Thursday, June 29, 2006

Growing Up Protestant

[Note: this was a review that was published in Modern Reformation in the November/December 2002 issue. I still am surprised that few people know about this book; Peggy Bendroth is a wonderful scholar and the story she tells (I believe) demonstrates the difficulties of the Bushnellian approach to Christian nurture.]

In Growing Up Protestant, Margaret Lamberts Bendorth offered a fascinating account of northern mainline Protestant attitudes about families and children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bendroth, professor of history at Calvin College, began her account with the domestication of the family in the North in the mid-nineteenth century. As programs of catechesis were replaced by Sunday school programs influenced by Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nature and the later educational insights of John Dewey, mainline Protestants shifted their attention from training their children in the doctrines of the faith to developing their personalities to meet the demands of modern life.

Concomitant with this shift in religious training goals was the Protestant exaltation of the family as the chief institution ordained by God for the salvation of children, which in turn led to the denigration of the church and its ministry of Word and sacrament as means of grace. By the 1930s, however, ecclesiastical experts influenced by social science and psychology became convinced that parental nurture would not achieve the goal of psychological adjustment to modernity; in response, denominational elites developed a plethora of educational programs, light on doctrine but heavy on moralism, designed to replaced family nurture as the chief influence in the child’s “salvation.” But parents failed to heed the denominational bureaucrats—instead, they increasingly allowed their children to abandon the church in the 1950s and 1960s, following the dictates of pop psychologists rather than the instructions of the denominational experts. The net result was the increasing absence of theological awareness in the mainline church as well as the rapid decline of attendance over the past thirty years.

Though she did not draw out the moral of the story, Bendroth’s account pointed to the mainline church’s failure to prioritize doctrinal understanding and ecclesiastical centrality as the chief culprits for its decline. As a result, this book raises several issues for contemporary reflection, especially for Reformed evangelicals seeking to pass on the faith to their children.

First, what is the relation of the household to the church? While some evangelicals are drawn to a home-based mentality where the household is school and church as well as family, Bendroth’s work suggests that evangelicals need to be careful here. While the visible church is certainly made up of household heads and their children, still the church does have a disciplinary role in the life of the family; elders work with and through household heads in order to discipline non-communing members. In short, while the family is the basic integer of the church, the church still has priority over the family because Christ has given the keys of the kingdom as well as the administration of Word and sacrament to the church, not to individual families.

A second question is, how should Christian parents nurture their children and pass on the faith to them? Bendroth’s work should give encouragement to the recent revival of catechesis, represented in the recent publication of books such as Starr Meade’s Training Hearts, Teaching Minds (P&R, 2000), Donald Van Dyken’s Rediscovering Catechism (P&R, 2000), and Tom J. Nettles’s Teaching Truth, Training Hearts (Calvary Press, 1998). If the downfall of the mainline was due to lack of the doctrinal instruction of the young, then contemporary Reformed evangelicals should heed the lesson and ensure that their church’s educational programs emphasize not simply biblical knowledge, but theological knowledge as well—mental furniture that will help young minds conceptualize the depths of their sinfulness and the wonders of the Redeemer and his salvation.

In all, Growing Up Protestant is an intellectually satisfying and compelling book. Full of insight and nuance, Bendroth both demonstrates the failures of past reflection on family worship and subtlely urges contemporary believers toward the recovery of older ways of raising their children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Unavoidable Issue: Ecclesiology

I've posted on this before, but it is interesting to see how my Baptist brothers have continued efforts at re-tribalization in the aftermath of the SBC a few weeks ago. Part of this is the result of the failure of a resolution proposed by Tom Ascol (pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, FL), which essentially demanded that SBC churches remove non-active members from their rolls and bring integrity to their claims for a "regenerate church membership." This resolution never made it to the floor, having been rejected by the Resolutions Committee and then not receiving the necessary 2/3 vote on the floor to reconsider it.

As a result, some of my brothers have been blogging about the need for a regenerate church membership and restrict membership to those who have been "scripturally" baptized (i.e. "believer's baptism"). While I affirm that these are historically part of what it means to be Baptist (as Al Mohler rightly points out), these two issues were also a major reasons why I could no longer remain Baptist. Simply put, in my mind, Baptist ecclesiology is inherently sectarian (and that is not a good thing). Let me say also that, thankfully, most Baptists' hearts trump their doctrinal claims on this matter and they end up loving Presbyterians anyway.

