Friday, September 29, 2006

Rules for Writing, No. 1

I thought these comments over at the Reformation21 blog were right on the mark (both about writing and about John Milbank's wretched prose):

As we anticipate Michael Horton's contribution to Radical Orthodoxy, Paul Helm makes the passing comment as to the "execrable English prose" of some of the protagonists in the radical Orthodoxy debate. We've all read books like this, of course, where linguistic intimidation has been the argument of choice!

Contrast this with C. S. Lewis advice to a teenager:
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Letter from June 26, 1956, quoted in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds., The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1989), 623.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Post 200: Creator, Creation, Community: Exploring Wendell Berry's Vision

[Note: Since Post 100 was a Wendell Berry post, I thought I would do a Berry post every hundred or so. This paper was given as a Francis Schaeffer Institute Friday Night at the Institute talk in September 2004. It draws freely from my published essay, "God and Country: Wendell Berry's Theological Vision," Christian Scholars Review 32 (2002): 73-92.]

“The agrarian mind is, at bottom, a religious mind.”—Wendell Berry

In the aftermath of 9/11, one of the more thoughtful voices in response to those events belonged to Wendell Berry. In his essay, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” Berry argues that the 2001 tragedy was tied to a failure of human imagination to foresee “that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us.” This failure of imagination was caused by American idolatry of global free trade and technological expansion, resulting in an enduring commitment to violence as the means for peace and to competition as the means for progress.

This commitment to war was enshrined in the “Bush doctrine” of preemptive war, which Berry criticized bitterly the following year in an essay that appeared first as a paid advertisement in the New York Times. Berry pointed out that our current definition of terrorism makes a misleading distinction between illegitimate warfare, conducted by terrorists, and legitimate warfare, conducted by governments: indeed, “a more correct definition of ‘terrorism’ would be this: violence perpetrated unexpectedly without the authorization of a national government. Violence perpetrated unexpectedly with such authorization is not ‘terrorism’ but ‘war.’” This distinction between illegitimate terrorism and legitimate preemptive war rests upon “the now official idea that the enemy is evil and that we are (therefore) good, which is the precise mirror image of the official idea of the terrorists.”

Unlike other commentators, though, Berry’s biting response was rooted deeply in a vision that draws heavily from the Christian tradition. Born in 1934 in New Castle, Kentucky, and trained as a novelist, poet, and essayist at the University of Kentucky and Stanford University, Berry returned to his roots literally and intellectually when he moved back to his native Henry County, Kentucky, after a stint as the head of the English Department at New York University. Not only did Berry return to the practice of farming, which had been his family’s for several generations, but he also sought intellectual ballast in the Christian tradition that he had previously rejected in the early 1960s as meaningless to his concerns over sustainable agriculture, land use, racial reconciliation, and peace. An invitation to lecture at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary forced Berry to return to the Christian Scriptures in order to discover whether the Bible had anything to say on these issues. To his surprise, Berry found that the biblical tradition did speak to creation care, localism and peaceableness in ways that supported and extended his own critique of the modern dalliance with the military-industrial complex.

And so, even in his response to the recent events of terror and preemptive war, Berry highlighted his commitment both to Christian beliefs and an agrarian tradition. According to him, nations should be charitable, rooted in the biblical command to love one’s enemies: this “suggests that charity must be without limit; it must include everything. A nation’s charity must come from the heart and the imagination of its people. It requires us ultimately to see the world as a community of all the creatures, a community which, to be possessed by any, must be shared by all.” If Americans come to believe that they belong to a community of all creation, then Berry believes that they must pay attention to the land itself as part of the entire equation of “homeland defense”: “All military strength, all our police, all our technologies and strategies of suspicion and surveillance,” Berry writes, “cannot make us secure if we lose our ability to farm, or if we squander our forests, or if we exhaust or poison our water sources.”

This vision of care of creation, peaceableness, and localism drawn from Christian sources provide an important conversation partner for those who embrace the Christian tradition but have thoughtlessly embraced the dominant ideology of the American military-industrial complex [that is, the apparent collusion between Big Business and Big Military to control social, political, and agricultural policy]. In a similar fashion, Berry’s explicitly Christian basis for his ecological vision also stands as an important conversation point for those who recognize the importance of care for the environment but have believed that Christian theological reflection is actually part of the problem, rather than the solution. It just may be that through his essays, poems, and his novels and stories that focus on the land of Port William and the people who belong to it, Wendell Berry’s vision of creator, creation, and community can provide a safe place for a conversation over these important concerns.

