The Ethics of Jayber Crow

riverIn The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry Anthony Esolen notes that Berry’s longest Port William novel, Jayber Crow, is in many ways a modern day retelling of Dante. Berry’s own language throughout the book suggests the comparison, as his narrator, the novel’s subject and namesake, makes frequent mention of “the Dark Wood of Error.” What’s more, it’s hard not to note the similarities in Jayber’s relationship to Mattie and Dante’s to Beatrice–in both cases the story’s narrator is drawn to God via the love he has toward a godly woman he will only know from a distance. To understand the broader argument, you should just buy the book.

But here I want to focus on the particular question of what specifically brings about Jayber’s conversion and what exactly Jayber is converting to. The setting of the novel is mid 20th century small town Kentucky, particularly the small town of Port William. The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Jayber Crow, is a seminary dropout and barber who is in his early 40s and has been back in the Port William area for about 20 years. In the opening scenes of the novel, we meet a character who embodies the independent spirit we often associate with Kentucky. In one scene he describes sitting in a classroom at the orphanage where he grew up, staring out the window, longing to be out in a field instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom going over boring lessons.

In another scene, the young Crow actually makes a run for it and gets some distance from the school before the headmaster, who bears the the wonderfully Dickensian name “Brother Whitespade,” sees him and chases him down, dragging him back to the school. Crow describes his deep-seated fear of sitting at the foot of a desk staring up at his superior and so “the man behind the desk” becomes a shorthand in the novel for all things modern, bureaucratic, and confining. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the decisions made by Jayber in the novel’s early days are built around resisting the man behind the desk and protecting his own independence and autonomy at any cost

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The Death of Jerry Umanos: Filling up what is Lacking in the Suffering of Christ

Jerry Umanos (along with two other physicians) was killed last week, murdered by a police guard in the very hospital where he worked. Dr. Umanos was a pediatrician who served at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago for many years before he began to divide his time between Lawndale and a CURE hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he not only cared for patients directly but was heavily involved in educating Afghan doctors, nurses, and midwives.

Dr. Umanos’ faith clearly informed the decisions he made about his vocation in ways that are applicable to all believers. His life and death are worthy of discussion not because we should all be teaching medical providers in Afghanistan (though more of us ought to), but because one does not need to be participating in a heroic vocation to be faithful Kingdom witnesses. In an age where followers, clicks, sales, and converts rule even Christian psyches, it is instructive for us to reflect upon a contemporary believer whose ambition was the glory of Christ among the poor and whose service to Christ cost his life.

While inner-city Chicago and Afghanistan are very different places, they are both in need of quality physicians. They also tend to be challenging and risky places for physicians to practice. Medical training in particular tends to make it very hard to commit oneself to a particular place; the intense competition for medical school and residency slots often forces trainees to move every 3 or 4 years as they progress in their education. Yet every institution that Dr. Umanos was involved with along the way spoke of his dedication and service– a clear example of a man making the most of every opportunity along the way to be a part of his formational institutions. Furthermore, though his service was divided between Lawndale and Kabul, his affinity for institutions committed to the empowerment of his neighbors is evident. Lawndale’s work in developing leadership among the urban poor is well-known, and training health providers is a growing field crucial to making inroads against enormous health disparities while advancing the Gospel. Dr. Umanos’ example shows just how powerful the relationships we form in our vocations can be when we are intentional and consistent.

This is not just a principle that is applicable solely to Christians who work in elite professional fields like medicine. Certainly the privileged have opportunities that allow them to produce more visible acts of charity– we might surmise that the man in Jesus’ parable who began with five talents had a greater chance of getting to ten than either of his counterparts. The challenge for every person who claims the name of Christ is relying on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to produce in us the discipline necessary to be fruitful in hard places. The lesson of Dr. Umanos’ life is not that he was a special Christian who did things no one else could accomplish, but that he chose to faithfully pursue things that few other people were doing in a manner that anyone who trusts in Jesus can.