For me, it was the ideal of regenerate church membership that broke down first. Being someone who specialized academically in American religious history and who has done work on Jonathan Edwards, I came to be convinced that it was impossible to peer into someone's heart to determine whether or not he was regenerate. All one could do was judge the "fruit" that accompanied his profession; and sometimes the professions are illegitimate. And if you have illegitimate professions of faith, that means you have hypocrites accounted as true members of the visible church. And if that is the case, then that means the visible church is a mixed body of believers and unbelievers (posing as believers). The end result was this: the Baptist claim for regenerate church membership was an attempt to make the visible church into the church that God alone can see (which is "regenerate" because it consists of the elect through time and space). Since this is clearly impossible (as the 1689 London Baptist Confession itself confessed), it is not an ideal that is biblically demanded for the local, visible church.

Once that principle fell, I was freed to think about the visible church in the way that I see it on Sunday morning (as well as the way I see it in the Bible): as professing believers and their children, who are set apart, holy, for God's purposes in their lives (1 Cor. 7:14). And since these children are admitted as part of God's visible people, they should receive the sign of entrance into that people, which in the OT was circumcision (Gen. 17) but in the NT is baptism (Acts 2:38, 39; Col. 2:11). God's purpose has always been for entire households to be identified with God's visible people (Gen. 17; Acts 16). The upshot here is that these two understandings--the visible church consists of believing households and the sign of admittance into the visible church should be applied to the entire household as a result of the household head's profession--made Baptist ecclesiology impossible for me. And so, I joined the Presbyterian church.

Now the reason Baptist ecclesiology is essentially sectarian is this: Baptists claim that they alone have genuine baptism because they alone "scripturally" baptize; hence, they alone represent the "true" (i.e. biblical) church. They claim this even though for at least 1850 years, there have been those who disagree with their claims abut baptism. They claim this even though most of the theological giants of the Christian tradition were baptized as infants (by sprinkling or pouring, but that is another matter). And so, with this claim (even though they don't want to do so), they essentially unchurch the majority of the Christian tradition. That represents the basic sectarian position--and as someone who studies the Christian tradition, this seemed to me to be an untenable claim.

Thankfully, as I've already said, most Baptists don't act on their basic principles and live out this sectarian position (although I am always concerned to see my friends defending Landmarkism, which would lead to real sectarianism). But the big reason why I became Presbyterian was that the doctrine of the church seemed to open the doors of the church as wide as Christ himself does--all those who believe in Jesus Christ for salvation and who are baptized in line with Matthew 28:19-20 (which only requires a Trinitarian baptism) are my brothers and sisters in Christ. This affirms the larger body of Christ (John 17:21) and seems to me to represent the best (and most biblical) position. It also allows me to affirm my Baptist friends as brothers in Christ (and even invite them into my pulpit), even if they might look a little sideways at me.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

All for Jesus

Another thing that happened at General Assembly was the official release of my other book, which I co-edited with Robert Peterson: All for Jesus: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary (Christian Focus, 2006). Though copies have not yet arrived at Amazon, you can buy copies from the Covenant Seminary Bookstore.

One of the neat things about this book was its dual purpose. Not only was it an anniversary volume, but it also served as a festschrift for David Jones, Bob Vasholz, and David Calhoun. Each of these men have been associated with the Seminary for over 35 years and have shaped the insitution in profound ways. It seemed right to honor them in this way as they have honored us.

Among the essays in the book are:
  • Here We Stand: Rooted in Grace for Reformation and Transformation, Bryan Chapell
  • By His Grace, For His Glory: The Story of Covenant Theological Seminary, David B. Calhoun
  • The Necessity of Preaching Grace for Progress in Sanctification, Bryan Chapell
  • The Greatness of God’s Grace, Robert A. Peterson
  • “But Where Sin Abounded, Grace Did Much More Abound”: Lessons From the Book of Genesis, Robert I. Vasholz
  • The Great Commission as the Conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, David W. Chapman
  • Christ-Centered Eschatology in Acts 3:12b–26, Hans F. Bayer
  • “What Is the Nature of True Religion?”: Religious Affections in its American Puritan Context, Sean Michael Lucas
  • Christ-Centered Worship and the Regulative Principle, Mark L. Dalbey
  • God Speaks as a Sage Sometimes: Moving Beyond the Merely Prophetic in Preaching, Zachary W. Eswine
  • Systematic Theology as a Biblical Discipline, Michael Williams
  • Christ-Centered Ethics, David Clyde Jones
  • Christ-Centered Educational Ministry: An Overview of Frameworks and Practices, Donald Guthrie
  • The Search for Truth in Psychology and Counseling, Richard Winter
  • Grace-Shaped Counseling, Daniel W. Zink
  • Christ-Centered Missions, J. Nelson Jennings
  • Pastoral Learning After Seminary, Robert W. Burns
  • Christianity and the Arts, Jerram Barrs
  • Grace-Centered Church Planting, Philip D. Douglass
  • What the Reader Wants and the Translator Can Give: 1 John as a Test Case, C. John Collins
  • The Lord is Against Me!: A Sermon on the Book of Ruth, Jay Sklar
  • To Know and Be Known: How Christ’s Love Moves Us Into Intimacy, Humility, and Risk: A Sermon on John 3:1–17, Greg Perry
I am so grateful to my colleagues for their collaboration on this book and I hope that it serves as a useful testimony to the Church of our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ!