The Creator’s Kingdom
At the beginning of his essay, “The Two Economies,” Berry recounts a conversation with fellow conservationist, Wes Jackson. While arguing over the type of economy that would be comprehensive enough to provide a basis of exchange in place of the money economy, Berry finally asks Jackson, “Well then what kind of economy would be comprehensive enough?” Jackson replies, “The Kingdom of God.” For Berry, the image becomes indispensable because it is not connected with abstract academic speculation on the environment; yet the term carries cultural and religious connotations. While he uses the term interchangeably with “the Great Economy,” Berry makes clear that he remains “under the personal necessity of Biblical reference.”

In Berry’s usage, the Kingdom of God emphasizes the connectedness of life. All life is important; everything from the fall of a sparrow to the erosion of soil affects all other life. Berry also uses the image of “network” to express this fundamental connection. Within this “spherical network,” there are connections between all things: “the influences go backward and forward, up and down, round and round, compounding and branching as they go.” Thus, bad land use in one place does not merely affect that particular place; rather, it affects everything, the entire Kingdom of God. In a similar fashion, what happens up river affects those down stream; hence, the golden rule of life in God’s Kingdom involves “a condition of absolutely interdependency and obligation.”

Life ought to be viewed as organic, not mechanical. Humans should seek a life in this world that “never exceeds natural limits, never grows beyond the power of its place to support it, produces no waste, and enriches itself by death and decay.” An organic view of life would recognize that when humans destroy one part of the world, they cannot simply replace it with another part of the world. Rather, when humans destroy one part of the world, the effects are felt and known by the whole organism.

The Kingdom of God is orderly; there is nothing “random” within it. Everything within the Kingdom of God follows a pattern that may be imperceptible to human sight or thought but is held together within God’s mind. Patterns that human thought cannot comprehend are not random; rather, they partake of mystery. Mystery is a category that Berry uses to stress human limitations in knowing the unknowable. “To call the unknown by its right name, ‘mystery,’ is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, smaller patterns,” Berry writes. When humans rename mystery as “random,” they either marginalize the importance of the unknown or they hold out hope for some future understanding. The failure to admit human ignorance, Berry warns, ultimately leads to the exploitation and destruction of creation.

Another word that Berry uses interchangeably with mystery is miracle. By that, he means that the dominant mechanical and materialistic way of talking about humankind fails to account for “the present” in which we are alive and for which science cannot account. Science can account for the “mechanics” of life, but it cannot account for beginning of life in the new born calf, for the soul of human beings, or for the life created when soil and seed meet. That moment of life in the present is nothing less than miracle.

The mystery and miracle of God’s Kingdom should chasten humans because they can have only incomplete and fallible knowledge. Berry argues, “It is hard to see how our systems of thought could be other than fallible, once we grant that they cannot be contrived except by fallible creatures; fallibility is an infection in us that we inevitably communicate to our works.” This fallibility is due to humanity’s incomplete knowledge. “We can’t include everything,” Berry notes, “because we don’t know everything; we can’t comprehend what comprehends us.”

Humankind’s fallibility should chasten its native sin, hubris or prideful arrogance, and inculcate the opposite virtues, humility and faith. In hubris, human beings believe that they can control the Kingdom of God by exercising total control over the creation; they do not sense that smaller economies in fact are dependent upon God’s economy. However, when humans recognize their place within the divine order, when they gain real knowledge, they recognize that limits “belong necessarily to the definition of a human being.” This recognition births humility, which is nothing less than “an understanding and acceptance of the human place in the order of Creation.” Such humility, in turn, leads to faith. Berry suggests that when a human lives by faith, she trusts the processes by which God’s Kingdom provides and sustains topsoil and water, the source of food and life. She also seeks to work in harmony with the order already established. In short, living by faith, by prayer, is a confession of dependence upon God and God’s Kingdom.

Creation and the Land
Within this understanding of God’s rule, summed up in the image of the Kingdom of God, Berry moves to discuss smaller economies that are based upon and mirror God’s overarching pattern. The central reality within the smaller economies is creation. Berry reflects theologically on creation and its care in his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation.”

