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.

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The Evangelical War on Contraception

If you haven’t heard, evangelicals are currently campaigning against contraception.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, I can’t blame you. After all, it was only two years ago when a evangelical theologian seriously proposed that churches should give out contraception to single Christians because that supposedly reduces abortions and evangelical attendees responded with a collective, “Um, sure, why not?!”

But since then, we’ve all followed along as Hobby Lobby and others have sued the government for imposing requirements that they include certain drugs in their insurance plans that Hobby Lobby contests have an abortifacient effect. The case is fundamentally about the religious liberties of corporations and their owners, but I suppose we can all be forgiven for overlooking that since the trouble is the “HHS contraception mandate.” Look, the name! They’re objecting! War on contraception! See how easy this whole business is?

Now, I have to confess to feeling the tiniest bit of cheer at the news that evangelicals are thinking hard about contraception, even if the evidence for it is a tad thin. If all of these confusions prompt a more serious and sober evaluation of its use, then so much the better.

But such evaluation needs to happen on different, more properly moral terms than the pragmatic and consequentialist modes of reasoning that are endemic within the evangelical world. We ought to think about what contraception is and what it does within a marriage, what sort of mindset and form of life it engenders, what type of commitments are embedded within the practice and within the communities where it prevails.

Even if particular forms of contraception are licit, they ought not be adopted unreflectively. These matters are far too important for assumptions, yet how many evangelical engagement counseling programs involve careful, deliberate consideration of the questions involved? “The church never talks about [x]” is a sure sign that the church talks plenty about [x] and whoever utters that just isn’t paying attention. But for many evangelicals contraception remains the unquestioned option—and in some cases, unquestionable—option. I’ve heard prominent evangelicals start their defenses of public funding for contraception by saying, “Well, I’m an evangelical, so that means I’m okay with some forms of contraception.” Well, then. That settles it.

Now, among the internet’s response to Hobby Lobby it’s been popular for young evangelicals to run about saying that contraception reduces abortion, so obviously we ought to support more access to it as a social policy. Rachel Held Evans is the latest exponent of the view, but Jonathan Merritt and I have been around it on Twitter as well. The argument sounds awfully nice to the happy, half-informed, pragmatically minded, pro-life evangelical’s ears: we’re against abortion, contraception means less of it, let’s all go have cake.

But there are troubles with this sort of reasoning. (I mean, you know what else would reduce abortions? Killing people. It’s foolproof. ) The study that has become the go-to source on the question simply isn’t as watertight as it seems in the headlines and news reports. And Michael New’s commentary doesn’t even mention that at least some of the IUDs that were handed out have an abortificient effect. Even Planned Parenthood acknowledges that IUDs sometimes have a post-conception effect: that is, if life begins at conception then they are abortifacients.

But it’s easier to find a study that proves the point and call it a day, so let’s call to the stand one of our own. Now, if you think that increased access to contraception would reduce abortions, then it would make sense that better access to emergency contraception would do the same. Only it turns out that’s (maybe) not the case. While sales of Plan B doubled in 2006, and then again between 2007-2009 because laws changed to allow pharmacies to sell it without a prescription, abortions and pregnancies stayed the same in the places where access laws were passed.* Why? Well, the authors muse, “[emergency contraception] may induce a behavioral response that leads to more sexual encounters, and hence, more pregnancies.” Given the rates of birth and the size of the population, it doesn’t take that many more people statistically to have sex more often to keep the pregnancy rate the same. (As to what this means for America’s falling birth rate, well, draw your own conclusions.)

But here’s the real kicker: emergency contraception dropped in price and became easier to access when the pharmacy replaced emergency rooms as the point of sale, but reports of sexual assaults decreased as well. The authors are appropriately cautious, saying that the evidence is “suggestive.” But it makes some intuitive sense: nurses and doctors get trained to ask about such things, while pharmacists do not. The authors suggest that to “mitigate this impact, new policies may be necessary to encourage crime reporting by sexual assault victims that visit pharmacies.”

'Hobby Lobby in Macedonia, Ohio' photo (c) 2013, Nicholas Eckhart - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If you think they’re protesting contraception, you’re doing it wrong.