Secondly, we can see that Dr. Umanos made calculated sacrifices for the sake of following Christ. This Washington Post article details how he asked for a residents’ salary when he started at Lawndale, which meant that he probably gave up about $60,000-100,000 per year that he could have earned working at a less difficult job. Yet he perceived a calling from God and an affinity to a mission that was worth far more than a few thousand dollars. Many other believers have given up far greater sums of money or larger percentages of their income to serve others– but the point is not about the money, but about the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of faithful ministry. This sacrificial spirit is foundational to our faith and should not be limited merely to finances (for some may even be called to make greater sums of money that they can give away or use for some other good purpose.) Rather, we should each reflect on the gifts that each of us have been given and consider how they might bless God and others if we gave of ourselves at a level that is costly.

Dr. Umanos made some intentional sacrifices but he also took some intentional risks. While we should avoid excessively fetishizing suffering or martyrdom, it is crucial to recognize that, as Bonhoeffer said:

“…It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man and his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his won will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.” (from The Cost of Discipleship

Jesus’ parables on the Kingdom of Heaven make clear the question of cost: following Him is worth far more than what we have, and in order to follow Him we must surrender all that we have. It is clear that there is a significant cost associated with the further proclamation of God’s Kingdom (masterfully exposited by John Piper):

” ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . . filling up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.’ Christ wills to have a personal presentation of his sufferings to the world. And the way he means to offer himself as a sufferer for the world to the world is through his people who, like him, are willing to suffer for the world. His sufferings are completed in our sufferings because in ours the world sees his, and they have their appointed effect. The suffering love of Christ for sinners is seen in the suffering love of his people for sinners.”

While for some the death that we are called to is primarily spiritual or emotional, we should not take lightly the weight of the testimony of either New Testament witnesses or millions of our worldwide contemporaries suffering physical and material loss for Jesus’ sake. By contrast, it is shallow to suppose that this is a call for all to go to Afghanistan or the inner-city (although, again, there are not nearly enough Christians in Afghanistan to give the peoples there access to God’s Word!) The sacrifice and risks we are called to are unique to each person who has tasted of new life in Jesus. We all must reflect on Christ’s incredible sacrifice for us and not shame ourselves with overwrought explanations for why we are avoiding the cross He calls us to bear with Him.

It is only when our eyes are fixed on Jesus and our hearts satisfied by the delight of His love that we can look upon our very lives as worth risking for the sake of advancing His Kingdom. The only way to do this, of course, is through the slow and steady spiritual formation that takes places when we are learning from and giving to our local institutions, most especially our local churches. The life of Jerry Umanos demonstrates the effects of formation on someone who has been thus shaped, leading him to a place where even the risk of violent death was not enough to discourage him from proclaiming Christ in word and deed.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

Belated thoughts on the Duck Dynasty Kerfuffle

The kerfuffle that Phil Robertson stirred up is now over, and as in all such matters it’s hard to avoid the sense that we are all the worse for it. Most everyone I know has reached the point of total exhaustion on the subject, and understandably so. But that’s what happens when rampant curiosity drives our intellectual pursuits: we rush in, plunder, and then move on. But sometimes there are things to be learned only after the crowds leave.

It’s hard to imagine a dispute that encapsulates the hilarious oddities of our age better than that which played out in the middle of the Advent season. In retrospect, the whole thing seems patently bizarre: I sat down to write about it several times, started to type “Duck Dynasty,” and promptly gave up. Athanasasius took on the Arians. Augustine fought Pelagius. Our grandparents defeated the Nazi’s, while our parents grew up in the shadow of Communism. Us, well, we get to parse the words of a reality TV star who makes an awfully effective duck call. I’d try to write a parody, but I’m not a good enough wordsmith for that. Simple description seems ludicrous enough.

The episode’s folly was exacerbated by the drab, joyless atmosphere that pervaded the whole affair. One side responded to his remarks with outrage, while the other defended him in kind. Oh, A&E laughed, for sure, “all the way to the bank” (as they say). And I suspect the family at the center had a good chuckle over the whole business. But few of us did.

