Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry

Some conservative evangelicals have been revisiting whether it’s permissible to be gay and a Christian recently. I generally try to steer clear of that discussion, as I find it often reinforces notions of ‘identity’ that are too underdeveloped to be helpful. “Identity” language is a virus in the church that addles the brains of otherwise very intelligent people.* The old forgotten terminology of virtues, character, acts, and so on was much clearer and did not have the incantatory effect ‘identity’ clearly does within the evangelical world, and if I had my way we’d all return to it.

World MagazineThis latest round of discussion was prompted by Julie Roys’ article at World about Julie Rodgers, a chaplain at Wheaton who identifies as gay while being staunchly committed to traditional Christian norms of chastity and celibacy.** This is a position that has become identified with the excellent blog “Spiritual Friendship,” which my friends Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill have run. But according to Roys, this way of dividing things up is unorthodox. Or as Owen Strachan puts it, evangelicals who take this stance are “playing with theological fire.” While I agree with Strachan up to this point, I’d add that so are those who reject it: to think theologically at all is to play with fire.  The only question is whether we shall all be sanctified by the process of such thinking, or burned to ashes and left in a heap.

Having noted my general reluctance to taking up this issue, though, allow me to wade in more directly on the question, as to this point I’m not at all persuaded by Roys or Strachan that conservative Christians should be Really Worried about Rodgers’ view. Strachan laid out ten theses on the subject in order to pursue some desperately needed clarity, including definitions of the contested terms ‘orientation,’ ‘temptation’, and ‘desire.’ Of course, definitions can be used in a lot of ways, and Strachan loads the dice against Rodgers in a way that is simply not helpful. He suggests that ‘orientation’ is a pattern of desires “oriented toward an end,” which in this case is same-sex sexual activity. I say it’s not helpful because if that’s what an orientation is then I doubt Rodgers (or Wesley Hill or Ron Belgau: hereafter Rodgers and co.) thinks, in the final analysis, that it would be compatible with the traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality, teaching which they clearly affirm.*** Let me put it this way: while Michael Hannon wants to destroy the ‘orientation’ regime altogether, Rodgers and co. want to reform it by untethering the term ‘gay’ from its common association with sex acts or the desires that may lead them. They have inflationary aims for the term: they want to fill it in with lots of other content that is morally commendable, even while they recognize that their usage may be idiosyncratic given its common associations.

Now, there are aspects of this approach that are entirely commendable and seem to me to be far more psychologically palatable than the negation-focused strategy of ‘identity curation’ that Roys and Strachan seem to be endorsing. The good has its own internal power, and growth and expansion is its inner law. This is the basic rule which C.S. Lewis famously alluded to in suggesting that we sin not because our desires are too strong, but because they are too weak: we go on “making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” By orienting ourselves wholeheartedly toward goods, we can crowd out—or severely diminish—the strength that wrongs have over us. By attending to and focusing on what is lovely, true, and worthy of affirmation within the cluster of thoughts and desires that come with occasionally or frequently experiencing same-sex attraction—being ‘gay’—while simultaneously affirming the order which God has established, gay Christians are attempting to establish the very conditions which Roys and Strachan would want to affirm, namely the possibility that disordered desires would fade away. If nothing else, the gay Christian strategy (of the Rodgers and co. variety) is at least biblical in this respect: it takes Paul’s admonition to attend carefully to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…excellent or praiseworthy.”

But Strachan’s article goes on, and unfortunately it does not get better. Strachan lays down his definitions in order to pursue clarity, but then in a key passage introduces more terms that leave his position at best ambiguous, and at worst a confused muddle. I quote in full:

    1. But here we must be careful: attraction or interest is not the same thing as sinful desire. It is right for a man to want one-flesh union with a woman, and vice versa. But there is only [one] person with whom such love may be consummated (Genesis 2: Matthew 19:3-6). All who are not our spouse, therefore, must be treated like a brother or a sister. We might be oriented to be attracted to the opposite sex (this is God’s creational purpose, after all), but this does not mean that we desire in an actional way all women. In fact, regeneration means that we actively fight our desire for all members of the opposite sex who are not our spouse.

      So here we see the distinction that must be drawn between heterosexual attraction or interest and homosexual attraction or interest. Heterosexual interest is God-glorifying. It is right in terms of God’s creational purposes for men, in general, to have an interest in women–to be drawn to them in some way. This interest must be bounded, though, by Paul’s admonition to treat all non-spousal members of the opposite sex as “sisters” or brothers with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:2). So there is an appropriate outlet for heterosexual interest, which is not necessarily wrong but must be directed toward a God-glorifying end.

      Heterosexual attraction or interest is not by nature wrong. But when we cross over the “treat women or men as sisters or brothers” line, then such morally praiseworthy interest has become sinful. A man may find his sister pretty, for example, but he is never able to sexually desire her. The same is not true for homosexual interest; there is nothing creationally right about it. The woman was made for the man, as Genesis 2:18 shows. There is no appropriate outlet for homosexual interest. It is not morally praiseworthy by its nature. A man who desires another man, for example, is morally complicit. Of course, a man might find another man to be handsome, but this is not the same thing as desiring him; it is by definition not SSA or “gayness.” The presence of desire, which is the very nature of SSA and “gayness,” indicates that we have crossed the line into sinful behavior.

Strachan introduces new terms here, ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’, which he had not previously defined. Those terms allow him to create an asymmetry between “heterosexual attraction” and “homosexual attraction” in a way that I don’t think is justified. For Strachan, ‘attraction’ seems to be functioning in a proto-sexual kind of way: men are ‘attracted to’ women as a class of people, even if they might sexually desire individuals. Now, that may be true of men “in general”, or as a general class. But it’s hard to know what it means for any particular male to be ‘attracted to’ women as a general class of people, especially if that ‘attraction’ is not yet a sexual attraction or desire. Strachan never says in what way it is right for a male to be drawn to a woman, but his mention of sibling-relationships creates a real problem for what I take to be his view. If the ‘attraction’ is proto-sexual, then it’s hard to see how having an attraction to one’s sister is permissible. If the attraction is not-sexual at all, though, such that a male can have this ‘attraction’ to his sister in a way that’s licit, then it’s not obvious to me why the same man might not have a similar attraction to a member of the same sex. Strachan seems to intuitively recognize that the ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’ terms don’t quite get him where he wants to go:  he slips back into the category of desire in speaking about same-sex ‘interest’. For heterosexuals the two categories are held apart, but for gay people they are collapsed together.

Similarly, Strachan’s notion that there is an appropriate ‘outlet’ for this interest—namely, treating each other as siblings—raises the same question about whether or why the same ‘outlet’ could not be appropriate for the interest in the same-sex. Again, if this ‘interest’ is tied to sexual desire, then it seems like the appropriate “outlet” of it would be the marriage of a single woman. I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to tie the norms of ‘siblinghood’ to this proto-sexual ‘interest.’

If anything, the imagery of siblinghood works against such a conjunct: even today, there are strong taboos against anything hinting of sexual attraction between siblings. But then again I’m left wondering, if these ‘interests’ or ‘attractions’ are not sexual (or, as I’ve been calling them, proto-sexual) then it’s not clear why they cannot be had between the sexes licitly, or why the norm governing them for members of the same-sex would not also be siblinghood.