Now, is it fair to extrapolate beyond the fact that emergency contraception doesn’t decrease abortions to other forms of contraception? It’s not a straightforward deduction, by any means. But then that’s just my point: the soft consequentialism that stands beneath the social sciences is far less useful for thinking through these things than it seems, and far more potent in the hands of news commentators and writers than it should be. At its best, social science is a discipline that digs up lagging indicators, a kind of empirical history. But the casual observers of culture that make up the commentariat don’t have the discipline even to wait for the academic cycle of evaluation to do its work. What’s that? There’s a study that says the hook up culture doesn’t exist. Now we know!

I could go on, but at this point I feel obliged to simply turn the microphone over to Helen Rittlemeyer, whose excellent essay on the social sciences is germane to all this. A teaser, so you can hear what good prose sounds like, but go read the whole thing:

Lesser pundits and journalists parrot academic studies as if they were unimpeachable, even when the resulting headlines are as absurd as “Racial Inequal­ity Costs GDP $1.9 Trillion,” “Feminists Have Better Sex Lives,” or (my favorite, courtesy of Yahoo! News) “Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds.” Even Ross Douthat, generally reputed as a moralist, can be caught buttressing with social­ scientific evidence a claim as uncontroversial as that serious downsides attend being a pothead: Excessive marijuana use, he reports, “can limit educational attainment, and with it economic mobility.” The im­pression left by these sorts of citations is not rigor so much as lack of confidence in one’s assertions, and persuasion, like seduction and stand­up comedy, is 90 percent confidence.

*Author’s note:  Thanks to a commenter, I’ve edited this sentence for clarity. 

Hobby Lobby and China’s Abortion Policy

In the ongoing public dispute over whether Hobby Lobby is justified in its resistance to the so-called “contraception mandate,” the reductio ad China has been one of the more effective rhetorical moves that liberals have made. Rachel Held Evans has deployed it a number of times on Twitter, and Daily Kos has a version of it as well. The rhetorical point is an easy one to make, if only because it seems so intuitive and straightforward: Because Hobby Lobby does business with China, and China has forced abortions, they are inconsistent for objecting to the now-infamous HHS mandate on grounds that it would involve them in practices they find morally repugnant.

How might Hobby Lobby’s rejoinder go?

'Hobby Lobby' photo (c) 2011, Ken Teegardin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/






The first thing to notice is that the analogy only goes forward if it is true that “doing business”—a phrase so ambiguous that it’s basically useless—with China means providing material support for abortions, or support for the government’s decision to create conditions where forced abortions occur. If people can “do business” with China without supporting the policy or contributing material support for the abortions that occur, then the charge of inconsistency would fall apart or we’d have to get back to talking about whether compliance with the HHS mandate is sufficiently morally problematic as to give business owners legitimate grounds to object to it.

Construed broadly, however, the notion “doing business” with China means either of the conditions above may have the rather nasty consequence of implicating *anyone* who has ever bought a Chinese made product in providing material support for abortions. That may be acceptable to some people, but it initially seems to me too rigid of a criterion. One way around that would be to say that our involvement with “China” as consumers from Hobby Lobby (or any other business) is for some reason less culpable than the businesses who purchase those products there. But that ignores the fact that businesses purchase Chinese products because (surprise!) people in the States buy them. If the standard for material cooperation in a country’s practices is going to be a vague “doing business,” then it may mean we are all implicated as much as Hobby Lobby is.

In fact, if we attend for a second to the various relationships at work then it becomes clear why the *reductio ad China* is nothing more than a bit of sophistry. Hobby Lobby’s contention is that by purchasing insurances that provide free abortificients they are materially cooperating in the use of those abortificients by their employees. If Hobby Lobby were to pay their employees ten dollars more per week, the question of material cooperation drops away, as the financial compensation would not include morally repugnant benefits. But their relationship to abortions in China is mediated both by the businesses that they purchase products from and the government that has the one-child policy. Whereas their money funds the purchase of abortificients for their employees directly—even if the employee must request them—it funds abortions in China only in a very tangential and indirect way.