We have no one to blame for the media maelstrom but ourselves, and we are all implicated. It does little good to point out (as many evangelicals, conservative or otherwise have) that it’s hard to take Robertson seriously as a “martyr” when there are real Christian martyrs in the world. Against such a backdrop, we ought to be as disturbed that “reality TV” exists at all. If the thing is worth watching, then its stars are doubtlessly worth defending.  But the ability to make that point and have it “liked” by others on Facebook is a luxury good as well. This is a dispute that belongs to a decadent age, and taking to our “platforms” to critique those who were distraught about it because there is bodily suffering elsewhere simply will not do. It’s hard to take any of the commentary seriously when compared to those who are dying for the faith, including the commentary that so earnestly points it out.

Still, as irrelevant as it might seem in the context of life and death, there was something at stake in the decision to suspend Robertson for his remarks. American Christians won’t face pyres or lions, but we may nicked away into irrelevance by a thousand paper cuts while we all shout “peace, peace” the whole while. Our culture war may be dominated by trivialities. But it is no less the warfare for it. The despotic tendencies of our bureucratic state may not lead to prison or death, but a soft despotism is despotic nonetheless. I understand why many young evangelicals have little patience for conservative concerns. Paper cuts are easy to ignore, and any aggregate case is easy to object to in the details. But that doesn’t mean the narrative is false—only that it’s difficult to prove.

After all, to cop a line from young evangelicals, if “politics is downstream from culture” than what precisely are conservatives supposed to make of A&E’s initial decision to suspend Robertson? Is it a harbinger of things to come from our political powers? Or if not this, at what point will it be appropriate for conservatives to be concerned? Young evangelicals who have made a business out of distancing ourselves from the political concerns of our parents have every reason to go on thinking that conservative concern about such cultural moments is one giant overreaction. Which is why more evidence that such moments constitute a trend cannot prove the point: the narrative is already set, and each piece of data is simply further evidence that the conservative sound and fury still signifies nothing.

It is true that Robertson’s comments were “crude,” or “coarse” as the family’s statement put it. Yet since I’m in a mischievous mood, I’d point out that Robertson deployed just the sort of anatomical language that young evangelicals have touted as the mark for “real talk” about sex. I’m half inclined to say that Robertson’s comments are a classic reminder that we ought all be more careful what we wish for. As I have never thought that sounding like doctors within the church is a sign of our maturity, I enjoy the freedom to disagree with everyone: I have no interest in defending Robertson’s comments, about sex or on race, but given how GLAAD responded to Louie Giglio it seems reasonably clear that it wouldn’t much matter how he put the point. A smile and a bit of sophisticated theological jargon can’t stop your bigotry, after all, or so the talking point goes. Had Robertson quoted the Magesterium would things have turned out much differently from how they did?

Still, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that the whole thing is a farce, and that we are the joke. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings.  It is a petty demagoguery that besets us, as laughably impotent as the people it is trying to repress. We have the culture war we deserve.

When a Gay Man and an Evangelical Walked into a Bar

It sounds like the setup for a joke, but while there were plenty of laughs we were quite serious about the whole thing.  And CBN was there to watch.

A few months back my friend John Corvino and I did a public discussion on many of the questions relating to gay marriage.  Not only is John a published academic and a prominent participant in the gay marriage debates, but he is also something of a Youtube rockstar.  His video series on the arguments around gay marriage is way more engaging and fun than the series I’ve been cranking out, even if it’s wrong in nearly every way.  (That’s a joke.  He’s right on one or two things.)

Anyways, the whole thing was a fun and interesting conversation hosted by my friends at Midrash.  And the 700 Club was there to report on it, which means that yes, yes I have made my 700 Club debut.  You can hear me make one or two points in the video, but have mercy:  I was barely holding it together due to a sudden onslaught of pneumonia.

I have little to add beyond the video other than to note that the whole thing wasn’t (unfortunately) recorded.  But if you’re interested in having John and I out to repeat the scrum, we’d be happy to take up other offers.

