Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Out of Pocket

I'm out of pocket right now--sitting here at my in-laws house in Connersville, Indiana. I should be back to my regularly scheduled blogging next week.

One word, though, on Kelvin Sampson's hiring at IU--actually more than one word. 1) Oklahoma's men's basketball team is under investigation for recruiting voliations; why would you hire someone who may end up to be Jim O'Brien?

2) Oklahoma plays an ugly brand of basketball. If IU fans were frustrated with Mike Davis' offense, wait till they see what Sampson brings.

3) Does Greenspan really believe that Sampson is going to be able to recruit the state? That if Kelvin were our coach that Greg Oden would have come to IU? That he is somehow better than Alford, Wittman, or Keith Smart?

4) How many Final Fours did Sampson take Oklahoma to? One. Who did they lose to? That's right, Indiana in 2002.

This, in my opinion, was a bad hire. Even Calipari would have been better because at least he would have brought good talent with him. Greenspan will not survive the negative fall-out when the program goes south. Another prediction (since I'm on a roll)--Davis will have a better 3-year record at UAB (if he is hired there as rumored) than Sampson will have at IU.

See you next week!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Spirit and Flesh

[Note: I just received in the mail the March/April 2006 issue of Modern Reformation, where this review is published. I thought I would post it here to share with those who might not read MR]

In Spirit and Flesh, a brilliant and enlightening book, James M. Ault, Jr., initiates his readers into the world of a fundamentalist church. Ault, an independent Harvard-trained sociologist, spent three years immersed as a participant-observant with the Shawmut River Baptist Church (he changed the name to protect identities) in Massachusetts in an effort to understand New Right politics and the churches behind it. He first chronicled the congregation’s life in the public television documentary Born Again (1987); Spirit and Flesh serves as his “field notes,” filled with analysis and a narrative that often surprises and always engages.

Against typical secular assessments of fundamentalist Protestantism, which emphasize power and hierarchical gender relationships, Ault argued that churches like Shawmut River were built upon kin relationships that often empowered women even while engaging in “patriarchal” rhetoric; served to bring family members to faith, sustain them in that faith, and exercise discipline when they faltered; and provided for a type of ethical flexibility and adaptability even in the face of “absolutist” ethical claims.

In addition, by viewing fundamentalism as embedded in familial relationships, Ault enabled the reader understand why fundamentalists became politically involved in the 1970s and 1980s over the issues of abortion and public education and why they are heavily invested today in the fight over homosexuality: these political issues each strike at the essence of fundamentalist religion, namely, the tight family relationships that sustain churches like Shawmut River.

In addition, Ault claimed that fundamentalist “traditionalism” is rooted in a collective, oral discourse that “has a contingent, dynamic quality involving change, growth, adaptation, and invention” (208). The communicative event for this oral discourse is the Sunday sermon in which the community’s ideals, its traditions, are defended and reinforced. Not only doctrinal traditions, but especially cultural and social mores—such as teenage chastity, cultural separation, and abstinence from alcohol—are communicated to the younger generation through the community’s oral discourse.

In the book, one of the central and most disruptive events is the pastor’s daughter out-of-wedlock pregnancy. When the pastor, as keeper and transmitter of fundamentalist traditions, “fails” to pass them on adequately to the next generation, the church becomes a political battleground that eventually leads the larger church “family” to choose sides in order to preserve its peace and traditions.

In the end, Ault’s book is useful for helping those of us who minister in the Presbyterian and Reformed world to take stock. After all, to a secular world, conservative Presbyterians look very much like the fundamentalist Baptists whom Ault describes. And as we minister, it is useful to reckon with the reality that our congregations are often built upon kin relationships; what might be the effects of seeing the church as a collection of families shaped by traditions communicated orally? Above all, in a surprising twist at the end of the book, we can learn the importance of a loving community to bring someone, like Ault himself, back to the Christian faith in which he was raised.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Colts will now win the Super Bowl... that they've gotten rid of the "idiot kicker" and signed someone who can make clutch kicks.

[Note: sorry to all those who read this blog who aren't into Indiana-centric sports teams; a lot going on with the teams I follow. Now, back to your regularly scheduled blogging...]

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Next Indiana Coach

I can't believe that I am one of the few IU fans out there who desparately wants Steve Alford for our next coach.

