Speak the Truth in Beauty: A review of ‘Echoes of Eden’

Rants about the state of evangelical art are a dime a dozen—exceeded in number perhaps only by the kinds of art-as-tract material they critique. Sadly, many of those critiques are justified (even if the ranting tone may not be). Many evangelicals treat the arts not as genuine goods in and of themselves, but instead as only one more way to point people to the gospel. Art certainly does glorify God and may be an element of people’s journey to faith in Christ. Whether it is a book on Finding God in The Lord of the Rings or the kitschy “art” itself, we have a long ways to go. At the same time, critique can only take us so far. We need a clearly articulated, theologically robust aesthetic, and we need to work hard to put that aesthetic into practice.

Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden aims to provide both that clear aesthetic and a pattern to follow. In the first half of the book, Barrs develops a theology of art; the second half looks at an array of literary works to see what that theology looks like in practice.

Echoes of Eden opens with a theology of creation and sub-creation. Barrs draws heavily on both the creation narrative in Genesis and the promise of eschatological restoration to argue that artistic activity as a subset of human vocation in general, is good in and of itself. Citing Tolkien, Barrs describes human artistry as “sub-creation” and argues that it is an essential aspect of the imago dei. Accordingly, he takes issue with any insistence either that art is a frivolity to be set aside or that it is valuable only if evangelistic. God’s creation was good, even before there were people to observe it. Indeed, there are beautiful things in this universe we have never seen and never will—sunsets on faraway planets and a thousand other splendors known only by their Creator—that have no apparent evangelistic purpose. Beauty is not an accident or a merely incidental element of our world. Rather, it is an attribute of the Triune Godhead, one so fundamental to the divine nature that it spills over in uncountable ways into the creation. People create because creating is a God-like thing to do, and we are God-like beings.

To buttress his argument, Barrs leans heavily on others who have written on the relationship of art and literature to Christianity, including John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Schaeffer, and Dorothy Sayers. He rarely makes it more than a page or two in the first half of the book without citing one or another of these theological and literary greats. He draws on Lewis in particular, especially his article “Christianity and Literature”1 and his book An Experiment in Criticism. For Barrs, like his heroes, art is a necessary way of getting beyond ourselves and seeing the world as God has made it. It ought not be the mere reinforcement of what we already know, but something that challenges us and makes us grow in both understanding of and wonder at the world and people and God.

Barrs is not content merely to describe art, though. He also carefully considers artists. He argues strongly that we should see not treat artists as prophets speaking from some place of elevated insight simply by dint of their being artists. Rather, we should value them as craftsmen and craftswomen doing their work well—just as with any other vocation. To some, this might seem a demotion, but Barrs is intent to elevate all those other vocations along the way:

Sometimes Christians will insist that the only work that is truly worthwhile, pleasing to God, and spiritual is the work of serving the proclamation of the gospel across the world. This view suggests that if we were all truly earnest Christians, we would leave our ‘secular” jobs, in which we are simply making a living, providing for our families, and ruling the world, and we would all join the “sacred” work of mission. But if we stop and think about Jesus’s life, we see that he was doing so-called secular work as a carpenter or a fisherman for many more years than he was a preacher and teacher. It would be blasphemous to suppose that during these years Jesus was living in a manner that was not fully godly and completely pleasing to his Father in heaven. (21)

Accordingly, the vocation of the artist is not the calling of the visionary, but of the ordinary person diligently carrying out an ordinary calling. Continue reading

Writing as though History Happened: On Being Countercultural Christians

“We live in a darkening civilization in which worldlings seek to divide Christ’s garments among them…Evangelicals…are beleaguered in China, prohibited from building churches in Saudi Arabia, arrested for distributing literature in Turkey, and no less tragic, are often vilified in the United States.”

That’s Carl Henry in his 1986 book Christian Countermoves in a Decadent Culture. 20 years ago, Christian Smith found that the energetic worries about the world that marks Henry’s quote still animated evangelicals. As Smith wrote, “American evangelicalism…is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is—-or at least perceives itself to be—-embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it.”

counter cultural ChristianityEvangelicals are still well acquainted with these themes. We are frequently reminded these days that we are about to be a church “in exile.” The Benedict Option has become our only hope. Springtime is over: winter is coming. We must be willing, as Owen Strachan writes, to “stand against cultural ideology, not with it,” if we wish to be “true heroes.”

And then there’s the claim that Christianity is “counter-cultural.” David Platt has thrown his hat in that ring, but he’s late to the party. Proving that it’s not just conservative Southern Baptists who have a stake in the term, Gabe Lyons deployed it at Q and in his widely-read book a few years ago. There are few more basic, accepted doctrines of the evangelical world than that the church should be a “counter-cultural” institution. The persistence of this sort of rhetoric may be the best evidence we have that despite evangelicalism’s diffused institutional forms, somehow a tradition of thought keeps getting passed down.