Allow me to try to tease out what I think Strachan is trying to get at in a scenario that I present in far too attenuated form here. In the first, a young man sits in a coffee shop reading David Copperfield while listening to music. He is, by all external appearances, lost to the world. Yet as often happens in coffee shops, the door opens and he glances up to see a woman he does not know, but who he finds unspeakably beautiful, walk in. After she orders, she sits at the armchair across from him and opens up a copy of Bleak House and begins to read. From this point on, we might say he is lost to the world: he has noticed her, and feels as though he can’t help but attend to her, so taken he is by her charm and by her literary interests. He wishes, above all, to speak to her and find out her name and to understand what her interest in Bleak House is. Yet being of the bashful sort, he suppresses any thought of saying ‘hello’ and continues in vain to read the same page over and over.

Now, it’s just in such an experience that we might say there is some kind of ‘attraction.’ Is it sexual? The thought is almost offensive: it is a strong interest, one which the fact of her beauty doubtlessly plays a role in and which may be converted to a sexual desire under the right conditions, but there is no reason to think that it is at this point. Is it benign? Not necessarily: it is an asymmetrical, non-reciprocal interest at this point, which may actually be unwelcome and has not been invited. And he may be in the conditions where its development into a sexual desire would be imprudent, and so if he recognizes that he is eager for it to become a sexual desire, he may wish to avoid conversation altogether. But ‘potent’ is not the same as ‘morally wrong,’ and there is no reason yet to think that such an attraction is wrong. Does it change the moral analysis if the person across the table is the same-sex, and our young man identifies as ‘gay’ and sometimes or frequently experiences same-sex sexual desires? It seems to me the answer is clearly not: this kind of magnetic interest (call it ‘chemistry) seems to be able to be untethered from sexual desires rather easily, even if this kind of experience happens more frequently with the same sex among those who are ‘gay’ than those who are not.  The only way in which it does become morally problematic is if all such moments are inherently ordered toward sexual fulfillment: but there is a vast continuum of ‘attractions’ and ‘interests’ before the pursuit of sexual activity comes on the table, and it is just this continuum which Rodgers and co. seem to (rightly) want to draw our attention to.

And there are good reasons for them wanting to. If a young man who identified as gay experienced this kind of magnetic attentiveness with members of the same-sex on a regular basis, he might be aware of certain dynamics within same-sex relationships that those who do not so experience it are not. He may not necessarily have a ‘privileged insight’ into friendship that heterosexual people lack: but then, I’ve learned as much about the structure of marriage from a man who was single his whole life as I have anyone else, so it’s not clear to me that ‘experience’ of any sort necessarily provides privileged access. Our capacity for empathetic imagination and our ability to understand each other is much greater than we realize. But even if his access into (say) the structure of friendship isn’t necessarily privileged by virtue of this regular occurrence, he may have an acute sensitivity or awareness of its structure that others lack. The absence of any threat of sexual attraction in a relationship may actually have a dulling effect on its possibilities or its dangers: paradoxically, the person who never experiences same-sex attraction at all may more easily presume that they understand friendship in a way that someone who must be constantly vigilant about the possibility of eros arising cannot be. And in this way, the gay Christian might remind other Christians of certain aspects or possibilities of non-sexual relationships that we may be prone to forget otherwise. That is, at least, my reformulation of the kind of ‘gay Christianity’ that I see Rodgers and co. advancing at its best.

The unhappy fact from the point of the theorist is that sexual desires emerge in us along within a whole cluster of thoughts, sentiments, anxieties, fears, intentions, and other psychological apparatus. Strachan is right that we need more clarity in our concepts as we unravel all of these, but I don’t think he’s delivered on it. (Until I put together my own etiology of sexual desire, which I’ve wanted to do for years, readers should read Roger Scruton’s book.)

Either way, Rodgers and co. are on the side of the angels, and conservative evangelicals would do well to listen attentively to their experiences and theorize and reflect along with them. No, I’m quite serious: they are literally on the side of the angels, for they all are all working within their own lives to point toward the resurrection, when we “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” It may sound strange to the evangelical ear that their resolute commitment to the norms of chastity can sit side-by-side with a term that is associated with desires and acts that we have moral objections to. And no, Rodgers and co. are not above critique: I myself have wondered (in private correspondence) whether other terms might serve their ‘reclamation ends’ better than a term already as loaded as ‘gay’, if only because reclaiming terms is hard and making new ones is easy. But at the same time, had they taken my path I suspect that we would not be having this discussion. And how to think about sexual desire is a discussion evangelicals still need to have.

 

*Yes, if you search the archives you will quickly discover that the ferocity of my judgment is rooted in the severity of my own penitence for my culpability in the crime.

** I don’t know Julie Roys, but I have been on her show a few times and have enjoyed it immensely. I don’t know Julie Rodgers either, but based on her writings she seems very smart and kind.

*** I’m making my claim here based on reading them. I may be wrong, though, and would be happy to be corrected.

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The Marriage Pledge and the Libertarian Solution to the Marriage Debate

Over at First Things the Revs. Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner have published a document called The Marriage Pledge. The gist of it can be summed up as follows:

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

You can read the whole thing and see a list of signers, which includes Peter Leithart, here. Tristyn Bloom reported on the pledge for the Daily Caller and you can read her piece on it here.

There’s a sense in which this move is understandable. CS Lewis after all had very similar thoughts 60 years ago in the post-war years in Britain when he proposed a similar solution in Mere Christianity:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that both Revs Seitz and Radner are currently living in Canada, which on matters of sex ethics has been far more hostile thus far to orthodox Christians than the United States. So this move may not simply be a form of protest against the current order, but also an attempt to put a bit of distance between the church and the public square so as to protect the church from possible legal consequences for maintaining an orthodox view on sexuality and marriage.

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An Accurate Parody: On Andrew Wilson and Matthew Vines

Editor’s note:  Samuel James is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned a BA in apologetics from Boyce College. He blogs regularly at Patheos and tweets regularly at @samwisejams.

Did Andrew Wilson’s parody misrepresent Matthew Vines?

Last week Andrew Wilson posted a brilliant and (in many minds) effective satire called “The Case for Idolatry.” The piece parodied many of the arguments used by progressive evangelicals advocating for a departure from traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality. Wilson opened his piece this way:

For many years, I was taught that idolatry was sinful. As a good Christian, I fought the desire to commit idolatry, and repented when I got it wrong. But the desire to worship idols never went away.

I wanted it to, but it didn’t.

So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshipping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture.

god and the gay christianWhat makes Wilson’s piece so good is that anyone who is familiar with the rhetoric from the “LGBT-affirming” wing of evangelicalism will immediately notice that the only significant alteration Wilson has made to the standard talking points is to replace the word “Gay” with “idolater.” By doing so, Wilson illustrates the untenability of the logical progressions often utilized when advocating for Christian revisionism. Many (including myself) found the piece clever and well-written.

Matthew Vines, the author of God and the Gay Christian, disagrees. In fact, he disagrees so much that he thinks Wilson is “profoundly disrespectful and degrading to LGBT people,” and that his “mockery isn’t Christ-like.”