The Questions of Gay Marriage: How serious a concern is homosexuality?

This is the third part of an ongoing series I started a few months back.  You can read the second part here. I am proceeding more slowly than I should, but I am wanting to give myself the space to allow the subject to marinate and to reflect on how I want to proceed.  Your questions and dialogue are (as always!) both most welcome in the comments below.

How important does Scripture seem to think homosexuality is?  It’s common these days to minimize the concern about this particular question before addressing it on grounds that Scripture says very little that is explicit about the subject, even if the now infamous six explicit verses are all negative.

That’s the claim that Richard Hays makes in his massively influential Moral Vision of the New Testament, at any rate.  He suggests there that “In terms of emphasis, [homosexual behavior] is a minor concern—in contrast, for example, to economic injustice.”

Hays goes on to argue for a traditional view of the question; but it seems this is a point where his methodology betrays him into misconstruing the text.  It may be the case that the importance of a respective issue could be determined by counting up the number of verses where it is mentioned explicitly.  But for someone with an otherwise incredibly sophisticated way of reading Scripture, that approach seems far too blunt.  That humans are created in the “image of God” is not a claim that fills many verses in the Bible; its importance for Christian theological reflection far exceeds its frequency.

What sort of background we compare those six verses to will determine what sort of distortion our inquiry into the subject will suffer from.  It is probably true that conservatives have overemphasized those six verses.  But the most problematic distortion is not simply that they have not talked enough about money, but that they have not properly located those six verses within the more fundamental moments of Scripture’s teaching about humanity:  creation and redemption.  Without that backdrop, any sort of moral proclamation about homosexual behavior takes on an exclusively negative character and fails both to offer the word of hope within the moral analysis and to lay bare the reasons beneath such a prohibition.

But if that is right, it may turn out that gay or lesbian behavior is much more than a “minor concern.”  If those six negative judgments—if they are negative judgments on today’s practices—are the exegetical tips of a theological iceberg, then the authors of Scripture may have few reasons to keep stacking such judgments on top of themselves, as the logic of the entire text would move against it.  A community steeped in that logic might need stronger denunciations of certain practices around money, as money is a universal phenomenon that pervades a community.  But while homosexuality is obviously of incredible importance to those who experience same-sex attraction, it does not draw everyone within a community into its orbit the way financial practices do.  But if this is right, then Scripture’s lack of explicit attention to the phenomenon might be an indication that it emerges into the open when the narrative of Scripture has lost its grip on a community.

It’s not clear that a community would have to be strictly a religious community for that to be the case:  it’s indisputable that the Bible has had a pervasive impact on Western society, and the decline in biblical literacy culturally has coincided with the rise in the public sanctioning of same-sex sexual activity and gay rights.  Is it anything more than a correlation?  The causal links may become intelligible if we could grasp the deeper connection between the logic of Scripture’s teaching about human sexuality and its purported negative judgments about homosexuality.

I put this forward by way of an exploratory hypothesis: the above may not hold up upon reconsideration of the texts themselves.  But it is worth bearing in mind, as it highlights the ways in which our exegetical starting points have a considerable influence on how we frame this particular moral question.

Where ought we begin, then, in considering the questions of gay marriage?  My own inclination is to follow the path that Jesus points toward in Matthew 19, and that Paul follows in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6:  the Genesis account.  This pathway has the advantage of being uncompromisingly Biblical and, if you like drawing sharp lines between Jesus and Paul, of being sanctioned by the “red letters” too.  But it also takes us straight to the heart of the matter in such a way that orients our attention away from the negative proposition about same-sex sexual relations toward the particular goodness of heterosexual sexual relations.  Whether that good is exclusively limited to heterosexual unions is a separate question, as is whether discerning it would definitively answer the question of gay marriage.  But neither of those can properly be answered until we first get a grasp on why marriage matters within Genesis to begin with.