It may surprise readers to find out that I have little objection to these formulations of our state in the world today, at least in theory. I am happy to accept the sociological observation that conservative Christians are under some kind of interesting pressure these days. After all, I’ve made that argument myself. And I have spent the better part of my adult life working to strengthen the confidence of the evangelical witness, a task I only undertook because I was convinced the evangelical kids were not alright. The two books I have written may not have been (widely) read, but put together they contain diagnoses and constructive treatments for our evangelical lassitude.

But I am interested in writing as though the past happened, and that means acknowledging the limits of such ‘declinist’ discourse. I don’t begrudge my peers for looking a bit squinty-eyed at the anxious rallying cries we’re hearing about gay marriage within the church. I wager few of today’s college students know the Religious Right ever happened, and sometimes I’d like to forget about them myself. But they did. And like it or not the image—regardless of its accuracy—of the fearful evangelical leader shouting about decline still pervades our media world.

And here is the unfortunate effect: by overreacting against various non-offenses and impotently shouting about real shifts in the world that they had no real power to prevent ruined the rhetoric of ruination and decline for the rest of us. Having played the same song so often, evangelical writers—like me—invariably have a credibility gap with anyone who isn’t already convinced. Young conservative evangelicals have been placed into a relatively tricky conundrum: the misuse of narratives of decline have left us without a potentially helpful tool to overcome and resist the naivety of our peers about the social transformations afoot. But carrying on as usual gives such rallying cries the atmosphere of a winnowing, so that anyone who demures is de facto on the outside. And therein lies a path where the declinist narrative becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy: embattled and thriving, until it’s only we happy few who exist to die.

In this vein, Laura Ortberg Turner uttered her own exasperated sigh about the rhetoric of “counter-cultural,” pleading for a commitment to the centrality of love within the evangelical world. Of course, everyone in the argument is going to claim love as their grounds and motivation, even if it’s not the word that shows up most often on their blogs. And they have good reason to be wary: like it or not, the rhetoric of “love” is just as empty as that of decline and “counter-culture,” and we do face real divisions over what the boundary and shape of love must be. Liberal Protestants tried out an amorphous “love ethic” which knew little besides the hippy inclusiveness of the 1960s: situation ethics was a thing, after all, even though it is no ethics at all.

Suppose it is the case that for the past 30 years the rhetorical environment of conservative Christianity has emphasized narratives of decline with the corollary that our Christian existence was in kind of jeopardy. James Davison Hunter described the evangelical political character as being pervaded by ressentiment, or the sense that “injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible.” Only Hunter was more sophisticated than many of his critics: ressentiment describes a political culture, not necessarily the recognized motivations of its participants.

Hunter wrote many footnotes, so I’ll not repeat his evidence here. But the tricky business about the world is that perceptions actually kind of matter, and like it or not, Hunter identified the kind of atmosphere evangelical rhetoric has been perceived as promoting. The question I have pursued in its political aspect the past decade is whether that rhetorical environment ought have any effect on how we go about our business. The answer my fellow conservative evangelicals seem to be resoundingly giving is, “Nope. Once more unto the declinist breach.”

I suppose I have my own worries that being “counter-cultural” has such rhetorical appeal. If the logic of being a counterculture becomes a part of the church’s essence on earth—and given its unexamined status within the evangelical world, it is hard to see how it has not so become—then when the Church becomes the majority, something has gone deeply wrong. But by distancing ourselves from the Christianity of our predecessors, we also do not have to acknowledge or confess their missteps. Now that we are becoming a minority, we can go on as always without recognizing our own complicity in the falsehoods embedded in the worldview we have inherited. If we are entering a winter, it may be because in our spring and summer we had already swallowed a pill that would lead to our eventual demise. Conservative evangelicals cannot decry accommodators until we have confessed the means and manner of our own predecessors accommodations. We cannot write as if history has not happened.

But the logic of being ‘counter-cultural’ also frames the church-world relationship exclusively in terms of negation, so that the affirmations become the kind of qualification which gets tacked on at the end. Only the paths of affirmation and negation don’t merely need each other, nor do they exist in some kind of yin and yang-like symmetry. The “no” might establish our distinctiveness, but then integrity and not distinctiveness is the point of the church’s moral life. (Disclosure: that formulation is my advisor’s, but it happens to be right. And so I agree, fundamentally, with Laura’s concern.) By turning our attention toward “counterculturalness,” we potentially blind ourselves to real works of good happening in the world to which we can offer our “Yes and Amen” to the glory of God (followed, if you are a good Calvinist, by the hasty reminder that all that good stuff is only dirty rags).