34th PCA General Assembly

Glad to report that I am back in the saddle. Our time away was very busy; I almost didn't come to work today, but couldn't stay away from blogging ;-).

On the way to General Assembly, we hit several Civil War battlefield sites (my oldest son is a big Civil War nut): Fort Donelson in Dover, Tennessee; Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Kennesaw Mountain near Marietta, Georgia. By the third battlefield, even I was wondering if this was a bit overkill. And yet, at the end of the time, when I asked my son his favorite part of the entire trip, he said the battlefields. So, it was worth it.

For me, General Assembly was very busy. Most of Monday and Tuesday was taken up with the final meeting of Bills and Overtures Committee as it had existed for the first 34 years of the PCA (more on that later). In some ways, our committee meeting was strange--things that shouldn't have taken a lot of time did (we spent almost an hour debating Overture 6, a memorial to honor Ed Clowney); and things that should have taken more time didn't (we spent only 25 minutes debating Overture 17 on whether presbyteries could restrict the right of TEs to teach their "exceptions).

The overtures that took the greatest amount of time were the ones dedicated to the Federal Vision/New Perspective on Paul controvery. We spent nearly 5 hours on Tuesday dealing with these matters. First, the committee took up Overture 26, which was Missouri Presbytery's request that its report be received as information and commended to presbyteries and sessions for study. After a lengthy debate, the committee voted to answer that overture in the negative, in a fashion similar to its answer to the Mississippi Valley report last year. We quickly dispatched Overture 23 on the grounds that the OPC had not yet adopted its justification report and, strictly speaking, hadn't officially released it to public scrutiny and use.

The rest of our time was spent on Overtures 2 and 11, both of which requested a study committee to study Federal Vision/NPP. After a little bit of discussion on smaller issues, it was moved that we answer overture 11 in the affirmative and overture 2 in reference to that action. However, there were some significant difficulties with overture 11: it used the word "heretical" which seemed to suggest that a committee might find heresy; it was both too broad (number of issues to study) and too narrow (brief report in a year).

In addition, some objected to even having a committee. These desired to allow judicial process to play out in the current SJC case. Others suggested that, from their perspective, this really wasn't a big issue and the standards were sufficient. Yet others claimed that a study report wouldn't accomplish anything other than being mere pious advice. The committee couldn't amend 11 enough to make it work; so it tried to make overture 2 work. But in the end, the majority determined (by a 20-17 vote) to answer overtures 11 and 2 in the negative. When we adopted our final report, with the grounds that came before GA, the count was 20-14 and 23-11 (which helps to explain why the number signing the minority report was larger--not everyone was able to make it for the adoption of the final report).

Zack Eswine, TE from Ohio Valley and my colleague here at Covenant Seminary, led the drive for the minority report, authoring the report and recruiting the members. His speech in presenting the report to the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon was masterful; and a number of us spoke in support of the minority. As the vote was taken, I looked around the hall and saw about a 60-40% split in favor of the minority.

The moderator, TE Dominic Aqulia, has the privilege of appointing the study committee, which will include 7 members. It is not yet known whom he will appoint, but my hope is that by drawing on the broad wisdom of our church that we will have a firm and winsome report that clarifies the issues of concern and upholds traditional Presbyterian doctrines and formulations.

The other major action from GA was the adoption of the Strategic Planning Committee's report. Frankly, I was suprised by the large majorities that voted for the SPC's recommendations. In some ways, what the PCA will be doing is an unique experiment in Presbyterian polity: the attempt to hold on to the broad representation of the church on the floor of GA while utilizing the delegated and representative principles that have historically characterized our polity in the new Overtures committee. I don't think anyone is really sure how the whole thing will work.

The other important SPC result was the creation of a Cooperative Ministries Committee which will force our 10 agencies and committees to work together. In my mind, this strikes me as very similar to the SBC Executive Committee, which has representatives from all of the SBC agencies, and I think this new CMC is a step in the right direction. What I hope will be next is a Cooperative Ministries funding plan, again drawing from the SBC Cooperative Program, that will funnel undesignated giving into a common pot for Kingdom purposes. We have to begin to cooperate financial and create a system where monies go both to the national agencies as well as the regional presbyteries if we hope to grow and expand our church in the future.