Which is to say, the analogy gets its rhetorical energy precisely by leaving out the very distinctions that reasonable moral reflection about how to move through the world depends upon. Using “China” (among other terms!) without discriminating between the government per se and their policy, Chinese businesses, the people who are employed at those business, Chinese society shortcuts any meaningful moral analysis.

But let’s just focus on Hobby Lobby’s relationship to the respective governments. As Bethany Persons rightly noted, Hobby Lobby engages in voluntary contracts in China with other businesses, contracts that the government presumably has some interest in allowing to continue precisely because of the financial benefits for the Chinese people. The non-coercive character of the relationship means that the form of negotiation is one of persuasion: Hobby Lobby cannot change the Chinese policy, except by leveraging their business status within the country for good. The only problem, though, is that Hobby Lobby is relatively insignificant to China on its own, which is why the main responsibility for such negotiations and pressure falls to the American government. Because of the overlap of our economies, both China and the United States have interests in each other’s nations, which makes it harder to critique each other but not—as President Bush showed—impossible.

Their relationship to the HHS mandate obviously lacks that voluntary character. From Hobby Lobby’s standpoint, there are two intertwined wrongs: abortificients are being used, and the United States government is compelling them to purchase insurance that pays for them. Even if we granted that Hobby Lobby is inconsistent in their pro-life practices for shopping in China, that would not annul the second wrong.  Nor would it account for the fact that as an American business owned by American citizens, Hobby Lobby and their owners may have special obligations to pursue the right within their own country first and foremost.  Nor does it acknowledge that Hobby Lobby has legal recourse to pursue righting the second wrong that it lacks with the Chinese government. But it is just that coercive stand by the government that we ought be troubled by: A government that forces its people to commit what they consider to be grave moral wrongs upon penalty is a government with little concern for the welfare of its own people.

There may be good reasons to think Hobby Lobby is morally wrong to press its case against the government, but the fact that they purchase products in China is simply not among them.

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.

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On Joseph Bottum’s Enchantment and Public Arguments

Joseph Bottum is back to singing the “re-enchantment” song, suggesting that conservatives ought give up “preaching social ethics” because it’s “boring and it’s doomed”:

Forget the culture-wars crap. It was a fight worth having, back in the day when there was enough Christendom left to be worth defending. But such as American Christendom was, the collapse of the Mainline has brought it to an end. Start, instead, with re-enchantment: Preach the word of God in the trees and rivers. The graves giving up their dead. The angels swirling around the Throne. Existence itself figuring the Trinity, in how we live and move and have our being. Christ crucified and Christ resurrected. All the rest can follow, if God wants.

He then added this in response to Rick Garnett, an excellent Catholic pro-life lawyer who offered his own response:

Forgive me then, Rick, if I continue to propose that ordinary prayer and everyday awareness of the reality of God are more likely to find willing ears—if I preach the metaphysics of Christianity rather than the law-and-policy-betrayed social ethics of tattered old Christendom.

There’s a whiff of false dichotomy there in Bottum’s approach to these things, which Garnett picks up on as well, and an artificial universality that inevitably accompanies sweeping prolegomena of this sort.  We might all say “yes” to re-enchantment, but mysticism won’t make it very far in a courtroom.  It may be that legal changes are a rear-guard action, an attempt to stitch together a fraying social fabric and hence unlikely to hold forever. Bottum’s right that laws are neither permanent nor the dominant forces shaping culture.

But then it’s a mistake to say that the law and social questions are somehow divorced or separate from the possibility of re-enchantment, too, the way that Bottum seems to imply when he suggests that we ought pursue re-enchantment first.  The legal disputes about marriage have actually presented conservatives with their best opportunity in decades to help people get clear on intractable beauty and goodness of marital bonds.

