The Ethics of Jayber Crow

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

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

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

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The Future of Protestantism Full Roundup

Normally this would go up over at Notes, but we wanted to be sure that everyone sees the full roundup of responses (so far) to last week’s Future of Protestantism event at Biola. There figure to be more responses in the weeks to come so we’ll keep this piece updated as new responses are published.

Dr. Leithart wrote about some of the things he wished he’d said here. He then further clarified his views in three subsequent posts at First Things.

Dr. Trueman has written some brief reflections for Reformation 21 here and here as well as a lengthier piece for First Things here.

Dr. Sanders has written his own reflections on the event here.

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On Church Membership and Theological Disagreement

“Port William repaid watching. I was always on the lookout for what would be revealed. Sometimes nothing would be, but sometimes I beheld astonishing sights.”

The lesson from that quote (from Wendell Berry) is that fidelity to a place, a people, or a tradition is often its own reward. This is because learning to actually see something takes a great deal of time. It is only through the virtues of patience and affection that we can come to truly know a place and find our home in it. Seeing these things properly is something that takes a great deal of time to do, and the longer you take at it the more apt you are to realize how much more there is to see. This was the thought I continued to have as I watched the Future of Protestantism event earlier this week.

jayber crow coverThe event seems to have been prompted by two things: The first, and more acknowledged, of the two was the discussion stirred up last year by Dr. Peter Leithart when he published his “End of Protestantism” piece for First Things. But the second point, which stood behind much of the discussion and was explicitly mentioned by Dr. Trueman on several occasions, is the increased trendiness amongst younger evangelicals of swimming the Tiber in hopes of finding a more historically informed, sacramentally-grounded church home. Recently on Twitter Alan Jacobs pointed out that the two trends he sees regarding Protestant-Catholic relations are that evangelicals are friendlier to Catholics while the Catholics are becoming ever more critical of the evangelicals. As a result, many younger evangelicals are (reputedly at least, we still don’t have any good data on this) crossing the Tiber as they become more interested in Rome and Rome develops a stronger polemic against their Protestant tradition. One day a curious evangelical college student decides on a whim to read Thomas and within a week they’re convinced that the Roman church is the only holy and catholic church.

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The Future of Protestantism Video

I am very pleased to pass this along to you for your careful consideration and attention.  There have been a few followup pieces as well to the discussion, which I encourage you to look at as well.  I’m sure there will be more to come, which we will direct you to by way of Mere-O Notes (subscribe).

First, I am very grateful that First Things and the Davenant Trust joined up to sponsor it.  I had some role in organizing the event, but it frankly wouldn’t have happened at all without my friend (and occasional Mere-O contributor) Brad Littlejohn of Davenant pulling together some of the key figures and getting Davenant’s backing.

Second, have I mentioned lately how awesome Torrey Honors is?  The office staff (Laurel!) and students were invaluable for making everything go smoothly.  And Torrey got behind the idea from the moment I pitched it to them.  Yes, I’m currently doing some consulting work for them. Full disclosure. But I only get really excited about the things I would do for free anyway, and these sorts of smart-but-accessible dialogues are among them.  I’m just grateful that Torrey and Biola gave us the resources we needed to pull it off.

Third, I am thankful for Carl Trueman, Fred Sanders, and Peter Escalante’s willingness to have the discussion.  But I cannot say enough about the graciousness of Peter Leithart, whose travel schedule was totally disrupted by airline failures, the tornadoes in Birmingham, and then weather in Chicago.  It was not a little stressful for us, which means I can’t imagine how taxing it must have been on him.  

Fourth, that just makes me realize how much of the ‘success’ of these sorts of things depends upon friends.  In the midst of making back-up plans to back-up plans in case Dr. Leithart didn’t make it, the brilliant Betsy Childs helped me connect with Beeson Divinity School to set up conferencing possibilities.  We didn’t end up needing them, thank goodness, but was it comforting knowing we had other options?  Yes, yes it was.  And I can’t even start listing the bloggers and friends online who helped me spread the word, as I have other work to do and need to get on with it.  But thank you to all of them, too.

