What Zlatan Ibrahimovic Taught Me About Enchantment

It’s a commonplace amongst a certain type of trad conservative to talk about the need to “re-enchant” our understanding of the world. What they usually mean by this is some version of an argument, influenced deeply by Charles Taylor, that we moderns experience creation as something near to us and mostly comprehensible. There is little mysterious about it and what little that is mysterious today likely won’t be tomorrow.

Within such a context, religious belief can seem like a mere personal vanity at best and as something foreign, insensible, and dangerous at worst. And so we religious types need to find ways of reenchanting creation so that we can see it with the sense of awe that came to us so naturally before the scientific revolution.

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Oliver O’Donovan against Decline Narratives

I’ve finished Oliver O’Donovan’s latest book, which I have mixed feelings about. However, in light of my recent musings on the rhetoric of ‘decline’ within the evangelical world, I was intrigued to see O’Donovan offer his own critique of those approaches.

The following is part of one long paragraph, broken up into smaller bits for ease of reading online.

If on looking back we fail to see the order and history of the world presented to us normatively, we shall fall into a historicist despair of world-time. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccles. 7:10). We cannot not see goods in the past, for the world God has made is good as a whole, and it is full of goods.  But we may see these goods from a distorted angle, as doomed to be swept away by time, constantly succumbing to entropy, by their impermanence attesting the triumph of de-creation over the good hand of the Creator.

We must look on the past not only as history but as the history of God’s world, a goodness sustained and upheld to the end. Thus in framing normative laws prudence becomes a way in which we can remain constant to the vision of God’s goodness that has been given us. Jesus connects “remaining in my love” with “keeping my commands” (John 15:10). In the goods of earth and heaven we find provision for our present agency, affording resources for the moment in which we are given to act.

The unwisdom which asks why past times were better than these has assumed a false position, that of an aesthetic observer valuing goods of different ages from some supposed time-transcending viewpoint. Our position in time is not capable of judging the present against the past, any more than it can judge the present against the future. It is a moment of deliberation, of making up our mind to act.

Many detailed cultural comparisons between different times are, no doubt, not illusory: if it is said, for example, that the examinations routinely passed by eighteen-year-olds in Britain half a century ago are too difficult for university graduates today, the claim may be put to proof But even if we validate it, we cannot extrapolate from one moment of proven decline to universal entropy. It is not wisdom to pretend to do so. Luxuriating with morose aestheticism in the decadence of our times, we rob ourselves of the normative significance of our knowledge as law, showing the ends and modes of action we may presently conceive: to teach the young, and teach them carefully!

I’m actually curious how that final paragraph squares with O’Donovan’s emphasis on the unwisdom of comparing the goods of various ages. O’Donovan’s main worry seems to be the architectonic approaches to history, and while the emphasis here is against ‘decline’ narratives, he might easily have critiqued ‘progressive’ approaches from the same point of view.


Reviewing The New Parish and New Evangelical Language

You might say that The New Parish is the best possible book that typical young evangelicals could write about church life and spiritual formation.

You might also say that The New Parish is an occasionally good book that takes some unfortunate turns and has enough flaws to weaken the entire work.

Both of these descriptions amount to the same thing.

The Many Strengths of The New Parish

To begin with the good, The New Parish has the potential to help younger evangelicals move past the splintered spiritual practices and church life that many of us knew as children and toward a form of Christian practice that is more rooted in a specific place, defined by that place’s life and shaped by its people and needs. The authors, Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, have done great work diagnosing the problems with the attractional model of church life that defined much of late 20th century evangelicalism.

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Mere Fidelity: Beyond the Abortion Wars

Dr. Charles Camosy is the author of Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, a new book which aims to get….well, beyond the abortion wars.  I (Matt have read it and strongly urge listeners to purchase a copy: it covers significantly more terrain than we were able to get to in our discussion, including incredibly helpful thoughts on public policy.  You can follow Dr. Camosy on Twitter here. 

Also:  Thank you to everyone who has given so generously to us.  I will be purchasing new sound equipment soon, and you should start hearing better audio in the next month or so.  We are so grateful for the enormous kindness many of you have shown, and are trying to sort out ways to express that kindness more tangibly.

The Limits of Dialogue: Q Ideas, Gay Marriage, and Chuck Colson

On Wednesday, Owen Strachan and Eric Teetsel offered a strong challenge to Q Ideas for hosting dialogues on questions relating to homosexuality and gay marriage with David Gushee and Matthew Vines, both of whom are affirming of gay marriage within the church. As Teetsel and Strachan put their objection:

By making their case for homosexuality on supposedly biblical grounds, Vines and Gushee sow confusion within the body of believers. The crux of the matter is this question: “Is there room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality?”

Now, in my previous essay on the subject, I wrote the following paragraphs about the role debate on gay marriages might play in evangelicalism:

Should Christianity Today host James Brownson on [the question of gay marriage]?  Sure, why not?  I think Brownson is wrong, and that conservative evangelicals should have the confidence to show that in our own fora. I mean, I even thought Russell Moore and the ERLC should have invited him to their big shindig on marriage for the same reason:  I have such a strong degree of confidence in the truthfulness of the traditional view that I want it side-by-side with views that are wrong. More of that, please, and the sooner the better. Will progressive thinkers persuade some people? Obviously. But conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear or lose from hearing dissenting views, and the sooner our leaders begin modeling those confident encounters, the sooner the laity will realize that the proclamation of our orthodoxy means more than preaching to the choir or rallying the faithful. 

Only:  if Christianity Today does that and then motors on with a traditional view and treats it as so serious that they exclude from leadership positions those who dissent, would it be enough for progressives?  That’s a rhetorical question, but I’d love to hear reasons from within the progressive outlook for why it would be. After all, viewing gay marriage as a “minor issue” is already a progressive Christian position. Downgrading marriage to a “disputed issue” on which “good Christians can disagree” itself claims that Scripture’s witness on this question is unclear, such that disagreement is a reasonable expectation. But it is precisely that claim which those who oppose gay marriage for theological reasons cannot adopt. We need not be Scriptural isolationists in making that claim: even if we couldn’t read the text on its own and come to the traditional view (we can), the vast and broad witness of the church confirms it. Only all of that evidence the “disputed issue” hope treats as neglible or irrelevant to the question—which is, again, a methodological move that conservatives cannot go for.