I can't believe that the second best record in Iowa school history and Big Ten Tournament championship doesn't merit some sort of praise and interest.
I can't believe that I am one of the few IU fans who, when he hears Mark Few's name, thinks Dan Monson.
I can't believe that anyone thinks that John Calipari is a good coach.
I can't believe that Alford would coach Mizzou instead of IU.
I can't believe that Rick Greenspan will survive as AD if he picks a coach other than Alford who ends up being a failure.
I can't believe that, somewhere, Bob Knight isn't smiling...

Why Bother with Southern Presbyterianism? No. 1

This thoughtful post got me thinking once again about this question. After all, I've spent a good chunk of my academic writing time on Robert Lewis Dabney; and for the past several years, I've been working on a history of twentieth-century conservative dissent in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the old southern Presbyterian church). Maybe I'm a little defensive, or feel the need to justify the time. But I ask the question: why bother with these southern Presbyterian stories?

Let me say to start that I don't write in order to repristinate the past or to write inspirational history. Anyone who has read my book on Dabney, for example, knows that I have deep ambivilances about him as a man, churchman, and theologian. I don't shy away from pointing out his sinful and tragic attitudes toward African Americans, his wrestling with his own masculinity and honor during the war, his ambitious manuevering to land his position at Union Seminary, or his tragic squandering of influence in the postbellum southern church. Anyone who has read my book should know that, in my mind, Dabney is not a hero and that I am not seeking to return to the "good ol' days."

Then again, that is not why I write history anyway. If we simply come to history for some sort of useable past that reifies the status quo or justifies deviation from that status quo, then we are doing historical work for lesser reasons. Hear me well: it is not wrong to make the past speak to the present; that is what the best historians do. Yet, as James Cobb put it well,
"When historians are drawn into the politics of identity [which is what I am really talking about--sml], they may unwittingly cease to be scholars who simply try to make the past speak to the present and become ventrioloquists who are intent on making it say what they think their audience wants to hear. In doing so, they run the risk both of misrepresenting the past and of confusing what their readers want to hear with what they may actually need to hear" (Cobb, Away Down South, 316).

All too often, people approach history seeking what they want to hear. In my mind, however, historians need to do their work in such a way that the message people need to hear, pleasant or unpleasant, reifying or justifying, is heard.

To come back to the basic question then--why bother studying southern Presbyterians?--I think the answer has to look something like this: I study southern Presbyterians in order to gain wisdom and insight into the way I am today and the way my church is. In a denomination where nearly 60% of his membership still resides in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and in a denomination that has many who still view it as the continuation of the old PCUS, we need all the wisdom and insight we can get about the way we are (good and bad), the beliefs we hold dear, and the practices that continue to shape us.

But I also study southern Presbyterians because they remind me that theology never operates outside of cultural systems--whether you want to put that into terms of "cultural captivity" or "contextualization." And that means, I must come to all ideas and beliefs and practices with sharp questioning--how does this operate within the current cultural moment? What strengths does this present? What weaknesses does this offer? How will my future be affected by this? How does this reflect the longer-standing tradition of the church?

And so, our call in thinking historically about these things is not to rail against "southern Presbyterianism" as though it were some aberrant form of the Christian tradition (though, no doubt, there are aberrations, especially on racial issues, as this demonstrates). Nor is our call to defend "southern Presbyterianism" as though it embodied perfected Christianity handed down to us on golden plates (though, no doubt, there are numerous strengths, especially in its general faithfulness to the Westminster tradition).

Rather, the historical task is to study the past in order to uncover the stories--to discover the wisdom and receive the judgment--that we need to hear in this moment. And the stories we need to hear above all point us forward to the only real hero in the Big Story, Jesus himself, who takes our evil and works it together for our salvation.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dirty Little Secrets

The other day, I was surfing the TV and landed on VH1, where they were actually doing a video countdown (I hadn't seen VH1 or MTV do videos in forever). The video was by The All-American Rejects for their song, "Dirty Little Secrets." The video showed post-cards that people had created, which disclosed various kinds of secrets, some profoundly broken, others awfully superficial.

When I got to the seminary today, a colleague was telling me about an article that he read on his way back from California about this website, When I went to the website, I found the same type of thing--and apparently, the song was inspired by this website. The simple premise of the website is this: people share their deep secrets by creating postcards as a type of art, but also as a means of finding healing and hope. The website is tied in with the Hope Line, a 800 number that helps people struggling with suicidal feelings. According to the count meter, over 25 million people have vist the PostSecret website.