But I might also be so bold as to suggest that our “yes” should be the most fundamental thing about us, which means we may want to make it the loudest. The striking thing about the evangelical rhetorical environment among those who write about these matters is not that conservative Christians are necessarily wrong: it’s that the whole business sounds so cheerless. With a few exceptions, no one seems to be having much of a good time.

To give but one example, I am on record suggesting that Christians ought to respond to the charge of “bigotry” for our views on sexual morality with a hearty laugh and a, “Oh, if you only knew!” Thinking gay sex is wrong is, after all, probably the least crazy of our views. We think the guys who say they can “look but not touch” are wrong, too. And I’ll even argue that auto-eroticism is wrong. Opposing gay marriage these days is a gateway drug to a whole world of outlandish and hopelessly outdated moral conclusions which turn out to be the most sensible positions in the world. We need courage: but we also need a sense of humor, because if we don’t have that the world is not really worth fighting for.

(Somewhat surprisingly, my argument has at times been turned against me, as it allegedly demonstrates I’m nothing more than a “defeatist.” I will save you a long excursus on why taking up the question of whether Christians are ‘bigots’ is itself a losing cultural strategy. You can thank me later.)

Now, I will grant that it is a tricky thing to be cheerful about the world whilst trying to persuade others that our doom is afoot. (Note to readers: rhetoric means exaggeration, so read “doom” as “bad things that will probably be imperceptible on a wide scale for a generation or two, a la divorce”.) It is the kind of thing which I have not perfected, but have gotten somewhat better at over the years. Reading Dickens is a great help: it’s hard to be unhappy about the world whilst being perpetually amused by it. In fact, reading anything for pure entertainment is a help. The real point of the culture wars is to destroy culture, and it’s impossible to fight well if we’ve forgotten what we’re fighting for.

Nor do I think such cheer incommensurate with a real lamentation about the effects of sin: I have myself sought to suck the marrow out of my limited sorrows and found within them the wellsprings of life. But it is that kind of cheer which evangelicalism’s greatest virtue—its legitimate and real concern about the world and its inhabitants—potentially throttles. In this case, we may have to be good pagans before we can be good Christians: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they’re gonna come for your tax breaks.

I’d note as well that it’s this kind of cheerful disregard for things which Chesterton aptly said was the heart of courage, a virtue which we have heard much of and will doubtlessly hear more about. It cannot be quoted too often, for it is the finest thing Chesterton ever said:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

And here I signal my last worry about the way the rhetoric of “countercultural” has functioned within the evangelical world. By drawing our energy out of the opposition to the world—by thriving in the embattlement—we tend to foreclose the possibility that we could win, finally and decisively, the very cultural struggle we are waging. By enshrining its status as a cultural minority, the ‘countercultural’ approach contributes to the conditions which ensure nothing changes. The culture war is self-perpetuating (and the one sound it cannot fathom is genuine laughter at its pretenses).

I remember reading a history of early Christianity during the summer after my freshman year of college. I don’t remember which one, because I am no scholar. But the astounding conclusion of the author was that it was not their love which made the early Christians such an irrepressible force. In the midst of an over-stretched empire that had grown decadent and fat off of its own success, and which had ceased to see any life beyond its own horizons, it was the hope of the early Christians that allowed them to kiss the dying, to hold their own bodies in chastity, and to turn their martyrdoms into murals.

I have never forgotten that, even while I have imperfectly lived it. The hope of the church breeds energetic action, Barth puts it, and so it should. But I fear the evangelical rhetoric of decline and persecution and marginalization and exile and all the other ways of putting things these days casts a dark shadow over our hope, making it appear less vibrant and cheerful and alive than it should be.

Such a word of hope sounds a note of peace and good will to all men, and resolutely keeps open the possibility that the conclusion of efforts here and now might be approval rather than denial. “Do what is good,” Paul tells those minority Romans, “and you will receive [the ruler’s] approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.” And of internal church matters he’ll say later that “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” This too has been ruined by a different strain of the evangelical world, namely those notorious health-and-wealthers. But Paul still full-throatedly leaves that possibility open, and does so without hemming and hawing about it.

Is such a transformation unlikely? Sure. But sociology is not the plane from which the Christian proclamation goes forward. Was the path for the Roman church one of suffering and martyrdom? Unquestionably. But it was the manner of their death, not merely the fact, that bore witness to the triumph of the gospel. The announcement that ‘all will be well’ is the final word which encompasses all others; in pointing toward the life wherein all will be made new, it opens up the possibility that the new could arrive here and now, in dress and visage that we may not foretell. It reminds us that the church is the culture, and the form of world that now counters it speedily passes away.