I didn’t expect another test to this method to happen quite so quickly, but here we are.  

Q IdeasTeetsel and Strachan’s question about whether there is “room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality” should be read much more narrowly than they actually frame it.  They’re worried about same-sex sexual activity, particularly, rather than (say) masturbation or any other potential act. I say that only because it matters to how we think about what Q is up to, and for putting in the proper context what I’m going to say now about all of this.

Three years ago Q Ideas hosted a panel discussion on handing contraception out to single people in the church, an idea that I timidly identified as a “hill to die on.” I was, to be blunt, outraged by the preposterous and obvious betrayal of Christian sexual ethics that the proposal represented. And, as with the question of gay marriage, I think the existence of a debate is a serious failure within the evangelical world. But what kind of failure, and what does it matter?  And now that the debate is upon us, how should we respond? 

Strachan and Teetsel go on to suggest that if the answer to the question of “whether there is room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality” is yes, then “the orthodox understanding of sex has already lost.”  But even if the answer is “no,” and the position of Vines and Gushee lies outside the bounds of orthodoxy, that does not entail the Church shouldn’t ask the question. Indeed, the existence of Gushee and Vines might mean that the Church should ask that question and in a hurrybecause by doing so, the Church might discover that the “orthodox understanding of sex” is in fact not there to be lost at all. 

Yes, I’m proposing that the Church should sometimes pursue questions that she already knows the answer to—or at least, certain leaders already know the answers to. The early church had a proclamation, that Christ is Lord, and that proclamation was suffused with the knowledge that the Lordship of the Christ required the Divinity of the Man Jesus. The orthodox answer to the questions of the heretics was, in one sense, an articulation of what she had already believed—but the debate needed to be had and the heretics had their day. Clarity on such issues is not a given: it is won through struggle and debate. The more confident we are in our knowledge, the more willing we can be to hear challenges to it. Countering the evangelical world’s capitulation on this issue by suggesting that there are some things that shouldn’t be debated yields the terrain: there are some issues we know too well to not debate, because how else will the goodness and truth of the traditional view stand out except when next to the barrenness of falsehood? 

I’ll grant that this isn’t exactly the kind of “debate” that I suspect Matthew Vines and David Gushee want within the church. Suggesting that we know the answer before we set out (in a sense—only in a sense) seems to invalidate the whole discussion, to turn “free inquiry” into a charade by assuming certain presuppositions. But that’s what living within a tradition means: it means that in receiving an inheritance, we honor those who died for it by testing it against the truth. And we dishonor them if we simply disregard their witness and claim that we’re on an epistemically neutral playing field, so that the whole business can be overturned by appealing to our “experience.” There’s an epistemic hurdle that advocates of the sexual revolution have to overcome, and the arguments for it simply aren’t there.  

But neither is the debate we are having now directly equivalent to that of the early church. Our struggle is a unique one. Evangelicals are here precisely because we haven’t known the orthodox view at all the past fifty years, not because we have known it and are now seeking clarity on it.  We are here because of a failure in ourselves, a failure to practice the very things that Strachan and Teetsel are defending. The “orthodox view of sexuality” from the past fifty years of evangelicalism hasn’t so much been tried found and wanting, as it’s been entirely left untried. Gay marriage is a lagging indicator: it’s the last of a whole host of a constellation of practices and ideas involving the nature of sexual pleasure, autonomy and control, remarriage, and any number of thoughts which evangelicals have, by and large, failed to see adequately.  

In short: evangelicals are having the debate we deserve, because we didn’t have the debates we needed. Or if we did, we settled them the wrong way.

Now, there’s an ecclesiological question here that deserves some attention. Q Ideas is a parachurch ministry, one that is confessionally oriented, but is not itself a church. How those two interact is an important question, and whether parachurch organizations can have “debates” that churches cannot have is a question entirely unaddressed by Strachan and Teetsel.

But the reality is that whether any conservative likes it or not, the debate is already upon us—and suggesting that churches and parachurch organizations have an obligation to ignore it seems like its own kind of spiritaul malpractice (to borrow a phrase).  Call it the “expulsive power of a better, more beautiful argument.” The way to get rid of bad ideas within the church is by promoting better ones, but the only way to do that charitably is by responding to those critics within the church who are saying the wrong things.  And doing that to their face, by giving them an opportunity to respond, seems at least more courageous and charitable than a unilateral sermon.  But if that’s not a “debate,” then I don’t know what is. 

Indeed, I might even go so far as to suggest that Q has a role doing these kinds of dialogues for evangelicals only because conservative evangelical churches have abdicated theirs. Evangelicals have been imitating culture for 50 years on sexual ethics: why should we be surprised that the latest manifestation of the sexual revolution has come into our own midst? Perhaps this is largely due to the outsourcing of so many functions to the parachurch because of the vaunted “thin ecclesiologies.”

But, conservative evangelicals who are worried about the “ideological orientation” of the parachurches which sprang up out of our movement could ease the burden of responding to this crisis from them by hosting those debates themselves. If such ‘conversations’ were happening in contexts where it was clear our moral convictions were not up for grabs, and we had winsome, cheerful people actually winning the arguments, then Q Ideas wouldn’t have a market. That might make Gabe Lyons sad, but something tells me he’d find other worthy things to do. 

It does, in other words, no good for conservatives to suggest that there can be “no debate” on this question. But it does a world of good for conservatives to own the debate, host it, and set the terms for it. Again, that may not seem “ideologically neutral” or like a fair fight. But no intellectual engagement ever is that fair, and the arguments for gay marriage aren’t very good. If we are afraid doing so will lose sheep….well, see above about having the debate we deserve because of broader failures within our movement. 

Or, as someone very wise once wrote: 

“In my experience, Bible-believing churches can sometimes be as unwilling to apply church discipline over matters of truth and morality as [Episcopalian] Bishop [Peter James Lee]. One politician I know boasts about his faith while voting for gay rights and against the partial-birth abortion ban. Not only is he not disciplined by his church in the name of truth, but he gets time and again to speak in the pulpit. Anything else, of course, might cause disunity.

