Mere Fidelity: The Benedict Option

“Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”

That’s how Rod Dreher has defined the “Benedict Option,” which he has been discussing over the past few years. In this episode, we take up the question of how Christians should respond to modernity:  should we withdraw or not, and in what way?

We’re joined by special guests Jake Meador (of Mere-O Notes fame!) and Matthew Loftus, both of whom have contributed regularly here at Mere-O.  Give it a listen.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek, Jake, and Matthew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

The Mark Driscoll School of Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One journalist describes Driscolls’ rough treatment of underlings:

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

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

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

Leading Like Jobs

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

The Questions of Gay Marriage: Covenant or Biology in Genesis 2?

I began a series almost a year ago of looking at the arguments around gay marriage.  I took a long hiatus from that, due to finishing my master’s degree and moving my life across an ocean.  However, I return to it here.  See the previous installments here

And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

Of the passages relating to sexuality in the Bible, few are as evocative or as central as this one from Genesis.  While it has functioned as something of a trump card for theological opponents of gay marriage, in recent years advocates of gay marriage have begun to contest the importance of bodily differences for the meaning of the passage. To put the question forthrightly, is the meaning of this passage about “biology” or about a covenant, which would locate the meaning of marriage in the faithfulness of the partners regardless of their sex?

There are two observations about the passage that I wish to make straightaway: first, it is interesting that while the command to procreate is given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28, it is missing here.  I say it’s interesting, not that it means that this passage has nothing to do with procreation:  it is tempting to pit the two creation accounts against each other, but they are complementary accounts of the same realities.  What is commanded in the first account has some bearing, it seems to me, on how we should read the second. I may return to this later on.

Second, Adam is male and Eve is female.  Is that too obvious?  Does anyone dispute this? It’s tempting when reading a text like this to overlook very basic facts, or to treat them as irrelevant for the meaning of the passage:  but if we are to understand what happens in the drama, we have to at least know who it is happening to.  There are some readings of Genesis 2 that treat Adam as androgynous up to the point where Eve shows up, as the gendered terms for ‘male’ and ‘female’ are only used from that point on. I don’t think such readings are right, but they also don’t matter much for our purposes here. At the very least, Adam’s maleness and Eve’s femaleness are the presupposition for everything else that happens after she appears.

I wondered whether that might be too obvious. But not all that is obvious is easy to understand, and may even be harder to defend:  stones would fall from buildings long before Newton discovered gravity.  The bodyliness of Adam and Eve may not be on the surface of the text, but it must unquestionably be at the surface of their experience of each other:  of what encounter between two persons is the dialogue the only, or even the most important part?  In the naked meeting of a man and woman, it is what is left unsaid that is perhaps the most interesting part. They doubtlessly meet each other as more than bodies:  they meet as man and woman, as subjects of their own actions. But they are not less than bodies, either: appealing to a category of ‘otherness’ and ignoring their somatic structure introduces a division between the subject of the person and our visibility in the world, between the soul of the person and the body which he indwells, between our personal presence and the place which radiates it.  We can speak abstractly about “difference,” but does not the term apply within the encounter between male and female bodies?  Is not the recognition that the body before me is unlike my own in certain respects a necessary part of my response to it? Not only that the body before me is not my own, as important as that is, but that it is not like my own?

I say all this only to set up a response to James Brownson’s argument that Adam emphasizes Eve’s similarity to him, not her bodily difference. As he puts it, “The focus is not so much on complementarity but on shared identity, nature, and experience between the man and woman against the rest of the creation…The primary movement in the text is not from unity to differentiation, but from the isolation of an individual to the deep blessing of shared kinship and community.”  Somewhat paradoxically, while Brownson wants to dig down to the “moral logic” of the text, he prefers to stay “on the surface” of it here in Genesis, where he sees the “discovery of sameness, not difference.”  But surfaces presuppose depths, and if Adam encounters sameness he seems to do so only as a delightful surprise, as a joyful recognition that despite the bodily differences Eve is like him.