Vines went further, saying that the piece was a “caricature” that didn’t accurately represent the arguments he has made in God and the Gay Christian.

Now, Vines is welcome to believe that Wilson is mean and hates LGBT people and wants to demean them. That seems to be an uncharitable and demonstrably false claim, but Vines is entitled to that view. What Vines isn’t welcome to, however, is the statement that Wilson’s satire misrepresents Vines’s arguments. He isn’t welcome to that opinion for one very simple reason: He’s factually wrong.

Vines complains that Wilson is not qualified to write such a piece because he hasn’t read God and the Gay Christian. That’s a dubious claim at best, but let’s roll with it. As it happens, yours truly has in fact read and owns a copy of Vines’s book. Taking a very brief foray into the depths of God and the Gay Christian reveals almost immediately that Wilson’s satire was indeed accurate.

Before I dive into the quotes, a couple comments about parody are in order. The point of parody is not to produce a point-by-point rebuttal of someone’s claims. Instead of explicitly refuting the arguments of LGBT-affirming evangelicals, Wilson’s parody intends to expose the fragile underlying logical framework of LGBT-affirming rhetoric. If an absurd claim (in this case, that open idolatry is consistent with Christian belief and practice) can be supported using the same logical progression used by LGBT-affirming evangelicals like Vines, it is fair to question whether that logical progression is valid.

Secondly, let’s get the elephant out of the room: Yes, homosexuality and idolatry are different things that require particular responses. To understand Wilson’s piece we have to grasp what parody is: A genre that illustrates rather than explicates. Wilson is not saying that idolatry and homosexuality are basically interchangeable and whatever can be said of the one can be said of the other (at least, I don’t read him as saying that). The point of using “idolatry” in this case is that it is a practice that both Wilson and Vines would agree is sinful for essentially the same reasons (testimony of Scripture). If we agree with Wilson about the sinfulness of idolatry, and we find that applying the language of God and the Gay Christian to idolatry creates an argument very similar to what we have heard from Vines, we should pause and ask if Vines is using a valid theological approach.

Without further ado, let’s compare passages from Wilson’s piece to those from Vines’s book, and see if the two sound alike:

#1. Wilson writes:

But from childhood until today, my heart has been drawn to idolatry. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the defining features of my identity has been my desire to put something else – popularity, money, influence, sex, success – in place of God.

That’s just who I am.

The integration of idolatry into a person’s fundamental, unchangeable identity is obviously parodical to us because we identify the act of idolatry as necessarily sinful. Idolatry, we would say, is surely something we are drawn to in our sinful state, but nowhere does Scripture endorse our idolatrous feelings based on their integration into our identities.

This parody works because it is exactly the approach to sexuality that Vines exhibits in God and the Gay Christian. On page 5, Vines begins his personal narrative with two things: The realization that he is gay, and the effort he makes afterwards to convert his parents to his theology. At no point in God and the Gay Christian does Vines record a sort of questioning of his own feelings. He knows he is gay and has known for a long time. It’s who he is. On page 8, Vines says:

My parents nurtured a faith in Jesus in me and my sister, give us a moral and spiritual anchor as we grew up. Just as importantly, Mom and Dad lived out their faith in loving and authentic ways, daily confirming for us the value of placing Christ at the center of our lives. So even though I was now facing up to the fact of my sexual orientation, my faith in God was not in jeopardy. (emphasis added)

Vines refers to his “faith” in God and the “fact” of his sexual orientation. His feelings and desires are absolute and settled, and not once does he record any challenge to them. It’s part of his identity, and that is an unquestionable tenet of his theology.

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

#2. Wilson writes:

So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshipping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture. In recent years, I have finally summoned the courage to admit that I am one of them. Let me give you a few reasons why I believe that idolatry and Christianity are compatible.

Wilson parodies the arguments of affirming evangelicals by using the same kind of ethical pragmatism to talk about idolatry. Idolatry may sound like it is sinful, Wilson says, but actually there are many Christians who have discovered the love and joy of an idolatrous life. Wilson here intends to parody the approach used by many pro-homosexuality Christians: We should never condemn sexual behavior that is mutual, loving, and committed, no matter how much church teaching or Scripture might suggest otherwise.

Is this similar to what Vines does in God and the Gay Christian? Yes it is. For example:

But as I became more aware of same-sex relationships, I couldn’t understand why they were supposed to be sinful, or why the Bible apparently condemned them. With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they cause. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships didn’t fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they were characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice. (pg. 12)

Later on, Vines rips several biblical narratives out of their contexts in order to argue for an outcome-based metric of theology. His argument reaches a crescendo on pages 15 and 16: “Today, we are still responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes—a duty in line with Jesus’s teaching about trees and fruit.”

This is a particularly devastating parody by Wilson. It exposes the pandora’s box created by Vines’s theology of outcome. Because no earthly evidence of harm can be seen from either idolatry or homosexuality, the church should strongly reconsider its teachings on both. If people can bear the “good fruit” of faithfulness, love, mutuality and friendship while they are worshiping idols, then surely Jesus would have us encourage this good fruit, wouldn’t he?

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

#3. Wilson writes:

Firstly, the vast majority of references to idols and idolatry in the Bible come in the Old Testament – the same Old Testament that tells us we can’t eat shellfish or gather sticks on Saturdays. When advocates of monolatry eat bacon sandwiches and drive cars at the weekend, they indicate that we should move beyond Old Testament commandments in the new covenant, and rightly so.

To its credit, God and the Gay Christian isn’t this abrupt in dismissing the witness of the Old Testament. However, Wilson’s parody here is fair. On page 11, Vines writes:

Even become coming to terms with my sexual orientation, I had been studying the Bible’s references to same-sex behavior and discussing the issue with Christian friends. Some of what I learned seemed to undermine the traditional interpretation of those passages. For instance, Leviticus prohibits male same-sex relations, but it uses similar language to prohibit the eating of shellfish. And while Paul did describe same-sex relations as “unnatural,” he also wrote that for men to wear their hair long was contrary to “nature.” Yet Christians no longer regard eating shellfish or men having long hair as sinful. A more comprehensive exploration of Scripture was in order.

Vines continues this strategy later on. On page 83, he argues that since Christians don’t practice levirate marriage or see sexual intercourse during menstruation as sinful, it is unlikely that the sexual laws of the Old Testament should be seen as qualitatively more serious than the ceremonial laws. “All this is to say that not all Old Testament sexual norms carry over to Christians,” he concludes on page 84. Vines argument is again essentially pragmatic: Since Christians don’t practice laws B and C, the odds that law A is binding are pretty low.

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

#4 Wilson writes:

With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who has sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage”, namely Romans 1, the problem isn’t really idol-worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, is not that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He is talking about people who were naturally worshippers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?

Not only that, but none of his references apply to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities – statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone – and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions…

In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he is not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves, and women), and it is about time we recognised that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.

I have saved this passage for last because those who have read Vines’s book will recognize it most clearly here. Wilson’s parody employs a simple argument: The idolatry prohibited by the Bible is of such a particular kind that that the authors of the Bible merely intended to address a species of it that was common in biblical culture. Therefore, not only is the Bible indefinite about idolatrous actions, it cannot possibly be talking about what we are talking about when we mention idolatry today.