As Pogo said, “We have just met the enemy, and he is us.” It’s all well and good for evangelicals to sit around and say “those crazy Episcopalians.” But they’re just reflecting what all of us do in lesser degrees. And Lee’s words ought to be a sobering wake-up call to us all.”

That wise person was one Chuck Colson, and he was responding to the appointment of Gene Robinson to Bishop of the Episcopalian Church USA back in 2004. Colson is sharp-worded in his criticisms of Lee, who suggested “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, choose heresy.” But his final turn was inward, toward evangelicalism and its failures to discipline its own, because he knew that the confident proclamation of the truth could only go forward if we were unremittingly clear on where our own failures were, too. 

I’m almost universally opposed to claiming that we would know how someone would respond to today’s challenges. But we do know how people reacted to challenges in the past, and Colson’s legacy with respect to those he disagreed with is, well, complicated. In addition to the Manhattan Declaration, he also co-signed The Civility Covenant, a considerably less influential document that he teamed up with Jim Wallis on

And in April 2010, while he was still alive, his organization published a very interesting essay on Brian McLaren’s presence at…Q Ideas for a forum entitled, “Conversations on Being a Heretic.”  McLaren was only three months out from publishing A New Kind of Christianity, which proposed an old kind of liberalism—and significantly, for our purposes, also approved same-sex sexual relationships. While the essay might have lambasted Q for having McLaren, this is how the author ended it: 

As the struggle over guiding values affecting the direction of the nation have brought the American nation to a historic crossroads, so too issues are arising that affect the evangelical church today. Regular readers of the Colson Center and Worldview Church’s resources will detect a common thread of cultural critique, even criticism, of the operating ideas that influence the health of both the nation and the evangelical church. Worldview matters and in order to impact the various cultures of America in the direction of Biblical values, prevailing ideas are identified, analyzed, and faulted as necessary. This prophetic role of bringing to light aberrant beliefs is necessary for promoting Biblically sound thinking among the people of God in a spirit of civil engagement.

Let us pray that the spirit of Christian civility – the unity of God’s Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3) – will prevail at the Q conference in Chicago, and that truth spoken in love will reinforce the evangelical convictions of the faith once for all handed down to the saints. [Emphases mine.]

In fact, just go read the whole thing.  It puts the loss of civility in politics on a parallel course with orthodoxy, and defends vigorous debate while worrying about the “irreperable harm” that might be done to young believers by those who obfuscate the truth. All of which makes its conclusion the more striking. 

Now, are those Colson’s words? No. But it is the person Colson entrusted to be managing editor of his center’s website. And it has the same kind of combination of internal critique without bending the truth that made Colson such a unique and important figure in the landscape of evangelicalism.  

And, it is worth noting, the Civility Covenant was officially published in March of 2010, four months after the Manhattan Declaration was released. In fact, at the time, Colson was criticized for the Civility Covenant by at least one blogger because Colson ruled out Mormon Glenn Beck from it because he’s not an orthodox Christian but was willing to sign the document with….that heretic Brian McLaren. Who knows what Colson would do today. But the lines he had then for his activism are clearly not the lines Teetsel and Strachan are drawing now.

The conclusion of the above Colson Center essay is also very generous toward Q. The tacit suggestion is that by bringing together those who proclaim the truth and those who distort it into one place, it is the truth that has the best odds of winning and the evangelical conviction will prevail. That kind of confidence is on the wane. But it is that kind of steady certainty in the truth that we need, and which I hope Gabe Lyons and Q’s leadership can help reinstill in the evangelical world.  

The Cost of Freedom

Let’s start with where we all, I think, can agree:  right now, there is a great deal of conflict and disagreement over what justice requires and what freedom should look like.

The religious liberty throw-down that we’ve recently experienced is only one instance of a wider set of conflicts.  There are questions about what “political correctness” hath wrought, or what kinds of mercies should be afforded those who err in public.  There are disputes about the kinds of liberties college campuses should have. Even our video game “industry” has been in the middle of a convoluted and terrible dispute.

We feel the disagreements very sharply, in other words, and it can be tempting to bemoan the death of any kind of unified civic life that doesn’t have to do with sports or our love of certain movies (as important as they are).  It’s tempting to think we need to have more in common, before we can even begin to speak properly about a common good. 

To these challenges, though, I would add one more:  a steady and unstoppable onslaught of words, which aggravates the problem by making it harder for everyone to find or discover wisdom.  (Yes, I am a part of that problem.  Yes, I do think often about whether I should stop writing.  No, that’s not an invitation for you to tell me otherwise.)

So when we have opportunities to hear directly from the wise, we would be foolish not to take them. On April 30th, at Biola University, there is just such a chance.  Robert George, Cornel West, and Rick Warren are going to be talking about the nature of the freedom we should seek and the kind of people we need to be to discover it, and we have the chance to listen in.  Each are well-known in their own right: to have them talking together, though, is a unique opportunity.

Full disclosure: I am currently being paid by the Torrey Honors Institute to help them market the event, so you can dismiss me if you want.  But I wrote a book that was basically a long sales pitch for the Institute (which they did not ask me to do), and I don’t do work that I can’t entirely, unequivocally support.  What’s more, this is just the kind of thing that the Institute does: host interesting dialogues among people who disagree.

And besides, this is an easy event to get excited about.  I mean, look at Cornel West’s Wikipedia page.  It’s long.  Robert George was once described as America’s leading conservative thinker…by the New York Times. Rick Warren has come as close as anyone to outselling Jesus.  Even if you don’t like any one of them, how can you not be intrigued by the three of them, together, in one conversation?  That’s got to be at least interesting, right?

The Cost of Freedom

If you know someone in Los Angeles, tell them to get a ticket.  If you’re not in LA, watch the livestream.  And join the conversation on Twitter or elsewhere, as we try to think together and–if we’re lucky–talk together about what freedom costs.