Even if we concede to Brownson the emphasis on sameness, then, it still doesn’t deliver the results he wants. But that may be granting too much:  I made this argument in my review at Themelios, and Wesley Hill pointed out Ian Paul’s helpful reading of this passage.  Paul writes:

[Genesis 2] turns around the surprising declaration that it is not good for the adam to be alone, and the subsequent quest for a ‘suitable helper’ (2.18, 20). The term ‘helper’ (ezer) has no particular sense of superiority or inferiority; God is at times described as the ‘helper’ of Israel. The term ‘suitable for him’ (kenegdo) is unusual, and has the sense of ‘equal but opposite’; it is the kind of phrase you might use to describe the opposite bank of a river, combining both the sense of equality but difference and distinctness.

The explicit sense of the narrative is that the animals are not ‘suitable’ since they are not the adam’s equal. But the equally powerful, implicit sense of the narrative is that it would not be sufficient simply to form another adam from the ground.[4] This ‘helper’ needed to be equal but opposite. There is clearly a task to be completed (subduing the earth), but there is also a deep existential recognition in the (now) man’s cry ‘Here is flesh of my flesh!’ The twin themes of similarity and difference wind their way through the story like a double helix.

To be fair, Brownson notes in a footnote that the kenegdo “certainly allows for the notion of difference as well,” but contends that “this aspect of difference remains undeveloped in the remainder of the passage.”  Be that as it may, it is not clear that it needs textual development; if the differences between male and female are the presupposition for discovering our identity and our sameness, as I have argued above, then there is no reason for such differences to be further developed…and every reason for sameness to come to the fore.

While we are on the subject of Brownson, allow me to take up one of his other arguments against the traditionalist reading of this passage.  (He offers four, but only two are interesting.)  Against those who suggest that the “one flesh” union in Genesis 2:24 connotes physical complementarity, Brownson proposes that it suggests instead a “kinship bond.” The argument is curious, as while it might fit against some forms of the traditional view it actually seems to support the traditional reading. Brownson sets it off against those accounts which “suggest that the marital union fulfills some sort of incompleteness in the flesh of either gender.”  But one need not affirm that to be a traditionalist.  Brownson also differentiates his view from von Rad’s claim that Genesis 2:24 explains the origin of “the extremely powerful drive of the sexes to each other,” but…well, a traditionalist need not affirm that either.

Instead, a traditionalist might cheerfully say with Brownson that the “one flesh” union is the establishment of new “kinship ties,” and then ask what the fundamental basis of such ties are, and how far they extend?  Kinship networks presuppose procreativity and blood connections. Brownson notes (rightly) that the son’s “leaving” the parents is unique:  in many ancient cultures, the “marriage of a son simply means the addition of another room onto the house of the extended family.”  He goes on: “Despite the fact that sons are still to honor their parents, when they marry, the location of primary kinship moves from the family of origin to the new family constituted by marriage.”  The depth and seriousness of the new family ties are punctuated by the son’s separation required from his birth parents. But that is not a diminution of procreation’s importance for kinship, but an affirmation of the astonishing nature of the marital covenant:  the marital commitment is so formative that is meant to be just as permanent as one’s biological ties. The nature and logic of the marital union is unintelligible, even in Genesis 2, without locating it within the broader context of procreation and the kinship ties that it inaugurates.

To speak of procreativity, however, is to recall the first command which Adam and Eve are given in Genesis 1:28 and its absence here in Genesis 2. I suggested in the opening that the two are complementary accounts, and we can start to see a little how they work together.  The covenant of marriage and the bodyliness of Adam and Eve are not separated from each other, but are two aspects of the same unified reality—just as the promise of God to Abraham and the overcoming of the crisis of his and Sarah’s barrenness are two aspects of the same reality, and just as God’s fulfillment of his covenant and the birth of the man Jesus Christ are not two realities, but one.  To attempt to remove the nature of the covenant from the possibility of procreation distorts not simply the meaning of this passage, but creates a division between the word of promise and the physical reality that at every point Scripture overcomes.  If this is right, then I would suggest there is more at stake in the gay marriage debates than simply “who gets in” to this particular union.  Of that we will perhaps have to speak more at a future date.

But what of the covenant in Genesis two?  I will consider that question in the next installment.