First, Berry argues that all the earth belongs to God; human beings do not own the world or any part of it. Second, God’s ownership stems from the fact that God created all things. Third, God was pleased by God’s creation; God continues to find pleasure in and love for creation because it is good. Fourth, creation is in no sense independent of its Creator. Rather, the creation continuously and constantly participates in the being of God. Hence, “creation is God’s presence in creatures,” the result of which is a sanctity that clothes being in general. Finally, the destruction of creation is not merely bad stewardship; rather, “it is the most horrid blasphemy.” As creatures, human beings “have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need but no more.” Berry’s theology of creation could be summed up in this way: “We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.” The creation is sacred because it participates in God’s being.

This creation is not an abstraction called “the environment.” Berry believes that the word environment came from academics and conservationists who were embarrassed by the religious connotations of “creation” but found “world” too banal or mundane. “Environment” pictures the world around humanity yet separate from it. The word suggests a dualism that is the basis, ironically, for ecological destructiveness. If the environment is an abstraction that is out there, apart from real human life, then it can be abused without affecting human life. Abstractions like “environment” fail to distinguish one place from another; as a result, “local life may be as much endangered by those who would ‘save the planet’ as by those who would ‘conquer the world’.” Rather than the term environment, Berry champions “creation,” which pictures “a holy mystery,” that which was “made for and to some extent by creatures, some but by no means all of whom are human.”

The creation takes on absoluteness and specificity in Berry’s work as topsoil, land, and place. For example, in the essay “The Two Economies,” Berry focuses on the topsoil in order to give concreteness to his discussion of religious themes and to give sanctity to an agricultural topic. He observes that the way the soil renews itself is “unearthly,” a type of the resurrection. And yet, his discussion is not mystical; as he notes, such talk is entirely appropriate because the soil is renewed through the process of dying and coming to life again.

Again, in a discussion of “Private Property and the Common Wealth,” Berry argues that long-term commitment to the land, to a specific place, is necessary to preserve life, both now and hereafter. “The possibility of intimacy between worker and place,” Berry writes, “is virtually identical with the possibility of good work. True intimacy in work, as in love, means lifelong commitment.” A third, and most obvious example, of Berry’s specificity is his second novel, A Place on Earth. The focus of the book is ultimately the fictional place, Port William and its environs. As the characters move through the rhythms of life in Port William, they express their attachment to and affection for a particular place. This fidelity to the land, place, and soil gives specificity to Berry’s theology of creation. Creation is not a metaphysical idea as much as it is Port Royal, Kentucky, and other specific places.

Human beings participate within creation by partaking both of earthly and heavenly stuff. In a discussion of Genesis 2:7 (which is the first book of the Bible and serves as the account of creation; this verse reads, “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”), Berry contends that the formula given in that text is not human equals body plus soul, but soul (or perhaps better, being) equals dust plus breath. “God did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope,” he argues. Rather, “He formed man of dust; then by breathing His breath into it, He made the dust live.” Such an understanding, for Berry, shatters the dualism of spiritual versus material, body versus soul. Rather, humankind as being partakes of earthly and divine stuff and is a unity.

While humans willingly emphasize their spiritual natures, they forget that they are embodied souls (or ensouled bodies) and thus have a connection with dirt, and hence with soil and its use and abuse. Berry argues that humans have become isolated bodies, deeding over care of the body to hospitals and supermarkets that care not at all about the soul, and care of the soul to ministers and psychiatrists who care little about body. By isolating the body in this way, human beings not only devalue the soul; they also lose their true connection with life in this world. By losing their connection with dust, humans willingly abuse the material—whether their own bodies or the creation—in order to further the spiritual or ideal.

Berry faults religion for this dualism: “The dominant religious view, for a long time, has been that the body is a kind of scrip issued by the Great Company Store in the Sky, which can be cashed in to redeem the soul but is otherwise worthless.” The result of this dualism is that humans cherish a “semiconscious hatred of the ‘physical’ or ‘natural’ part, which it is ready and willing to destroy for ‘salvation,’ for profit, for ‘victory,’ or for fun.” The net result is that human beings are lonely beings, shut off from connection with the rest of creation; without this, humans become violent for they have no reason to care about others—whether other people and creatures or the land. The violent destruction of the rest of creation is “another blasphemy” for it destroys the organism, the network, “in which we live and move and have our being.”