Mere Fidelity: The Skeletons in God’s Closet

And, we’re back.  After a long break, Mere Fidelity returns with a doozy.  We invited Joshua Ryan Butler on to talk about his new book The Skeletons in God’s Closet:  The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War

Listen in to our conversation and if you’re still not persuaded you should read the book, check out Derek’s review of it. Then go ye forth, take up, and read.

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, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

The Forgetfulness of Love in Harry Potter

There are two scenes in the Harry Potter series when Harry is able to successfully block the mental connection he shares with Lord Voldemort. The first is at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Voldemort tries to possess him in the Ministry of Magic:

The second is halfway through Deathly Hallows after their escape from Malfoy Manor where Bellatrix Lestrange killed Harry’s friend, the house-elf Dobby. What drives Voldemort out? Initially Harry thinks that it is intense experiences of grief. But then he remembers Dumbledore and thinks that his former headmaster would that it is love.

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The Demands of Love in Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6)

image credit: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/albus-dumbledore/images/7749338/title/albus-dumbledore-photo

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Fleur Delacouer, a student from a French school of magic visiting Hogwarts, says that her school would never tolerate the silliness that is commonplace at Hogwarts: “eef a poltergeist ever entaired into Beauxbatons, ‘e would be expelled like that!”

JK Rowling’s series is filled with characters unusual not only for their characteristics, but for the way they are welcomed at Hogwarts.

Some of these are marginal characters–the schools many ghosts come quickly to mind. Others are much more important to the story. One teacher is a former Death Eater–a supporter of Voldermort, the main villain of the series. And yet he is welcomed at Dumbledore’s Hogwarts. Another teacher was expelled from the school when he was a student but allowed to stay  at Hogwarts and work as their gamekeeper. Still another is a werewolf, something of an untouchable in wizarding society yet he too is warmly received at Hogwarts.

Similarly, a certain amount of unusual behavior is also tolerated. Fred and George Weasley, the older brothers of one of the series’ protagonists, are the frequent culprits here as they are consummate jokers. Over the course of the series they play a variety of pranks on students and teachers, ranging from giving their friends candies that temporarily turn them into canaries to more serious “violations” like turning a section of the school into a swamp.

Yet for all the imprecision, chaos, and oddity that marks Hogwarts, there is an order to it, else the school wouldn’t function. But it’s the nature of that order that merits close attention. It’s not loose per se. Minerva McGonnagall, one of Rowling’s most enjoyable characters who is played by the delightful Maggie Smith in the movies, is a strict disciplinarian. And when students are given detention or some other form of punishment, it is enforced. But standing behind this order at Hogwarts is the thing Dumbledore speaks of in nearly every extended monologue Rowling gives him: love. And this love causes the school to adopt a radically different order than that of the world outside Hogwarts where the technocratic, bureaucratic Ministry of Magic rules. (Spoilers below the jump)

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Curiosity and Love in Harry Potter

harry-potter-virtue-curiosity

I’m currently enjoying my biennial tradition of reading through the Harry Potter books. This is my fifth time through the books and I find that each time through I seem enjoy them at least as much as I did the last time I read them. I’m taking notes as I go through and am attempting to turn those notes into blogs.

If there is a signature sin of our day, you could easily argue that it is curiosity. Thanks to the internet we are inundated with cheap media, making it easier than ever to plunge ourselves into a well of information for no reason other than the lack of anything better to do.

In a post at Reformation 21 about lust, Brad Littlejohn wrote:

The “curiosity” that sends the bored or weary mind browsing for pornography is often little different from the impulse that has already sent the same mind back to Facebook ten times a day to look for new notifications, or rushing to your inbox every time you hear a chime.  In its digital form, pornography has united the age-old human desire for sex with our age-old propensity to seek diversion in the new and different, and offered almost unlimited and effortless “satisfaction” of both impulses.

This curiosity that Littlejohn is describing should be familiar to anyone who has ever begun mindlessly clicking on various links from social media only to discover that they’ve spent an hour online and have no lasting memory of any of it. And like all sin, this curiosity has a touch of madness about it. In Orthodoxy GK Chesterton notes that the mad man isn’t the man who has lost his reason, but the man who has lost everything except his reason. His mind moves in a perfect circle–an impossibly small one that offers no help to the man as far as accurately perceiving reality is concerned, but a perfect circle nonetheless. So it is with this digital-age version of curiosity. There is a sort of completeness to it–the archives of Wikipedia alone could occupy a person for a lifetime, let alone the many blogs, journals, and other forms of–forgive my use of this wretched word–“content” available on the web.