I am truly clueless how Vines can claim with a straight face that Wilson’s parody misrepresents God and the Gay Christian. Not only is this exactly the argument that Vines makes, it is the central assertion on which his thesis hangs. It’s so central that Vines asserts it in multiple locations, such as:

Page 43: “The understanding that homosexuality is a fixed sexual orientation is a recent development. Prior the twentieth century, Christians didn’t write about same-sex orientation, so we don’ thave longstanding church tradition to guide us in this matter.”

Page 103: “Gay people cannot chose to follow opposite-sex attractions, because they have no opposite-sex attractions to follow…So, some might ask, does that mean Paul was wrong and the Bible is in error? No. We have to remember: what Paul was describing is fundamentally different from what we are discussing.”

Page 114: “For Paul, same-sex desire did not characterize a small minority of people who were subject to special classification—and condemnation—on that basis. Rather, it represented an innate potential for excess within all of fallen humanity. When that potential was acted upon, it became “unnatural” in the sense that it subverted conventional, patriachial gender norms.”

Page 130: “The bottom line is this: The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation. While its six references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation.”

What makes Wilson’s parody effective is that it exposes the hermeneutical sleight-of-hand that Vines executes in order to make his point. How would Vines respond to Wilson’s parody? Given the fact that Vines has established in his discussion of homosexuality that the authors of Scripture wrote misleadingly about topics beyond their intellectual caliber, how could Vines object to an argument for idolatry based on the cultural distance between the idols of the biblical culture, and the ones of 21st century Western culture? On Vines’s own standards, he must prove—without using Scripture, since the authors were pre-modern—that idolatry is sinful even if it looks nothing like what the Bible prohibits.

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

As I mentioned at the outset, Wilson’s parody is not a comprehensive rebuttal to Vines or any other author’s arguments in favor of homosexuality. Rather, it simply uses the same arguments to create a reduction ad absurdum, in which something that is obviously wrong actually fits the theological framework created by Vines’s arguments. When falsity can be supported so well by a hermeneutical approach, the merits of that approach should be called into question.

Vines is welcome to his personal opinion on Wilson or others who disagree with him. He is not, however, entitled to falsely accuse anyone of misrepresenting him.

A Tale of Two Deaths

The stories of two impending deaths has recently come before our society’s attention, and justly so. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old who recently transplanted herself from San Francisco to Oregon, explained why she is planning to commit physician’s-assisted suicide.  Her account was elegantly and movingly countered by that of Kara Tippetts, who has documented her own ongoing struggle with cancer in a forthcoming book.From the publisher

It is nearly impossible to speak well of such matters: there are few aspects of our lives that are as intimate or personal as the manner of our death. Whatever theological claim we might make about it, even if none at all, many of us are gripped by an inescapable instinct that death poses a challenge to us, that it raises a question about the meaning of our lives to which we must provide an answer. We cringe, rightly, at the banality of a ‘funeral selfie’; but we lack a category altogether, thank God, for a ‘dying selfie.’ Television stations still shield us from showing videos where people die, and rightly so. There is perhaps no greater proof of our fundamental and universal commitment to the sacredness of human life than that we endeavor, whenever possible, to protect ourselves from voyeuristic viewings of the moment of its passing. We may wish them to be known, but only by those who already know us well. To have it otherwise is a kind of profanation of the mystery of human life and mortality.

So there is a serious danger about reflecting on the manner of these two coming deaths: to write about them risks trespassing upon the holy and terrible moments that they will respectively face. What is more, my own death is not imminent, at least that I know: while I have reflected more on it as a possibility than most people my age I know, I have been assured (and readily believe it) that there are few matters where the gap between theory and the encounter is wider.

Still, the way they have spoken of what is before them invites such reflection: they have, for better or worse, made available to us the stories they are telling themselves in order to prepare for that final day. Those stories are different, and those differences matter: but there is a kind of boldness beneath each that I wonder whether I would have.  To invite a kind of publicity into one’s own death requires a unique kind of confidence: I would be tempted to falsify my own existence under such scrutiny. That is a temptation for all of us even now, no doubt, but beneath the shadow of death such temptations take on a new force.

But their stories contain two separate worlds. Continue reading

The Progressive Evangelical Package

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog, and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. You can also follow him on Twitter.

It’s no secret that Reformed Christians have built their own wing of the internet where they spend their time chatting among themselves. They police certain key boundaries and dissent from some of these can (rightly or wrongly) bring about serious criticism. While there is more diversity among the Reformed than critics usually want to recognize, there can also be a heavy pressure to conform to the ‘standard’. Given the more consciously confessional (and I do use the term somewhat broadly) ethos among the Reformed, it’s rather unsurprising that this should be the case.

The progressive Evangelicals now have their own wing, though, ostensibly with an emphasis on diversity and a marked aversion to foreclosing conversations or policing boundaries. The idea that there is a strict standard, a party line you have to toe in order to be a part of the club, is supposed to be foreign to the Progressive internet’s ethos. That’s for the heresy-hunting, conservative builders of Evangelical empire, after all, rather than the “radically inclusive” prophets of a more Christ-like faith. Unlike their conservative counterparts, Progressives follow a Jesus who came to tear down the walls that divide, not put new doctrinal ones back up.

Those are the stereotypes, at least. But it’s increasingly difficult to maintain this picture if we take a look at the actual situation on the ground.

There may not be a Progressive Gospel(s) Federation with explicit standards we can look to, but there are certain tenets that are increasingly defining what I’ve dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package.” The theological scene is beginning to mirror the political two-party system such that if you hold one or two of these positions, or want to have a voice in the Progressive conversation, it’s likely there is heavy pressure on you to begin affirming all or most of them.

These tenets do not mark out a monolith. There are undoubtedly figures who don’t fit the description, just like there are figures who spend lots of time in the Reformed world who don’t fit the characterization above, either. I maintain that they signal a trend, though.

Nor are these tenets necessarily inherently ‘progressive.’ Though one or two of them might be, many non-progressives hold some of them within a more classically Evangelical framework as well. Still, when they come in the broader bundle they take on a different flavor.

I offer, then, seven basic, hot-button theological markers, in no particular order.

Pacifism – Pacifism/non-violence is growing as the default stance of many progressive Christians. Historically, pacifism has not always been linked with progressivism, but there’s a definite presumption against the just-war tradition in progressive circles. This is less likely, though, among those who have a more radical, liberationist streak in them.

Egalitarianism – For most progressive Christians, a complementarian view of marriage or ministry at its best is just patriarchy-lite and contrary to the gospel of equality in Christ. Again, there are exegetical egalitarians who are generally theological conservative, but it’s very rare to find a non-egalitarian progressive, unless they’re Catholic.

Arminian/Open Theism/Revised Theisms – Well, I mean, Calvinists are the worst. But really, Reformed or more classic-style doctrines of providence and sovereignty are very much theologia non grata in progressive wings. They are at odds with the kenotic, self-emptying, freedom-gifting God most progressives know. If you cop to any form of it at all, there has to be a huge amount of bending over backwards to downplay, sideline, or distinguish yourself from those Calvinists. In fact, much theological reflection in the camp works by way of contradiction.