Material Dimensions of Spiritual Friendship

Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship is not an easy read. It’s short, yes, coming in at under 150 pages. But in that space Hill manages to be disquieting on a subject that is often taken for granted–specifically, the question of how we form and maintain intimate friendships. Part historical survey, part Biblical analysis, and part personal reflection, Spiritual Friendship manages to be informative and insightful but also unnerving and challenging. Rather than a full review, I’d like to briefly summarize the themes in the book and then respond to some of the questions that it raises. Since Wesley grounded his exploration of friendship in his experiences and friendships, I’d like to do the same as I recount some of what my wife and I have learned from our time in inner-city Baltimore.sf-book-cover

The first part of the book looks at the situation we are in with regards to friendship, using the author’s own experience as a celibate gay Christian as a jumping-off point for how much more anemic our honor of friendship is now–particularly same-sex friendships– than they apparently used to be. He assigns as much blame for the decline in friendship’s power and privilege to the modern instinct that boils every interaction down to its sexual nature as he does to the reactionary traditionalism that wants to elevate marriage well beyond all other human relationships. What we’re left with nowadays is friendship as purely voluntary, thus making the idea of intimacy and mutual comfort wholly dependent on the whims of our friends. Wesley’s Christianity Today cover story from last year covers many of these same themes in a more compressed fashion, which lead to a great discussion of vowed friendships in particular here at Mere Fidelity.

In the second half of the book, Wesley gets more personal as he looks at how difficult these intimate friendships are to build and maintain. Regardless of one’s stance on questions of gay identity, it is hard not to be moved by the quandary he puts forth: gay and lesbian Christians who choose to honor the Biblical teaching by remaining celibate (and all Christians who don’t marry) are shut out of the intimate companionship that marriage provides– erotic or not– and so far have been left to their own devices to find ways to ameliorate the attendant loneliness and isolation they face.1 He relates the moving story of how one particular friendship fell apart and concludes the book with a chapter about how his local church has been trying to find ways to foster friendship–and how powerful the Eucharist in particular can be in unifying us as a community. However, these relationships are still incredibly vulnerable to the mobility many of now experience as we transition from wherever we grew up to wherever we study to wherever we find a job thereafter. While never really resolving the tension inherent in this mobility, he emphasizes the importance of friendships that require serious commitment to one another, particularly as they give us the opportunity to suffer together and share in the burdens that come to all believers–not just the celibate.

There’s obviously a lot more in the book than what I’ve summarized above, but I want to emphasize that the book left this reader feeling incomplete, asking more questions than when I started. I suspect that this is by design, though it is a book that stands on its own even as it complements the body of work accumulating at the blog Wesley helped to start (http://spiritualfriendship.org/). The three lines of thought I’d like to explore are: What else has fueled our cultural denigration of friendship besides our changing cultural mores, and can we change these upstream factors? How do we think about intimate spiritual friendships across class lines, and is there a particular call to suffer there? Finally, to what degree does our understanding of the local church and its mission affect how we forge our friendships– or is it the other way around?

As with many historical blindspots, it’s easy to think that marriage’s preeminence in human society has always given our romantic relationships the same cultural baggage we see now. Wesley makes the case, on the contrary, that friendship has shifted “from a public, tangibly beneficial relationship to a private one that [has] no agreed-upon aims or ends other than the continuance of the mutual attraction itself.” I agree that this is how we tend to look at friendship (and that it’s bad for us), but I think that the same statement could be applied just as well to the relationships we have with our neighbors, family members, and even spouses.

What’s more, the hollowing out of intimate relationships doesn’t just marginalize sexual minorities. The plague of loneliness isolates older people and puts them at higher risk for death or disability. The mentally ill suffer from social exclusion and stigma that only makes them more vulnerable. Even one’s socioeconomic status is clearly affected by one’s relationships–all of which I see every day in my inner-city medical practice. There’s a work of art in my office made by a patient describing one of the worst parts about homelessness: “Nobody cares what you do.” The poignant fantasy that keeps recurring in Wesley’s book is that of coming home to an empty apartment at age 60–but that is reality for more and more people who are disconnected from their communities and families. Wesley makes the case very well that this is a huge issue facing those who have chosen lifelong celibacy (and he uses new parents several times as an example of people who struggle with loneliness), but his analysis is equally relevant to others whose life circumstances or health will isolate them. Thus, the questions he raises in his book regarding how to make friendship better are all the more important for us to face in the church today.

I think a lot of this decline in human relationships can be traced to individualism and consumer culture, and I’d argue that our uncritical use of technology and social mobility make this worse by giving us more power to isolate ourselves from the unlovable.2 However, it’s worth noting that architecture and economics play crucial roles here as well: if we don’t design the places that we live in order to interact with one another, we’ll self-segregate until we’re just alone with our screens all the time (while driving ourselves whatever distance we can tolerate to the school, restaurant, or church of our choosing.) Thus, if we want to promote the sort of friendship that Wesley wants, we’re going to have to push back against the forces that put each of us at a comfortable distance from one another. I think that one key way to do this (amplifying the final suggestion he gives in the book) is to increase our physical proximity to each other across the board and intentionally promote the understanding that more proximity should bring with it more responsibility to those that we are close to.

Of course, such proximity increases our vulnerability to pain. Wesley puts it this way: “Friendship is a call to voluntarily take up the pain of others, bearing it with and for them, by virtue of our relation to Christ.” When we pursue Christ, suffering is inevitable. How, then, do we count this cost? The challenge here is twofold: the question of exclusivity and the problem of mobility. At the end of Spiritual Friendship’s third chapter and somewhere near the end of the fifth, Wesley transitions from talking about one-on-one friendships to broader (but still intimate) circles of friends, particularly within the Church. One of the book’s few actual weaknesses is that he never addresses the question of whether or not the aforementioned vowed friendships would still be necessary if we had enough intimacy among our other friends. I think we can conclude that the latter is absolutely necessary, but a problem we have to consider with vowed friendship is that it requires (like marriage) a great degree of mutual interest and passion to even consider taking a vow to someone else. At the same time, our tendencies to self-segregate aren’t just isolated selfishness; we’re clustering by race and class in ways that perpetuate injustices. I don’t think that vowed friendship or a general increase in intimacy will necessarily make this worse, but I do think that we have to ask “who is my neighbor?” and view friendship with those who are different than us as an opportunity to share in the joy of the Spirit when our tendency otherwise would be to cluster together with those like us. And not just friendship–but the sort of suffering together my friend Mark described as a core feature of our church’s ministry in an inner-city community.