The Evangelical Roots of the Benedict Option

In 1948 the Bible Presbyterian Church, a quasi-fundamentalist evangelical denomination, sent a 36-year-old pastor and his family to Europe to check on the state of the church after World War II. The family settled in Switzerland and worked mostly in child evangelism before coming back to the United States in the early 1950s on furlough. They returned in 1955 and settled down in a village called Huemoz, a small Swiss village about one mile up into the Swiss Alps near Lausanne. At that time their oldest daughter began attending university and would bring her friends back home with her to visit on weekends.

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Mere Fidelity: Cultural Presuppositions and the Practices that Embody Them

In this discussion, Alastair, Derek and I take up the interaction between cultural presuppositions and particular actions which might embed them.  While it starts from in-vitro fertilization, the conversation moves outward from there.

This is the bit from O’Donovan that started us off:

“It may, of course, be wondered whether such subtleties are beyond the understanding of most couples who participate in the IVF programme, and whether such a practice can only have the effect of enforcing the widespread view of procreation as a project of the will.

It may even be thought that the cultural influence of the practice is likely to be so bad that IVF should be discouraged for that reason alone. To such a suggestion perhaps we are in no position to put up a strong resistance. After all, the experience with contraception makes it highly plausible.  It is possible that a wise society would understand IVF as a temptation; it is possible that a strong-willed society would resolve to put such a temptation aside.

But this takes us beyond the scope of our fairy-tale, in which no cultural consequences need be feared. These cultural questions are different from the question of whether there is something intrinsically disorded about IVF. And to that question we have not found reason (speaking simply, of course, of IVF as practised by fairy-godmothers in fairy-tales) to return a negative answer.”

Jake Meador’s post on podcasting sermons also got a mention.

Note:  Sorry for the audio on Derek’s mic.  We’re diagnosing this problem and hoping to have it fixed up for next time.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

Respectability and the Plausibility of Orthodoxy

One point that deserves special mention with the ongoing conversation about “respectable” Christianity concerns the plausibility of “orthodoxy” in the minds of many of our non-Christian neighbors. One of the unique challenges facing Christianity in the coming years is that the very notion of religious orthodoxy doesn’t really make sense to many contemporary Americans.

We understand the idea of orthodoxy in some spheres, particularly in politics. Most Americans would find it quite odd if, for example, a gun-loving libertarian wanted to run for the Senate as a Democrat. We recognize that in politics certain beliefs tend to belong to certain groups. So if you favor a single payer healthcare system, that’s fine, but you probably should hang out with the Democrats rather than the Republicans. But we generally don’t have a similar understanding of this when it comes to religious identity.

Part of the issue, no doubt, is that many strands of American Christianity have defined themselves more in terms of methods and techniques for doing ministry rather than well-defined theological creeds. As a result, many Christian young people have grown up in the church without developing a robust understanding of Christian theology or why we do the things we do.

A related issue is the problem of how many churches have tended to fall back on business jargon as a way of talking about church life, which merely makes explicit the sense that Christian faith isn’t really about articles of belief so much as it is about achieving certain results for yourself and your community. This is one of the troubling under-currents to the ongoing Mark Driscoll saga, for instance, as Doug Wilson wisely noted in his post on the issue last week.

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Beyond the Pink Police State: Community Health Workers

James Poulos’ recent exploration of what he dubs the Pink Police State lays out an argument that is clear, even if not immediately accessible: our obsession with health coincides with a desire for impulsivity that has not only led to social permissiveness regarding sexual behavior, but state involvement to ensure that all behavior, even that which is considered transgressive, is appropriately hygienic. Those who prefer the sacrifice of political freedom for interpersonal hedonism are all too happy to lean on whatever political categories– libertarian, progressive, or indifferent– are in vogue at any moment, so long as our existential restlessness leads us to either sexual satisfaction or continually cruising for the next round of jollies. Similarly, our economic restlessness should leave us either satisfied with buying things or continually cruising for the Marxist revolution. His solution to this not-quite-Brave New World era is human conversation and an assent to human malleability to overcome the comfortable patterns of thought that enslave us in the Pink Police State.