Anti-Inerrancy- The rejection of inerrancy is as much a boundary issue for many progressives as the affirmation is for many conservatives. On their view, we don’t need an inerrant Bible. In fact, for many it’s an idolatrous position that gives us a flat text, open to the many anti-science, anti-gay, anti-intellectual approaches to Christian faith we’re struggling against that have killed the faith of a new generation.

Interpretive Pluralism – Connected to the defeat of inerrancy is a heavy emphasis on interpretive pluralism when it comes to the text of Scripture. I’m not sure which is greeted with more sneers: the doctrine of inerrancy, or the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (which is usually quite poorly defined.)

Anti-Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) – A non-violent, or peace-loving God would not ‘murder his Son’ or buy into the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ or engage in ‘divine child abuse.’ God is like Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount, on a certain interpretation), so he doesn’t kill. Usually PSA is pitted against a Christus Victor model, though some sort of modified Girardianism seems to be the atonement theology du jour.

Marriage Revisionism – Finally, while most may not yet have accepted the revisionist take on same-sex relationships, struggling with the issue or defaulting to silence is the norm. The Progressive Gospel is radically inclusive, and generally so hyper-egalitarian to the point that an appeal to sexual difference as revealed in creation and clarified in Scripture is increasingly difficult and almost incoherent to make.

Of course there are undoubtedly more, but these are the ones that have stuck out to me.

The Package Under the Package
It’s important to note that many people hold these positions all separately for different reasons. What’s more, I’m not looking to settle whether or not any of these positions are true or false. I haven’t offered anything close to an argument on any of these points. The interesting question to ask is why these positions seem to be on the rise? And what seems to be uniting them all into this party-line? Besides the biblical arguments many put forward, or the political dynamics at work in the clumping that pop up on the Right as well, what’s the root package under the package? What makes these positions more attractive now than they were before?

Beneath the marks themselves lie three separate themes which hold them together and form a distinctly ‘progressive’ ethos.

The first is generally what Alastair Roberts has dubbed an ethic of empathy: At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people ‘bravely’ and ‘authentically’ articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either.

Please note that pointing this out isn’t to demean or deny the value of empathy in moral reasoning. I certainly think it has a place. Still, our elevation of it into its own, comprehensive ethic has shaped our current willingness to revise our positions on a number of issues including sexuality, authority, or Scripture.

People’s negative experiences with abuses of Scripture or traditional moral positions weighs heavily in our moral reflection on an issue. If a position has ever been even associated with the emotional or physical harm of an individual, or a group, it is immediately suspect. As one friend put it “my judgment about what is compassionate towards others is sacrosanct.” It’s easy to see where this goes on the sexuality question. Yet from another angle, such an atmosphere inherently privilege pacifistic theologies. When the harm principle is absolutized, force for the sake of justice borders on the oxymoronic. Divine justice that is not only restoration, but includes retribution falls under this as well. Justice that isn’t immediately identifiable as therapeutic or ‘compassionate’ is seen as the result of an unbending, arbitrary abstraction.

Connected to the triumph of empathy is a deep skepticism about authority structures and the idea of power in general. Suspicion can manifest itself in a hostility toward church authorities, or as an intellectual skepticism about the theological tradition that we inherit. Often skepticism is reinforced by the empathetic focus on the primacy of personal narratives: for many, it’s difficult to accept the Scriptures or the tradition as something that could come alongside and correct and reinterpret our narratives for us.

Beyond that, we can see it play itself out at the theological level in the issues of egalitarianism and divine sovereignty. Even the mildest form of complementarianism becomes unthinkable because any and all relationships that could possibly imply hierarchy, or sexually-ordered division of labor are inherently oppressive. Strong doctrines of providence, especially when held or propounded in the sort of unsophisticated, either-God-has-control-or-I-do fashion it often-times is, is simply tyranny by another name. As Fred Sanders put it, this type of God doesn’t seem to make people ‘FLIRSH‘ per the requirements of modern theology, so it must go.

Finally, the progressive ethos privileges the autonomous self. There is a greater focus on the experience, feelings, thoughts, and judgments of the individual. Of course, this will mean difficulty with constraints from tradition, traditional sexual morality which goes beyond (and includes) consent, or any kind of theological position that emphasizes the gap between Creator and creature in terms of our moral understanding or grasp of providence. It’s increasingly improbable that God would say, do, command, or be in a way that isn’t immediately recognizable from within the parameters of our own privileged experience.

What’s the Point?
I could simply reverse-engineer this analysis and write a dopple-ganger account for the conservative package. So what does the above prove? Well, in one sense, nothing much. Certainly nothing in terms of the correctness of the various positions or trends involved. Addressing the deficiencies or merits of its various components needs to be undertaken elsewhere according to Scripture, reason, and in ways that acknowledge progressives own arguments.

It is, instead, an exercise in clarification rather than one of refutation.

Many of us labor under the illusion that the progressive package, the party line, doesn’t exist. Some of those within the camp take its putative diversity and ideological inclusiveness as a point of pride. I suppose for them my aim is to pop their balloon. For others floating within progressivism’s orbit but not yet diving in head-first, I’m hoping to provide some smelling salts. Those looking in with interest would do well to consider the real intellectual and communal pressure there is to conform to the package and examine whether they find the underlying premises convincing and consistent with the gospel.

And that’s the point we must all consider. Theological development—like all intellectual development—happens within communities, traditions, and cultures whose shifting plausibility structures are often invisible to us as we participate in them. I’ve noticed how the reigning plausibility structures or the ethos of groups I’ve associated myself has affected my own theological trajectory. Often it is only in the criticisms and analysis of those outside my own camp that I begin to recognize them for what they with enough clarity to question them and test them against God’s revelation. I must say I’m not always comfortable with the results.

Whatever “camp”, or tradition we happen to be drawn towards, we need to become self-conscious about our ethical and ideological instincts, trace them back to their sources, and learn to keep them open to critique. Only in this way will we be assuming a posture suited for pilgrims who travel on the way—in via as the old theologians used to say—knowing that our humble theologies must always be fall short of the glory of God in all of his majesty.

Engagement is Discipleship

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.

As Christians face more direct opposition from cultural powers, we should consider Rod Dreher’s recent discussions of the Benedict Option and the Jeremiah Option. The former represents a more “separatist” approach to cultural or political engagement and the latter embraces “assimilation” as a means of cultural survival. The struggle to maintain our Christian identity against a cultural onslaught that delights to seduce us into impotence has never been easy. However, it is crucial to recognize that engagement is an element of discipleship and the immanence of our witness is part of our obedience. If the Benedict Option is to represent a faithful community, it must be a witnessing and serving presence that bears the cost of following Christ.

Counterfeit, culturally acceptable Christianity is more dangerous to true faith than active and virulent persecution. This point is not disputed among most thoughtful Benedict Option supporters (indeed, Rod’s post about it is one of the best), but it is important to take up first because isolation from the world is not only unfaithful but poisonous to faith. Heeding James’ command to not be “polluted by the world” will often protect us from the seductive lies of the Satan, but it can also just as easily seduce us into Pharasaism. Most of us have read or met former Christians who have been inoculated against the faith by harsh, legalistic religiosity. In these cases, misapplication of the principle behind the Benedict Option has done harm to souls because of the inherent danger in isolation. Increasing the distance from a world in need proportionately threatens both individuals and communities; we need to intimately know the lost people and broken communities we are called to love in order to temper and strengthen our witness to them.