Having married a woman who was willing to move into a neighborhood very different than what we grew up with, I have seen the incredible benefits that come from our vowed partnership as we have learned to love our vulnerable neighbors (and learned how to love from them.) In this sense, then, I think the answers to a lot of the problems that Wesley raises lie less in how we perceive our friendships and marriages and more in how we perceive our churches and communities. If our churches aren’t centered around particular places and communities, but rather try to attract the best worshippers based on preferences and interests, we’re just carrying out another form of what Patrick Deneen calls “extractive liberalism”. Furthermore, a stronger focus on tying the spiritual community to the physical community will not only help us to welcome those who we’d otherwise pass by as we’re driving from one place to another– it will lower the barriers to life together as we live, work, play, and worship together.

One of the ways that this has played out in my life has been in communal living; Wesley briefly discusses his experience with it but doesn’t go much further than that, as most of his firsthand stories about shared living quarters “have ended with disappointment.” While I understand his reticence to jump in with any definitive pronouncements, I’ll go ahead and say that more families– yes, even families with small children–should open their homes to single adults. My friends and I may represent only a small sample, but I’m happy to say that we’ve had four housemates in five years of marriage and all involved have judged the experience as positive.3 Our other friends in the neighborhood–some single, some married–have reported similar blessings from this sort of fellowship. Much of this, I think, is because we all worship together and share the same commitments to loving one another. This has been particularly powerful when people in great need have taken up residence with us. While a lease is a far cry from a vowed friendship, it might be enough of a commitment to get us started.

Still, our temporal circumstances can change (of our own accord or not) and the limits that we put on ourselves to foster good relationships have become even more challenging to keep to in this day and age. Even if we commit ourselves to a particular place or people, we are less and less able to guarantee that we will be able to stay there–and for those of us who are called to small places, it may be even harder to find someone with enough shared passions to make the leap of faith and commit to one another. Many of us have come and gone through enough places that we understand the challenge that Wesley lays down when suggests that we “resist the allure of mobility.”

This isn’t an academic concern for me any more than it is for Wesley; my wife and I are preparing now to move to South Sudan for the foreseeable future and say goodbye to the church and neighborhood we’ve grown to love. We’re following God’s call on our life by going to a place that is more vulnerable, just as we did when we moved into our current neighborhood. Our hearts are pulled in multiple directions and our minds affirm multiple overlapping but somewhat contradictory commitments. There aren’t any clear answers for us at the moment beyond the call to move to a new place and learn to love our neighbors there; until then, we will simply have to do the best to love the place where God has us at the moment. In that way, I have to end this essay the same way that Wesley ended his book: convinced of the beauty of friendship but still struggling to make it happen as I would hope.

You’ll have to read Spiritual Friendship for yourself to see how Wesley connects these dots for himself– or exposes other threads left to be explored. The need for intimate friendship and the practices that foster it is all the more pressing in our day and age, as our culture has not only drained friendship of its public social benefit but placed a variety of economic, technological and political counterweights against it. The local church can be a place to nurture this Christlike love, but first we must take full stock of all these counterweights and intentionally devote ourselves to balancing our lives such that they are less important than the places that we live and the people who live in them. Friendship can be an abundant source of Christ’s love– but we must cultivate our ecclesiological and cultural environments so that it can flourish.

  1. I won’t revisit the questions of gay identity or reparative therapy here except to say that rejecting the formulation of “gay Christian” still leaves the problem of spiritual friendship wide open and that even those who feel like they’ve experienced some success from reparative therapy will still have to deal with tensions inherent in same-sex friendships and find a marriage partner. 
  2. I don’t want to undermine how the Internet has been a blessing in particular for minority groups like gay and lesbian Christians who would otherwise may have suffered more in their communities without the fellowship they found online, but I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Internet users have to work really hard to make the technology serve our higher interests and callings instead of being slaves to it. 
  3. Admittedly, the woman who has shared our house for the past several years is one of the most supernaturally gifted people my wife and I have ever met in terms of patience and generosity. 

Hope, Failures, and Young Evangelicals: On What I Said and Didn’t

My piece last week generated plenty of conversation, which is always gratifying. Over the past decade, writing here at Mere Orthodoxy has allowed me to work through a number of questions with others who have very different perspectives than I do.  One reason why I will never turn off the comments is that even though I can’t respond to everyone, I read all of them and learn from many of them. 

indiana-rfra-religous-freedom-lgbt-boycott-business-3Of the various critiques that were made, one in particular kept coming up, which I would like to address here. A good friend distilled the objections nicely, I thought, in an email.  This is an edited version, posted with their approval and permission:

I found it ironic, and I hope it at least gives you a good chuckle, that in article in which you state, “The eagerness by which dissenting views are being pushed out of public and any debate is being silenced may be some of the strongest evidence we have for the view’s intrinsic falsity,” is the same article in which you also link to your favorite articulation of the conservative argument that has been published…in the New York Times.

In a spirit of an open search for truth and not being afraid of competing ideas do you think CT would publish James Brownson? Matthew Vines? David Gushee?

While the Times has pretty clear editorial leanings, they at least have done more (even if you think it is too little) to publish differing opinions than any major conservative evangelical publication I’ve seen. Are expecting something more from MSNBC?

I think you are trying to peg on ideology what I think can much better be explained by psychology and sociology. You need to remember that not too long ago the cultural milieu was boycotts of companies that were too “gay friendly”, protesting shows that depicted gay characters, people remaining closeted for fear of losing their jobs and mass political movement to ensure that there were laws explicitly banning same-sex couples from marriage and a fight to block even civil unions.

Are you now surprised that there is a group of hurting and often angry people who assume that they should do unto Christians as Christians have done unto them?

