Just off a state highway in northern Iowa there is a place called Littlefield Abbey. It’s a two-bedroom farmhouse on about five acres of land on the edge of a small Iowa town that belongs to a pastor at a church in the nearby town. If you don’t know it’s there, you’ll drive right past it down the highway. Continue reading
In my mind this post began as a recap of Q Boston, an attempt to make connections between the disparate array of presentations and conversations that took place during its 2.5 stimulating days. Much has been made of the focus of this year’s Q conference on the church’s “gay dilemma,” a subject explicitly addressed by at least six speakers and implicitly by several more. I’ll say more on that later, but there was more to Q than LGBTQ discussions, and the myriad of ideas, problems, provocations and prophetic calls offered from the Q stage each deserve far more analysis than could be offered here. Plus, I wouldn’t know where to begin.
One of the downsides of a conference like Q (but also one of its selling points) is the overwhelming nature of its programming–a fire hose of as many trending topics as can be squished into two and a half days. The idea, I think, is that something will stick with each attendee in a profound way, or that the cumulative effect on the influencers present will be to go back home to spread the “stay curious, think well, advance good” ethos in existing communities and networks. A valuable aim, to be sure.
But I think there can be a bit of a numbing effect too–a “where do I begin?” paralysis that results when one Most Important Idea after another comes at you with little context, little time to process (aside from a meal conversation here or a coffee break there) and little connection to the sorts of long-term relationships where real change happens. In a way it’s reflective of how one experiences the world through the “feeds” of Facebook and Twitter: an article about ISIS followed by an op-ed on religious freedom followed by suffering in Syria followed by an opinion on gay marriage followed by a joke and a video and statistics and personality tests, and so on… A schizophrenic stream of passionate ideas embedded in only the loosest of social ties capable of spawning tangible action.
In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes about what we are to do with the “where do I begin” dilemma in the face of all the problems and suffering in the world:
“Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”
Proximity. The needs, the people, the relationships right in front of you.
This is an idea I’ve been pondering a lot lately, from a variety of different directions. Since being married, my wife and I have seen our respective friend groups change; the people who’ve emerged as the most important have (surprise!) turned out to be the ones who are most proximate in our church, workplace and city.
Being a blogger and writer on the Internet, there are many amazing people from all over the world who I “know” and have occasional online exchanges with. On rare occasions I get to meet them in person at things like Q, and it’s a delight for which I am very grateful. But more and more I see that the relationships that matter most are the ones right in front of me: My wife, church, neighbors, co-workers, the members of the life group I lead, the college students I teach or mentor. These are the people who inhabit my incarnational reality, who show up in my daily and weekly rhythms, who know me in an integrated way. These are the people I grow with. If any of the ideas I gleaned from Q are to develop into good-advancing action, it will be in collaboration with these people.
This is not to diminish the goodness of my digital friends, contacts and social network; nor the value in attending annual conferences like Q. It’s just to say (and it probably goes without saying) that the “back home” relationships, particularly in the local church, should be the priority. But this is harder than it sounds. It’s easier to find a tribe of like-minded kindred spirits online or at national conferences; much harder to make community work with the “hand you’ve been dealt” in physical proximity. As my pastor likes to say, it’s often harder to love and serve the guy across the street, the crotchety landlady, the awkward coworker, than it is to go on a mission trip to Myanmar or support a cause on the other side of the world. People who go to the ends of the earth or take up “radical” calls are to be commended, of course, but the “ordinary” calling of domestic faithfulness and commitment to community is never to be diminished. Augustine is right: We should show “special regard” for what and who is right in front of us.
As idea heavy as Q Boston was, one of the thematic main ideas of the conference was that people should matter at least as much as ideas, communities as much as concepts. One speaker suggested that entrepreneurs build successful businesses not by thinking of ideas but by focusing on people, observing them and caring for them. This was evidenced in speakers like Dana Tanamachi, a graphic designer who got her start designing chalk art for her friends’ parties in Brooklyn, and parlayed that into a business with clients like Nike and Oprah.
Michael Gerson’s talk (one of my favorites) suggested Pope Francis as a model of cultural engagement for contemporary evangelicalism. Why? Because while Francis holds firm on certain convictions and concepts, he is resolutely people-centric and relationally oriented. Too often evangelicals have chosen principles over people, Gerson suggested, but Francis is a model for balancing both.
The false dichotomy of “people vs principles” was on fascinating display during the LGBTQ discussions, particularly a panel that included Gabe Lyons interviewing David Gushee and Dan Kimball. Both Gushee and Kimball have felt the tension of being relationally proximate to LGBTQ people while wanting to hold to biblical principles that preclude same-sex marriage. Gushee started with the traditional view but then changed his mind after he came to have relationships with gay people. Kimball grew up with gay friends and didn’t think anything of it; only after he became an evangelical and encountered Scripture’s witness on the matter did he feel any tension between what he believed and the people he knew. While Gushee decided he couldn’t hold the two in tension and ultimately re-interpreted Scripture through the lens of his relationships, Kimball concluded that he must hold Scripture’s authority above the authority of relationship/experience, but that this did not foreclose the possibility of having loving, profound friendships with LGBTQ people.
The idea that two people cannot be in relationship with one another and simultaneously hold conflicting convictions is simply silly. Loving, civil, productive disagreement is admittedly a hard thing, but it’s possible. It’s necessary. People like Robert George and Cornel West, Princeton friends and colleagues who hold vastly differing views on most things, model it well. Just watch their recent discussion at Biola. The Biola University Center for Christian Thought also models it well, holding entire conferences on the value of collegial disagreement and living it out each year by bringing scholars from varying backgrounds to campus to pursue truth together (note: not always agreeing). Gabe Lyons and Andrew Sullivan, who spoke together on stage at Q Boston, are another model. They’ve become friends in spite of their agreeing to disagree on matters of sexuality (among other things).
Each of these examples showcases mutual respect, empathy, listening and love. But note how each is born out of proximity. These people are not online-only friends, speaking to each other from behind screens and trading tweets and blog barbs. They have offline relationships. Their connections are premised on more than just principles. They are to one another more than just @names who hold opinions. They are image-bearers of Christ, the fleshly neighbors we are called to love.
It can be easy in today’s world to live, breathe and lose oneself in ideas. Profound think-piece articles, fascinating documentaries, books, blogs, even entire college courses, have never been more abundant and accessible. There are great things about this, but also risks. We risk becoming bored, disenchanted or disconnected from the everyday rhythms and proximate communities that actually shape us.
Because make no mistake: It is the proximate that shapes us most. The physical, embodied rhythms of worship in community shape our desires (see Jamie Smith). If we lose the proximate community because we are distracted and lost in the chaotic maelstrom and unintelligible multivocality of Internet community, we lose everything. Perhaps that’s why calls to embrace more localized, intentional communities (for the sake of preservation, among other things) ring so true. It’s what Rod Dreher spoke of with “The Benedict Option” at Q Boston (another of my favorite talks).
To be able to grow in mind and character as part of a community with shared convictions, to have weekly rhythms with the same church family, to be able to sit around a table with people regularly, to embrace them, to cry and laugh and grow together, to disagree in love and debate without starting a flame war … this is what proximity is worth.*
*The title of this post is inspired by a lyric from one of my favorite songs of last year, “Parade,” by The Antlers: “When the streets get flooded, we know what proximity’s worth, ‘cause we’re already here, in the same place when our phones don’t work.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for his sound editing work on it.
In 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