I had several reactions to all this. First, I was so thankful that somewhere, in God's common grace, people are feeling free to reveal some of their brokenness so that they can finding help, hope, and healing.

Another thought I had was this: if you were to allow church members to do this, creating postcards about their "dirty little secrets" and sending them to a place where they can maintain their anonymity, what kinds of issues would be revealed? I suspect that the brokenness displayed on the website would not be that radically different from what one would discover in the church.

Which raises another question--how in the world do ministers and counselors surface these issues so that the healing of God's grace in the Gospel might come to bear on people's secrets? For all our talk about authenicity, I wonder if we could really handle some of these issues; it would simply be overwhelming for human beings. And yet, it would not be overwhelming for God--so how do we get people together with God in such a way that they might know God's grace?

This leads to another thought: why do most of our churches preach and minister in such a way that these issues are never surfaced? Why does most preaching fail to address our dark emotions, our dirty secrets? Why do our illustrations of "sin" and "brokenness" always seem so lame and unreal (cheating on income taxes; driving faster than speed limit; etc. Please. These are peccadillos, not the sins with which most people really wrestle). Why do most of our people feel utterly unsafe to bring these secrets to the light? How does that change?

Finally, how in the world has the church utterly missed this phenomenon? I read a number of blogs and websites, as well as regular news outlets, and I had never heard of this, until I saw the AAR video. What other major cultural phenomenons are we missing where people are expressing their deepest heart issues and the church is simply ignorant?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Death of Presbyterian Denominational History

I recently was invited to contribute to a collection of historiographical essays on denominational history, a book that will be published by the University of Alabama Press. Our assigned task was to survey the field in our respective denomination's historiography since the publication of William Warren Sweet's classic series on Religion in America (c. 1940). And as you would expect, my assignment was Presbyterian historiography.

In doing the very initial spade-work for this essay, one thing that is very striking is the paucity of those who could be considered "historians of Presbyterianism," since 1940. I'm sure that I am missing someone, but thus far my list includes: Leonard Trinterud, Lefferts Loetscher, E. T. Thompson, James Smylie, Louis Weeks, Thomas Currie, James Currie, James Moorhead, Beau Weston, Brad Longfield, Erskine Clarke, Robert Brackenridge, D. G. Hart, Mark Noll, David Calhoun, and me. Gonna be tough to pull 25-30 pages out of that group.

Of course, I know that the major source for Presbyterian historiography is the Journal of Presbyterian History (JPH) and I will mine that very well in my essay. But the fact that there are so few legitimate names (and a few of these are suspect: for example, Currie, Weston, Longfield and Lucas have only published one significant book; Noll has only published one book that is directly "Presbyterian") suggests a more disturbing trend.

That trend is the death of denominational history generally and especially the death of Presbyterian denominational history. There have been several books over the past 15 years that have highlighted the need to recover denominational stories: the best of these was Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays, ed. R. B. Mullin and R. Richey. But with the slow death of mainline Protestantism--coupled together with the now-dominant model of "religious pluralism" in religious studies departments and "evangelicalism" within history departments that do religious history--has meant that doing histories about Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or other oldline denominations is simply not sexy.

There are two exceptions to this trend: Methodism and Baptists. For whatever reason, scholars have recently discovered Methodists in a huge way, producing several major books by Wigger, Andrews, and Hempton. Methdoists are now being explored for the way that they have shaped the egalitarian and enthusaistic world of the early American Republic as well as set the stage for Victorian moralism on both sides of the Atlantic. And Baptists have made a comeback for two reasons: first, as a result of the conservative take-back of the Southern Baptist Convention and second, as the result of the explosion of studies of the religion of the American South.

And yet, Presbyterians, who for so long were central to the WASP-elite story of America and its Christianity, have generally been shunted to the sidelines. Surely it is somewhat ironic that the most prolific Presbyterian historian (Hart) belongs to the 30,000-member Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which left the mainline PCUSA in 1936? And that JPH is publishing more and more articles from professors at the three conservative Presbyterian seminaries, presumably because mainline professors simply aren't doing this kind of historical work anymore?