The Gathered Community
Humankind in general, however, is not solely to blame for their failure to understand the nature of creation or their place in it. In Berry’s view, the institutional church bears responsibility for focusing on the spiritual at the denigration or exclusion of the material. Berry complains that “Christianity, as usually presented by its organizations, is not earthly enough—a valid spiritual life, in this world, must have a practice and a practicality—it must have a material result.” Instead, churches seem overwhelmingly preoccupied with saving individual, disembodied souls for another world.

Even worse, according to Berry, the Christian church has adopted the shibboleths of the industrial mindset, emphasizing specialization, efficiency, and growth. By becoming like the industrial world and by relying upon the financial resources of capitalism, the Christian church often has served as a cheerleader for war, the modern economy, and the destruction of creation. As a result, the institutional church focuses on ushering anemic souls in a disembodied state to “the good place,” and ignores economics, science, agriculture, and nature—major components of life in this world.

As a result of this failure of the institutional church, Berry proposes a different approach: the gathered community. In Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, the main character serves as the barber of Port William, Kentucky, and observes the life and history of the town. He also takes the position of church janitor in order to continue to involve himself in the town’s life. One day, after working, he had a vision in which he articulates the basis of the gathered community and how it differs from the gathered church:

My vision of the gathered church that had come to me after I became the janitor had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always
fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on…It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw then all as some how perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.
This community is gathered by memory. As the community works out its ritual life together, the repeated action of rural life brings past community members to mind and gathers them to the present. In addition, such community is inclusive. Unlike a church that disciplines its wayward members and even may excommunicate them, a gathered community cannot do so. In fact, such unruly community members are essential to the community, for these individuals provide an opportunity to perfect each other in love, compassion, and forgiveness. Rebellious community members force a demonstration of amazing grace, the grace that demands that Christians love their enemies.

This gathered community is not merely a community of people. Rather, the community equals people plus land plus everything else. “If we speak of a healthy community, we cannot be speaking of a community that is merely human,” Berry writes, “We are talking about a neighborhood of humans in a place, plus the place itself: its soil, its water, its air, and all the families and tribes of the nonhuman creatures that belong to it.” The great failure of many communitarians, in Berry’s view, is their failure to include nonhumans and the land in their understanding of community. Perhaps this is why, in a list of instructions on how to conserve communities, Berry lists second, “Always include local nature—the land, the water, the air, the native creatures—within the membership of the community.”

Considered culturally, a community is a placed people that do good work. This work is not solely the shared work of mutual dependencies. Rather, “the community is an order of memories preserved consciously in instructions, songs, and stories, and both consciously and unconsciously in ways. A healthy culture holds preserving knowledge in place for a long time. That is, the essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds the soil.”

The work of the community takes place in a four-fold manner. First, the community works by memory. Memory can only be gained as the community stays in place over a long time. Berry believes that “the most complete speech is that of conversation in a settled community of some age, where what is said refers to and evokes things, people, places that are commonly known. In such a community, to speak and hear is to remember.” As a result, memory takes on religious significance: “Memory,/native to this valley, will spread over it/like a grove, and memory will grow/ into legend, legend into song, song/into sacrament.” Memory recalled ministers grace to those who remember. Second, the community works by sharing. By confessing their native interdependency, a community shares in mutual help and by preserving the land of the place. Third, the community works through affection or fidelity. Affection for a place will ultimately lead to good use. “When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love,” Berry believes. Finally, the community works to achieve harmony. Whether it is the harmony between agricultural tools and the land (such as the use of draft-horses or a hand-held scythe) or the harmony gained by working in remembrance of previous generations and their good work, the goal is the same. Berry goes so far as to claim that “we are probably going to have to learn again to judge a person’s intelligence, not by the ability to recite facts, but by the good order or harmoniousness of his or her surroundings.”

Harmony is important because it demonstrates that the individual recognizes her place in creation’s order. Harmony evidences basic humility, a recognition of human limitations and a confession that humans cannot control God’s Kingdom. Because harmony is a human artifact, it is something humans must choose to make; humans must choose to live in harmony with creation. If humans do, the result is beauty; the result is community.