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Mere Fidelity: Christmas

 

In this episode, the gang celebrates Christmas by teasing Derek, talking about their favorite books of the year, and engaging other various and sundry topics.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

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, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

The Politics of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Dialogue with Chris Schaefer

An old high school friend tweeted: “It’s a Wonderful Life has be the most anti-Tea Party movie ever.” I rakishly tweeted back: “False.” Rather than attempting to hash out this disagreement within the confines of 140 characters, we resolved to do a Gladwell vs. Simmons sort of thing, exchanging long-winded emails to see if we could hash it out.

My friend, Chris Schaefer, has led a peripatetic life ranging from Oklahoma to Morocco. As of late, he seems to have settled in Paris. We agreed to let him have the first word:

Chris: I was being a good American and doing my annual Christmas-time viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when I had this moment. It was one of those eyebrow-scrunching, lip-twisting, just-wait-a-second-there moments: Conservative Americans cherish Frank Capra’s classic, and yet important parts of the film don’t seem terribly conservative. I wondered if conservatives’ appreciation for family, faith, and community in the movie doesn’t cause them to miss echoes that the original audience would have picked up on immediately.

It's a Wonderful Life It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 right as the United States was exiting an extremely difficult decade and a half. There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the greatest challenges that animate the film are bank runs and lack of affordable home ownership–the difficulties of The Greatest Generation in Bedford Falls as it were. These two issues play out in significant ways. George Bailey doesn’t go on his own honeymoon because he has to use his own personal savings to pay his clients who are caught up in the uncertainty of a bank run. And the entire business concept of the Bailey Building and Loan was based on providing home ownership for the poor of Bedford Falls, which was not so much a business as a non-profit social organization if we can take Potter’s critique and the bank-examiner’s presence as any indication.

So what happened between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945? The New Deal. And in the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the creation of two organizations that addressed both of these issues. The Banking Act of 1933 created the FDIC (whose sticker you will inevitably find on your bank’s window), guaranteeing deposits up to a certain amount. The bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life happened just before its creation, and so for viewers in 1946 it served as a scary reminder of how things used to be before the Democrats pushed through the New Deal.

In 1938, Fannie Mae was also created at Roosevelt’s behest in order to increase home ownership and make housing more affordable. Both of these programs were pushed through against Republican opposition, and both would have benefited the residents of Bedford Falls–those who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying” in the community, as George so passionately put it. George’s support for the poor on these issues would have recalled the Democratic rhetoric, while Potter’s heartless commentary on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poor would have echoed the anti-New Deal Republicans.

Don’t take my word for it, though: these leftist echoes scared the FBI. A 1947 FBI memo (pdf, pg. 14) indicated concern that the screenwriters were closet Communists and that the portrayal of bankers and rich people was highly suspect. Now, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wasn’t always the most level-headed of organizations, but the fact that they were concerned about the leftist tones of It’s a Wonderful Life means that some aspects of the film resonate in different ways today.

So what’s your call, Keith? Am I missing something? Or, in their deep appreciation for the film, do conservatives today ignore the historical and political context of It’s a Wonderful Life?

Keith: I am one of those conservatives who loves It’s a Wonderful Life and actually believe that the film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy. While I’m glad to have my presumptions challenged, I think that you’re wrong to say that this movie is anti-capitalist.

I will grant your presumption that we should consider the historical situation at the time of this movie’s release to help us understand how certain scenes would be understood. Like Scalia at the movies, we should consider the original public meaning, right? But we’re not merely asking a purely historical question, right? I’m not particularly interested if some FBI agents struggled to separate the idea of a bad banker from the idea that all bankers are bad. I’m similarly nonplussed by the question of whether Republican identifiers would have been torqued by watching the film in 1946.

Political coalitions have shifted quite a bit in the last two-thirds of a century. Back then, it was not unusual to be for both higher government spending and traditional family values. Indeed, as both parties were rather conservative on social issues, the economic divergences played a larger role in determining voting behavior. Today’s political fault lines obscure these differences. Now, if one is for traditional family values, that identity tends to dominate and make differences of economic regulation seem comparatively minute. All that is to say, that it could be that the folks who wrote this film were both “conservative on social issues” in some sense that we can recognize, while still advocating for leftist solutions to some of the economic issues of the day.