Bottum would have us not speak of the legal case until we “preach the word of God in trees and rivers.  But why not instead preach that word within the meaning of marriage, since that’s what people are interested in sorting out these days?  The arguments in the courtroom may have to be boring.  But it seems that an enchanted imagination might see something more in the public controversies that ensue than simply a dispute about the law.  Such controversies may be providential summons to our society to rediscover the nature of a lost goodness.  The enchanted strains of the beauty of the world may be drowned out by the culture wars.  But it’s not clear why we would want to chastise the clamoring insistence that there is something important here, about this thing that drives our public debates.  We ought to have more public chattering about these things, more dialogue and disputation, even if it seems repetitive and boring.  If our “social ethics” does not contain the mysteries it needs to transform the hearts, then we ought keep pressing inward.  We were made for more, after all, and all who seek….find.

Which is to say, it is true that conservatives haven’t been particularly aesthetically minded in their public pursuits.  But to steal from another writer who knew a thing or two about an enchanted cosmos himself, if anything is worth doing it’s worth doing badly.

But that line expresses the heroic mysticism of those who advocate for traditional marriage or the pro-life causes, despite them having very little odds of “success.”   The very sort of enchantment that Bottum wants such advocates already embody, even if they so with less flair than Bottum or I might want.  We ought pursue re-enchantment. But that won’t tell us whether any particular law is just or not. A government has only one option to preserve its legitimacy, and a society only one option if it is to discover enchantment by any means other than total disintegration:  we must pursue justice without heed for the long-term consequences of our actions, consequences which we cannot control, much less reliably foresee given the massively complex set of factors at work in any situation.

Conservatives of every sort are perpetually in danger of allowing prudential concerns about retaining a “seat at the table” of cultural influence and power to crowd out their cheerful obstinance on the grounds of their principles.  It is precisely because we do not know the future and that we are not responsible for those who assail us that we can promote unpopular goods without concern for their “effectiveness” or “utility.”  Few outlooks are so opposed to Bottum’s “enchantment” project than that of consequentialism, it too can sneak into our consciousness through rather poetic means.  Maintaining a hopeful belligerence and willingness in the face of seemingly impossible conditions may be a short path toward cultural marginalization; but it’s just that sort of mystical disinterestedness in pragmatism that I think Bottum wants.  It is a belligerent affirmation that these things are worth doing for their own sake, even if we go about doing them badly.  Conservative Christians might be tempted to remind themselves that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and so be of good heart.  But I doubt the martyrs themselves were interested in that when they climbed up on the pyre:  they were on the side of the right and were about to meet God, and what else matters?  To steal again, we ought to love effectiveness like life and drink our failures like wine.

Conservative Christians need the poetic imagination of Bottum and others; but we need to enfold it into our public argumentation about these contested questions, to see these things poetically while also considering them legislatively and legally.  Social ethics need not be sterile, and a strong dose of poetry may open up ways of putting things that the philosophers had not yet considered.  But we ought not forget that poetic, heroic lives are where enchantment properly begins.  And in the face of injustice, those who spend their lives advocating for the laws, making philosophical arguments, and doing the dry, boring work of social ethics are not engaged in a lesser task than those poets who remind us of the beauty and goodness of the world we live within.  Nor is it a less urgent task.  For we are all called to courageously and cheerfully say how the world is, in the grammars where God has placed us, with the sort of radical disinterest in our own work’s success that turns us to ask that it would be founded in prayer.

No, the GOP is Not Losing Young Christians

Monday, Matt Lewis penned the latest in a long line of the GOP is losing young Christians articles. It is actually a superior piece to many of its kind because it considers how the Christian mandate to “live at peace with all men” weighs against unchecked descent into no-holds-barred political combat. Unless care is taken, Christian politicos may become “wise as serpents, but no longer innocent as doves,” Lewis writes, “For what shall it profit a man if he should win an election, but lose his soul.”

But as poignant as that reminder is, Lewis uses it to support his thesis that “many young Christians are choosing to be conscientious objectors in the culture wars” because  they find “political involvement, no matter how pure the original motives, [to be] a corrupting force.” Appearing on Morning Joe to talk about his column, he proceded to explain that some of these disaffected folks may join the Democrats provided they “field candidates like Obama” while others will disengage from political activity altogether. Jonathan Merritt went even further writing that young Christians turned off by “the dumpster fire that is Washington D.C.” were going to make the GOP pay in the coming years.