The Challenge of Wendell Berry’s Vision
Wendell Berry’s vision of the creator’s rule over a good creation for a gathered community which humbly cooperates with creation’s rhythms serves as the centerpiece of a renewed agrarianism. Though Berry instinctively distrusts movements, he has come to recognize the necessity of a coherent worldview that stands in opposition to the dominant worldview held by most Americans, which excuses the degradation of creation in order to support, stimulate, and grow the “economy” and “human progress.”

Ironically, even he cannot avoid competitive metaphors to discuss the conflict between competing ideologies: “I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world.” Industrialism is “the way of the machine” as “an explanation of the world and of life”; it is the image of consumption, organization, and violence to the creation; its gods are technology and progress. By contrast, agrarianism is the way that starts with “givens: land, plants, animals, whether, hunger, and the birthright knowledge of agriculture”; it is the image of frugality, organicism, and peaceableness to the creation; its goods are simplicity, humility, and harmony. Whereas industrialism seeks to conquer new frontiers, agrarianism sees, accepts, and lives within limits: “there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms—and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies.” At the end of the day, however, Berry is adamant that “agrarianism is primarily a practice, a set of attitudes, a loyalty and a passion.” His vision is nothing if not practicable.

And so, as we grapple with Berry’s agrarian vision rooted in creator, creation, and community, it might do well to consider what type of new practices to which he calls us. Pre-eminently, I think, Berry desires for us to view our communities whole—not simply including all of the people in our local community, but the soil, water, birds, fish, plants. Our urban and suburban communities belong to each other as one whole system that also includes rural neighbors, its surrounding landscape and its watershed. By seeing “the whole horse” with a sympathetic mind, we will be able to recognize how what we do in our cities connects to what is done in the countryside.

Hence, urban sprawl is not simply a St. Louis problem or a Jefferson County problem; it is a problem to which each of us belongs to. Poor wages for farmers or the use of migrant workers is not simply a rural issue; these are issues that affect the fabric of our life together as part of this creation. The redevelopment of brown fields, indeed the mere existence of them to begin with, raises all sorts of questions about how to live in this world.

Once local people gain a new view of their communities, then they are equipped to ask the hard questions that will enable them to live more locally: what will this do to our community? How will this affect our common wealth? What will this do to local nature, our land, our watersheds, the native creatures of the place? How can we supply local needs from local suppliers? How might we work better by involving small-scale industries and business to support local farm or forest economies? In what ways might we seek to keep our money within our local communities by supporting local producers and suppliers? In what ways might we concretely demonstrate neighborliness through sustained acts of friendliness and charity? How might we conserve the wisdom of those who have known this particular place longer than we have? How might we extend the benefit of real land ownership to as many people as possible? How might we limit the danger of the ownership of large acreages by the oligarchic few or by multinational corporations that have loyalties to no one save their shareholders? These are the questions that Berry’s vision of creator, creation, and community force us toward—questions that reflect God’s ownership of God’s good creation, our place as stewards and cooperators with creation and one another, and the practices that are required. It is for these questions and for the vision that supports them that all of us need to hear Wendell Berry.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: Church History review

There was a solid review of The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards in the journal, Church History, by Michael J. McClymond (September 2006; pp. 699-701). His conclusion: “Its authors have paid Edwards the ultimate compliment of considering that his ideas and arguments may have been not only interesting and influential, but also compelling, applicable, and true.”

Random Thoughts

1. Everyone realizes why the St. Louis Cardinals have gone in the tank, right? It is because I bought playoff tickets for Home Game #2 for the League Division Series. That must be the ultimate curse. In their current seven game losing streak, they have been tied or led going into the 7th inning in every game; they could just as easily have a seven game winning streak. If it weren't for the fact that I am a fan. Maybe I should start rooting for the Astros again (when I was their fan, between 1977 and 1983, they made it to the playoffs twice, 1980 and 1981; it didn't work out too well either time).