However, I don’t actually see how the movie supports left-leaning economic policy. The movie exults in the way the Bailey Building & Loan helps Mr. Martini escape Potter’s rental slums. You suggest that scene would be a comeuppance to those dastardly anti-New Deal Republicans who opposed the enactment of Fannie Mae. Actually, I bet those Republicans supported the end of the policy–getting folks into their own homes–and merely objected to the efficiency or constitutionality of the means. To see it your way is like maintaining that today’s GOP is against children eating lunch and that a movie showing a non-governmental actor providing lunch to hungry kids would be a real dig against conservatives.

On the contrary, when I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.

Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?

But beyond these incidental plot twists, don’t you see how the actual thrust of the movie is conservative? George Bailey denies himself and his desire for freedom and travel, and ties himself again and again to the small town and community. He was derogatory of his “not much a businessman” father, but eventually became his father and, in doing so, blessed everyone in Bedford Falls. Isn’t that conservative? Continue reading

Mere Fidelity: Atonement

What shape should the atonement take as a doctrine?  Is penal substitutionary atonement an appropriate account of the doctrine?  Derek and I are joined by not one, but two guests for a conversation about the doctrine of the atonement.

Adam Johnson is a professor at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute (my alma mater), and is the author of God’s Being in Reconciliation and The Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (forthcoming). He also gave this interesting lecture on angels and the atonement, for those who are interested.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is (among other things) a writer and cultural critic.  He writes regularly at Patheos and has a column at The Week as well (which I highly recommend).

During the show, we talked a little about this post by Pascal.  See his follow-up as well.  And if you’re looking for a post that’s way too long on the subject, check out this missive by Derek.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

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 Derek for more tweet-sized brilliance.

Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry

Some conservative evangelicals have been revisiting whether it’s permissible to be gay and a Christian recently. I generally try to steer clear of that discussion, as I find it often reinforces notions of ‘identity’ that are too underdeveloped to be helpful. “Identity” language is a virus in the church that addles the brains of otherwise very intelligent people.* The old forgotten terminology of virtues, character, acts, and so on was much clearer and did not have the incantatory effect ‘identity’ clearly does within the evangelical world, and if I had my way we’d all return to it.

World MagazineThis latest round of discussion was prompted by Julie Roys’ article at World about Julie Rodgers, a chaplain at Wheaton who identifies as gay while being staunchly committed to traditional Christian norms of chastity and celibacy.** This is a position that has become identified with the excellent blog “Spiritual Friendship,” which my friends Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill have run. But according to Roys, this way of dividing things up is unorthodox. Or as Owen Strachan puts it, evangelicals who take this stance are “playing with theological fire.” While I agree with Strachan up to this point, I’d add that so are those who reject it: to think theologically at all is to play with fire.  The only question is whether we shall all be sanctified by the process of such thinking, or burned to ashes and left in a heap.

Having noted my general reluctance to taking up this issue, though, allow me to wade in more directly on the question, as to this point I’m not at all persuaded by Roys or Strachan that conservative Christians should be Really Worried about Rodgers’ view. Strachan laid out ten theses on the subject in order to pursue some desperately needed clarity, including definitions of the contested terms ‘orientation,’ ‘temptation’, and ‘desire.’ Of course, definitions can be used in a lot of ways, and Strachan loads the dice against Rodgers in a way that is simply not helpful. He suggests that ‘orientation’ is a pattern of desires “oriented toward an end,” which in this case is same-sex sexual activity. I say it’s not helpful because if that’s what an orientation is then I doubt Rodgers (or Wesley Hill or Ron Belgau: hereafter Rodgers and co.) thinks, in the final analysis, that it would be compatible with the traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality, teaching which they clearly affirm.*** Let me put it this way: while Michael Hannon wants to destroy the ‘orientation’ regime altogether, Rodgers and co. want to reform it by untethering the term ‘gay’ from its common association with sex acts or the desires that may lead them. They have inflationary aims for the term: they want to fill it in with lots of other content that is morally commendable, even while they recognize that their usage may be idiosyncratic given its common associations.

Now, there are aspects of this approach that are entirely commendable and seem to me to be far more psychologically palatable than the negation-focused strategy of ‘identity curation’ that Roys and Strachan seem to be endorsing. The good has its own internal power, and growth and expansion is its inner law. This is the basic rule which C.S. Lewis famously alluded to in suggesting that we sin not because our desires are too strong, but because they are too weak: we go on “making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” By orienting ourselves wholeheartedly toward goods, we can crowd out—or severely diminish—the strength that wrongs have over us. By attending to and focusing on what is lovely, true, and worthy of affirmation within the cluster of thoughts and desires that come with occasionally or frequently experiencing same-sex attraction—being ‘gay’—while simultaneously affirming the order which God has established, gay Christians are attempting to establish the very conditions which Roys and Strachan would want to affirm, namely the possibility that disordered desires would fade away. If nothing else, the gay Christian strategy (of the Rodgers and co. variety) is at least biblical in this respect: it takes Paul’s admonition to attend carefully to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…excellent or praiseworthy.”