The reality is that young evangelicals have not actually moved substantially away from the GOP during the Obama era. Indeed, I am so firmly convinced of this fact that I have no choice but to bust out a couple of homemade infographics. (Drastic measures, I know.)

First, extrapolating from the exit polls and final turnout, my first infographic shows how many white Evangelicals voted for Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney respectively.EvVote

Just to be clear, that’s the Romney bar peaking higher than any other bar. And Obama’s much-touted Evangelical appeal does not look like much of a blip on the trendline. If you’re looking for decline or white Evangelicals abandoning the GOP, I sure don’t see it here.

This is doubly surprising because it isn’t like McCain and Romney were Evangelical dream candidates. McCain once called Evangelicals in politics “agents of intolerance” and Romney was a “Satan and Jesus are brothers” Mormon. But despite these warts, Obama has proven unable to make any significant inroads in appealing to White Evangelicals.

Yes, there are some Evangelicals who voted for Obama but there were Evangelicals who voted for Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale, too. Over time, there has been a persistent—though perhaps slowly evaporating—minority of Evangelical voters who support Democrats in presidential elections. This doesn’t prove that Obama has proven to possess any specific electoral appeal.

Measuring Young Evangelicals Against Their Peers

But the stats in my first graph are about all white Evangelicals as a whole. Isn’t it the young Christians who are being lost by the GOP?

There is an oft-quoted factoid that Obama did twice as well with young Evangelicals in 2008, than Kerry had in 2004. Here’s an infographic featuring that fact courtesy of the New York Times.

This is true, but, as they say, context is everything. We shouldn’t be looking at the young Evangelical shift in a vacuum. Bush’s narrow reelection over Kerry and Obama’s clear-cut victory over McCain were very different elections. Indeed, young people as a whole voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin after only narrowly going for Kerry four years before.

Thus focusing on Obama doubling Kerry’s support among young Evangelicals misses that even at the height Obamamania Evangelical young people were still much more likely to vote GOP than everyone else their age. Behold, here comes another infographic.2004-2008-compare

I’ve listed the Democrat percentage by age group in both the 2004 and 2008 election. White Evangelicals are the dark gray bars and all voters are represented in orange. Thus, the amount of orange we see represents the gap between overall support for the Democratic candidate to white Evangelical support. For example, in 2008, Obama received 32 percent from 18-29 white Evangelicals while receiving 66 percent from 18-29 year olds overall, resulting in an enormous 34-point gap.

As you can see, in both 2004 and 2008, the youngest age cohort has the biggest orange bar. That means that young Evangelicals are the most counter culturally Republican; they are the furthest to the right of the political center of gravity of their peers.

Unfortunately, I cannot update this to reflect the 2012 data. The exit poll consortium did not see fit to supply the necessary crosstabulations for religion and age. However, an election eve poll showed white Evangelical 18-29 year olds going for Romney by an overwhelming 80-15 margin while Obama ended up winning 60 percent of all 18-29 year olds. It is a pretty safe bet that those orange bars wouldn’t be any smaller.


It isn’t that any of this is very new to the attentive Mere Orthodoxy reader. Let’s just add this data to all that has been ably said here by Messrs. Anderson, Walker, and Domenech about the political proclivities of young Evangelicals. I still think that Matt Lewis’ piece was a great volley in this conversation and hope merely that my pretty infographics serve to remind that despite all the chatter, young Evangelicals are still very reliable Republican voters.

On Authority, Tradition, and Millennial Evangelicals

Over the weekend I started reading Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hopewhich is like everything Scruton writes: both instructive and engaging.  It was this bit, however, on the nature of authority that stood out to me as particularly interesting, especially in light of recent disputes over millennials and the church:

When it comes to our own lives, to the things that we know and in which we have acquired both understanding and competence, we take a measured view….The midwife who knows her job respects the solutions that have been proved by the generations who preceded her; she recognizes those with authority and instinctively obeys their advice.  And she does not hesitate to offer advice of her own.  She measures her own judgment against the accumulated wisdom of tradition, and if she takes a risk, because the problem before her is without a clear precedent, she is careful to measure the cost of failure and to ensure that it can be borne.”