2. I bought the new Alan Jackson CD yesterday. This is not surprising, since she produced and Union Station plays on it, but it sounds very much like an Alision Kraus and Union Station album...without the few strong bluegrass songs. Perhaps this could be viewed as "Under their Influence, No. 2." It'll be interesting to see what hardcore Jackson fans think of it.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Quiet Time

Well, they say confession is good for the soul: I have a hard time having a regular quiet time. In that regard, I resonate pretty well with what my friend, Greg Johnson has written:
"At one time or another, nearly every sincere believer feels a deep sense of failure and the accompanying feelings of guilt and shame because he or she has failed to set aside a separate time for Bible study and prayer. This condition is called Quiet Time Guilt."
Greg goes on to suggest that this guilt is tied to legalism, an inward condition of the heart in which one believes that the performance of duty whereby we gain or lose God's favor. I don't know if that is exactly it, at least for me.

Instead, I want to spend time in God's word, I want to pray, I want to know the regular rhythms of being in God's presence--not from any sense that I am going to gain or lose God's favor. Rather, I know that it is better for my soul to draw near to God so that he might draw near to me (James 4:8). Reading and thinking about God, enjoying communion with him through his Word, and conversing with him in prayer is a means of grace that confirms and assures my weak heart.

Further, I know that God calls on me to "discipline yourself; keep alert. Like roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). One way of self-discipline is a regular engagement of God in word and prayer. Every since I've been ordained, I've been distinctly aware that the devil is my opponent, seeking to trip me up and see me disqualified for ministry--whether through overt attacks or more subtle temptations. God's Word is a light, lamp, sword, refuge--all of which is necessary in this spiritual war.

But my problem is my utter lack of discipline in this area. I'll start something, only to lose momentum several days or even a couple of weeks into whatever it may be. I'm convinced that it is a spiritual issue--an unwillingness to see my time as belonging completely to God. Instead, I think my time is, well, my time--with which I can choose to dispose as I see fit. And so, when I get up to the morning, I stagger to the sofa, where the morning newspaper is with my cup of coffee (I have a wonderful wife). When I get to my office, I immediately check the messages and start in on email, moving into the day. And the day goes on without any sense that Christ is before and behind me, at my left and right, no sense that God desires communion with me and my soul would do well by communion with him.

So, one of the things I want to do is to blog each Friday about my progress in my devotional life. This past week, I've begun using The Daily Message as a way of reading through and meditating on the Bible. I hope to note each Friday (when I have access to my computer) that I've completed another week's worth of reading. I hope if I fail to do this, dear reader, that someone will comment on my silence and hold me accountable to this.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

America's God

[Note: this review was originally published under the title: "God in an American Mold: A Review Essay of Mark Noll's America's God," Fides et Historia 35 (2003): 141-3]

It is hard to imagine the recovery of American evangelical history without Mark Noll. Since the 1970s, Noll and his colleagues at Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals have produced a multitude of conference collections, exploring the vast and neglected reaches of American evangelicalism, as well as several significant monographs that have impacted the study of religion within the academy. Noll himself has authored a widely used text book on American Christianity as well as notable works on biblical study in the American academy, Christianity and the American revolution, and the intellectual impact of Princeton College. It is no stretch to claim that the current scholarly agenda in the field of American religious history has been guided, if not set, by Noll and his fellow workers.

In America’s God, Noll offers a synthetic history in the grand old style. Based on a wide reading of both primary and secondary literature, Noll tells the story of theology in America from 1740 to 1865, particularly highlighting a synthesis that scholars have come to take for granted—the synthesis of classical republicanism, evangelical Christianity, and commonsense moral philosophy. Focusing on intellectual elites, Noll’s story covers much familiar ground—the towering intellect of Jonathan Edwards, the rise of the New England Theology in his train, the opposition of the Princetonians, the bugaboo of Charles Finney, and the transformation of America into a “Christian nation” in the early republic period. However, Noll’s burden is to demonstrate that evangelical theology’s ascendance in the early nineteenth century was by no means a historical fait accompli; rather, evangelical theology moved to a position of cultural hegemony by accomplishing several unexpected alliances forged during the heat of the American revolution, namely, allying republicanism and moral philosophy, apparently antagonistic intellectual commitments, with Christian theology.