For me, other highlights of GA include doing my seminar on Presbyterian identity and meeting up with so many friends and colleagues throughout our church. I always come back from these events encouraged in the work of Christ's church. As someone who believes firmly in Presbyterianism, to see this much of the visible church at once gives me hope in the advance of Christ's kingdom around the world.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Away from Blogging

I'll be away from blogging for about ten days, starting today, June 17, and lasting through Monday, June 26. I'll be at the PCA General Assembly in Atlanta and the Association of Theological Schools Biennium in Chicago.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Tony Dungy's Faith

This was an amazing article on Tony Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and his Christian testimony, six months after the suicide of his son, James. Praise the Lord for Coach Dungy.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The "Feminization" of American Christianity

Recently, I have been struck anew by how much American Christian leaders have fixated on getting manly men into church. The most recent example of this fixation has been the buzz surrounding David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church, which garnered attention from the Washington Post. Other books that feed this trend are Leon Podles' The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, John Elderidge's Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul, and even Douglas Wilson's Future Men. Entire organizations exist to promote "muscular Christainity" and the revival of "masculinity," such as Vision Forum, and websites exist to declare the virtues of patriarchy. Further, one cannot help but see the promotion of complementarianism, by organizations such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as part of this larger trend toward a reassertion of manly males.

Usually, along with the beliefs that undergird this movement (beliefs, I must note again, that are rooted in 1 Corinthians 10, 11, and 14; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; and Titus 2 and ones that I share) is a larger story of the downfall of American Christianity. Given scholarly support by Ann Douglas's classic 1977 study, The Feminization of American Culture, the declension narrative goes like this: at the end of the 19th century, Victorian culture focused on the subduing of unruly male passions and on the redirection of the outlets for those passions. Hence, temperance became the major battle of the progressive age, which is read as an attempt to shackle men from their natural outlets. In addition, the leaders of that Victorian culture--ironically, ministers and women--authored key novels that idealized virtues that would ultimately serve to de-masculize men (namely, timidity, piety, and a disdain for competition). By replacing passion with timidity, adventure intellectual belief with piety, and survival of the fittest with a disdain for competition, Christianity won the battle of that age, but is now losing the larger war as the next generation of men are leaving the church.

Coupled with this "Feminization" narrative is the larger American movement toward egalitarianism. Beginning at the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, American women have gained larger voices in the political, cultural, and ecclesiastical worlds from which they had been shut out. As they transitioned from leadership of mission's organizations and "women of the church" groups to the leadership of congregations, this is viewed as part of the reason why American men have stopped going to church, why mainline Protestants have lost members in droves, and why the church is in crisis today. The answer, according to these recent books and conservative evangelical leaders, is to "re-masculize" the church, freeing men and their sons to embrace their manhood (by drinking, smoking, risk-taking, and other behaviors in smaller male-oriented groupings or by exercising "male headship" in various leadership roles in family, church, work, etc.).

There are a lot of things to say to this narrative and the larger call for re-masculization. The first thing is this: the historical narrative--not just my generalized summary, but the larger narrative supported by academic scholarship--is simply too thin and places the emphasis in the wrong place. First of all, throughout the history of Christianity from the very beginning, women have had key places in the church and tended to outnumber the men. Read through the NT, read early descriptions of the church from the first and second centuries and you will find a large number of women present. In other words, the "problem" is not new, but as old as the Christian religion.

Rather than concoting a "declension" model, perhaps the better historical question is "why?" What is it about Christianity that attracts more women than men (or others who see themselves as weak, forsaken, abused, and abandoned)? Could it be that Christianity preaches a Gospel that requires people to view themselves as weak, forsaken, helpless, abandoned, destitute? Could it be that such a message is a stumbling block to males who believe they have strength in themselves to save themselves?

But even beyond the questions that could be asked, even the American story is more complex. Because, candidly, male behaviors did need to be address--alcohol was destroying families, unbridled economic competition was destroying the weak, children, and women in the teeming urban centers. 19th century clergy and women leaders (such as Francis Willard, head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union) were responding to real crises. If you will, these leaders were the James Dobsons of their day, trying to help Americans keep their "focus on the family." And so, we need to develop a richer, more complex narrative that doesn't see "declension," but a story of the way things really were.

Another thing to say in response to all this is that the loss of men in the church might be the result, not of the "feminization" of the church, but of the intellectual vacuity of many churches. This was the result of American theology adopting the Kantian dualism between scientific "knowledge" and Christian "faith." Scientific knowledge required the full attention of intellect, while Christian faith was unknowable, a leap in the dark, a decision made at the moment of crisis, a God-consciousness. All that might be nice, but it is not real challenging or attractive: and most men have reacted to this by saying, Give me the intellectual challenge of turning profits, building oil refineries, buying properties. Again, this was the result of intellectual and cultural movements that were not tied to "feminization," but high-brow philosophy and academically sophisticated theology.