I get it that you are asking for mercy, and I hope you receive it. But do you think that more people in our country might know how to be merciful if there had been more Christians demonstrating what mercy looks like?

You are asking, in essence, please be more Christian than we have been. I’m not sure that is going to work.

While you are asking for mercy, I’m watching my friends ask for it from an ostensibly “moderate” evangelical denomination and be denied. In the past few years I’ve had two good college friends, after completing seminary, leave my childhood denomination because it was made clear to them it was either leave now or be kicked out through a drawn out process. Another friend had funding cut off for his church plant.

Let’s start at the top and work our way through.  Yes, I did chuckle, because contrary to appearances I have a strong sense of irony and, I hope, of the humor associated with it. We could expand the list, too, of conservative Christians who are currently in prominent positions.  The halls of Congress are full of people who ostensibly share rough approximations of my views on the world. And the goodly number of 6000 or so conservative evangelicals are currently gathering in perfect freedom, where many of them will probably spend time chatting about the perils their freedoms face.

Conservatives on this issue have struggled with the “Chicken Little” problem for a long time, and there’s no easy way around it. If the despotism our current political and social environment is making us comfortable with is a soft one, then we shouldn’t expect itself to manifest itself quickly.

Let’s suppose the cultural situation is still murky and that conservatives still have a great deal of cultural capital and power. It’s an easy premise to grant because it is still true. To discern where things are headed, though, we’d have to look for leading indicators, as in institutions where “neutrality” or “hosting the debate” simply isn’t part of its purpose.  Like the tech sector, where Brendan Eich is curiously still unemployed. Let’s just grant that the New York Times has done a better job featuring dissenting views:  well, their business model depends upon it, and conservative Christians are often good for nothing if not a click. 

So when it comes to Douthat, he is indeed a columnist and God keep him in his perch.  But again at the peril of giving people ideas, his question about whether Princeton should go on employing Robert George is true for himself, too.  Should the New York Times be employing someone who defends manifestly bigoted accounts of the world?  There are, I suspect, lots of progressives who would argue the time is coming soon when Douthat will have to shut up about all this. How long does a token conservative get to keep their job? Perhaps more to the point, could Ross Douthat get a job there today? The academy is (ostensibly) committed to an even stronger form of intellectual freedom than our wonderful media community:  could Sherif Girgis, his coauthor, get hired at Princeton, the way Robert George did?   

It’s important to understand the structural difficulties, though, that conservatives face in making these arguments. Suppose the challenges I have described are real and that there is lots of social and institutional pressure to change one’s views about human sexuality.  In such an environment, those who have the clearheadedness to see the game afoot will almost invariably sound paranoid. Like certain doomsday prophets on Wall Street before the financial crash, they will be resoundingly mocked as people enjoy the fruits of the liberation being won. Such people are easily accused of wearing silly hats precisely because they happen to be among the few who are still sane. They are the only ones standing erect in a world bent sideways, and so be curious oddities who  will be easily dismissed as “cynics” or “curmudgeons” or “angry” or “dismissive” of those who have baked in “progress” to the cultural change. But that’s all part of the game:  if you can mock your opponents out of existence or shut them up for their offensiveness, you don’t have to go on making arguments.

Now, there is in fact a path to madness here that’s easy to see.  It might turn out that all the appelations people give someone are true, and that people’s laughter is in fact because conservatives happen to be standing on their heads. It might be that the writing we claim to see on the wall is because we’re all drunk on our own history of privilege and power, and not because there’s any fundamental change afoot. We might, in fact, be wrong—and the path above leaves no meaningful room to disconfirm the thesis, because every bit of evidence (Douthat!) against the thesis gets twisted into further proof of it. We are the mad ones, not everyone else. After all, the doomsday prophets of Wall Street are sometimes wrong, and sometimes when they are right it’s not for the reasons they claimed. 

I’ll confess that this dilemma strikes me as not having very many easy or satisfactory paths out of it. What kind of moral outlook resonates will depend considerably on a person’s intuitions and formation, and whether they are spending their adult life cultivating gratitude for those early stories or view the whole business (or a good deal of it) as rot that they need to escape.  

For my own part, I am inclined to retreat into the need for a historically rooted awareness in order to help us see well:  G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy simply contains a kind of depth and profundity about the world that few of our contemporary writers embody. He wins the argument against Nietzsche—but if you can see that and its importance, then the disputes over gay marriage seem a good deal easier to sort out and the interlocutors in them properly silly (this writer especially included).  C.S. Lewis’s universe is haunted and worth preserving—but spend too much time in it, and things today seem off-kilter. Or if they don’t, try George MacDonald. Or if that doesn’t work, keep moving backward and immerse yourself in Shakespeare, or Dante, as Rod Dreher has done. Spend enough time with great thinkers and our current social situation will feel hollow. 

Or maybe not.  Maybe this is simply my experience. Either way, there’s some legitimacy to the claim that the differences between conservatives and progressives on this question are “cosmological.”  If conservatives stammer when asked why same-sex marriage is wrong, as we more or less have for twenty years, it is partly because everything confirms the traditional view for us.  

But I should move on from this very thorny problem.   

My interlocutor also proposes that Christianity Today should publish dissenting views in the spirit of being open to new ideas.  One difficulty, of course, is that if evangelicals paid any attention at all over the past thirty years, we would notice that we are not the first ones to this debate. Only how ‘progress’ gets made is not, by and large, by advancing arguments that everyone finds persuasive, but by muddying up the waters so that everyone is confused and then proposing that the innovation is a “matter of Christian unity” that we all get along.

But very rarely do such innovators step back to consider what kind of epistemic standards should be met in order to inaugurate substantive moral revolutions. And ignoring that question leads churches into some tragically silly situations. Yes, the question goes the other direction, too, and conservatives should carefully consider how much evidence is needed to revise traditional positions. But as Christianity is a traditioned religion, there is (it seems to me) a clear “burden of proof” on progressives to demonstrate both the harm of the traditional view at its very best and clearest and most accurate, and the superiority of the progressive account. Only within our evangelical context, I suspect few progressive evangelicals have understood what they are rejecting.  