Poulos’ diagnosis, which pins the statist delineation of safe and unsafe sex on “elitist technocrats and erotic populists,” is close enough to the truth to throw us off the chase. There is indeed reason to fear the erotic populists, as I’ve already elucidated how sexual libertinism is class warfare, a point that Ross Douthat has extended to the technocrats. However, even once we have understood the siege tactics of our new regime, we must not only discern its architects more carefully, but we must also embrace more specific policies to facilitate the sort of face-to-face conversations that are necessary.

The main weakness in Poulos’ piece– the moment I was practically salivating for, especially when he deploys the metaphor of a tender pink steak– is that sex is the centerpiece of his conception of the Pink Police State instead of food. While the tempests of sexual politics are often the most pitched in American discourse, the food and drink we consume is of far more interest to our hygienic overlords. Most people end up caught in the natural endgame that ensues when sex is free enough to be used to sell anything and transgression is revealed as masturbatory: either they are consumed in an endless cycle of identity politics or they gently drift into something resembling monogamy. Sex is the sideshow in the Pink Police State, but food and drugs–which are responsible for far more deaths and subject to far more regulations–are in the center ring.

The arch-villains in the Pink Police State are those who profit off disease. When we raise our fists against statist manipulation of what goes into our orifices, we forget that these powers have been accorded to the state in part because industrial capitalism gave individuals, companies, and institutions power to destroy lives and communities. While there are certainly plenty of sex-peddlers who chew up and spit out the vulnerable, the profits extracted in the course of damaging the land and our bodies are far more formidable–as are the dangers posed to our health. When an enormous acreage of good soil can be abused to grow a vast monoculture of corn that is then turned into a large quantity of sugar that is subsequently exported across the world in carbonated beverages to drive up amputations due to diabetes, the djinn is literally out of the bottle.

The Pink Police State wishes to stem this tide through a variety of means, for better or for worse. I am happy to say that I have met some technocrats in my day (I do not know how “elite” any of them have been.) A great number have cared for such amputees and other people who have suffered harm from what we call “lifestyle” diseases. They are almost entirely moved by compassion and while they are paid (often by the state through one means or another) to treat or prevent disease, most would be happy to be out of a job if it meant that fewer people became disabled or dead at younger ages. While libertarians and conservatives frequently bristle at attempts to control the sale of certain substances (or, even worse, to make other substances safer to inject), it is crucial to recognize that the habits of behavior and thought that Poulos elucidates in Part 4 of his series can be shaped in ways that prolong lives. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that any restriction on tobacco whatsoever is worthwhile, it is useful to recognize that the effort made to reduce its use in America has resulted in a reduction in death and disability.

However, public health and population health are not merely measures of extending lives or preventing amputations. These things are measurable, which makes them useful to the technocrats, but health is far more than the absence of disease. Health is wholeness, as Wendell Berry has observed, and it is at this point that my sympathies with the Pink Police State part ways. A measurable decrease in amputations is hardly a victory if the preserved feet are still pointed at the droning television for the rest of the days that they are attached. Understanding the natural order of creation leads us to understand that our bodies are better suited for vegetables than soda; it takes only slightly more effort to realize that face-to-face conversations are just as much a part of our reflection of this order. Words like “holistic” are often thrown around casually to describe this philosophy, but we must appreciate the weight of holism that requires change in every aspect of our lifestyles from what is sold to how we have our conversations before this language can be useful.

Yet the powers that profit from disease and the state that wishes to magnify itself to save the day both seem to have little interest in holism; minimizing the power of one will only give the other more latitude to damage both creation and creativity. How then can conversation– beyond eloquent appeals on blogs– be fostered?

A better policy is needed, one that distributes the power of the state downward to facilitate conversations–perhaps, frankly, to subsidize them. This solution may be inherently unappealing to advocates of political freedom, who may see such subsidization as the most dastardly move of the Pink Police State yet. However, short of a sudden, spontaneous embrace of beloved community (which we can always hope, pray, and work for), we will have to use the apparatus of the state against itself and rebuild the power in neighborhoods and small towns.

