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

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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 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.

A Joyful Indifference: A Reply from Tish Harrison-Warren

Matthew, I really appreciate and resonate with your thoughtful response to my piece. I think your point about seeking respectability is true, and I would take it one step further. Since I wrote the piece for Christianity Today, I’ve reflected on how some younger evangelicals (and I’m including myself in this, which might be pushing the boundary of ‘younger’—let’s say late gen-x or early millenials), whose theological identities were formed in reaction to fundamentalism and the culture wars, believe that if Christians aren’t respected, then we are doing something wrong.

There is a deep sense of shame that accompanies rejection, not just because it hurts that others don’t think well of us but because we hold a latent assumption that we have a responsibility to make the gospel presentable, or, at least, a bit more palatable and that the failure to do so is just that—a failure. In other words, it isn’t simply human pride and vanity that drives our desire to be respectable (although that’s certainly part of it, as I address in the essay).  We grew up in a movement that stressed seeker-sensitivity and relevance such that we almost feel a theological mandate to be respectable.  If ‘seekers’ ultimately reject the church and the gospel, we wonder if we were, therefore, seeker insensitive or irrelevant. Were we not thoughtful or kind or interesting or cool or committed to social justice enough?

And of course, we aren’t thoughtful or kind or interesting or committed to social justice enough. That’s true.  We are a community in need of grace.

When Christians are unloving or obnoxious or contemptuous or greedy or, certainly, criminal or predatory, it harms the church and our mission. Failure and sin in the church is grievous and can have dire consequences. Throughout Scripture—perhaps nowhere as pointed as Paul’s rebuke to Peter in Galatians 2 or the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians—it’s clear that the church must take both moral and theological failure very seriously.  We are to be “a city on a hill,” a unique people marked by love.

But the reality is that even if we could “be the church” in the fullness of how God intends, we may still very well be rejected. We must seek to be a holy people who work for justice and walk by grace, but we do that as a response to God’s justice and grace, not as the means of “getting it right” so that unbelievers will respond in a particular way. In the perennial, breathless announcements about the death of the church and the hand wringing about millennials leaving the church, there can be an assumption that the church’s success depends on us and that if the church shrinks, it is necessarily an indictment of our theology or practice. We can begin to believe that if we, as a Christian community, just ‘got it right’ (whatever your particular idea of ‘getting it right’ is) that unbelievers would want to join our number, or at least, think we’re likable and sane.
I am part of the generation that came of age reading Relevant magazine and Blue Like Jazz, exploring the emergent church movement, and celebrating indie Christian bands that rejected the label of ‘Christian band’ and played at bars or trendy cafes. (I remember—with a bit of nostalgic embarrassment—the sense of hope I had when I first heard Jars of Clay on mainstream radio in high school). We got cool tattoos. We began edgy ministries. We made good art.  All of this, for the most part, is good or, at least, not bad—I’m very thankful for and deeply shaped by the renewed evangelical impulse to holistically embrace social justice, creation care, and culture making. But somewhere along the way as a college student sipping coffee from a mug larger than my face while listening to Over the Rhine, I picked up a latent belief that it was incumbent upon the church to make the gospel appealing. And all of this left me unprepared to know how to respond to real rejection due to orthodox Christian belief.

In reality, the gospel—and the church itself—is appealing because salvation is a miracle of grace. Jesus, mysteriously, is what makes the church appealing.  As Flannery O’Connor says (and I quote far too often), “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”

And, here, in the mystery of Christ’s love for and provision for the church, we find roots for your idea that “what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.” In early drafts of my Christianity Today piece, I had real trouble knowing how to wrap the piece up. I didn’t want to be overly triumphalistic, but the reality, the unavoidable, enduring conclusion that I kept bumping into as I thought about that year was simply: “ I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Like you, I’ve been struck by the profound need for and protest of joy. I wonder what would it mean for Christians to be marked by joy.  It seems like the true opposite of the culture wars—and the best response—is not to simply be more progressive or even more moderate, but to be able to walk into the midst of the culture’s bar fight and be subversively and humbly joyful and hopeful, able to love vulnerably and faithfully whether or not we’re rejected.

