medieval world (most notably the humanist movement spearheaded by Erasmus, but the conciliar movement also deserves mention) looked like they could reshape aspects of the medieval world for the better without burning the whole thing to the ground and starting from scratch. But with the Reformation and the chaos that followed it, the possibility of an improved medieval world was destroyed and replaced by modernity.

In other words, we’re arguing over two equally problematic choices–the secular violence and totalitarian nature of the modern nation state or the coercive power of the church and political dysfunction of the medieval era. Both Cavanaugh and Gregory are saying something quite similar. They’re not saying “get rid of modernity and revert back to western Europe circa 1500.” They’re saying that there is a way of moving past the worst excesses of medieval culture and politics without adopting the radical changes brought about by modernity.

As a historian, Gregory is wistful for that world. As a political theologian, Cavanaugh is keen to introduce the modern church to its possibility.