One could read Noll’s story as the intellectual counterpart to social and cultural histories such as Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross (1997) and Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (1989). America’s God focuses on how evangelicals moved from a position of other-worldliness to this-worldliness, or perhaps better, cultural antagonism to cultural adaptation and transformation. As a result, it cannot help but feel like a declension story, but one with an ironic twist: “The pietistic instincts of disestablishmentarian evangelicals put them in the position of seeking the transformation of persons and society through revival. Increasingly in the early years of the nineteenth century, these evangelicals were successful beyond hope. Yet by limiting the goals of their activity, the evangelicals also increased the likelihood that dimensions of society they now neglected would influence them unself-consciously” (224). Evangelicals were successful in their cultural transformation during the early republic period, but the price they paid would cost them dearly—the compromise with the intellectual forces that granted them great success would in turn undermine religion after the Civil War.

Read another way, Noll’s book could be seen as the nineteenth century version of the argument that D. G. Hart made in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (2002). Both Noll and Hart argue that pietism, which drove evangelicals to tear down the walls between the sacred and the secular and to seek the Christian transformation of American civilization, was the “American way of faith.” While this pietism was incredibly successful by appealing to individual consciences through anti-authoritarian rhetoric and appeals to “Bible-onlyism” to forge a “Christian America” and build mainstream Protestant churches, in the end, such pietism failed to meet adequately the challenge of the nation’s most weighty crisis, the Civil War. Clearly, in Noll’s telling, this failure was colossal—by failing to provide a biblically-nuanced answer to the problem of slavery and by allowing itself to be co-opted in a bloody war against one’s brothers, evangelical theology in both the North and South demonstrated why the synthesis that propelled it to intellectual prominence was doomed to collapse: “The key moves in the creation of evangelical America were also the key moves that created secular America. If in a great surge of evangelization and moral reform, American Protestants almost converted the nation, so too did the nation mold the Christian gospel in the contours of its own shape” (443).

While America’s God presents a powerful argument, one cannot help but wonder about some aspects of Noll’s presentation. Two examples will suffice. First, Noll presents American Methodists as the counterpoint to the Americanization that he faults in the theology of (mainly, northern) Congregationalists and Presbyterians. In doing so, Noll appears to adopt a Troeltsch-like movement from sect to church—when American Methodists were a sect, they proclaimed an other-worldly gospel, one that “was more shaping, than being shaped by,” local realities and cultural mores (341). But by the 1830s, the Methodists had adopted by “osmosis” the evangelical synthesis and became the fastest-growing church in America, caring more for civilization-building than disciple-making. However, using Methodism as a counterpoint to “American” theology strikes one as odd, and Noll himself wrestles with this in his text. He finds it “curious” that northern Calvinists by “their adjustment to American ideologies” were sounding just like Methodists, who allegedly “owed almost nothing to distinctly American ideologies” (341).

How did this happen? Noll does not explain this nor does he opine on how “the Methodist transformation of American religion” happened (170). Surely, there is some connection between Methodistic Arminianism and the intellectual forces Noll believes to be transforming northern Calvinists—appeals to the Bible alone read by common sense alone, and offers of salvation for all through an universal atonement and prevenient grace. And that connection probably had something to do with the way Methodists appealed to the “popular mind” of the new republic; how else can one explain that Methodist church membership tripled in the first decade of the nineteenth century and then doubled every decade after that until the Civil War (169)? Rather than being a counterpoint to American theology, Methodist theology was the most American of the bunch, offering in a non-technical way the same intellectual commitments that elites were discussing in the rarefied air of theological journals.

Second, by focusing on the problem of slavery and the Civil War as the cause of “exhaustion” for the synthesis of American theology, Noll may slight other massive intellectual sea-changes that he himself has recognized in other venues. For example, Charles Darwin receives relatively short shrift in this account, as does the rise of intellectual currents such as historicism and positivism. After all, ten short years after the end of the Civil War, Presbyterian minister David Swing was tried on charges of heresy for articulating positions indebted to these new intellectual movements. And these movements challenged evangelicals directly at the same weakness that Noll believes to have been exposed during the conflict over slavery—“the Reformed, literal hermeneutic.” Likewise, the importance of professionalism, which taking hold before the war, increased geometrically after the war, vaulting doctors, lawyers, and business men to new prominence over theologians and ministers, leading to a decline in theology’s intellectual prestige. To be sure, the Civil War was consequential as a social and cultural transformative catalyst. Still, there were other intellectual trends that led to the break-up of the American theology in postbellum America, ones that Noll would have done well to incorporate into this synthetic study.