Scruton goes on to suggest that the “scrupulous optimist,” as he calls them, are “acutely aware that we are only one among many in our field of expertise, are ready to defer to those with knowledge and experience, and are more respectful of the accumulated store of others’ knowledge than the scant addition we might make to it ourselves.  It is with an educated sense of the first-person plural that we deploy the knowledge that is our securest personal possession.”

If Scruton is right, there’s an inherent modesty required both to speak authoritatively and to discern and respond to authorities.  When Jesus speaks “as one with authority” in Matthew 7, he teaches within the context of an established and authoritative body of work, the Torah.  He illuminates various aspects in new and distinctive ways, and the whole teaching is reframed around the advent of the Messiah.  Yet his teaching is authoritative only because it comes from within a tradition, in the first place, rather than because it questions or subverts that tradition.  He’s able to wrangle with the Pharisees in the Temple at the age of twelve because he knows his stuff.  He’s done his due diligence, you might say.

Scruton keeps his example narrowed to the individual, but it’s worth expanding it and thinking generationally for a second.*  There is within the progressive temperament that is now en vogue among many “millennial Christians” the temptation to make skepticism the fundamental posture toward religious authorities.  Never mind that authorities in other disciplines, like science, are somehow immune.  The disposition does not look at our received tradition as an inheritance to be enjoyed and lived on so much as a burden that has to be subverted and deconstructed.  Progressive Christians are not interested in measuring our  judgment against the tradition; rather, the progressive temperament judges the tradition against a conception of “reason” or “experience” that is currently popular (“we now know….”).

The difference between the progressive temperament and what Scruton describes above is not simply one of emphasis, then, but one of substance.  The person who places himself under authority is necessarily more interested in the gifts they have received than the gifts they have to give–and inasmuch as they are able to speak authoritatively (and not simply popularly, which is an important difference) they will speak out of that sense of deference.  To put it bluntly, theological progressivism has to speak from a posture of pride.  The progressive question is the theological “humblebrag”:  it refuses to give the benefit of the doubt to stances that we have inherited while treating the world as a blank canvas which we then get to “create” on.  Assimilation by a surrounding culture isn’t a bug of theological progressivism so much as a feature.

The relationship between the institution that bears the tradition and the speaker is not symmetrical, then, and for the speaker, it cannot be.  That we stand on an equal plane with the institution we live within isn’t simply wrong–to the one who has been formed by the tradition, it seems…laughable.  That claim prompts a flabbergasted stammering as though someone had dared insult our wives or girlfriend.  ”If you only knew,” the response can only be, just how much we have been given.  Such is the bashfulness of those in love:  in the face of a good so wonderful as a woman, as the churchthe appropriate response is penitential reverence and kneeling, rather than trumpeting our own virtues and gifts.  If Christ is to be seen there at all, if there is anything lovely, or pure, or holy, or any of the qualities that the eyes of faith detect–our entire outlook must shift and all our speaking and advocacy along with it.

But then, that will only be the response when the creeds are lived within, when they are prayed, and not simply repeated.  As Austin Farrer once put it, “No Christian deserves his dogma who does not pray them.”  Or this, also from him, after noting that Christ presents himself to be examined by the disciples in the upper room:

“On the other hand how can I question a truth like this truth?  For have I not begun to see Christ as the Lord, and does this not preclude questioning?…You might as well recommend to a husband the rational duty of suspending judgment about his wife’s fidelity until he has tested it by a sufficient number of ingenious traps and artificial maneuvers.”

“Come and see,” the exhortation is, but such sight is given only if we come reverently, soberly, and in the fear of God.  It is given when we have been chastened, when we have learned of the failures of the past and been instructed in the humility of wisdom–for “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

The appropriate response to the troubles of the church, to her failures and her flaws, is to recognize what Chesterton understood when responding to the question of what is wrong with the world.  As he famously replied by way of a letter:

Dear Sirs, 

I am. 