If we look to the Bible, we see that this is because God’s commands to evangelize and disciple are consistently linked with our prosperity as the people of God, from The Great Commission to the Kingdom parables or God’s instruction to the church in Philadelphia. Our faithfulness to doctrine is inseparable from our engagement with the world; as Jesus’ power was so great that the touch of the bleeding woman made her clean rather than Him unclean, so our interactions with the fallen world participate in God’s redemption of it. This is not a call to passively consume cultural products or merely imitate trendy practices, for a facile familiarity with other perspectives will only breed more ignorance. Instead, we need to spend time listening carefully to people whom we know and speaking boldly once we have demonstrated our commitment to them.

A community that is consistently interacting with lost neighbors and taking our stand at the gates of Hell must also hunker down regularly for the sort of intense reflection and spiritual isolation that the Benedict Option cherishes. This is where the Benedict Option apologists are most insightful: it is in contemplation, rest, and tightly-knit community that we are primarily given what God entrusts us to give away in turn. However, without a constant inflow of both needy souls to bless and lost opponents to challenge us, our faith will become as atrophied and grotesque as an athlete who eats the 10,000-calorie Olympic diet but never competes in a race. Just as our questions and doubts are shaped by the ends to which we ask them, so our rest and retreat are shaped by the ends for which we undertake them. Continue reading

Marry or Burn?

Hannah R. Anderson lives in Roanoke, Virginia, with her husband and three young children. In the in-between moments, she is a freelance writer and blogs at www.sometimesalight.com. She is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, 2014). You can follow her on Twitter.

I recently read an article that argued against early marriage as a way to fight sexual temptation. It seems that in response to the cultural trend to delay marriage, some evangelical churches have started promoting early marriage as a way of pursuing sexual purity. The author took issue with this approach, noting that marriage itself is not enough to ensure virtue because it can’t change the heart; it simply changes the boundaries of chastity.

A lot of my friends read the piece as well. Several responded with hearty amens while others wisely pushed back a bit. In our ensuing conversations, one question kept recurring: “Didn’t Paul advocate for marriage as a way to fight temptation in I Corinthians 7? Didn’t he write: ‘But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion’?” Privately, Mere-O’s own Matt Anderson even suggested that the author had committed a part/whole fallacy, arguing that:

the recommendation to marry young isn’t rooted in the notion that marrying will solve *all* your problems with respect to lust or sexual temptation or anything else.  But it seems like it actually does in fact solve some of those problems.

I’ve thought a lot about the piece, in part, because I myself was married at the ripe old age of 22. I’ve also thought about it because in the decade plus, I’ve seen too many early marriages disintegrate—most often because of sexual sin. But I suppose the main reason I’m still thinking about this piece is because I wrote it.

Core Assumptions

Since writing “Getting Married Is Not Enough to Fight Sexual Temptation,” I’ve realized that I made certain assumptions that I did not articulate well, assumptions that are essential to explaining why I both embrace Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation as well as why I’m uncomfortable with evangelicals offering the very same advice. Truthfully, it has little to do with the timing of marriage so much as the presuppositions we have about marriage, singleness, and sexuality.

My main concern is that when evangelicals suggest early marriage as a means of fighting sexual temptation, we are not actually suggesting the same thing the Apostle Paul is because we do not (by and large) share his core assumptions about the goodness of singleness, submission to God’s providence, the inherent difficulties of marriage, and the rightness of sexual passion. Detached from these things, the current advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation plays out very differently than Paul’s does. This does not mean that I Corinthians 7 is irrelevant to our current dilemma but that we will only profit from it if we embrace the whole of Paul’s sexual ethic. That means several things.

First, we must develop a robust understanding of marriage and singleness as equally beneficial for kingdom living. For various reasons, evangelicals tend to privilege marriage over singleness—a far cry from what Paul writes in I Corinthians 7. For example, it’s not unusual for evangelicals to question whether a man could be a pastor if he is not also “the husband of one wife.” Paul, however, indicates that family life can actually be a distraction to service.

The problem for us is this: In a subculture that can easily idolize marriage, further promoting marriage as a way to fight sexual sin may confirm for young people that their greatest good is indeed found in marriage—including their ability to live a pure life. But for Paul, our greatest good is found in serving the kingdom, with the choice of whether or not to marry always being subject to what will best facilitate God’s work. In fact, Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual sin is not an end in itself but a means to an end; we fight for purity—whether in singleness or in marriage—because sexual sin will undermine the cause of the kingdom.

Second, we must cultivate an appreciation for the difference between natural passion and lust. Unfortunately for many young evangelicals, the rhetoric of the purity culture has collapsed these two categories into one, so that it’s hard for some to tell the difference between being attracted to a woman and lusting after her. In certain quarters, the rhetoric has been so strong that young women, after years of being taught to view their bodies and longings with shame, find it difficult to embrace sexual desire even within marriage.

Paul, on the other hand, understands the goodness of natural passion and argues for marriage as a way to preserve it, to protect it from evil. But for those who do not have such a category, marriage becomes a way to legitimize sex, to take something that is “wrong” and make it “right.” So when we tell young people to marry in order to avoid temptation, they hear “marry to fix sexual sin” simply because they cannot conceive of a category where sexual longing isn’t sinful. As a result, those entrenched in true sin (such as pornography or promiscuity) logically believe that marriage has the capacity to heal them as well because we have not clearly articulated the type of sexual longings that marriage can fulfill—sexual longings that are already good and natural.

Whole > Sum of the Parts

In order for us to benefit from Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation, we must understand that it is contingent on the other truths woven throughout the rest of the chapter. Apart from them, it becomes meaningless. We will never understand the value of marriage to the kingdom if we do not also understand the value of singleness to the kingdom. We will never understand the destructiveness of deviant sex unless we understand the beauty and honor of married sex. At the same time, we can’t accurately celebrate the blessings of marriage—of which sex is one—unless we also articulate the stresses of marriage. Because if we’re completely honest, we must acknowledge that in the very same passage in which Paul advocates for marriage, he also advocates against it.

Held in tension, the opposing truths of I Corinthians 7 present a robust picture of the place of marriage, sex, and celibacy in the kingdom. When taken as a whole, this Scripture may be among the most relevant for a generation plagued by confusion on these issues. On the other hand, if we ignore the broader context and simply co-opt Paul’s advice to “marry to avoid sexual temptation,” we may accomplish the exact opposite of what we hope for. Young evangelicals may indeed marry early, but don’t be surprised if they also end up marrying “early and often.”

The Fatal Tensions of the Fight Churches

“It’s physics, basically.  You bend the guy the other direction than God intended.”

