We ran our list of the best feature writing in 2018 yesterday. Today I wanted to recap the written work we have done at Mere O this year. Due almost entirely to changes with Facebook’s algorithm, our traffic numbers are slightly down this year, but in many ways I think this has been our most successful year yet for reasons I may get to later.
But the best way of making that argument may be to simply rehash the year of work here at Mere O.
Joe Minich led off with a fine essay called Prophetic Performers, Authenticity Acts, and the Need for Wisdom in which he diagnoses the two poles of bad evangelical writing. On the right, you find the prophetic performer–a swaggering bully who thinks pointlessly triggering people is speaking prophetically. On the left, you find the authenticity act–the person who performs their righteousness publicly through great shows of vulnerability and pathos. In both cases, the performances are deeply manipulative and harmful in our attempt to cultivate wisdom.
Later in January I wrote about John Piper’s controversial comments about women professors at seminaries. If Piper is wrong, I argued, it’s not for the reason cited by many of his critics.
In March I argued that the evangelical attempt to mark out a ‘centrist’ position in American religious life is now anachronistic and the wrong sensibility to take toward the public square. Rather than defining our position relative to existing political programs, we need to develop a certain indifference to the world and define our own trajectory according to the principles of a reformed catholicity, which places a strong emphasis on principled ecumenism and the acquisition of wisdom for the equipping of Christian family and church members as well as Christian citizens.
I also wrote about why worldview analysis is so tiresome in March, flagging some predictable remarks by Al Mohler on the passing of Stephen Hawking.
Jordan Peterson is not your friend. Charlie Clark explained why.
In March CT covered the rising trend of so-called “Christian surrogacy” providers. In response to this, Matt and I commented on the complexities created by publishing such a piece in an evangelical magazine and I also wrote a brief sketch of why surrogacy is immoral.
Susannah wrote one of my favorite things we published all year back in March in her review of the film version of A Wrinkle in Time.
In graduate school I found myself a Christian. One of the things that made this unexpected development maybe OK, maybe not an erasure of myself, was that Madeleine L’Engle had been one. She was familiar, a guide to this new world that turned out to be one where God had become man.
I didn’t want to write this piece really, because being a cranky writer complaining about the de-Christianization of Starbucks cups is not part of my ambition. I don’t want to be That Essayist. But here’s the thing: if the Christianity in A Wrinkle in Time has been erased in the movie, the particular flavor of Madeleine L’Engle’s Christianity is in danger of being erased in the hot takes. And that flavor of Christianity is what was, for me, a bridge to belief.
It was a faith that was braided together with a fascination with molecular biology and cosmology; L’Engle saw science, actual new discoveries about the world, as harmonizing with and not threatening to faith. The world was a mystery: in the pages of scripture and in the thought experiments of Einstein, in cellular evolution, one was able partly to pull back the fabric of the universe and look beneath it, to see some of the harmonies in the way it worked. Reason and faith were not competitors; discovery and poetry and revelation all avenues to truth. It’s not that I’m a Thomist now because I loved Madeleine L’Engle then; it’s that the part of me that St. Thomas appeals to is the part that she appealed to.
There is no lack of hand-wringing in the American church right now about all sorts of questions. But if reading this piece doesn’t make you excited about evangelism in the world as God has made it, something’s wrong.
Brandon McGinley’s essay, “Stop Making Hospitality Complicated,” was one of our most read pieces this year. It’s short, but also an excellent reminder that the call to be hospitable does not need to overwhelm us or become a complicated or impossible chore.
In May we published the first of our series of posts on Guides to Modern Theologians. John Shelton kicked the series off with an excellent guide to Stanley Hauerwas which even had an avowed magisterial Protestant like myself wanting to go back and read the Duke theologian and ethicist.
There was a lot of dumb and dishonest criticism of Revoice last summer. But Steven Wedgeworth’s Critical Review of Spiritual Friendship was something that I found very helpful and which flagged some of the questions that need to be thought through in the years to come, most particularly on the question of how non-binary sexual identities create different challenges than those facing gay or lesbian Christians and the degree to which we can or cannot distinguish between friendship love and romantic love.
Matthew Lee Anderson’s Sex, Temptation, and the Gay Christian: What Chastity Demands is one of the longest pieces we published this year, but also one of the best. If you think of it as an attempt to, in around 10,000 words undo a century of bad theological ethics in American evangelicalism you’re basically on the right path.
Brandon Smith wrote about the importance of humility in the practice of Christian theology:
To love others theologically in the way Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13—to truly want to see them change their minds or reconsider their views—is to sit across the table from them and hear them. We act like those Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:3, “For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans?” We say like those who “belong” to Apollos or Paul (1 Cor. 3:4), “I belong to <insert theological hero or nuance>” and assume others must be against us. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes there is genuine disagreement that falls under the banner of Christ. It seems that the loving and spiritually mature response, according to Paul, is to work toward unity in the name of Christ, not division in the name of theological nuance. Loving others theologically assumes the best about them, takes them at their word, and doesn’t treat them as though they’ve already slipped down whatever slope we’ve assigned to them.