What is this policy that might make more face-to-face conversations happen, improve the measurable health outcomes of our population, promote healing in wholeness, and perhaps even destroy the Pink Police State with its own money? James Poulos said that the future belongs to community organizers. I would suggest that the ideal kind of community organizer for this task of battling the twin powers of corporatist high fructose corn syrup and statist hygiene is a community health worker.

The concept is fairly straightforward, if perhaps unfamiliar. Like bidets and decent mass transit, community health workers have only shown up in America when decided effort against the status quo met an appropriate funding source. We probably have doctors to blame for not implementing the use of community health workers (CHWs from here on); the number of things that a good corps of CHWs could do would either directly compete with a physician’s business or prevent enough complications to put a dent in any hospital’s income. While no grand proposal at any state or federal level has (to my knowledge) ever emerged, the concept of publicly funded CHWs equipped to practice the right kind of medicine opposes the American health industry so obnoxiously that any number of existing powers would feel quite skittish about their existence (the exception to this may be hospitals in my own home state, which have been told by Medicare that they are receiving a predetermined sum for services this year and it is up to them to figure out how to spend less than that sum.)

What do CHWs do? Well, it depends on where they are and who is paying them, but in general they are responsible for ensuring that every member of their community gets the services that benefit everyone (e.g. vaccines and primary screening), and they keep an eye on members of the community who already have a chronic disease and need help managing it so that complications do not develop. More importantly, they are the facilitators for any community decisions regarding health and the link between any one cluster of people and the state funds for infrastructure necessary to keep people from dying young. They can be very specialized– for example, focusing specifically on HIV-positive patients– or more general, covering a broad range of needs for a community.

I like face-to-face conversations with my patients. It’s one of the best parts of my job. Quite frankly, though, for the healthy–or the almost-healthy, those who have one or maybe two chronic diseases–my seven years of medical training is overkill for ordering their shots and their mammograms. Those seven years might be useful if someone is trying to ascertain exactly what benefit they may gain and what risks they may run by submitting to my suggestions, but rarely are they necessary (also, rarely are doctors good at this.) Someone with a high school education and perhaps a 1- or 2-year certificate could probably do the majority of what I do for a much cheaper price, and with the right tools at their disposal, they could probably do it more efficiently than I could. Furthermore, if a CHW or team of CHWs were assigned to particular areas, then the face-to-face conversations that they have all day long about what their patients are eating and how their patients are feeling could have a great deal less rush to them than a similar set of conversations than with a primary care physician (who can usually only give you 15 minutes of your time unless you’re dying or paying extra.)

CHWs must be based in the community and (whenever possible) from the community that they serve, for it is in the intangible relationships and the tangible presence that they draw their power to communicate and distribute their knowledge that they have acquired outside their locale. These ties are also what gives them the power to organize their community against the forces outside that would take their money in exchange for a higher risk of diabetes or would take their political freedom to protect them from their own decisions. The best CHWs do not change health behaviors through coercion (as does the Pink Police State) nor through seduction (as does the transgressive factory farm), but through collaboration. They have been an instrumental part of empowering communities all over the world and fit naturally into the institutions like chuches and neighborhood associations that help to sustain civil society. When people have embraced healthy behavior for themselves, the only thing that they will need from the state is protection from forces beyond their control (like pollution) and provision of medicines beyond their means (like antiretrovirals.)

The Pink Police State is truly a menace to the natural order, but before we beat it we’ll have to join it. If we can extract the goodwill of the elite technocrats to put money and power in the hands of people tied to local communities, the erotic (or gluttonous) populists will finally have a real set of countermeasures opposing them–members of a place who have learned discipline through conversations individual and corporate. In a world where our power of over nature has must be carefully stewarded, the care of our bodies is inseparable from policy. Our bodies, individual and corporate, can only be built up– and the Pink Police State can only be torn down–by the wisest policies.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

A Joyful Indifference: A Reply from Tish Harrison-Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Social Media and the Erosion of Conversation

Pew’s research on social media’s effect on people’s willingness to undertake conversations is worth pausing to reflect about for a moment.  Active social media use actually decreases people’s willingness to share their opinions not simply online, but in other contexts as well.  This is particularly true of people who think their opinions are in the minority, though it happens more generally than that.