But Strachan’s article goes on, and unfortunately it does not get better. Strachan lays down his definitions in order to pursue clarity, but then in a key passage introduces more terms that leave his position at best ambiguous, and at worst a confused muddle. I quote in full:

    1. But here we must be careful: attraction or interest is not the same thing as sinful desire. It is right for a man to want one-flesh union with a woman, and vice versa. But there is only [one] person with whom such love may be consummated (Genesis 2: Matthew 19:3-6). All who are not our spouse, therefore, must be treated like a brother or a sister. We might be oriented to be attracted to the opposite sex (this is God’s creational purpose, after all), but this does not mean that we desire in an actional way all women. In fact, regeneration means that we actively fight our desire for all members of the opposite sex who are not our spouse.

      So here we see the distinction that must be drawn between heterosexual attraction or interest and homosexual attraction or interest. Heterosexual interest is God-glorifying. It is right in terms of God’s creational purposes for men, in general, to have an interest in women–to be drawn to them in some way. This interest must be bounded, though, by Paul’s admonition to treat all non-spousal members of the opposite sex as “sisters” or brothers with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:2). So there is an appropriate outlet for heterosexual interest, which is not necessarily wrong but must be directed toward a God-glorifying end.

      Heterosexual attraction or interest is not by nature wrong. But when we cross over the “treat women or men as sisters or brothers” line, then such morally praiseworthy interest has become sinful. A man may find his sister pretty, for example, but he is never able to sexually desire her. The same is not true for homosexual interest; there is nothing creationally right about it. The woman was made for the man, as Genesis 2:18 shows. There is no appropriate outlet for homosexual interest. It is not morally praiseworthy by its nature. A man who desires another man, for example, is morally complicit. Of course, a man might find another man to be handsome, but this is not the same thing as desiring him; it is by definition not SSA or “gayness.” The presence of desire, which is the very nature of SSA and “gayness,” indicates that we have crossed the line into sinful behavior.

Strachan introduces new terms here, ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’, which he had not previously defined. Those terms allow him to create an asymmetry between “heterosexual attraction” and “homosexual attraction” in a way that I don’t think is justified. For Strachan, ‘attraction’ seems to be functioning in a proto-sexual kind of way: men are ‘attracted to’ women as a class of people, even if they might sexually desire individuals. Now, that may be true of men “in general”, or as a general class. But it’s hard to know what it means for any particular male to be ‘attracted to’ women as a general class of people, especially if that ‘attraction’ is not yet a sexual attraction or desire. Strachan never says in what way it is right for a male to be drawn to a woman, but his mention of sibling-relationships creates a real problem for what I take to be his view. If the ‘attraction’ is proto-sexual, then it’s hard to see how having an attraction to one’s sister is permissible. If the attraction is not-sexual at all, though, such that a male can have this ‘attraction’ to his sister in a way that’s licit, then it’s not obvious to me why the same man might not have a similar attraction to a member of the same sex. Strachan seems to intuitively recognize that the ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’ terms don’t quite get him where he wants to go:  he slips back into the category of desire in speaking about same-sex ‘interest’. For heterosexuals the two categories are held apart, but for gay people they are collapsed together.

Similarly, Strachan’s notion that there is an appropriate ‘outlet’ for this interest—namely, treating each other as siblings—raises the same question about whether or why the same ‘outlet’ could not be appropriate for the interest in the same-sex. Again, if this ‘interest’ is tied to sexual desire, then it seems like the appropriate “outlet” of it would be the marriage of a single woman. I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to tie the norms of ‘siblinghood’ to this proto-sexual ‘interest.’

If anything, the imagery of siblinghood works against such a conjunct: even today, there are strong taboos against anything hinting of sexual attraction between siblings. But then again I’m left wondering, if these ‘interests’ or ‘attractions’ are not sexual (or, as I’ve been calling them, proto-sexual) then it’s not clear why they cannot be had between the sexes licitly, or why the norm governing them for members of the same-sex would not also be siblinghood.