On that note, too, follow Jake Meador.  I let him take over my Twitter account during the event, as I wasn’t sure how awake I was going to be, and he did a fantastic job.  I only hope he remembers us when he comes into his authorial kingdom, as he is a really sharp fellow who is doing great work.

Finally, I will note that I plan to leave the follow up discussion to others.  There are a variety of reasons for my decision, not least of which is a rather onerous academic term ahead of me and the burden of 25,000 words to turn out before mid-June.  But I am hopeful that the discussion will be one aimed at learning, at charity, and at deepening the unity which Christ exhorts his church to pursue.

Are Millennials Joining High Church Traditions?

high church protestantism

You can reject the faddishness and superficiality of contemporary evangelicalism without rejecting evangelicalism itself.

Gracy Olmstead has written the latest edition of an article that is in danger of becoming a meme amongst traditionalist conservatives: Millennial Christians are, apparently, converting to high church traditions en masse. Rebecca Van DoodewaardJeremy Tate, and Scot McKnight have also discussed this issue recently so it’s hardly a new story. There’s two things that need to be raised every time this article is written and, as best I can tell, none of them are discussed at any length in any of the pieces I’ve found.

First, there isn’t a ton of data showing how many people actually are converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Anglicanism out of more evangelical backgrounds. (And we probably shouldn’t be including Anglicanism with Orthodoxy or Catholicism anyway, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.) Here’s the data we do have: Data from February of 2011 from the Pew Forum found that 9% of all Americans are former Catholics whereas only 7% of Americans are ex-Protestants. Of that 9% that have left Catholicism, 5% converted to Protestantism.

While it’s fair for members of high church traditions to point out that many of the converts to Protestantism are less engaged to begin with, while converts to Catholicism tend to be more noteworthy (Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, Jason Stellman, etc.), that doesn’t change the fact that more people convert from Catholicism to Protestantism than vice versa—a fact that most of these stories ignore completely.

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The Invisible Anglicanism of CS Lewis

cs lewis

(image source wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._S._Lewis)

If you spend any length of time interacting with contemporary writing about CS Lewis, you’ll discover one thing almost instantly: Lewis has become a theological Rorshach test for his readers. This was one of the dominant themes of the many tributes published about him on the 50th anniversary of his death this past November.

A certain group of Catholic readers—let’s call them “Chesterton’s warrior children”—cannot imagine someone like Lewis writing the things he did and not converting to Catholicism at some point. And since they cannot grant the possibility that one can write like Lewis and be Protestant, they are forced to conjure up fanciful theories to explain Lewis’s Protestantism. The best example of this is the “Ulsterior motive” theory, which claims that Lewis never got over the deep-seated anti-Catholic sentiments of his youth. (These critics conveniently fail to note that his family never seemed to possess any strong anti-Catholic sentiments to begin with, given that their servants were Catholic and Lewis’s parents were not terribly committed to the more radical brands of Irish protestantism.) The warrior children manage to say this with a straight face, which is somewhat remarkable given that many of Lewis’s closest friends were, of course, Catholic.

Meanwhile, American evangelical readers tend to see Lewis as a proto-evangelical, a man utterly committed to classic creedal orthodoxy and utterly uninterested in delving any deeper than that. He is the mere Christian par excellance in their minds and represents a tacit endorsement of the evangelical tendency to avoid the thornier theological questions that usually prompt one to seek out a confessional identity of some sort.

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Beyond Eclectic Christianity

To say that I come from a mixed background is an understatement. I was raised in the Independent Christian Church movement, discipled in a rising megachurch run by one of the current promoters of Radical Christianity, and have enjoyed close brushes with Eastern Orthodoxy and most varieties of Anglicanism. I now embrace Reformed theology, but I got my first steps down that road through reading Thomas Aquinas. I spent several years self-identifying as a “generic evangelical”, and somehow I was almost completely unironic about it. I absorbed all of those influences between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and I have spent the time since sorting through it all.

