Reviewing John Wilsey’s “American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion”

I’m pleased to publish this guest review today by Hillsdale College visiting professor Dr. Miles Smith. You can learn more about Dr. Smith from his bio below this post. You can also follow him on Twitter @IVMiles

A book exploring the idea of American exceptionalism is especially timely in a year when the political realm has been captured, or at least invaded, by a man promising to Make America Great again. For many Americans, especially American Evangelicals, the notion that America is great is synonymous with the notion that America is exceptional. Few American Evangelicals, after all, believe that the United States is exceptionally bad. John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is written for the educated Evangelical layman and proves to be earnest attempt to reevaluate the idea of American exceptionalism from a Christian perspective. Continue reading

Moral Sentimentalism and Mechanized Society

Recently Alastair Roberts and I had the chance to do an email back and forth over an issue I’ve noticed increasingly often in the way that many are reasoning about issues of public ethics. Unsurprisingly, the discussion sprawled out a bit from there and brought in everything from the work of Jonathan Haidt to the bureaucratic state to the way that the internet shapes and constrains our reasoning. It’s a bit long, but hopefully enjoyable. My emails are in bold. Thanks for reading!

Alastair, here’s my basic observation. You tell me if I’m crazy.

In discussions of public policy it is very rare to find the online discussion beginning from a place of inquiry or a felt need to investigate further. There is a kind of instinctive assumption that we just know the good and so the main priority is then advocating for that good, shaming those who are opposed to it, etc. The name I’ve given this so far is “moral positivism.”

It seems like there are a number of things that likely feed into this. One of them is the assumption behind a lot of left-wing writing these days that most public problems aren’t necessarily moral problems, but administrative ones. Find the right public policy to realize the good and we’re sorted. That’s my biggest critique of the Vox.com set. (This is, of course, a quintessentially modern way of approaching social problems and is precisely the sort of thing CS Lewis is attacking in That Hideous Strength.)

Another point is that I think the Overton window on certain issues has become incredibly small. If something can plausibly be framed as being the position in favor of equality or the compassionate position, then it’s almost impossible to make arguments against it. Continue reading

Evangelicals need to read Richard Hooker.

I’m pleased to host this excellent interview between Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts and my friend Dr. Brad Littlejohn. Dr. Littlejohn, who did his doctoral work at Edinburgh with Mere O favorite Oliver O’Donovan, has just published a popular level introduction to 16th century English theologian Richard Hooker. If you’re like me, you’ve probably come across Hooker’s name somewhere, but don’t know much about him. His lone major work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is hard to track down in an affordable edition. So Hooker is just a name for most of us, like other obscure theologians in the church’s past. Brad’s book will go some way toward addressing this problem. Having read it, I now want to find a way of reading Laws, if only I can find an affordable edition. Enjoy the interview! (Full disclosure, Brad is the president of the Davenant Trust, an organization I’m pleased to serve as a board member. But even if I were not his friend and fellow board member I would be delighted to host this interview here at Mere O.)

Thank you for agreeing to join me to discuss the subject of your new book, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work. For the sake of those who may not be familiar with Hooker, can you give a very brief description of who he was?

Sure thing. Basically, when I’m talking to Reformed people, I say something like “Think of him as Anglicanism’s John Calvin.” He became within a few decades after his death the preeminent theologian of the tradition that came to call itself “Anglican,” even though Hooker wouldn’t have thought of himself in these terms, just as Calvin never thought of himself as the first “Calvinist.” His life was comparatively short (1553-1600), almost entirely coinciding with Queen Elizabeth’s long reign (1558-1603), so he is mostly known only for his one great work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Continue reading

Evangelicals are not modern gnostics. We’re materialists.

There’s a scene in HBO’s John Adams miniseries that remains one of the most succinct summaries of today’s defining cultural battle. The scene features the two guiding stars of the American founding, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The two friends are attending the launch of a hot air balloon in France where they are attempting to negotiate a treaty between France and the revolting American colonies.

As the balloon rises up into the sky, Jefferson sings “So our umbilical cord to mother Earth has been severed for the first time in history. Mankind floats upon a limitless plain of air.”