It’s also important to note that this sort of exegetical strategy doesn’t stem from any sort of “embarrassment” about the prohibitions in Leviticus because of what we might call the “reductio ad slavery”:  Leviticus prohibits same-sex relationships, but slavery gets endorsed, which means Scripture clearly can’t be trusted.  Sometimes “shellfish” get tossed about, too, since Leviticus ostensibly doesn’t allow them.  But following Jesus behind Leviticus to the norms of human sexuality within Genesis shows just how empty that argument is.

The reasoning is relatively straightforward.  On the traditional reading of the Genesis account—which we will have reason to question—male-female relationships are revealed as normative.  Yet the aforementioned notion that humans are made in the “image of God” makes an appearance as well. What that means is a contest of its own. But the most dominant readings in the Christian tradition start with a shared and equal responsibility before God for all who share that image.  In light of such a fundamental equality, slavery begins to look like the sinful perversion that it is.  There may have been certain compromises to it as an institution within Leviticus, for a variety of reasons and qualified in important ways.  But as Jesus points out in Matthew 19, Moses made compromises on divorce law, too.  Does such a compromise undermine the norm of permanence for traditional Christians’ account of marriage?   Clearly not.  In fact, it is only recognizable as a compromise when people have grasped the norm in such a way that they are able to see the disparity.

But reaching back into Genesis may also have the effect of calling into question the importance of the distinctions between gay and lesbian practices then and now.  The most popular way around those prohibitions has been to say that the New Testament knows nothing of permanent, stable, monogamous gay or lesbian relationships and that its prohibitions don’t apply.  Whatever we make of that argument, it doesn’t matter much for a theological stance toward homosexuality that takes its cues from the account in creation.  If the prohibitionary norms (do not [x]) are themselves tied to and derived from the goods that Scripture purportedly presents as marking off heterosexual relationships, then the quality of those gay or lesbian relationships doesn’t determine their licitness according to Scripture.

That last point, though, needs clarification:  the appeal to Genesis is a doctrinal appeal that isn’t itself derived from anyone’s experiences.  The norms are instead implicit within and grasped within that particular story, that construal of how the world is.  That story establishes the norms for everyone’s relationships; it is the backdrop against which evaluation of our own choices, affections, and thoughts happen.

Whether and when a person or a society’s “experience” (broadly construed at the moment so as to include both personal anecdotes and social scientific evidence) might trump this doctrinal story is an interesting question that I suspect will come up later on.  But the logic of any appeal to Genesis for norms at least initially pushes people’s experiences to the margins, for it is an appeal to a form of relationship that exists before sin enters the world and hence a form of relationship that is necessarily unlike our own.

Such are the limits of appealing to Genesis, though, limits which mean that our understanding of its meaning for today is necessarily incomplete unless we also reflect upon the other pole of Christian theology, the redemptive work of Jesus.  These two loci are not competing:  they are mutually complementary, such that neither can be properly grasped without the other.  Creation is the context wherein the meaning of redemption is grasped; redemption clarifies, restores, and deepens the goodness of the original creation.  Without any integrating both poles of reflection, any account of human sexuality will necessarily be stunted.

Of course, none of this gets us to the actual question of what Genesis 1-3 says about the goods and norms of human sexual relationships.  Instead, it only argues for why we should choose this as a starting point and its limitations.  I’ll turn to that substantive question next time.

Do we Really Need Small Towns?

This bit from my friend Jake Meador’s excellent piece on why we need small towns has lingered with me:

No, we don’t all have to move to small towns to find these communities. But small towns make that sort of community more plausible. Big cities run on transience and mobility. They are filled with rental housing and freeways designed to make movement over large areas easier. And they are supported by an economy that assumes people will switch careers and homes several times in the course of their lives.

In such a world, the memory of small-town life is an antidote to the frantic pace that defines the city and deadens the soul. But with small towns withering away, what will protect us from the hectic, hypermobile life of the city? In a world where so many of us are like Jayber—haunted by the pains inflicted upon us as well as our own sinful heart—where will we go to be healed and restored? How many of us will be given the time to slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions?