The real question is how we got into this current state of affairs. And I think part of the answer is that historical writing can't help but fall into some sort of advocacy. And for mainline Presbyterians, historical writing served to buttress and justify larger themes--theological breadth in the 1950s and 60s, racial and gender inclusion in the 1960s and 70s, and denominational renewal and rescue in the 1980s and 90s. But by moving historical writing so fully into advocacy mode for a perspective on how the church should be, historians failed in their task of telling truth-full stories--stories that charted pitfalls and failures as well as progressive hopes and dreams. Mainline Presbyterian historical writing has often read like one long parade interrupted by boring speeches on the glories of the past and the programs for the future. Think Democratic National Convention in religious guise--that is what passed for mainline Presbyterian historical writing.

The historians who have chronciled the "offshoots"--the denominations that formed out of the mainline--haven't done much better. Too often our writing has felt like justifications and excuses and special pleading. It is fearful and temporizing, afraid of goring oxen and sacred cows. We haven't seemed to figure out a way to tell a truth-full story that helps readers (and Presbyterians) understand the larger sweep of what God is up to and what being Presbyterian in America has done both to Presbyterianism and America, for both good and ill.

And so, the next question is this: can Presbyterian denominational history be resurrected? I sure hope so, if for no other reason that the Presbyterian stories are so important for placing us in the grander narrative of what God is up to in this world, for shaping our sense of identity. If Presbyterianism is going to survive in America, then the next 50 years must be dedicated to reclaiming truth-filled (with the good, bad, ugly, and indifferent) Presbyterian stories.

Only then will we see the grandness of our faith and the glories of our God, who uses even flawed, crooked tools as instruments in his hand.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jeopardy, No. 3

James C. Cobb's Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity
Cobb's Redefining Southern Identity: Mind and Identity in the Modern South
Samuel Hill, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 1: Religion

What came in my box yesterday from

btw--I intend to post something in the next several days about the NEofSC volume on Religion, which is surprisingly poor.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Picking the Final Four

I filled out my first bracket for this year's tournament and some how came up with Duke, UConn, Kansas, and Boston College--two #1s and two #4s. I think I need to go back and try again...who do you have in your Final Four?

[btw, for those who know my rooting interests--right now, I have Indiana making the 16 before losing to UCLA. I'm not sure that's right either.]

Friday, March 10, 2006

D. G. Hart in Colorado

This website, from Calvary United Reformed Church in Loveland, Colo., is announcing a conference, "Deep Roots: Seeking Our Protestant Heritage." The main speaker is D. G. Hart, who was my main professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pa., and one of the most thoughtful and provocative historians working today. What makes this website particularly useful is this page of links of online Hart essays.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Mainline Presbyterians and Same-Sex Marriage

This acquittal for Jane Spahr, PC(USA) minister and long-time activitist for gay causes in the church, is a sad day for the church as is this striking report about a long-distant relative of Jonathan Edwards who performs same-sex marriages.

Yet what is striking is how little most observers understand the way the mainline Presbyterian church has dealt with this issue. For example, as the official church report on Spahr indicates, since 2000 mainline Presbyterian ministers have been able to "bless" same-sex unions. Likewise, though a great deal of effort has been spent toward ordaining practicing homosexuals, the PC(USA) has long allowed the ordination of homosexuals who are non-practicing.

In the light of this, these recent reports are not surprising. However, these reports do represent a warning of sorts and raise other questions. What steps within mainline Presbyterian were necessary to make homosexuality acceptable as a lifestyle both for parishioners and for ministers? And how do conservative Presbyterians reach out in love, grace, and concern for those in homosexual lifestyles without affirming their practice?

Ministries such as First Light and Harvest USA are certainly helpful in enabling us to reach out in love and care. But surely the church can do more--what can we do? One thing we must do is tone down our rhetoric and demonstrate the kindness of God, which leads people to repentance (Romans 2:4). For far too long, conservative evangelicals have responded in fear and loathing rather than in the mercy of Christ, who saves all kinds of people. Only as we lower our voices and respond in concern will there be an avenue for Gospel word and deed in these lives.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Dabney Review: Measuring Days

This was a very thoughtful review of my Robert Lewis Dabney. Jared raises some good questions out of his reflection on Dabney's life and ministry. I'm thankful for such sympathetic and thoughtful readers!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Legacy

Carl Trueman, a friend and professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, has posted some trenchent remarks on Martyn Lloyd-Jones' legacy. Whether you agree with Carl or not--and his criticisms of MLJ seem directed as much toward his admirers as Lloyd-Jones himself, save for the final point--they are worth considering.