Or so says Paul Burress, pastor of Victory Church and central character in Fight Church, the new documentary co-directed by Brian Storkel.  Like Holy Rollers, Storkel’s previous effort, Fight Church is a sympathetic-but-not-uncritical account of an unconventional religious practice—that is, an entirely conventional practice which some Christians have dressed up with a patina of theological justifications and clichés. Burress’s church is one of some alleged 700 churches in the United States that have taken to the increasingly popular sport of mixed-martial arts as a form of Christian witness.  Fight Church doesn’t pull its punches: “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, while at the same time kneeing him in the face…as hard as you can?  is the question that the trailer poses and which the film carefully considers.Fight Church

The filmmakers chart a few pastors closely, and put their justifications in a nice dialogue with a movement to keep MMA illegal in New York.  The close-up on the lives of these pastors is undoubtedly helpful:  it’s not easy, after all, to understand the texture of the beliefs and commitments of those engaging in practices we find idiosyncratic (at best) from a distance.  And with one or two exceptions, most of the pastors featured seemed like nice guys, with supportive families and an intense sincerity about their convictions.  At least as much as the film showed us, anyway.  A cynic might allege that some pastors master the art of faking the authenticity required for the job, and cynics aren’t always wrong. But part of the conflict the film induces, in fact, for some Christian viewers may be to wonder how nice guys could go so far wrong.

But the filmmakers may also make their study too close to engender a proper understanding of why MMA has moved nearer the center of American religious communities. There are the occasional and expected bits about how the church has ‘feminized’ men, but almost no exploration of what this means. I was surprised, and mildly impressed, to realize at the end of the film that Tyler Durden hadn’t been mentioned at all.  The narrow focus of the filmmakers leaves so many questions about MMA itself unexplored: the film almost makes it feel like MMA has always been there, rather than being itself a recent phenomenon with its own intrinsic meaning and questions. Whatever else we make about it, Fight Club found its way to a sympathetic male audience somehow.  Without more broadly contextualizing the kind of life which fight clubs are a reaction against, it’s harder to properly understand the tacit and embedded reasons within the practice that those Christians who undertake it must assume.  MMA itself may be innocuous, or only superficially so, but it’s easier to tell when we understand the conditions of its emergence.

That complaint aside, though, the film succeeds at doing what Storkel and company do so well: provoking interesting questions and presenting a range of opinions on them, which makes excellent fodder for thought. I said, though, that the filmmakers are not entirely uncritical: they are in a corner, and that corner is sparring with the fight church guys. The film tacitly raises the question of how children are being formed in these communities, but does not (alas) deal extensively with it.  Which is too bad, because it’s one of the most troubling aspects that shows up on screen, and by leaving it tacit in the images it seems as though Storkel and company are making the critique more effective than if they dealt with it explicitly.  The camera stays on one young fellow who takes a turn in the ring and sits crying afterward. While that’s an unhappy image, it’s also not so nearly as disturbing as the image of an eight-year old or so boy out shooting guns with his father (who is so amped up that he couldn’t even imagine critiques of fight churches, unlike the others in the film). Yes, he’s supervised, but it’s still jarring to see. Why are they out shooting?  There is no reason given, and the viewer is left to assume that there’s a short line between the kind of hyper-masculinity that partakes in fight clubs and the violence that guns at least signify.

Of course, nothing I’ve said actually addresses the substantive question of whether Christianity and MMA inherently conflict with each other. For that, I would encourage readers to consider the most astute theological analysis of the question I’ve read, which was written by a one-time participant in the sport and which endeavors—rightly—to take its Christian advocates and practitioners seriously as dialogue partners:

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!…

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

I have no way of telling whether this recounting of MMA’s effects is accurate, nor have I any reason to doubt it. But I’d note that this kind of ‘disintegration’ from the sport seems like an exaggerated form of the kind of distancing from our bodies that we experience in any sort of pain. Physical suffering has that kind of effect: we say “my arm hurts” when our pain sensors intrude on our conscious experience, rather than “I hurt.”  Nor is such momentary fragmentation necessarily vicious:  a person who is ‘out of shape’ may not feel like getting out of bed the day after an intensely difficult workout, after all, even though overcoming that kind of pain and the distancing from our bodies it entails may be what they need to achieve a more healthy integration. (If you ask me whether I have experience of this, I will say that I am well acquainted with being ‘out of shape’ but not so much the latter phenomenon.  Draw your own conclusions.)

Still, MMA is not a workout, and whether it is licit for Christians to undertake has to involve considering how we treat our neighbor within the practice.  Not every contest of strength is wrong, it seems to me:  wrestling as an activity aims at throwing one’s opponent to the ground and immobilizing them. Arm wrestling is a contest of strength of an even more benign sort. Such demonstrations of strength and weakness are enjoyable to some men and women (and highly dubious to others), and while I’m strongly averse to infusing them with testosterone so that they become litmus tests of manhood, it’s hard to think of a serious objection to them, either.

Whether MMA falls along this spectrum or is of a different kind of thing is a difficult question. The fusion of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling and the aesthetics of the cage and the ring give it a gritty atmosphere (which was unquestionably pronounced in its early years, but I understand has been sanitized somewhat to reach a more mainstream audience) that seems to want to incorporate the no-holds-barred mentality of a street fight and its taboo connotations into the living room. I’m an outsider both as a viewer and a participant, but from a distance the sport seems to thrive on a kind of bloodthirstiness that aims at harming one’s opponent (like boxing) and winning submission not necessarily through immobilizing or overpowering one’s opponent but incapacitating them such that, if the defeat is serious enough, their body temporarily loses the ability to function altogether. And therein, it seems to me, lies a moral world of difference.

I’m an MMA skeptic, then, and this film doesn’t help persuade me not to be from a theological standpoint.  But then, I came into it having written a book on a closely related subject, and so am in danger of confirmation bias.  Take that as you will.  But the kinds of justifications offered by pastors were most frequently just the sort of pragmatic, anti-theological ‘reasons’ that come up in related discussions like tattoos, which leave no room for any kind of limits on our “Christian witness” besides those which are unquestionably explicit in Scripture itself.  Yes, tough guys need Jesus: but surely starting a fight club in the church basement is not the only way (or even the best) to reach them, is it?  Perhaps we should think about that for a while sometime.  After all, in my experience the pragmatic justification for these kinds of programs is always the least creative and least innovative. Such justifications somehow manage to presuppose the worst of the very people they’re trying to reach—namely, that they are interested in and would only be fully satisfied by a church which can slake their thirst for just this kind of practice. And they infantilize the churches that undertake them, for they cheapen the very mysteries and sanctity of holiness which they have been entrusted to bear witness to.

I come now to the end (really): the Fight Church phenomenon is really nothing more than a passing fad and will be forgotten in a decade by everyone except those laborious historians of religion on their never-ending quests to dissect the nature of American evangelicalism. So let me write the obituary now, if only for posterity:  at the heart of the fight churches were both the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical world. Its best and most reasonable proponents (which are featured in this film) were motivated by an interested seriousness to reach their neighbor with a message that has captivated them, yet were simultaneously unrestrained by any form of moral reasoning other than that which lies on the surface of the Bible and so unable to untangle their own praiseworthy motivations from the problematic and troubling practices which they took shape within.  The Christianity of the fight churches deluded itself into thinking it was strong, while it was actually weak, and into believing that in its battle for the world it had managed to overcome its brittle frailties. And when the struggle with this contradiction wore the fight churches out, they fell to the ground exhausted where they yet lie, exhausted, beaten, and alive only in the knowledge of the God who forgets nothing and those researchers who strive to imitate him.

Fight Church is a film that you should watch.  It’s available both digitally and on DVD.  I received access to a copy for free:  whether my review is worth the money I was paid is a question I leave entirely up to you. 