My own take on this is similar to what I think about cities and suburbs:  any theologically minded commentary on how we relate to a place, and how places form us, must be unremittingly ambivalent in its approach.  It is true that small towns can make “community more plausible,” as Jake puts it.  But “community” can also become downright hostile to outsiders and overly protective of its own. The recent Maryville horror story–and there is no other word for it–is simply that sort of debased protectiveness magnified to the extreme.  Loving one’s own has real dangers within it, when it is not mediated and transformed by more fundamental loves.  Small towns and cities strike me as equally conducive to virtue, even if their challenges take a very different form.  And yes, all this points to affirming Jake’s fundamental point that we need pastors to go to small towns now more than ever.  As a child of a town of three thousand people, I found Jesus there–and a whole lot else beside.

But then, if what Jake thinks small town life provides is an “antidote to the frantic pace of life that defines the city and deadens the soul,” then I suspect there are no such thing anymore–not with the internet, anyway, and the inescapable mental franticness that the distractions of Facebook and Twitter introduce.  It is doubtlessly the case that for most people in small town, Facebook provides additional texture to their embedded lives, rather than having the sort of globalizing effect that it does for other people.  Yet even so, using them on a smartphone–as nearly everyone these days does, it seems–invariably tears our attention in multiple directions.  It is not the “hectic, hypermobile life of the city” that we need to be concerned about but the online equivalent, which introduces placelessness as a way of life into every community no matter what the size.  We may be given the time to “slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions” (a perhaps very gracious nod to a recent work of mine?).  But few of us will take it.

It’s for this reason that I was happy to see Jake’s wrestling with the way in which the dislocatedness of his writing fits into small town life:

While it’s preferable to have a small town populated with remote workers like Dreher than no small towns at all, I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else. Speaking only for myself as a writer based in Lincoln, NE whose reading habits more closely resemble a resident of Washington DC or New York than my midwestern neighbors, I have real questions about the strength of a community shared by people who share a place but not an economy. My own experience of life in Lincoln suggests that cultivating deep community when people share a place but not an economy may be quite difficult.

The economic point here is a crucial one, as it goes much deeper than simply having a job that pays bills.  Our work entangles us in the world in our entirety, not in part, if we are to do it well.  Our work is a role, yes, but it is a role that we assume without fragmenting ourselves.  We invest ourselves in our work; our work pervades the entirety of our lives, forming our desires and establishing a scope for our interests.  The tension of living in a place and working elsewhere is not simply one of not having to leave our front doors in order to get to the office and so bumping elbows with our neighbors on the way.  Rather, it is a question about where our investments are and what it means to be in a place when such a fundamental mode of our existence takes all our concerns elsewhere.  We can deflate the “economy” so that it is only a transaction of money in exchange for some sort of service; but that may be to enter into a mode of working that lies at the heart of the alienation that many people feel in their lives, to give ourselves over to the very problem that the emphasis on place is meant to address.

Let me put the point differently, then:  if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from.  It is not enough to hand out Wendell Berry and consider the work of describing the interests of small-town life done, though Rod Dreher’s Little Way does this too, it seems.  If there is something distinctively good there, some sort of formation that can occur anywhere but which might be especially concentrated in the way of life that is wholly integrated into a small community, then we need writers willing to forgo the temptations of universalism that the internet presents and take up their pen and describe the granular, frequently petty and occasionally heroic forms of life that make small-town life uniquely indispensable.  It may take a form of writing that is as parochially concerned as the people it represents.  But if it is the case that the true wisdom is found within the limiting, narrow particulars of a small-town life, it is just within such parochialism that we will see the world properly.

Otherwise, I may be left wondering whether we really need small towns after all, or whether they too are simply one more place of ambivalence equivalent to all the rest.

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.

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Christian’s Library Press and Oliver O’Donovan

I’m delighted to announce that Christian’s Library Press has signed on as a co-sponsor of our forthcoming event with Oliver O’Donovan.