Given that background, I could almost be a poster child for evangelical eclecticism. But a funny thing happened along the way.

In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton describes Gabriel Syme’s pedigree in this way:

Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left—sanity.

Exposed to wildly varied theological influences in my late youth and early adulthood, I find myself likewise revolting into particularity. I was once proudly inclined to pick and choose the “best” parts of thinkers across centuries and competing schools of thought—and proudly called myself humble for it.

thursday

thursday (Photo credit: cjkershner)

I once somewhat admired the notion of heeding the Calvinists on election, the Arminians on free will, Catholic mystics on spirituality, and certain Charismatics on the Spirit. I am now more inclined to see that as the route of universal condescension. Drilling down into one particular tradition, its predecessors and its context, as a more humbling discipline. Continue reading

Debate, Inquiry and Learning to Tell the Difference

Someone sent me Rachael Slick’s commentary about growing up in the home of an apologist and asked for my comment.  There’s almost no way to do so, though: it’s her testimony and so is inevitably one-sided, and the portrait she paints of her father is not flattering.  But I think regardless of your stance toward Christianity the whole thing reads like an unmitigated tragedy.

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, while the judgment about the story’s truthfulness is well beyond our capacity, that does not mean we can’t learn anything from it. Perceptions matter, after all, and Slick distills a popular stereotype about conservative Christians who have a disposition to engage in apologetics.  It’s an unfair stereotype, as many apologetics folks are some of the most patient and winsome people you’ll meet.  But persist it does, so let us consider it, again without necessarily granting the truthfulness of this particular description:



As my knowledge of Christianity grew, so did my questions — many of them the “classic” kind. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, why did He create a race He knew was destined for Hell? How did evil exist if all of Creation was sustained by the mind of God? Why didn’t I feel His presence when I prayed?

Having a dad highly schooled in Christian apologetics meant that every question I brought up was explained away confidently and thoroughly. Many times, after our nightly Bible study, we would sit at the table after my Mom and sisters had left and debate, discuss, and dissect the theological questions I had. No stone was left unturned, and all my uncertainty was neatly packaged away.

I don’t have children, so I can’t imagine the temptation from that standpoint.  But  I have sat with friends who have struggled with such questions and know that sort of response well.  You might say I’ve been a practicioner of it, in fact, once.  Or maybe twice.  (You know, the memory goes in old age.)

The instinct to answer and defend is, in fact, one of the most difficult temptations for those with an interest in apologetics to resist.  Some of that is sometimes rooted in insecurities:  we don’t want to let the questions fester for fear of where they may ultimately take us.  Sometimes, though, it’s simply rooted in an overactive eagerness to help, a hastiness that wants to skip past the discomfort of the questions for the sake of putting them to rest and moving on to the next topic.  Such answering appears to be a love for ideas and the truth, but ultimately isn’t.  Unlike Pilate, it takes answers seriously.  But it treats such answers as reasons to close the discussion, rather than the substance for more contemplation and deliberate reflection about them.   (More on all that, of course, here.)

And therein lies the difference between debating and inquiring, a distinction that people often miss but is fundamental to keep hold of if we are to question well.  There is a time and place for bringing out the intellectual gloves and going a few rounds. Pugnacity isn’t a spiritual gift, but it has its uses within the kingdom.  We need  more Doug Wilsons, who models this better than anyone we’ve got today.

But the time and place for that is generally not in our friendships or families, and not with those whose faith is quavering.  Nor can we make a steady diet of debating, at least not if we don’t want it to corrode our intellectual life.  A steady diet of polemics will inevitably dry us up:  it’s inquiry and understanding that we are made for, and if those are not the automatic reflexes of our minds and hearts than we have more growth ahead of us.  Debate needs to be the form we undertake deliberately:  inquiry should be the default mode of the intellectual life.