Further, and tied with this, I think another reason some men "hate going to church" is, ironically enough, most of our churches have failed to preach the Gospel. I don't mean the Gospel of "Jesus dying for my sins." But I mean the Gospel--an all-encompassing vision of God's invasion into the world to bring his reign to bear on every aspect of life. Such a vision (which right now is going under the label of "missional") is not new--you can find it in Jonathan Edwards' The History of the Work of Redemption, for example. It is a Gospel vision in which human beings recognize their profound dependence upon God for all things and join him in his Kingdom mission of vindicating his name in all the earth. In doing this, God does his good work in the lives of men and women, transforming households, networks, neighborhoods, cities, and the world itself for his glory. By preaching a truncated Gospel, conservative Protestants have ended up in the same place as their liberal brothers (and sisters): with a dualistic vision of the world in which science, business, and law have nothing really to do with the Christian Gospel.

And so, I think the answer to this perception that men hate going to church is not to tell men that Christians like cigars, beer, and movies for men who like movies. Nor is it to lead with "biblical manhood" as a key plank in God's mission to the world (even while recognizing that it is something that needs to be taught and upheld in our churches). Rather, I think the answer is to preach and pray and sell a Gospel vision of what God is doing in this world--because "God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: at the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ--everything in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 1:9-10 NLT).

This is a plan in which I want to participate: to see Christ "fill all things everywhere with him" and the whole earth be filled with his glory (Ephesians 1:23 NLT). And this is a plan to which men and women everywhere will rally, one that will challenge and bring out the full honor of our genders, personalities, abilities, hopes, and dreams. For it is nothing less than the glorious Gospel purpose of the Triune God.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Mainline Presbyterians and the Sacraments

The PCA is not the only Presbyterian denomination wrestling with the nature of the sacraments. The mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) has a study committee working these issues as well. They are issuing their report to their General Assembly, meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. For their theological reflections and recommendations, go here and here.

A Godly Hero

[Note: finishing three books in one week is a little unusual; however, we were able to get some time away last weekend. And, now that my grading is done, I feel free to read things that I had wanted to read or things that struck my fancy...]

Why write a biography about a three-time loser who is most well-known in American memory as the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes trial? That question of warrant must challenge any one who would take on the task of writing a book on William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), three-time Democratic presidential nominee known as "the Great Commoner." Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, took up the task with great verve and suggested that in Bryan, progressives might find a way to meld a deep faith in the American people (a la Thomas Jefferson) with a profound faith in Jesus. The result--A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan--is a thoughtful book that charted not only the life of one man, but the times of one of the least studied and understood periods in American history.

Kazin followed Bryan from his small town roots in Salem, Illinois, to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he established a law practice as a precusor to his entrance into politics. And throughout the book, Kazin struggled to explain how Bryan was able to shape the Democratic party for nearly twenty years. Bryan's coming out party was the 1896 Democratic National Convention, where he was swept to the nomination on the strength of his famous "Cross of Gold" speech. And yet, the issues that motivated politics in that year seem strange to moderns--"free silver" and cutting the tariff raised passions that rival modern battles over Iraq, abortion, and tax cuts. Bryan's strength was not the originality of his positions; rather, Kazin suggests that it was Bryan's oratory that propeled him to national prominence, as he gave a voice to Middle America's fears, hopes, and aspiriations.

But it was not simply Bryan's oratory. Rather, Bryan was able to create a soft blend of Social Gospel uplift and progressive political nostrums that won the hearts of a number of people. Able to win the support of theological progressives such as Washington Gladden and Charles Sheldon while holding the respect of Bible-thumpers such as Billy Sunday, Bryan was able to centered his quasi-religious/political message around three key beliefs: belief in the Bible, belief in Jesus, and belief in the people. This led him to propose all sorts of progressive ideals that were co-opted by early 1900s presidents, Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson: progressive income tax; the federal reserve banks; federal insurance for bank deposits; the 8-hour day; child labor laws; and anti-trust regulations.

And so, through Bryan, Kazin is able to describe a great deal of the story of the 1880s to 1920s, the great period of progressivism and populism that transformed American politics and continues to affect modern day conversations. It is hard for moderns to remember a time when economic redistrubution through the progressive income tax was not the law of the land. And it is even more difficult to remember that this policy was seen as a fundamentally Christian one, proposed by Social Gospel follow-travellers such as Will Bryan.

Hence, one of the great ironies of American history is that Bryan has been remembered as a "conservative." Surely that was the result of his two final crusades--prohibition and evolution. And yet, both of these moral arguments were undertaken because Bryan wanted to preserve the purity of the people so that they might be free to do what Jesus would have them do: namely, loving their brothers under the fatherhood of God. Against the various "trusts" that held people down (the money trust; the liquor trust; the "academic" trust), Bryan waged a vigorous battle to make sure that the "people" would be free to pursue virtue. As a result, these two moral battles fit nicely with his political and religious ideology.