I don’t mean to prescribe a kind of happy-clappy Christian naiveté. I don’t in any way want to tell believers going through rejection that they have to be happy about it—that year at Vanderbilt was one of sadness, anger, disappointment, confusion, and weariness (amidst a lot of beauty as well), and we need to be honest about those very real, very human emotions both with God and with each other. But I think of CS Lewis’s description of the Narnians’ holy, joyful indifference in enemy territory from A Horse and His Boy: “Instead of being grave and mysterious…they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t.”

Our cultural conversation (whichever political ‘side’ one falls on) is generally marked by anger, grasping, contempt and a general grumpiness about the state of things and, especially, about one’s enemies. But instead of Christians responding to rejection with outrage and belligerence, on one hand, or a kind of tiresome, over apologetic groveling about the sad state of the church on the other, this Narnian kind of joy allows us to extend generosity to those who oppose us because we aren’t overly desperate for approval. We are a well-nourished people, able to persevere in joy because we feed on Christ as a church and, therefore, able to offer real nourishment to others.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and works with InterVarsity at the University of Texas–Austin. For more, see TishHarrisonWarren.com.

On Disrespectable Christianity

Tish Harrison Warren, whose writing I admire a great deal, has an excellent piece over at Christianity Today on Vanderbilt University’s lamentable decision to prohibit campus groups from setting their own standards for student leadership.  Harrison Warren was part of Intervarsity’s leadership during that season, and so had a seat on the front row.  Thankfully, though, she writes with a reflective calm:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Harrison Warren’s reflections are, I think, indicative of the kind of realization that many of the younger-set of evangelicals are going to have to face in the years to come.  Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability.  The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much.  The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws.  And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude.

Those movements for reform and expansion of the evangelical footprint are worthy enough in their own right, maybe.  But Reform has often been laced with the promise of Respectability, and many of us—me included—have swallowed the poison.  I have a vague, half-articulated notion that those King James only communities who have been the butt of so many evangelical jokes will be, when it’s all said and done, some of the only Protestant communities still standing:  they gave up their respectability a long time ago and don’t seem to have missed it since.

Harrison Warren, indeed, mentions the Amish as one plausible path forward for “cultural engagement.”  Few young evangelicals will seriously take that path, though perhaps many more should.  But the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity.  Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

I have had another general impression—and the reader will rightly accuse me at this point of having far too many of those in this post—that what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.  Harrison Warren sounds the martyrs note, without overstriking it:  “Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness.”  Yet if we do not grasp the joy of the martyrs, we do not understand them at all.

I was accused recently, in talking about these sorts of things with students, of being something of a pessimist.  “We ought to keep fighting,” the argument went, “because the world we’re handing down to our children matters.”  Fair enough, and Lord knows that I am not yet perfected in my joy.  But Christians need a flagrant disregard for the coming wave of disrepute, a disregard which quickly turns the pathetic instruments of stigmatization into jewelry and art.  Without that, and without Jove’s presence among us, whatever “argument” we have will come to no effect.  Pessimism and the joy of the martyr may look almost the same, but as Chesterton noted, the one dies for the sake of dying while the other for the sake of living.

Addendum:  While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done.  How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine.

Mere Fidelity: On Sanctification

Update:  We are now on iTunes.  Download episodes and subscribe here. If you’re on Android or some other podcast streamer and need an RSS feed, you can get that here.

Two things of note:  first, we’ve been accepted into Soundcloud’s beta for an RSS feed and iTunes feed.  However, just after we were let in Soundcloud began having technical difficulties for it, so…we don’t have it quite yet.  I apologize for that, and if they don’t get it sorted early this week we’ll have a different plan in place for next week. 

Second: we’ve been talking internally about conversing about books and essays and the like in a way that will still be interesting for those who haven’t read them, but even more informative for those who have.  In two weeks, then, we’re going to start a discussion on the issues raised by Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made?which turns 30 years old this year.