I say all this with some trepidation, especially as it could come across as suggesting that had things gone otherwise Rachael might have stayed in the faith.  These movements in and out of Christianity are mysterious and the reasons and causes often come from places that we do not realize while they are underfoot.  There is a danger of a “parenting-health-and-wealth” gospel that I want no part of that suggests that if people only questioned well then their children would stay Christians.  I suspect it improves the odds, but the ways of teenagers are stranger than the ways of God.  And “staying a Christian” should never be the goal of being a parent, it seems to me.  “Training up a child” in righteousness, peace, joy and the rest of them is a much more robust vision and one defined by its positives, not by the tacit negation of “remaining a Christian.”

Women Bishops, N.T. Wright, and Douglas Wilson

I am thrilled to introduce Brad Littlejohn to Mere-O’s readers.  Brad is a D.Phil. candidate at Edinburgh, working with Oliver and Joan O’Donovan.  He’s one of the sharpest young theologians I have read.  I commend the below to you, not all of which I agree with but all of which is worth your time.  Read more from Brad at his blog The Sword and the Ploughshare-MLA

Two weeks ago, the Church of England was thrown into disarray by the House of Laity’s unexpected rejection of the measure introducing women bishops into the church.  The measure failed by the narrowest of margins, winning 64% of the votes when two-thirds were needed, after having already gained the overwhelming support of the House of Bishops (94%) and the House of Clergy (77%).  As with last month’s US Presidential election, the most surprising thing about the vote was how surprising it was.  The House of Laity’s failure to approve the measure was greeted not merely with disappointment, but with shock, incredulity, and even outrage.  Supporters of the measure had great difficulty grasping the fact that a significant number of their fellow citizens and churchgoers could actually be willing to stick with the status quo.  As with the US Presidential election, this incredulity was the more odd given that nothing was changing.  For an electorate to strike out in a bold new direction, embracing a political outsider or a revolutionary new measure, might well elicit surprise and incomprehension.  But for an electorate to decide that it was willing to keep living with what it had already been living with for some years, while perhaps disappointing to those ready for change, should hardly be seen as an inexplicable bolt from the blue.  This is particularly the case in the English church’s decision.  Given that for nearly 2,000 years, that church had never had women bishops, that many of its members have shown grave misgivings with the idea of women’s ordination since it first became a prominent issue 40 or so years ago, and that the English are still renowned for their reflexive conservatism, a bit of hesitation on the brink before taking the plunge ought to be perceived as the most natural thing in the world, however frustrating to activists.

Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Cen...

Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Central Tower. Seen from south. Image assembled from 4 photos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That it was not so perceived betrays the collapse of British public discourse, as of American, into a fog of incomprehension; and as with the US elections, the result, far from prompting a call to self-examination and renewed engagement, has shown the losers at their worst, attacking the moral integrity of their opponents and threatening to resort to force.  The progressive agenda, in short, for all of its rhetoric of dialogue, democracy, charity, and concern for minorities, has shown that it is really just interested in getting its way, and is ready to resort to bullying if that’s what it takes.  Even David Cameron, the Tory, declared, “the Church needs to get on with it, as it were, and get with the programme” and that it needed a “sharp prod” from Parliament.  His comments were reserved, however, compared to that of many of his Parliamentary colleagues, who, suddenly aroused from their chronic apathy regarding the Established Church they are supposed to oversee, sought to outdo one another in their expressions of outrage and veiled threats.  MP Diana Johnson lamented “The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve and made to look outdated, irrelevant and frankly eccentric by this decision. It appears that a broad Church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”  MP Eleanor Laing suggested proposed disestablishment—”Does he agree that when the decision-making body of the established Church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society that it represents, its position as the established Church must be called into question?” while MP Chris Bryant, on the contrary, proposed making aggressive use of Parliament’s legal authority over the Church—”we will have no truck with more concessions to the hard-liners who want to make women second-rate bishops. We need to speed this up. Would it not make sense to have a moratorium on the appointment of any more male bishops until there could also be women bishops—no nomination without feminisation?”  MP David Winnick offered one of the most apoplectic outbursts, declaring, “this opposition to women bishops bears comparison with the opposition 100 years ago to women having the right to vote and to sit in the House of Commons? It is an anti-women attitude—a feeling that women have no place in public life, in religion or in politics—that I find contemptible,” and MP Helen Goodman paradoxically blamed the vote on too many concessions to the dissenters (when the evidence suggests,  rather, that it was concern about the lack of concessions, not flat opposition to women bishops, that influenced most of the “No” votes).