One of the interesting questions that struck me was who might be good historical comparison points for understanding Bryan. Two that came to my mind were Abraham Kuyper and Ronald Reagan. Kuyper, the Dutch newspaper man, Reformed intellectual, and Prime Minister, was Bryan's contemporary and shared a great deal of commonalities with the "Great Commoner." One interesting side project would be to compare Kuyper's 1891 speech, "The Problem of Poverty," with Bryan's own progressive diagnosis. Reagan shared Bryan's Illinois roots and his "sunny side of life" perspective, especially their deep and abiding faith in the American people. Perhaps it wouldn't be too much to think that if Bryan could come back to the political scene, as a result of the Reagan Revolution, he might have joined the GOP, rather than the Democracy.

By the end of the book, though, I was still unsure how Kazin would answer that opening question: why write this book? What is the moral of the story? Or to put it differently, does "Christian liberalism" really have a future? Even Kazin appeared unsure. If this book was meant to provide a roadmap for the presumptive 2008 Democratic presidential nominee, then no one should read this book--for in the end, Christian liberalism never got Bryan elected nor did it manage to keep the Democrats in power for long.

Perhaps the real value of the book is to raise the question--which Kazin does quite thoughtfully--whether liberals can be Christians (and conversely, whether Christians can be liberals) at all. If Bryan is any example, then the questions should be answered with a strong affirmative. And if that is the case, then perhaps the modern-day Democracy would do well to invite people of faith into their ranks to care for others with the compassion of Jesus. If they did, their former standard bearer, Will Bryan, would be proud.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Open Secrets

When I was a junior in college, I spent the summer as a youth minister at a small, country independent church in New Castle, Indiana. For a kid who had grown up in upper-middle class suburbia, living in an old farm house, making $125 a week, and relating to retired farmers and factory workers was akin to cross-cultural ministry. It took effort to spend time listening and valuing those believers, who surely looked at me as a pampered 20-year old who never worked hard a day in his life.

What I discovered was that there was a real strength and wisdom that came from these men and women. They had real knowledge, though it was different from the book learning that I had absorbed. And over time, both in Indiana and Kentucky and through my wife who was a country girl (at least, she was more country than I was), I recognized how valuable, how wise, farm people were.

It was this journey of discovery that Richard Lischer described in his memior, Open Secrets. Lischer, the James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor of Preaching at Duke Divinity School, took little Cana Lutheran Church, at an unmarked crossroads outside of Alton, Illionis, as his first pastoral ministry. A St. Louis native, fresh off doctoral studies at University of London, where he wrote his dissertation on Marx and Telihard (hard to imagine something more irrelevant for rural pastoral ministry than that), he learned the joys and trials of caring for a people and place so different from what he knew previously.

In Open Secrets, we discovered faithful laypeople like Leonard Semanns, who confronted his pastor when Lischer agreed to teach for the renegade and progressive Seminex, the "Concordia Seminary in exile" during the 1970s battle for the Bible in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; the sometimes abusive and despairing family life of people like Buster and Beulah; the unwanted pregancies, the dying and yet faithful members, the loneliness of older men who lose their wives and the tenancity of older women who lose their husbands. We felt the undercurrents of battle between leaders who remain in rural communities and pastors who leave after a time, the challenge of authority and leadership in those situations, and the hurt that can simmer under the surface.

Above all, Lischer opened up both the romance and mundanity of pastoral ministry--to know the struggle of trying to make Christianity relevant to the lives of parishioners and feel the tinge of failure. Until that moment when crisis strikes--and then God allows his pastors to be sacraments of grace to God's own people, confirming and assuring them of God's continuing promise of presence, forgiveness, and mercy. Not only this, but Lischer described a vision of pastoral ministry that also meant straining to see the smallest of signs that God's grace, like a small planting of corn or beans or lettuce, is growing in people's lives. You need eyes to see it, for it shows up in unexpected places and ways--but God's work in his people can serve as God's sacrament of grace to his ministers as well (cf. Romans 1:12).

In doing this and sharing God's open secret in and through ministry to his body, God used Lischer to renew my own sense of pastoral calling once again: to serve as God's agent of Gospel reconcilation to hurting people whom God loves passionately and unreservedly. For every pastor who sometimes struggles with why he is in ministry, this book can't be read soon enough.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Challenge of Denominational Identity

Next week is the Southern Baptist Convention, which will meet in Greensboro, NC. As you may know, the SBC has been experiencing tremors on a variety of issues since 2000, most centering on the influence of Calvinism, its relationship to evangelism, and the future of the "conservative resurgence," now in leadership for 15 years. The Florida Baptist Witness asked several leaders--both denominational higher-ups and young emerging leaders--what they hoped for in the upcoming SBC. And the answers not only reveal the divergence among SBC leaders, but also the continuing challenge of communicating denominational identity to the next generation.