Sincerely yours, 

Matthew Lee Anderson

*Such generational analysis has been plenty in vogue for a while within evangelicalism, and I’ve engaged in it a bunch myself. However, I note that the approach has a very limited usefulness, if any at all.  I use it here because it’s shorthand for a phenomenon in a way that lots of people recognize, but could easily be talked out of ever using the phrase again.

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.

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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.

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Five Fundamental Questions Conservative Evangelicals Must Address

We’ve been told often in recent years that conservative evangelicals must adapt to changing social conditions or find themselves consigned to irrelevance.  On matters of both style and substance, many evangelicals have been motivated by an anxiety that they simply aren’t keeping up.

And the concern is understandable.  If we do in fact enter into a “post-Christian culture,” then traditional Christian teaching won’t even rise to the level of “wrong”; it will simply be weird.  The challenge before us is not that people will disagree with Christianity; it’s that they won’t understand it at all.  Which is why conservative Christian concerns right now about being marginalized on account of our moral teachings are totally misplaced.  As long as we are being actively marginalized, we are still being taken seriously.  It’s indifference from a surrounding culture that ought to concern Christians.

Yet whether conservative evangelicals have the internal resources or fortitude to maintain faithfulness in the face of cultural pressures is the great unknown.  The most heartening movements–the emphasis on mission, the emphasis on the Gospel, and yes, even the struggle with the relationship between economic prosperity and Christianity–have appropriately challenged many conservative Christians to rethink what faithfulness looks like.

But my concern is that conservative evangelicals have not yet grappled with the fundamental questions that determine the plausibility of our witness.  With that in mind, here’s my best attempt at five of the most pressing questions facing conservative Christians.

What is the nature of experience and its limits?  

What is experience, and what role does it play in moral reflection?  What can be gained from it, and what are its limits?  Many younger evangelicals have spent a good deal of time affirming the validity of their own “stories,” yet in doing so have raised fundamental questions about the meaning and content of their experiences and their relationship to Scripture.  Some careful work has been done on the area, but our “story” is only one form our “experience” takes.  The phenomenon of sexual desire, for instance, doesn’t quite fit the category of “story” but it too is a form of experience that needs careful sorting.

The emotive, memoir-based writing style that has taken hold of many younger evangelicals only makes the challenge more difficult.  It is difficult to evaluate the role experience should play in an ethos dominated by rhetoric formed by experience and by the particularities of people’s perspectives.  It is hard to question the value of stories or experience when our diet largely consists of prose that must find its roots there to be treated as “authentic” or “real” or what have you.

What do institutions do?

I don’t mean here the institution of the church, as conservative evangelicals have worn out the printing presses making the case that younger Christians oughta love the church along with Jesus.  Nor do I mean the obviously visible institution of the government.  Seriously, of the writing of books on evangelicals and politics there needs to be an end, or at least a very lengthy moratorium.

The problem, I think, extends beyond those:  what do other, non-governmental institutions do, like the “soft institutions” of family or marriage or the economy?  And what is the relationship between institutions and the form of particular, individual lives and experiences?

One way of distilling my concern with the “radical” movement is that its emphases don’t take shape within a robust appreciation for the culture-transmitting role that institutions play.  Andy Crouch has recently written smart thoughts about the need for institutions:  but conservative Christians need to go further, to wrestle more particularly with how institutional forms affect individual lives and vice versa.

Consider marriage, for instance:  the debate over gay marriage is a debate over how a cultural institution is shaped by the people who make it up and the acts and pursuits they engage in, and how that institution reciprocally forms them and even those who do not enter it.  There’s been lots of talk among conservatives about how to improve the traditionalist case for marriage.  Yet all the talk of narrative and persuasion will come to nothing as long as the logic of how institutions work remains ambiguous and undefined.

How can we root out our low expectations?  