In that context, I've continued to wrestle historically with how a place like Westminster Chapel could go from MLJ to R. T. Kendall to Greg Haslam (a leader among the Word and Spirit movement, a UK charismatic group). The received, conventional wisdom has generally seen Kendall as the one wearing the "black hat" in the story, corrupting the MLJ legacy and opening the door to the charismatic movement. But I wonder if there was some trajectory in MLJ's own ministry--whether explicit or implicit--that set the stage for this transition.

I guess you can say that historically it is all a question of Lloyd-Jones and the Lloyd-Jonesists!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lucas (Oil) Stadium

I'm glad the good citizens of Indianapolis and my beloved Colts decided to honor me (and my kindred) by naming their new stadium after the Lucas clan.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lucaspotting, No. 2

Some other places I will be over the next several months:
  • March 2, pastor's fellowship, First Baptist Church, Roxanna, Ill.
  • March 3-4, RUF Men's Retreat, University of Missouri, New Haven, Mo.
  • July 19, RUF Training, Atlanta, Ga.

Generous Orthodoxy, part three

By the end McLaren’s book, I could not help but to think that fundamentally he wrote about identity—what is the nature of Christian identity? Who am I as a Christian? Who are we as the church? And what are we to be and to do in this world? In some ways, this was not a stretch to see—after all, every chapter in the second part started with “why I am…” Yet I wonder if McLaren, or emergent church folks, have genuinely wrestled with issues related to religious identity. If not, doing so would raise important questions for the entire project.

I would suggest that religious identity is forged through a matrix of beliefs, practices, and stories. Beliefs and practices are mutually reinforcing components of our identity—what we believe leads to certain practices; and our practices tend to reinforce our beliefs. These beliefs and practices gain legitimacy from the stories that we tell about ourselves or that others tell about us. While it might be possible to believe, practice, and story-tell as an isolated individual, it is much more likely that beliefs, practices, and stories will happen within a community and particularly within a community that has a long history or tradition. As a result, our traditioned communities both inculcate, form, and reform a particular religious identity that helps us to make sense of the world and to engage the world in our various callings. Or to state it in the opposite direction, our identities are embedded in particular communities; we take on the community’s beliefs, practices, and stories as our own and only forsake them with great mental, psychic, and physical energy.

With this understanding of religious identity as the background, I would like to raise questions about the entire emergent strategy of seeking “to find a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts” (18). One question is whether such a strategy is even possible. After all, the beliefs or practices of certain religious traditions are part of a matrix (or cultural system, to use Clifford Geertz’s phrase) that are not easily transmuted or transformed without changing their meaning. In part, because our beliefs and practices are storied—there are reasons and stories behind why we do and believe the way we do. And so, is it actually possible to take a little bit from Anabaptists, merge it together with some things from the Anglicans, shake on top a little Catholicism and Presbyterianism, and emerge with something new, stronger, better?

As a matter of fact, it was at this very point that the criticisms raised by Michael Horton come home. While I think Horton failed to grapple fairly with the emergent movement on their own terms, his point that this presented a modernist form of consumerism was exactly right. For who gets to determine one’s religious identity? Does the community (or religious tradition) have the “right” to catechize or inculcate their beliefs, practices, and stories into their adherents? Or does the individual have the “right” to determine, shape, transmute, or transform that identity into something “new” and “postmodern”? Ultimately, at the point of who is the authority, McLaren’s propose shows itself to be “most-modernist” in terms of the self-made Christian and her smorgasbord identity.

And so, I would suggest that the hope for an emerging generation is not the same attempt, made by non-denominational churches for the past thirty years, to be a lowest common denominator collage for religious identity. Rather, it is “re-tribalization,” if you will; it is the self-conscious attempt by religious traditions to be most faithful to their own identities.

For Presbyterians, then, this means nothing less than thoroughly training our adherents—that is, our non-communicant and communicant church members—in the beliefs, practices, and stories that form and reform our identity. This Presbyterian identity will, of course, place us within the larger family of evangelical Protestants with whom we have so much in common; but it will also recognize that we approach the great Gospel truths that we have in common with other Protestant traditions with a particular accent or dialect.

In doing this, I think we will have a better opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with other religious traditions—Christian and non-Christian—because we will be speaking out of our deep understanding of who we are, what we believe, what we do, and where we have been. It may not be the newest thing to emerge from within evangelicalism, but it might actually be the best way to preserve and promote that once and the same time ancient-future faith.