Allow me to try to tease out what I think Strachan is trying to get at in a scenario that I present in far too attenuated form here. In the first, a young man sits in a coffee shop reading David Copperfield while listening to music. He is, by all external appearances, lost to the world. Yet as often happens in coffee shops, the door opens and he glances up to see a woman he does not know, but who he finds unspeakably beautiful, walk in. After she orders, she sits at the armchair across from him and opens up a copy of Bleak House and begins to read. From this point on, we might say he is lost to the world: he has noticed her, and feels as though he can’t help but attend to her, so taken he is by her charm and by her literary interests. He wishes, above all, to speak to her and find out her name and to understand what her interest in Bleak House is. Yet being of the bashful sort, he suppresses any thought of saying ‘hello’ and continues in vain to read the same page over and over.

Now, it’s just in such an experience that we might say there is some kind of ‘attraction.’ Is it sexual? The thought is almost offensive: it is a strong interest, one which the fact of her beauty doubtlessly plays a role in and which may be converted to a sexual desire under the right conditions, but there is no reason to think that it is at this point. Is it benign? Not necessarily: it is an asymmetrical, non-reciprocal interest at this point, which may actually be unwelcome and has not been invited. And he may be in the conditions where its development into a sexual desire would be imprudent, and so if he recognizes that he is eager for it to become a sexual desire, he may wish to avoid conversation altogether. But ‘potent’ is not the same as ‘morally wrong,’ and there is no reason yet to think that such an attraction is wrong. Does it change the moral analysis if the person across the table is the same-sex, and our young man identifies as ‘gay’ and sometimes or frequently experiences same-sex sexual desires? It seems to me the answer is clearly not: this kind of magnetic interest (call it ‘chemistry) seems to be able to be untethered from sexual desires rather easily, even if this kind of experience happens more frequently with the same sex among those who are ‘gay’ than those who are not.  The only way in which it does become morally problematic is if all such moments are inherently ordered toward sexual fulfillment: but there is a vast continuum of ‘attractions’ and ‘interests’ before the pursuit of sexual activity comes on the table, and it is just this continuum which Rodgers and co. seem to (rightly) want to draw our attention to.

And there are good reasons for them wanting to. If a young man who identified as gay experienced this kind of magnetic attentiveness with members of the same-sex on a regular basis, he might be aware of certain dynamics within same-sex relationships that those who do not so experience it are not. He may not necessarily have a ‘privileged insight’ into friendship that heterosexual people lack: but then, I’ve learned as much about the structure of marriage from a man who was single his whole life as I have anyone else, so it’s not clear to me that ‘experience’ of any sort necessarily provides privileged access. Our capacity for empathetic imagination and our ability to understand each other is much greater than we realize. But even if his access into (say) the structure of friendship isn’t necessarily privileged by virtue of this regular occurrence, he may have an acute sensitivity or awareness of its structure that others lack. The absence of any threat of sexual attraction in a relationship may actually have a dulling effect on its possibilities or its dangers: paradoxically, the person who never experiences same-sex attraction at all may more easily presume that they understand friendship in a way that someone who must be constantly vigilant about the possibility of eros arising cannot be. And in this way, the gay Christian might remind other Christians of certain aspects or possibilities of non-sexual relationships that we may be prone to forget otherwise. That is, at least, my reformulation of the kind of ‘gay Christianity’ that I see Rodgers and co. advancing at its best.

The unhappy fact from the point of the theorist is that sexual desires emerge in us along within a whole cluster of thoughts, sentiments, anxieties, fears, intentions, and other psychological apparatus. Strachan is right that we need more clarity in our concepts as we unravel all of these, but I don’t think he’s delivered on it. (Until I put together my own etiology of sexual desire, which I’ve wanted to do for years, readers should read Roger Scruton’s book.)

Either way, Rodgers and co. are on the side of the angels, and conservative evangelicals would do well to listen attentively to their experiences and theorize and reflect along with them. No, I’m quite serious: they are literally on the side of the angels, for they all are all working within their own lives to point toward the resurrection, when we “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” It may sound strange to the evangelical ear that their resolute commitment to the norms of chastity can sit side-by-side with a term that is associated with desires and acts that we have moral objections to. And no, Rodgers and co. are not above critique: I myself have wondered (in private correspondence) whether other terms might serve their ‘reclamation ends’ better than a term already as loaded as ‘gay’, if only because reclaiming terms is hard and making new ones is easy. But at the same time, had they taken my path I suspect that we would not be having this discussion. And how to think about sexual desire is a discussion evangelicals still need to have.

 

*Yes, if you search the archives you will quickly discover that the ferocity of my judgment is rooted in the severity of my own penitence for my culpability in the crime.

** I don’t know Julie Roys, but I have been on her show a few times and have enjoyed it immensely. I don’t know Julie Rodgers either, but based on her writings she seems very smart and kind.

*** I’m making my claim here based on reading them. I may be wrong, though, and would be happy to be corrected.