The denominational leaders all stressed that they hoped the upcoming SBC would unite messengers around a missions and evangelism vision; this, of course, is the Southern Baptist way, forging identity around missions and evangelism, rather than doctrinal particularity. The "outsiders," both younger SBC leaders and those who are slightly out of step with denominational leadership, dissented from the leaders by stressing either other values--the need for repentence, for doctrinal particularity, for a reversal of nominal Christianity. Still others warn that if Southern Baptist ministers don't stop fighting with each other, the younger generation will bolt.

And that really is the problem in the end--throughout the 1990s, as Southern Baptist seminaries experienced the transition from progressive to conservative faculty and administration, "loyal" (i.e. progressive) Southern Baptist stopped sending students to these seminaries and created new ones attached to progressive-controlled colleges and universities. Meanwhile, in order to maintain enrollment at the SBC seminaries, these schools recruited a large number of baptistic and Calvinistic evangelicals as faculty and students. These folks had no deep commitments to SBC identity, to the beliefs, practices, and stories that make Southern Baptists a unique family in American Protestantism (one faculty member was reported to have asked the question, "I hear everyone talking about Nashville. What's in Nashville?").

The upshot of all this has been that as the SBC has sought to be and do what they have always been and done, younger Southern Baptists, who have no loyalties to the denomination and its identity, wonder why in the world they are still in the SBC. Southern Baptist in-fighting might eventually drive them away. This is why Al Mohler perpeptively observed "I think this meeting of the convention may also show us something of the challenge we face in terms of reaching out to younger Southern Baptists and in dealing with some of the crucial issues of this transitional age — a time that should find Southern Baptists at their best." He recognizes that younger Southern Baptists are on the fence and are not genuinely loyal to the SBC, because they haven't truly be shaped by SBC identity.

Now, I am writing all this not to throw rocks at anyone. Rather, it is to make the application to my own denomination and its recent Presbyterians Together document. One of the striking realities of that document was how many students and younger ministers signed on to the ideals of charity and diversity in doctrine and unity in mission. In this regard, younger PCA ministers and candidates are not different from their SBC colleagues--because they came to Presbyterianism in college or through other means, they don't have deep attachements to "being Presbyterian." As a result, they don't understand why the PCA feels the need to wrestle with doctrinal issues. And so, it is entirely conceivable that if we spend too much time arguing with one another, these younger ministers will leave the PCA.

The solution, in my view, is not to avoid doctrinal discussions in order to maintain big-tent Presbyterianism. Rather, the solution is to instruct younger ministers patiently in the joys of being Presbyterian--that, in my view, Presbyterians is the most positive and biblical witness to the world possible; that this is because, at bottom, Presbyterianism means working together in a connectional way for the good of the church and the world; that Presbyterian means (or ought to mean) community and authenticity and accountability and all the things this generation says they want. Sure, being Presbyterian also means doing things decently and in order, within a process, working with others--but that is the hard work of community and it is a good thing. In other words, the task for PCA denominational leaders is to take the time to present a positive vision of Presbyterian identity.

In my experience, I have found that most of our ministerial candidates long for this positive vision. By presenting a vision of something far greater than ourselves--with a glorious identity that stretches back to heroic ages and forward to the final form of God's Kingdom--I believe this coming generation could foster biblical, joyful, and energized Presbyterianism for the good of the world.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


In fast-paced and crackling prose, Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower narrates the first 50 years of the Plymouth plantation. Stripping away the mythology of righteous Pilgrims and noble Indians, Philbrick's book focuses on the challenges of interracial exchange and the difficulties of living together in harmony. And yet, in his focus on this larger theme, Philbrick never strays too far away from telling a good story--indeed, it is the story-telling that is the book's great strength.

Opening with the first Mayflower migrants and focusing especially on William Bradford, Philbrick skillfully relates the challenges of the first year at Plymouth Plantation. Indeed, if it were not for the relationship developed with Massasoit and the Pokanokets, the first settlers would have been destroyed, either by the elements, lack of food, or the natives themselves. This interracial cooperation allowed English and Natives to coexist in a relatively peaceful manner until the 1637 Pequot war outside of Boston.

As the first generation of English and Natives pass off the scene, the next generation struggles to find each other. Especially as Plymouth is ruled by Josiah Winslow (founding generation Edward Winslow's son) and as the Ponkankets are led by Alexander and then Philip, old alliances are forsaken, distrust is the rule, and war breaks out. "King Philip's War," as it was called, destroyed the previous interracial balance and, in the two years of 1675-6, changed the power structure of New England.