Where to start?  How about the classroom.  Private Christian schools ought to be much more than simply cloistered communities where students get the same education they’d get elsewhere with a Bible gloss put on it.  Standards matter, which many  private Christian high schools apparently forget.  It’s almost as though we all believe that as long as we’re saying Bible stuff, that’s enough, regardless of how hard we are working or how rigorously we are thinking.  When I taught high school, helping my students that they were capable of far more than anyone had ever asked of them was my first priority.   (Want a refreshing contrast for high schoolers?  Try Wheatstone Academy, Biola’s Torrey Academy, or Houston Baptist’s new Academy.)

There’s a financial dimension to our low expectations for people, I’ll grant.  Many youth pastors and Christian educators have their bills paid by the number of people they can retain.  Making things difficult is a sure-fire way to not succeed, they think, and so standards drop to keep paying people around.  But the paradox is that if you hold students to a higher standard, they respond and like it.  

But while I started at education, it’s not the only realm where we don’t expect much from people.  In our preaching, in small group discipleship, in our leadership circles, there is a widespread presumption that because people are so busy they simply want to be told what to do.  It’s pragmatism of the most pernicious sort: a pragmatism that postures as a genuine concern for people while simply placating their felt needs.  And when that pragmatic impulse is aligned with an emphasis on maintaining our numbers or an audience, it has the appearance of making a difference without the substance.  It’s an unholy concoction, but one that pervades our evangelical culture.

Or take our sexual ethics.  The call to holiness must be accompanied and encompassed by the reminder of the reality of grace, but fundamentally it is a call to perfection, the pronouncement of moral expectations that are far more rigorous than any of us could meet at any given moment.  To give you a sense of how much things have changed, the early Christians debated about whether it was better to commit suicide than commit a sin.  That discussion had its own problems, but the point is pretty clear:  They were willing to die rather than commit a moral wrong.  By way of contrast, many of our leading writers are interested in finding ways to sanction masturbation and distributing contraception to single Christians because we apparently cannot imagine calling single people to a life without sexual gratification.

And if you think young evangelicals offer any sort of hope (at the moment) on this score, remember this:  We talk a good game about being more educated than our parents and being less pragmatically driven, but our most popular writing happens in one-sentence paragraphs with lots of bold font.

What role do the affections play in education and formation?  

When Rod Dreher describes the case for traditional marriage as depending on a “cosmology,” he’s on to something.  Traditional Christian teaching has a cluster of assumptions and stances that are mutually reinforcing.  And one of the most important is that the emotional life–our affections–needs to be formed and reformed in accordance with an external, normative standard of goods. Certain ways of feeling are inappropriate responses to the world, and certain feelings fit it.  If you can see that and are convinced of it, then it reorders the questions:  our affections and emotions become interesting but not finally determinative of our lives, as they stand in need of evaluation in light of that order of goods.

It was once the case that the educative process included this sort of formation and was geared toward it.  But no longer, which means that many young people don’t share the basic framework that makes Christianity plausible.  It’s hard to make the case for a traditional sexual ethics plausible as long as our affections and emotions are removed from beneath the shadow of doubt.

What is authority?  

Conservative Christians in the 20th century invested a massive amount of time and energy defending the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, largely because it was being called into question.  Yet they have sometimes presumed that the doctrine of authority would simply flow from those other two positions.  But the nature of Scripture’s authority, it’s limits, its purpose, its relationship to the church and other authorities, its role in moral deliberation–these are difficult questions that have not received the attention that they deserve, nor does affirming Scripture’s inerrancy and infallibility provide much guidance for them.

Only the authority of Scripture isn’t the only locus of authority that needs clarifying.  What is the authority of the church?  What sort of authority does the pastor have, and what are its limits?  What can parents command or counsel, and on what grounds?  What is political authority, and what are the conditions for obedience and disobedience?  Is such authority unique?  The notions of authority at work in the various realms of life have something in common with each other, yet authority takes unique forms within the institutions (see the question above) that bears it.  But in all, there is a fundamental question about the form authority takes and its relationship to reality that deserves close consideration.

I realize the above has more questions than answers.  It’s something of a prolegomena.  Think of it as the outlines of where I would want evangelicals to devote their intellectual (and monetary!) capital for the next few years.  Because the more I think about the challenges we face, the more these five areas keep reasserting themselves.