Typically unimpressed, Adams replies “hot air” as the two friends exchange a playful glance. Continue reading

Neglecting the Body and Ignoring Nature–Thoughts on Complementarianism

In A Severe Mercy Sheldon Vanauken tells the story of his conversion from the High Paganism of his youth, a paganism defined by fidelity to beauty, honour (which he always spelled in the British fashion), and one’s people to orthodox Christianity. Instrumental to that conversion was his relationship with CS Lewis. Though (because?) he was a child of the old south, Vanauken struggled against what he saw as the smallness of Christianity as he had seen it practiced and taught.

For him the world was shining with glory and beauty and Christianity simply wasn’t big enough to speak about it all. Vanauken writes movingly of how bare branches against the night sky remained for his entire life a symbol of beauty and how he and his wife Davy resolved from early in their relationship to give themselves wholly to the goodness of the world. Continue reading

Listener Response to the Mere Fidelity Refugee Episode

Hannah Sillars, a Mere Fidelity listener, wrote in after listening to last week’s Mere Fidelity refugee episode to comment on one particular point about the ongoing refugee crisis. Hannah Sillars is an author and marketing professional who lives in Toronto, ON, with her husband, Jordan. She’s written for Christianity Today, WORLD magazine online, and blogs at www.hold-the-anchovies.com. We also have a separate post on Notes with more resources on refugees. If you want to help refugees in your area, we have information to help you do that over there.

Hi there, I’ve just started listening to Mere Orthodoxy about two episodes ago. I respect your perspectives and have since followed many of you on Twitter. I did want to comment, however, on the refugees podcast. A little background: I’m a conservative Anglican Christian. I’ve volunteered with refugees in Fort Worth, Texas, on and off since high school. This was mostly “off” until after college, when my husband and I committed to volunteering at least one night per week for a year. Continue reading

Detective Fiction and the Fun of Orthodoxy

We’re a little late for Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday, which was last Tuesday, but all the same I’m delighted to share this fun piece from Matthew Mellema, a new guest writer for us at Mere Orthodoxy. Matt is a lawyer specializing in religious institutions. He’s also a writer who explores evangelicalism and quitting cynicism at mattmellema.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Mellema. 

“It is the dogma that is the drama.”

Dorothy Sayers wrote the line against the watery theology of her time. But it has implications beyond theology. It could also apply to another one of Sayers’ passions: detective writing.

To love detective fiction is to love rules. Continue reading

A World Where Love Can Be at Home–Josh Ritter and Francis Schaeffer

“Christianity should never give any onlooker the right to conclude that Christianity believes in the negation of life.” — Francis Schaeffer

I’ve often wondered what might happen if Josh Ritter, one of my favorite modern songwriters, were ever to meet Francis Schaeffer, the famous American pastor and intellectual who in 1955 founded L’Abri in the Swiss Alpine village of Huemoz.

If you spend any length of time listening to Ritter’s music (and you really should spend some time with it) you’ll quickly realize that the man is simultaneously fascinated with religious themes and repelled by what he has seen of Christianity and of the Christian god.

In this sense he fits neatly into the category of “misotheist” as described by Bernard Schweizer. For Ritter the issue isn’t necessarily whether or not God exists. Rather, the issue is that if there is a God then he is a cosmic killjoy, a tedious bore of a being who would create us with the capacity to love and then fence it about with so many rules that the joy and wonder of it all is snatched away. Continue reading

Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

I’m quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here

‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’

In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504). Continue reading

The System Behind Abortion: Planned Parenthood’s Dehumanizing Rhetoric

Some matters in this world are complicated:  some deserve careful deliberation, time, and the opportunity to work through our emotions before coming to a reasonable judgment of things. I have long been an advocate of this principle and wary critic of the impassioned internet-activism that motivates many people online.  Such movements have a distorting effect, they don’t allow for more subtle responses, they often backlash when the facts are wrong, and so on. I know every reason to avoid speaking in the midst of social media uproars, and have made nearly all of them myself at one point or another.

But some things are simple. Some moments grip us with such a clarity and power that we have no choice but to respond. When I saw the video of the McKinney police officer pushing the face of a 15 year old black girl into the ground, any question about the justice or injustice of the situation fell to the ground. The appropriate response to the racist Charleston shooting was to repeat imprecatory and lament Psalms, and to allow our country the full vent of its just infuriation to well up into the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s grounds. It is the better part of wisdom to discern the moments that have complications that might temper our outrage and those in which the evil appears unmasked and naked, well-intentioned and ‘reasonable.’ Continue reading