A number of people pointed out after I posted it on, erm, the social media channels that they used Snowdon and the NSA as their test case, and wondered whether this might have been particularly to blame for people’s unwillingness to share their opinions online about the subject.  That’s a fair point, but not persuasive:  after all, people were less likely to share their opinions in person, too.  Unless people were possessed then by total paranoia–and not living in America at the time, I am skeptical that they did but cannot properly assess it–then it seems like the muting effect has to do with the threat of perceived disagreements than the subject matter itself.

Somewhat relatedly, Freddie De Boer recently lamented the nasty state of online liberalism.  As he puts it:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. 

It’s a bit narrow, though, to say that this is simply a liberal problem.  Spend a few minutes browsing the comments on Erick Erickson’s recent post on the conflict between his faith and his politics…or rather, don’t.  You already know what’s in there, and it is not pretty.  Conservatives (theological or otherwise) have their own “acceptable stances” and terms, too, and moving outside of them–as I have sometimes done–raises eyebrows and elicits emails.  Those exchanges have been, thankfully, generally more civil than what many folks get online.  But still, that kind of boundary-policing is exhausting to have to deal with.

I’ve been ruminating on all this recently, along with my friend David Sessions’ excellent post on why the internet is awful and Frank Chimero’s analysis of Twitter, which suggests that the nature of the conversation there has moved from the “front porch” mode to the “street” mode.  I don’t have grand thoughts about how it all connects–smarter minds than I, like David, will have to take up that task.

But by way of hypothesis, I do wonder whether the shift in conversations away from blogs or other internet “third places” toward the more intimate and personal “social media” platforms is partly responsible for the increasing difficulty people seem to have disagreeing with others online and elsewhere. This is particularly the case with Facebook, I think, moreso than Twitter–and might explain why Facebook users experience the ‘spiral of silence’ more.  In my Facebook use, for instance, I might go from pictures of my life around town one moment (when I lived in Oxford, anyway) to discussing the politics of Hobby Lobby the next.  I see pictures of my friends’ children, and then get comments from them disagreeing with me.

The intellectual environment such juxtapositions create blurs any distinction between personal and public, which makes it more difficult to disentangle the disagreements I have with my friends about (say) social policies regarding marriage from my friendships themselves.   This is particularly true with people that I have not seen much, like friends from undergrad.  I’m not generally one to shy away from conflict.  But with what feels like so many minor conflicts and disagreements going all the time, attrition simply takes over and I lose my appetite for the conversation.  Those are people I’m supposed to be friends with, or at least friendly with, after all, but perpetual, pervasive disagreement at even a cheerful level is corrosive to that.

To borrow Frank Chimero’s categories, if Twitter has moved from the ‘front porch’ to the ‘street,’ Facebook has brought the street up on to the front porch.  People treat their Facebook walls like their own, personal space, a habit that Facebook has encouraged since the beginning.  But that raises the stakes for everything that happens there.  While it has always been difficult to distinguish between the personal and the public, Facebook is a business built on obliterating that distinction.  Everything is both, simultaneously, and that means the conversation has a different ethos than it does in a coffee shop.  Next time someone invites you over for dinner, try critiquing their views of fracking without any other social interaction. Let me know how that goes for you.

But as I said, I don’t have grand thoughts about this.  It’s an interesting conglomeration of essays, though, and I hope people ill take them up in the comments.

 

 

Which Generous Spaciousness for Gay Christians?

It’s been five years since Andrew Marin published his widely read Love is an Orientation, and the need which Marin’s book attempted to fill has grown at a rapid pace.  While there has been no shortage of discussion among evangelicals about the moral and political status of homosexuality, few rigorously theological and pastorally sensitive resources have been developed for churches and pastors to learn best how to welcome gay into their communal and individual lives.  Instead, vague exhortations about how Christians need to be more loving and improve their image abound.