That aside, should Christianity Today host James Brownson on the issue?  Sure, why not?  I think Brownson is wrong, and that conservative evangelicals should have the confidence to show that in our own fora. I mean, I even thought Russell Moore and the ERLC should have invited him to their big shindig on marriage for the same reason:  I have such a strong degree of confidence in the truthfulness of the traditional view that I want it side-by-side with views that are wrong. More of that, please, and the sooner the better. Will progressive thinkers persuade some people? Obviously. But conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear or lose from hearing dissenting views, and the sooner our leaders begin modeling those confident encounters, the sooner the laity will realize that the proclamation of our orthodoxy means more than preaching to the choir or rallying the faithful. 

Only:  if Christianity Today does that and then motors on with a traditional view and treats it as so serious that they exclude from leadership positions those who dissent, would it be enough for progressives?  That’s a rhetorical question, but I’d love to hear reasons from within the progressive outlook for why it would be. After all, viewing gay marriage as a “minor issue” is already a progressive Christian position. Downgrading marriage to a “disputed issue” on which “good Christians can disagree” itself claims that Scripture’s witness on this question is unclear, such that disagreement is a reasonable expectation. But it is precisely that claim which those who oppose gay marriage for theological reasons cannot adopt. We need not be Scriptural isolationists in making that claim: even if we couldn’t read the text on its own and come to the traditional view (we can), the vast and broad witness of the church confirms it. Only all of that evidence the “disputed issue” hope treats as neglible or irrelevant to the question—which is, again, a methodological move that conservatives cannot go for.

After all, if the traditional teaching of the Bible is right on the matter, then same-sex sexual relationships are not the most grave sin imaginable, but they are clearly morally wrong. And given the clarity and authority of that witness, approving same-sex sexual relationships (if anything) should be enough to disqualify someone from leadership. Theological approvals of gay marriage are an old heresy (docetism) in trendy ethical clothing. Or to pick one of my favorite reductios these days, the arguments for “Biblical polygamy” are easier and more persuasive than the arguments for “biblical gay marriage.” Why should we stop at two when Solomon got to have a harem? 

None of this means that evangelicals should go around heresy-hunting. Or, rather, if we do we ought start in our own midst.  Judgment begins at the house of God. Docetism is an old and recurring problem, and one that evangelicals have teetered on affirming in subtle and hidden ways.  To pick one instance, evangelicalism’s widespread use of video sermons might embed it as a practical reality in our communities, before we even think about sex. In that sense, the growing approval of gay marriage within the evangelical world is the fruit of a rottentree: but while all of that might mean the errors of the laity are understandable and deserving of a merciful, patient, and gently-challenging welcome, none of it entails that leaders should be excused. Institutions interested in preserving particular outlooks on the world have to maintain certain standards for those in prominent positions—which is why Brendan Eich had to go. 

Paradoxically, then, the church’s doctrinal commitments require an exclusiveness that the broader political order mimics. The church’s exclusiveness is meant to preserve and secure religious liberties for all, and preserve as much space as possible for those who are not Christians to live their lives as they will. The more narrow their morals, and the more merciful their judgment on those who break them, the broader and more inclusive our political order can be. 

Which gets me on to the substance and heart of the critiques I heard, summed up well here:  “You are asking, in essence, please be more Christian than we have been. I’m not sure that is going to work.” 

I was read as “asking” as though it would “work,” but I don’t think either are quite right. I wanted to hold up the possibility, because I am a Christian and think mercy is important. My confidence level is somewhere around zero that any LGBT person would be moved by it, but since most people think my moral views are already irrational I figured I might embrace it and hope for change like a fool.  

More importantly, I am well aware of evangelicalism’s (in particular) spotted record on marriage, divorce, and sexuality. My first book addressed the sexual revolution that evangelicals underwent in the 60s and 70s, and explicitly argued that it left our movement without meaningful resources to respond to the question of homosexuality. We knew it was wrong, but lacking the internal culture that would allow us to confidently and graciously say why it was wrong, we had little to resort to but bigotry. Having embraced the sexual revolution ourselves, I argued, evangelicals had no resources left to deny its fruits.

But I also was attentive in that book to the emergence of tattos within the young evangelical world, a practice which predated the growing affirmation of gay marriage but which makes perfect sense of it. The logic of that “conversation” is exactly that of the gay marriage debate. Dispute the “proof texts,” appeal to experience, reach the marginalized…it’s all the same stuff, perhaps with a stronger emphasis on remaking our bodily life through artifice (though inasmuch as gay marriages intend to have children, even this shares the same DNA). 

And my arguments about evangelical failures has gone well beyond the body. My second book was a response to the intellectual conditions and formation within the evangelical world that make bad arguments and reasoning attractive. I think progressives question badly, and having questioned badly they end up with wrong answers.  My only point here is that I think I’m actually qualified to tell a more expansive, more thorough story about the failures of evangelicalism (and the Religious Right proper). We really did sow the wind, and we are reaping our own whirlwind. 

Why not include it? Because I wasn’t writing a book, for one, though if anyone wishes to pay me to do so I would happily consider it.  And because my recent writing where I argued against a number of prominent conservative evangelicals got into that story in its own right, and I thought those were recent enough that I didn’t need to include them. 

Most importantly, though, nothing in that backstory alters my basic point, which is that the progressive challenges to religious liberty are very real and almost certainly going to get worse. Yes, this is the world conservative evangelicals hath made (or at least helped make): let us rejoice, and be glad in it.  That’s not even sarcastic: our hope should make us glad, and our gladness should be the foundation of our energetic action in the world. But that gladness should follow on our confession of what we have done and left undone. I have told the story of the failure for a decade, in one way or the other. And having done so, I made the argument as I did. 

But that was why I framed the question as one of mercy, rather than (as Ross Douthat has proposed) that of magnanimity. The idea that the LGBT community might be magnanimous in victory presupposes an equal contest, a struggle whose nature is determined purely on democratic or judicial lines. The question of ‘mercy’, however, introduces connotations of wrongdoing: to even raise it as a possibility implicates conservatives in the crisis of our day. And why shouldn’t we be? Persuasive authority follows from practice, and if we were immune from the divorce and sexual revolutions, our moral witness might have a power that it currently lacks. 