Yes, it’s an expensive book, especially since it clocks in at just 86 pages.  However, I’d note two things in its defense:  (a) it’s incredibly relevant and has the single-best theological analysis of trans-gender questions ever written, and (b) the fact that there are virtually no used copies available indicates how important of a book it is. You’ll own it your whole life.  So, join us.

This week:  we consider the doctrine of sanctification, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has been following the Christian blogging world.

As always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for smart thoughts on this and much more.

Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it. 

 

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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Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation

common objects of love o'donovanRecently my friend and occasional Mere O contributor Alastair Roberts exchanged a few emails about Lent that then turned toward a broader discussion of Christian piety and individualism. The exchange is shared below. I’ve slightly indented Alastair’s responses in order to make it a bit more clear where my part ends and his begins. (And if you missed Keith’s post from a few weeks back, do go and read that too.)

Alastair – I’ll kick things off.

My best guess as to why we’re seeing more evangelicals embracing Lent is that many of us have a reasonable desire to embrace a type of Christian piety with roots in the historical church. Many of us grew up with a piety which was often disconnected from historical church practices, particularly on matters related to liturgy, the sacraments, the church year, and so on. At the church I grew up in we had the Eucharist once a quarter. The largest church here in Lincoln, meanwhile, has one baptism service a year.

I suspect–or I hope–that more and more younger evangelicals are coming to see the lack of historical roots in our piety as a problem and so they are trying to do something about it–hence, Lent (amongst other things).

But it seems like there’s two main problems with this. The first is that most of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.

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Words for the Anxious Soul

I have been reading (and singing!) through the Psalms a good deal over the past year. One very valuable aspect of the Psalms is the way they give voice to a broad variety of human emotion. This is the inspired song book of God’s people, and it has a song for almost every mood. Here is one that has been very meaningful to me as of late:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation  and my God.

Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me. (Psalm 42:5-7)

These images well describe the turmoil of a soul racked by anxiety and fear. Everyone, it seems, has to experience it to some degree. For most, it is the result of some daunting task, a change of home or job, or some other common challenge. For others, it is all-consuming, wrecking their life with a worry that touches on almost everything. Their nerves are always frayed; stressors that others could shrug off can knock them flat.

Each of these levels of anxiety is a real burden. Worry is wearisome, a weight on body and soul. We can desire to say, “I have calmed and quieted my soul,” (Ps 131:2) but to do so can be difficult. While anxiety is so common, still so much of what we tell ourselves and others only worsens the load. Worse still, even the techniques, behaviors, and mindsets that actually do help break the power of worry can readily be subverted in ways that only strengthen the anxiety.

I will here focus on two flawed responses: commands and maxims. The former are simple, short injunctions like, “don’t be worried”, “quit it”, or “stop fretting over that.” They restate the problem, offering neither mercy nor direction.

Anxiety and an exaggerated sense of guilt go hand-in-hand. A barked order easily fuels both. It doesn’t give the strength of will to climb out of the slough of despond. It only highlights the sense of weakness and inadequacy that comes with anxiety. It is like the terror of Law, except that it drives one further away from mercy and reconciliation.

The maxim hands out insight without wisdom. As I said in my post “A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts”, these simple statements are more of conclusions than starting points. They only make sense in light of practice, reflection, and shared struggle. They need more than only assent, but also to be worked down into the level of habit and inclination. The good words that speak most truly to anxiety and grief are also hard words. Make them soft, and they become ineffectual. It certainly is not a one-stop, quick-fix, one-time-only jump directly to a happy conclusion.

But how do you get yourself, or someone else, on to a better path? By actions and with patient endurance. Often one has to move down the path towards wisdom one weary, half-blind, halting step at a time. If you try to skip straight to the end, you say things that are often true (“You can do this,” “God has a plan,” “It’s always darkest just before the dawn”), but not helpful to the present need.

A good signal of a bad approach to helping an anxious person (whether yourself or another), can be found by an analogy with James 2:15-16:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good  is that?

To say those words in that context is a form of callousedness disguised as compassion. It is an obvious refusal to do anything that is in your power to give practical aid. You might feel better after saying it, but nothing has changed.

There is the first half of our equation: what not to say and how not to say it. The question becomes, what approach should we use?