generous spaciousnessWendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness:  Responding to Gay Christians in the Church is not, alas, the book we have been waiting for.  As the director of New Directions Ministry, a Canadian organization that was a part of Exodus International until it pivoted in 2007 toward building bridges between Christians and the LGBT communities, VanderWal-Gritter has a wealth of practical and personal experience to draw from.  She aims in Generous Spaciousness to “model a posture” for individuals, churches, and organizations that is not “just a wishy-washy, weak compromise” on the questions surrounding homosexuality, but that orients us toward hospitality and faithful discipleship for LGBT people within the church. That is a commendable goal, no doubt, and her book has occasional moments of insight and the occasional bit of wise council for pastors and parishioners. But by repeatedly presenting the progressive position at its best and responding to ‘conservative’ theology at its worst, VanderWal-Gritter creates a caricature of the demands of “unity” that claims the moral high ground for those who wish to push doctrine to the side. Her concept of ‘generous spaciousness’ is no “wishy-wash, weak compromise”: it is an outright abdication on the possibility of moral knowledge and its role within the church.

Her book is pervaded by trendy jargon that obscures as much as it clarifies, and that sometimes borders on the sort of de-Scripturalized, therapeutic discourse that has marked the “ex-gay” community at its worst.  (As she notes, VanderWal-Gritter notes that “many ex-gay ministries espouse a variety of psychoanalytic theories in the development of ministry interventions.”  While she doesn’t endorse such an approach, it’s clear from her own work that she hasn’t quite escaped it.) Terms like honesty, authenticity, openness, vulnerable, acceptance, and the inescapable journey get their power from their vagueness, even if they seem to be for her the central virtues of the spiritual and moral life.

Such terms sometimes also function asymmetrically, so that those who are doubting and questioning their convictions and the traditional teaching of the church on the morality of same-sex sexual practices end up with a privileged insights into key portions of Scripture.  In her defense that Christians should interact with each other on questions of same-sex sexuality as though it were a “disputable matter,” and hence akin to how Paul exhorts the Romans to behave with respect to food ethics in Romans 14, VanderWal-Gritter offers the following jaw-dropping analysis:

“One has to wonder if the process of wrestling with a particular question personally is the foundation from which one can internalize Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 of not getting in the way of someone else’s choices and making life more difficult for them. For when you get on your knees at the side of your bed night after night pleading with God to take away your same-sex attractions, you experience solidarity with others who have had the same experience….And out of this very real and personal place arises the kind of mutuality and preference for the other that Paul speaks of.  The truth is straight people will never be able to fully enter that space—because straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places.”

Even if we thought that Scripture put same-sex sexual activity on the same moral plane as food sacrificed to idols such that it is a “disputed matter”—and there is lots of reason to doubt that is the case—this sort of argument actually would work against the case.  If Romans 14 did require people to internally wrestle with the particular question, then only those with same-sex attraction could have the “generous spaciousness” that VanderWal-Gritter ostensibly wants.  That would be a bizarre basis for a Biblical exhortation, however.  What’s more, VanderWal-Gritter’s claim that “straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places” strikes me as false to the point of incoherent.  Many straight people who have taken Jesus’s exhortations about lust in Matthew 5 seriously have spent wakeful nights pleading with God to remove temptations from them, even temptations that if known or acted upon would bring them great shame from their community. To think otherwise would be to single out same-sex desire as uniquely troubling to the individuals who experience it—a claim I suspect many in her audience will be fast to reject.

While VanderWal-Gritter wants to avoid arguing directly about the moral questions surrounding this debate, she ends up simply presupposing a moral outlook that many conservative evangelicals object to.  In her exhortation to help same-sex attracted individuals cultivate a “positive vision for the future,” she suggests that some will begin to dream of a same-sex marriage.  “Where this dream is grounded in the confidence of the unconditional love and embrace of God,” she writes, “such a dream can be a vibrant part of a person’s ongoing spiritual journey, particularly when it is based on careful study, reflection, prayer, waiting, and listening to Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and trusted mentors.”  In perhaps the worst sentences in the book, she encourages us to welcome those who might dream of a same-sex relationship by pointing out that “It is important to remember that love is love. And love is of God.”  Nevermind that the content or shape of “love” within the sphere of human sexuality is precisely what is in question. “Love,” whatever else it might be, is not the amorphous, empty concept that her tautology indicates. While she protests that her view is not a “call for a watered-down discipleship,” her unwillingness to specify the terms under which sexual “love” no longer is from God suggests that is precisely what is on offer.