One of the most noteworthy points that the book raises is how the alliances were never English versus Natives, but were far more complex. Key in this complexity were the "Praying Indians," those Natives who aligned themselves with Christianity as taught by John Eliot and who dwelt in the "Praying towns" set aside for Indian Missions. During King Philip's War, they were important allies for the English and belied their commitment to Christ's commands for peace in their brutal defeat of their Native enemies.

Also important were the various informal agreements made, most importantly between Benjamin Church (an English military leader) and Awashonks (the female sachem of the Sakonnets). By bringing the Sakonnets in on the side of the English and learning the Native ways of fighting, the Plymouth leaders were finally able to break the Pan-Indian alliance seemingly bent for their destruction.

While there was a great deal of scholarship that undergird this breezy telling, one of the great disappointments was Philbrick's clumsy handling of religious themes. Indeed, aside from a few pages at the beginning, one gets little sense of the Pilgrim's religious views. And so, Philbrick's presentation of their theological understanding is fairly wooden--every defeat of the Natives was attributed to the blessing of God; any working together with other Protestants was anathema; and at the end of the day, in Philbrick's telling, the Pilgrims were borderline fanatics, premodern fundamentalists, if you will. One gets the sense that the Pilgrim's religious views were a frustrating impediment to a rousing story; the sooner they could be shunted to the side, the better.

Likewise, while the great moral of the story--the need for interracial cooperation and negotiation, rather than fear and war--seemed particularly appropriate in a post-9/11 world, Philbrick could have done more to bubble that theme to the surface. Perhaps a weakness of the book is that one could have read this book six years ago and not picked up on that theme at all.

Still, for those who know very little about the first 50 years of life in New England, this book is a worthwhile addition to the "popular history" genre, developed so well by Stephen Ambrose. One cannot help but be impressed by the synthetic nature of the book and the fast-paced story. In the end, Mayflower was enjoyable read, even when it failed to ask or answer the big questions about God, providence, and life in this world.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Jonathan Edwards Center Blog

For those of you who may not be aware, the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has an excellent blog that notices Edwards resources all over the internet. Highly recommended.

Grateful living before God and for others

From Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge, p. 36:

"Assertion of independence, pride of achievement, sense of entitlement, an absolute right to dispose with our goods--these are the ways in which we live in contradiction to who we actually are in relation to God. And in these ways, we, decent citizens, live as inveterate sinners. To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are grace with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Prayer for the Cubs?

This was a very thought-provoking post, especially in the light of what I wrote a few days ago about praying for Barbaro. In particular, I was struck by this comment: "That the relative outcome of a baseball team is part of God's decree, his sovereign control in providence of everything that happens, is beyond question. But to suggest that the fortunes of a baseball team are indicative of answered prayer is, well, a stretch to say the least."

On one level, we would want to agree and say, "Well, of course praying for the Cubs' (or for any baseball team's) success is a pointless venture" (and I would especially affirm this as a St. Louis Cardinals fan). But would we really want to carry this out logically? For example, do we really want to say that the fortunes of a business are more important to God than the fortunes of a baseball team? Should I pray for my dad's business to succeed, but not for a friend's baseball team (a number of the Cardinals, for example, are believers)? Where do we draw the line?

Further, would it be "wrong" for the Christians on the Cubs to pray for their own team's success? Would it be wrong for a Christian business owner, who has a RFP out to another company, to pray that he wins the bid? Would it be wrong for a family to pray that their house sells quickly and at a good price (and so, they would "win" in the marketplace)?

I tend to think that if we begin to divide between "truly spiritual" prayer requests and less spiritual requests, then we will begin to believe that somehow our "regular" lives really aren't that important to God. And so, we no longer present our desires to God, we no longer carry on conversations with God; rather, we wait for those things that are "truly important," which ultimately means we will never really pray at all.

I also tend to think that if we were to take this all to its extreme, then it would give us a much smaller view of God. Suddenly our God is not intimately involved in our lives, granting us daily bread and minor victories as tokens of his great love and care; rather, we begin to believe that God is transcendent, other, and far too busy to think that the things I care about matter in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Our hearts come to reason, "Sure, he has decreed it all to happen, but he doesn't really care much about it and so, why should you?"

Now, I do believe that as we follow after Jesus, we learn to order our desires after God's own heart and so we learn to pray out of the great categories of the Lord's prayer. As a result, our hearts will not be crushed when our favorite team loses the World Series (like in 2004); our teams are not idols that take the place of the true and living God.

Still, if our God cares about lillies of the field as they wave in a swift breeze and about birds of the air as they frolic in the warm summer days, he surely cares about his own creatures as they run the bases, throw the ball, and smack game-winning hits. And because we enjoy such a relationship with our God, we can take all of these things to him in Jesus' name. Even Cubs fans.