Much of the criticism focused on the clear injustice of a decision-making process in which a majority view could be defeated by a minority, in which a two-thirds majority of all three houses was needed for a binding decision.  Of course, the irony that those whose creed is the empowerment of minorities were hell-bent on letting the majority impose its will went unnoticed, perhaps because it was nothing new.  Progressivism, by its zealous fidelity to progress, can champion the cause of minorities only in order to establish new majorities, after which the old majority, now a minority, may be safely trampled underfoot.  In the present case, this irony was rendered more than usually awkward by the fact that it was not the out-of-touch, hoity-toity bishops who had rejected the measure (they’d approved it almost unanimously), or even the straight-laced, narrow-minded clergy (who had passed it by a comfortable margin), but the average everyday folks in the pew, the ecclesiastical proletariat.  Progressives were forced to express their solidarity with the hierarchy, and their contempt for bigoted ordinary folks.  Again, however, this irony is in fact a regular feature of progressive politics, since ordinary folks are those most likely to have conservative instincts.

The overwhelming consensus, voiced only slightly more delicately by leading churchmen, was that the Church was stuck in a positively medieval attitude that was unthinkable in a 21st-century society, and that as a national church, it had a duty to modernize itself so as to mirror that wider society.

N.T. Wright offered a typically refreshing dismissal of all this nonsense in a brief essay for Fulcrum, quoting C.S. Lewis, which is always a good sign: Continue reading

Beauty and Power in Church Architecture

Last month, I began to build the case that Evangelicals possess an aesthetic that is reasoned, deliberative, and theologically informed. Contra the critics who charge that beauty is neglected in Evangelical circles, I find the comeliness in multipurpose worship centers equipped with retractable basketball stanchions. No, really.

To support this contention, I offered the parallel of Mormon architecture. Their institutional commitment to beauty—evidenced by their extravagant cathedral-like temples—has not dissuaded them from building cookie-cutter stake centers for the ordinary use of local congregations. They choose that fresh-from-Costco look deliberately because it serves the proper ends of week-in, week-out congregational life. Evangelicals, I maintain, have been equally reasoned in their design of church buildings and, therefore, should not be dismissed as aesthetic philistines.

But, the interlocutor protests, if Mormons have temples and Roman Catholics have cathedrals, what appropriately lavish oblation to beauty is found amidst the Evangelicals? When does extravagant, non-utilitarian artistic expression come to the fore and result in the construction of a truly marvelous facility?

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Can...

Evangelical Church, Grand Valley, Ontario, Canada (1910) (Photo credit: Toronto Public Library Special Collections)

Never.

Well, not precisely never, but basically never. And this, too, is theologically informed.

The Institutional Church is Corruptible

Look around in your town. If it is anything like mine, most of the “beautiful” church buildings are inhabited by congregations who deny the resurrection, the virgin birth, or the deity of Christ. Yet the name-brands on those institutions—men like Martin Luther or John Wesley—were certainly orthodox, Spirit-filled men of God. Indeed, if you go back to when those local congregations were founded, I would bet many of them were constructed by God-fearing folk and the heresy and heart-hardening seeped in subsequent generations. Continue reading