Now, many of my young evangelical peers understand that much and have determined that the consequences of those problems are such that we ought toss the moral convictions latent within them overboard entirely. They have discovered the abuses—but they have not seen the uses of the traditional view, because it’s not clear to me they ever encountered it in the first place. Having grown up immersed in an environment which only mimicked a robustly conservative outlook, they (quite naturally) took the imitation for reality and  finding it wanting, decided it must be rot. They are like the people in Chesterton’s parable who upon discovering a lamppost proceed to tear it down, and only later begin to wonder what precisely they had discovered. Though I have often been strongly critical of my peers, my analysis has essentially not changed in the past decade: young evangelicals are naturally responding to an environment not of their own making, even if what they needed was a super-natural charity and mercy toward those who made it.

But for that, it is progressive evangelicals who will do the most to erode the religious liberty of conservatives, which is why I directed the bulk of my essay at them—rather than at the LGBT community proper. I am not surprised when nonChristians consider me irrational. But the pressure progressive Christians are putting on traditionalists provides far stronger support to the widespread claim that there is no reasonable theological objection to gay marriage. NonChristians can now demand that we become just like the progressive Christians. Having overheard that this is a “disputed issue,” the secular harms that the courts are designed to judge make religious liberty claims seem considerably less pressing. After all, “even reasonable Christians disagree about that.” Having divided the church, progressive Christians will invariably join with the State to suppress it, under the facile notion that the “inclusion” Jesus offers requires compelling people to break their consciences. Which is to say, rather than defend us as Christians, progressives are more likely to ally themselves with their non-Christian colleagues the major religious liberty questions facing us. And people wonder why conservative evangelicals have more in common these days with conservative Catholics than liberal Episcopalians…

But my real fear is that in all this I sound too dour. My aim was to clarify the stakes and expose the faultlines within the evangelical world. One reason to read old books is that they stretch our historical imaginations much further than they otherwise might naturally go: and the farther we go back in history, the further into the future we might dare to look. It’s a five-hundred year renewal project I’m on, and in that story, our current crisis looks rather pathetic.  We’re the people who only had enough virtue to face soft despotism, after all.  Our grandparents fought the Nazi’s. The shallowness of the hostilities before us is the perfect judgment on the triviality of our idols, which engender sin, yes, but also a rampant aimlessness that makes us too small to consider “great objects.”  We are “hollow men,” as Eliot put it.

And so we have little reason for bluster, lots of cause for repentance, but even more grounds for hearty cheer.  The challenges before us are no greater than those which we deserve, and so we may yet find the path toward overcoming them.  But even if we don’t, we are not losing anything–because it’s not clear we ever gained what we had thought.   Or, as Eliot aptly put it: 

“If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”

The failure of our current moment means the death of optimism: but it was bound to die anyway, and what can take its place besides hope?  And here is our great refuge, our joy, our yes and Amen. It is already dawn:  he is Risen indeed, and in such moments of great darkness the light is so much the brighter.  It is hope that moves me to remind people of mercy, not confidence, because in confessing our own failures we acknowledge a standard by which we will be judged.

Or perhaps I should close with Chesterton, as I so often have done:

When the test of triumph is men’s test of everything, they never endure long enough to triumph at all. As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.

Mere Fidelity: Christendom and the Privilege of the Church

You commented:  we listened.  After a number of intelligent readers made remarks about the church in America losing its position of “privilege,” we decided to talk about what that privilege is, what it (maybe!) should be, and whether “Christendom” as a concept is compatible with a plural society.

For reading, check out James K.A. Smith’s recent article redeeming Christendom.  For the unadulterated version, see Oliver O’Donovan’s Desiring the Nations. 

Help us improve the audio!  How fitting it is that we had some audio difficulties on the show where we announced a ‘tip jar’ to help us pay for some equipment!  This little podcast has kept going in a way that I don’t think any of us quite expected, and we’ve stretched everyone’s patience with poor recording quality well past the breaking point.  Our poor sound editor has worked magic, but he’s had terrible quality to start with, and we need to improve it at the source.

So, if you like the show and want it to go on in an even more improved form, throw in a dollar or two at the gofundme campaign that we have set up.  You can see the details about what we’ll spend the money on there, including the toppings list for the pizzas we hope to buy (that’s a joke).  Thanks to all of you for your kind words of encouragement on the show and for all of your support.  If you can’t give, but want to tell someone else about the show, that would be appreciated too.

And here’s the closer.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, andAndrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.  And thanks to Timothy Motte for his sound editing work.

On GK Chesterton and Chicken Vindaloo

An introduction to Chesterton is old hat for Mere O readers. But I’m posting this because this is the draft of a talk I plan to give as an intro to GKC when I lead a reading group at my church through Orthodoxy later this year. The typical group member likely has not read Chesterton themselves and may not even have heard of him prior to the group. So this is meant to be a way of getting people ready to read Chesterton so that they’re prepared for some of the difficulty (his style as well as cultural references) while also being made aware of the delights of reading him. If you have thoughts on how this can be improved, please share them in the comments.

Imagine you’re a kid from small-town Iowa visiting a family member in the city. In your small town you had three restaurants—a Pizza Ranch, a locally owned diner, and a McDonalds. Now your aunt and uncle are telling your family about where they want to go eat dinner: It’s an Indian restaurant. You’ve never had Indian food. You’ve eaten meat and potatoes your whole life at home with pizza and midwestern staples like pancakes, chicken fried steaks, and cheeseburgers when you’ve gone out to eat. The most exotic sauce you’ve ever tried is the alfredo your mom sometimes service with pasta and roasted chicken. You’ve never had anything like Indian food.

You get there and the first thing you try is the Mulligatawny, a soup made with lentil beans and plenty of spices you’ve probably never had before. But it’s actually not that strange–it’s just a bean soup. You’ve had that before, even if it was never quite like this. Then someone brings out a plate of garlic naan and you realize it’s just garlic bread. The dipping sauce with it is something new, but it’s a sweet white sauce so it’s still somewhat familiar.

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