Paul gives a very direct answer. The first half of Philippians 4:6 says simply, “Do not be anxious about anything.” This seems like the “command” form at first, but context is, as always, key. Let’s back up and see how Paul got there. This is part of the conclusion of the letter, where Paul says words of general advice and encouragement:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything,

He tells us to be joyful, to be agreeable, and then not to be anxious. This is a set of exhortations to wise living. They are also words about how to live in community; recall that these statements come in the wake of Paul’s pleads to Euodia and Syntyche to “to agree in the Lord.”

So Paul means business. “The Lord is at hand;” God will take notice. But is this to be read as a stern word or as a word of fatherly advice, full of love and motivated by mercy?

What Paul says next is crucial:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The word about anxiety is couched not just in exhortations for godly living, but specifically suggests a responsive action to anxiety, and a different way of thinking.

The first part is prayer and supplication. Pray and plead to God over whatever is the source of concern. God is not simply our heavenly shoulder to cry on or some cosmic punching bag. He is the creator of the universe. Yet strangely, he apparently does want to hear our concerns and our requests. God asks us to approach him with confident reverence and reverent boldness. Nothing is too grand for God to comprehend, nor is anything too small.

But Paul suggests more. He counsels “prayer and supplication”, but “with thanksgiving.” This connects well with “rejoice in the Lord always” from two verses back. However large or small the concerns, however little of joy or gratitude our hearts can summon at the moment, it is always a fitting to frame our requests and our bold wailings with a measure of thanksgiving. Even if only for the very breath of life that one still painfully breathes in and out.

And what is the outcome? “The peace peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is not some callow, manufactured peace. This is not forcing a smile and repressing vigorously. It is a strong peace, stronger than what is within us, because it is a peace that can guard and protect. And it comes from a loving Father, by our joining with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This peace of God binds us to the One who became a human being like us.

So as we look to have our hearts and minds guarded in Christ Jesus, let us now look at the guidance that Jesus himself gives. The best go-to place is Jesus’ famous words about worry and toil in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6:25-34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This is calming and beautiful, and it calls us outside of ourselves in key ways.

First, Jesus refers to the beauty of the created world. The flowers are clothed more radiantly than Solomon in his splendor. (Without working a day in their lives!) The birds lack industriousness altogether. Yet they are beautiful and they well provided for. Be comforted, and know that God does not value you below wild plants and sparrows.

Jesus gently offers us a different way of thinking. We are not in control, and we cannot guarantee good results. Can you add an hour to your life? No, God has set that hour. I used to jokingly add (thinking it fit Jesus’ point), “In fact, you could subtract several hours by worrying!” But my former cleverness misses the point entirely. While my behavior and choices may be among the means God uses, He remains in control. I can plan with prudence but die in a freak accident, while some BASE jumper lives to retirement age.

Jesus bids us trust in the Father’s goodness. He loves us and gives us good things.  That is a hard truth and a blessed hope. We may not understand, but we can trust. More than that, we can have confidence that His promises will be fulfilled. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil. Or at least, start to fear less.

Jesus also points us to something greater. Right next to these comforting words, he points out where we should focus our attention: on God’s kingdom, and on God’s righteousness. This is not a prosperity promise. (I’m not asking you to send me a check, for starters.) Neither is this a claim that material poverty is the mark of a particular sin. It is a notice that focusing on God’s ends allows us to trust that our necessities will be provided.  C.S. Lewis gets close to this when he suggests that if we focus on Heaven, we may get Earth “thrown in”.

Jesus proclaimed very high standards. He denounced the falsely righteous with verve and vehemence. Yet Jesus also proclaimed mercy and forgiveness. As Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The same one appointed to bring justice is also the fountain of mercy. If we trust in Jesus, then God’s justice itself can be our relief, His faithfulness our protection, and His mercy our delight.

If you are facing the everyday anxieties and worries of life, I hope you take encouragement from these words of scripture. If you are suffering from a longer term anxiety that is keeping you from everyday functioning, please do seek help from someone who is trained to do so. There is a path through those dark woods, but it can be hard to find unaided.