Continuing the discussion of the Revoice conference, we published Matthew Lee Anderson’s remarks at Revoice in early August. Do read the whole thing. Here is one of my favorite excerpts:
A chaste vision of the world, then, comes about through undertaking a comprehensive set of practices that inculcate both a fearful reverence and loving affirmation of ourselves and the world around us. Perhaps no practice is so potent for the cultivation of a Christian, de-sexualized eroticism as communal worship—Paul’s curious admonition about female head-coverings in the assembly seems to indicate as much. It is worth considering whether our evangelical megachurches have sufficiently bounded their worship with the kind of fearful reverence that recognizes the tremendous power of holiness. The atmosphere of much evangelical worship is highly eroticized—yet sometimes in ways or forms that appear as sexualized as ordinary concert music. The cultivation of eros within our communities needs to preserve the modesty and strangeness of holiness, and the forms of mystery and distance that preserve it. The intensity of religious affection that relegates sexual desires to their proper place in our lives should be difficult to experience, not easy—for it takes the form of a cross. At the same time, reading seems peculiarly important for the formation of this expanded vision: immersion in the narrative of Scripture makes us alive to the many facets and dimensions of life that are only tangentially related to sexual desire, helping us to recognize pride’s power in every other realm of life.
Later in August Tish Warren wrote for us on the importance of ecclesiology and why evangelicals should pay more attention to such questions.
Current celebrity evangelists, speakers, bloggers, and megachurch pastors cannot be discussed without talking about the relationship between power and market forces. And American evangelical leaders have embraced “celebrity authority” and market forces for a long, long time. Historian Harry Stout writes that in George Whitefield, one of America’s first evangelical preachers, “Charity, preaching, and journalism came together…to create a potent configuration – a religious celebrity capable of creating a new market for religion.” In the Second Great Awakening (as we threw off institutions to embrace the ‘sweets of gospel liberty’), we also furthered a “celebrity pastor model” as individual charismatic leaders wielded huge influence with little to no oversight. Worship became an entertainment spectacle—complete with pastors breaking chairs and sliding across the stage on their knees to whip up a rock star frenzy. WR Ward describes Francis Asbury as an “entrepreneur in religion, a man who perceived a market to be exploited.”
What this market model resulted in—and still results in—is a hesitancy for evangelicals to question methods or institutional structures as long as a particular person’s ministry seems to be “bearing fruit,” and by bearing fruit we typically mean getting a lot of attention, making converts, and bringing in numbers.
Celebrity pastors and leaders with great charisma and popularity, who lack institutional embeddedness and accountability, are as much a part of our heritage as altar calls and tent revivals. (And abuse of this power is also as old as the movement itself.) If we are to walk wisely and faithfully into the future, we have to be honest about that heritage and critique it. We have to address the power (and as Andy Crouch pointed out, the idolatry) of celebrity and how, as evangelicals and as Americans, we’ve all been raised on this model of leadership since birth. It’s the water we swim in.
Also in August we published another Guide to a Theologian essay. This one came from Brad East and focused on the work of the late John Webster. It is another one of my favorite things we were able to publish this year. If you want to be a bit more ambitious in your reading in 2019, pick up some John Webster.
In September we ran a lengthy essay from Justin Hawkins and Malcolm Foley rebutting the “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” which had been recently published by a group of mostly neo-fundamentalist baptists.
If the signers of this statement are truly fearful that their opponents—especially among the millennial generation of evangelicals—will slide down the slippery slope of theological liberalism, then it is our hope that they may have the grace to realize also that sometimes people fall down slopes not because they are slippery, but because they are pushed.
Would they be willing to entertain for a moment the possibility that they might be complicit in doing precisely this: At the moment when American evangelicalism is realizing the fact that we have failed to think through the social implications of our gospel, they are content to push millennial evangelicals down this slope by asserting that any recognition of the fact that Christ came to save bodies as well as souls (which the church has always believed) demands that we abandon our evangelicalism and embrace theological liberalism?
We refuse to acknowledge this false dichotomy. Evangelicalism has always, at its best, been both a movement of personal holiness (in the style of Jonathan Edwards) and of social transformation (in the style of William Wilberforce). We see no need now to demand that these two strands of our movement diverge. They are united in the gospel, and they can be united in the movement of American evangelicalism.
Samuel James reviewed Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind. One key point Samuel made is that you cannot ultimately separate the public and private squares. We are shaped in private and whatever has been made of us in those spaces will be what enters public life.
Matthew Emerson and Luke Stamps wrote a rousing defense of the painting “Mary Consoles Eve,” and, in it, also developed a robust vision of how Mary’s faithfulness relates to the rest of scripture.
Tim Milosch’s essay on the flaws in digital citizenship is a shrewd, perceptive critique of the idea of digital citizenship and a wonderful retrieval project of classical citizenship. It is well worth reading.