The Lavishness of Friendship and a World Beyond Vows

Wesley Hill’s Christianity Today cover story on friendship is now available, and it deserves consideration. The title they gave the online version is terribly misleading, but I’m told (by the author) that the title inside is much more reflective of the piece: “’Til Death Do Us Part: Why Now More Than Ever, We Need to Recover a Rich Vision of Lifelong Friendship.”

Wesley argues—rightly—that evangelicals need to build stronger and more enduring ties of friendship, and that one path toward this would be to recover the “historic Christian practice of vowed friendships.” While he floats the idea of public ceremonies, he recognizes that it is unlikely such rites will take hold anytime soon.

I want to stress how strongly I agree with Wesley’s premise: many of us have very thin understandings of friendship and its importance, and evangelicals absolutely need to disestablish marriage as the only legitimate form of ‘serious’ relationship available to congregants. I’ve written about that before. But while I’m intrigued by Wesley’s suggestion of adoption liturgical rites for non-marital vows, I remain mildly unconvinced by his case. Indeed, I worry that in promoting vows of friendship he actually obscures the marvelous form of love which friendship in its purest form embodies.

Perhaps the way in to my worries is through his deployment of Lewis. Lewis doesn’t come off well in the essay for his claim that friendship is “disembodied,” such that it is an “affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds.” Against that, Wesley suggests that we do not need “disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one anothers’ hearts and stories.” But Lewis grants that our ‘hearts and stories’ are present within a friendship: they are simply not friendship’s substance. As he writes in the bit preceding what Wesley quotes:

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.

Being freed from our contexts is not the same as keeping distance from our “hearts and stories.” Rather, it means recognizing that our contexts, our histories, our biographies are not finally determinative for who we might be. Our narrative is not our destiny, in other words, nor is our union because of the details of our stories. Exploring such histories may be a proximate cause for our gathering together, to be sure, but in its paradigmatic form friendship is not finally determined by them. If that which originally drew us were to somehow fade away, on Lewis’ view the friendship could and should endure. Such friendship is—and I note this with some argument given the thrust of Wesley’s piece—more permanent and universal than the contingencies which make up our respective lives.

Even so, there is no question that for Lewis the friend must “prove himself an ally when an alliance becomes necessary.” When the need arises, friends do what friends do. But for Lewis, friendship is oriented away from such dependencies: as he so elegantly puts it, “The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.” It has a free and lavish quality, which not every bond among us does. Yes, it’s easiest to conceive of Lewis “with J.R.R. Tolkien or Owen Barfield, discussing some scrap of Old English literature over a pint at the pub.” But his closest friend was his brother Warnie, from whom he was nearly inseparable, and their relationship transversed a variety of forms and settings.

My point here is not simply an attempt to rescue a bit of Lewis that sounds strange to our ears. (Okay, yes, yes that is my point. Are you happy?) Instead, I think that Lewis’ account actually illuminates the heart of friendship in a way that Wesley’s essay obscures. On Lewis’ view, friendship is a form of life free of obligations. But that is not to say that it is a form of life free of entanglements in the lives of others, or a life free of being bothered by the intrusions of living, or a life free to spurn each other at will. Rather, on Lewis’ view, the fulfillment of such needs are transposed into another key: it is not need and duty which governs a friendship, but the supererogatory grace of charity which transcends the responsibilities we have toward one another because of our shared humanity.

To put the point differently: it’s possible to think that friendships do not have or need vows because they are a lesser form of union, and that the lack of public recognition is tied to their weakness. It is also possible, though, that explicit vows and promises create obligations, and that friendship moves us into a realm beyond these. The high point of the Gospels, in my opinion, is the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer disciples, but that they are now friends. I’m not prepared to speak of the obligations on God which exist because of the covenant established with man in creation: but it is clear that even if there were obligations, they could not possibly include that. Nor does it seem right to me that such a moment could generate obligations the ways that vows unquestionably do: what duty could bind Jesus’ friendship with us? What obligation might provide the shape to the unmerited gift of his grace? To be friends with God is to participate in a form of charity which is not incompatible with vows per se—lest we deny marriages any form of participation in it as well—but the vow-less, obligation-free character of friendship illuminates the unrestrained nature of charity in a way that a life mediated by vows and promises might not.

While Wesley wants (again, rightly) more forms of relationship to be honored and recognized within the church, he seems to blur the distinctions between marriage and friendship in striving for that. While friendship aims at permanence, because it aims at the permanent things, marital vows inaugurate obligations to permanence. To collapse those together leaves the church with fewer forms of life which witness to the manifold glory of the charity of God, not more, and may in fact inhibit the kind of restoration of friendship to its proper place that both he and I are eager to see.

The Mark Driscoll School of Leadership

For months now, I’ve been wanting to write something about the Mark Driscoll saga, but I’ve never quite found the words.

I wanted to argue that some of the charges of plagiarism were overblown, but I didn’t want to come off as blindly defending one of my “tribe.”

I wanted to explain why using ResultSource to game the New York Times bestseller list seemed like a permissible marketing practice to me, but I didn’t want to defend something that Driscoll, himself, had since disavowed.

I wanted to shame those dredging up decade-old anonymous message board posts (that had since been repented of) as disqualifying Driscoll from ministry, but I didn’t want to whitewash what were sinfully intemperate statements.

I wanted to question who had appointed Warren Throckmorton as the Grand Inquisitor into Driscoll’s malfeasance, but I didn’t want to come off as defensively attacking the messenger heralding Driscoll’s downfall.

I wanted to chide the Acts 29 leadership team for removing Driscoll under a “totality of the circumstances” test borrowed from Supreme Court jurisprudence and not found within scripture or church confession, but I didn’t want to speak for fear that I was unaware of some truly damning action that justified their decision.

But then I read a description of his actions that crystallized the issue for me.

Before he was deposed, Driscoll had a reputation internally for acting like a tyrant. He regularly belittled people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy. His verbal abuse never stopped. From one reported about a half-hour “public humiliation” Driscoll doled out on his staff:

“Can anyone tell me what this initiative was supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the f–k doesn’t it do that?”

“You’ve tarnished Mars Hill’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.”

One journalist describes Driscolls’ rough treatment of underlings:

He would praise and inspire them, often in very creative ways, but he would also resort to intimidating, goading, berating, belittling, and even humiliating them… When he was Bad Mark, he didn’t seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions… suddenly and unexpectedly, he would look at something they were working on say that it “sucked,” it was “shit.”

We all knew that Driscoll was nicknamed the cussing pastor, but these behaviors are truly reprehensible. His abuse needed to be stopped.

Just one thing, though, before we rush to judgment. Those lines were not written about Driscoll. Those are the abusive workplace patterns of Steve Jobs.

Leading Like Jobs

Mark Driscoll is not the first chief executive who has been known for dressing down his subordinates. Steve Jobs didn’t allow personal niceties or corporate inertia to prevent him from focusing on turning out the best possible product on schedule. He would upbraid partner companies for falling behind schedule. He offered to hire people with abrasive faint praise like, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit so why don’t you come work for me.” He fired people on the spot in front of their teams for failure to get a program up to snuff. Continue reading