This kind of slant structures the entire book, so that it is questionable whether VanderWal-Gritter’s understanding of “generous spaciousness” is separable from it.  For instance, in discussing the role that spiritual fruit among Christians has played in her own life, she writes, “A closed system necessarily finds ways to discount such fruit as appearing to be authentic but actually being counterfeit.  But I could not justify such an ultimately subjective, selfish, and spiritually violent evaluation. As far as I knew, the fruit that I was seeing and experiencing was the real deal—and if it wasn’t, that could only be God’s call.”  I leave aside the question of “fruit” within the Christian life only to point out that being “closed” is not necessarily the negative feature of a “system” that VanderWal-Gritter presupposes.  If a system has no way of discerning when someone is self-deceived or when the fruits they are demonstrating have been disconnected from other crucial moral aspects of their lives which may erode them over a long period of time, then so much the worse for the system.

There are all sorts of people in this world who demonstrate qualities that seem to be similar to the fruits of the Spirit.  VanderWal-Gritter privileges our ability to discern when someone’s life demonstrates “fruit.”  As she goes on to say, “It seems incredibly audacious to me that anyone would consider sitting in the seat of judgment regarding the authenticity of faith of those who demonstrate good fruit in their lives.” But rather than accept the “tension” and the “mystery” that some people might have “fruit” while engaging in practices that Scripture is opposed to, she instead wishes us to embrace the tension and mystery at the heart of Scripture’s teachings about human sexuality, where she sees only complexity and disagreement.  It’s not at all clear, though, why we should be more confident in the meaning of our own lives and the quality of our own spiritual fruit and hesitating and uncertain about the meaning of Scripture, especially when the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) opens the possibility that we are all self-deceived.

My point is not necessarily to drag VanderWal-Gritter into the very moral questions that she thinks have been so harmful for the church’s witness.  Rather, it is simply to point out that it may be the case that how we go about inculcating a view of “generous spaciousness” in the church may itself depend upon the answers we come to with those moral questions.  If the “space” of the church is going to be anything more than an empty void, a black hole where anything (literally) goes in the realm of human sexuality, save those actions which do not result in “fruit,” then we must identify and understand its boundaries, and that invariably means drawing lines.  While it may be the case, as VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly points out, that conservative evangelicals have been overly focused on such boundary-maintainence and have sometimes operated based on fear, without boundaries there can be no “inclusion.”

To make the point sharper, if we can substitute the language of polyamory and polygamy for homosexuality and gay marriage, without a significant alteration to the argument, then something is clearly awry. If there are “polyamorous Christians” who demonstrate the kind of “fruit” that gives us pause and who can similarly problematize Scripture’s teaching (where there is even some positive evidence for polygamy in the Old Testament), then ought we treat the question as a “disputed matter”?  My only point is that the language of morality is more useful for understanding what sort of spaciousness we should have in the church, and what kind of generosity we are called to.

It similarly helps no one if the presupposition is that those who are theologically conservative have not worked through the “hard questions”, and so only hold their view because of tradition or for other reasons.  VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly objects to an emphasis on truth, orthodoxy, and certainty as being driven “more by fear and anxiety than by love.”  The book is written for those for whom “simplistic, black and white answers on these questions will not suffice.”  Doubtlessly such people exist.  But there is nothing simplistic about the answers Christians have traditionally given on these questions, and there is nothing easy about accepting them. Working from such caricatures—VanderWal-Gritter at one point uses an anonymous comment on YouTube!—is simply not helpful, though. It may be that a conservative theological approach to inclusion has not been found wanting, so much as left untried altogether.  Trying to circumvent doctrinal claims and genuine moral knowledge for the sake of unity simply presupposes that the two can be disconnected—which is simply not a proposition that conservative evangelicals can or will get behind.

All this is a missed opportunity, as evangelicals need to articulate how the message of the Gospel can be embedded in our local church communities in a way that is more hospitable to those whose form of lives we disagree with.  We need generous spaciousness.  Of that I have no doubt.  But not this one.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book for review.