CLP_Logo4They are doing excellent work retrieving overlooked resources within the Reformed theological tradition, resources that need broader dissemination within the evangelical world–and here’s the kicker–even among the non-Reformed.  I’ve long argued that the doctrine of creation (still!) needs rehabilitating within the evangelical world, which is where many of the resources Christian Library’s Press are going to find their roots.

So please do consider them in your ongoing search for wisdom.

And I do hope that you’ll join us on October 8th, or tell your friends who live in the DC area to come out in your stead.

If you keep up with us here for any length of time in the future, you’ll quickly become acquainted with the work of Oliver O’Donovan. His influence on North American Christianity is often overlooked, but pronounced.  Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal (who is hosting the dialogue) has long been a fan of O’Donovan’s work, and it turns out O’Donovan had an influence on the work of Andy Crouch as well.  I had long suspected that to be the case, given the similarity in their concerns, and so am happy to see Andy mention him in his new book.

This is an opportunity not to be missed.

7:00 PM

The United Methodist Building

100 Maryland Avenue, NE

Washington, DC  20002

 

The Questions of Gay Marriage: An Inquiring Essay, Part One

What should we make of marriage?  Or should we perhaps frame the question differently?  Should we instead take up what marriage makes of us, and so consider ourselves as fundamentally responsive to it rather than creative?  Why does a particular form of relationship deserve the special treatment we afford it?  In what way does the structure of marriage inform a particular life and its prospects?

These questions are perennially interesting and they entangle us all.  Gay, straight, single, married, the childless and parents—even those who permanently deny themselves marriage are, through their negation, shaped by it.  As an institution, marriage provides a unique point of access into the structure of reality.  And of all the subjects we might possibly take up in this world, few bring together the cluster of personal desires, society, law, tradition, history, theology the way this one does (along with many other strands, no doubt).  The sheer collision of the complexity of the issues and their fundamental importance makes the subject an endlessly fertile source for inquiry and understanding.

But my interest in such questions is unremittingly personal as well.  I was not always the happily married man I am today, and my path into this status was anything but smooth.  My adult life began with a romance that ended  badly.  I found myself not so unlike Dante in the opening of his Infernolost in a wood, “the right road was wholly lost and gone.”  Like many young evangelicals, I had known that I was supposed to be headed toward marriage.  I simply did not know why or how to get there.  It was only through the exploration and inquiry that the crisis precipitated that I slowly found out the “marriage” to which I had been headed was not much of a thing at all.

I have not lost that original interest in understanding the meaning of marriage or its peculiar goodness, even while our society has been beset by a sharp controversy over its legal and political dimensions. Over the past decade, the gay marriage controversy has intensified into a social conflict between two warring factions, who have taken their arguments everywhere from the Supreme Court to Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A.  The concurrent rise of social media has made the conflict feel even more totalizing, as it became harder to avoid seeing friends and neighbours locked in interminable discussions about it.

All this has had a considerable effect on younger evangelicals, even if the transformations may have been more subtle than the blunt instruments of “yes or no” polls might allow.  Many younger evangelicals with conservative theological positions no longer support the state’s recognition of traditional marriage.  The percentage who does is still disproportionately large, but even so the atmosphere has shifted.  Institutional bellweathers of young evangelical opinion like Relevant and Q have barely even addressed the subject the past five years. Many prominent young evangelical writers seem to have adopted the Louie Giglio model of never speaking of the subject at all, so as to not unnecessarily offend their audience base and embroil themselves in controversies that are not their “core issues.”  Others seem to have adopted a “strategic ambiguity” about the question, routinely chastening conservatives for approaching the subject badly without necessarily taking up the task of finding substantive remedies themselves.

The broader cultural shift is not only having its effect on young evangelicals’ political positions, though.  Many young evangelicals are losing confidence in traditionally Christian statements about sexual ethics, including those pertaining to homosexuality and masturbation.  Continue reading

Are You Free to NOT Drink?

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol (see “Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline”).

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

beerOver time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

  • Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
  • Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
  • Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
  • Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.

Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

This is the third in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books). See also: part one and two.