All that being said, America’s God is a Sydney Ahlstrom-like work: a rich, vitally important synthesis with riches for specialists and generalists alike. It will certainly be required reading in every survey course of American religious history. And it demands a careful and attentive study by anyone who desires to understand the movements of Protestant theology and their contribution to antebellum America.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Nation with the Soul of a Mainline Church

[Note: this piece was originally a review essay of a book that was published during the height of the Monica Lewinsky affair in the late 1990s. The book itself is an interesting cultural artifact; but I'm not blogging this simply to remind people of Clinton v. Lewinsky. Rather, I think the book and my essay raises important questions about the relationship between Christians and their churches on the one hand and politics and the state on the other. I couldn't help but be reminded of it as I've been sitting here reading D. G. Hart's A Secular Faith.]

For well over a year now, the American people have endured a soap opera involving their President. The sordid details are too well known to require review. The partisanship, particularly during the impeachment debate in the U.S. House of Representatives, was particularly intense. Both Democrats and Republicans dealt in rhetoric designed ultimately to persuade their core constituents–African-Americans, feminists, and the Religious Right. Each side condemned Mr. Clinton’s behavior. But Democrats tend to counsel “mercy” and “forgiveness” for “private sins” and Republicans tend to focus on the “rule of law” and demand justice for “public sins.” The rancor stirred by the impeachment debate signals the fiercest battle yet in the so-called “culture war.”

In the midst of this partisan debate, a cadre of academic theologians, hailing from mainline religious institutions, issued a “Declaration concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency.” The statement, issued on November 13, 1998, declared in forceful terms that Mr. Clinton and his defenders were manipulating religion and “debasing moral language” by attempting to hide behind professed repentance and the private nature of sexual sin, confession, and restoration. These theologians and religion scholars declared that “politics and morality cannot be separated” and that “certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system.” Chief among the public virtues thought necessary to the survival of the American political system are “truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power.” That Mr. Clinton failed to exhibit these virtues was obvious. Rather than issuing a specific call for impeachment or resignation, these scholars desired “society as a whole to take account of the ethical commitments necessary for a civil society and to seek the integrity of both public and private morality.” In order to further this national debate on ethics and civil society, these scholars established a web site and wrote essays for Judgment Day at the White House, a book published one short month after the declaration was issued.

In many ways, Judgment Day at the White House makes for fascinating reading. In it one finds theologians who represent mainline churches without doctrinal centers castigating a politician without a moral center. As a result, the criticisms are implicitly lodged against the entire 20th-century mainline Protestant project that divorced ethics from doctrine. These scholars are in the awkward position of critiquing one of their own and of criticizing the end results of their own project. After all, Mr. Clinton’s membership at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a church affiliated with the liberal Co-operative Baptist Fellowship, places him in the heart of the mainline. Further, Mr. Clinton and his theological accusers share a wide area of agreement in social policies. Thus, these scholars are forced by their own esteem for “ethics” to criticize a national leader who has none due, in part, to the theological tradition of these scholars’ own denominations. Who taught Mr. Clinton to divorce doctrine from life, thus making all ethics relative? Mainline liberal Protestantism did. Who is now holding Mr. Clinton accountable? In the words of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president, Al Mohler, Clinton’s own “spiritual enablers” are.

Another aspect that makes Judgment Day such fascinating is that these mainline theologians cannot get beyond their belief that the American nation and its form of government has the soul of a mainline church. How else can one explain the tortured investigations of public forgiveness and repentance one finds in this book? How else to account for disappointment in Mr. Clinton’s failure to display “virtue”? How else to understand the theologians’ repeated insistence on the importance of “trust” and on leaders’ “integrity” and “trustworthiness”? These writers seem to believe that Mr. Clinton’s “private” sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky and his “public” actions of apparent perjury and obstruction of justice demand repentance, confession, and forgiveness in order to restore integrity and trust in the office of the President. None, save Stanley Hauerwas, question whether or not activities such as repentance, confession, forgiveness and restoration can even occur outside the context of the church. None question whether true virtue is possible for the nominal Christian.

By failing to question these basic assumptions, the contributors to Judgment Day unwittingly perpetuate the American civil religion. The idea of American civil religion is well rooted in the American psyche. Commonly, the term “civil religion” represents “that religious dimension through which [every people] interprets its historical experience in the light of transcendent reality.” In a more local sense, American civil religion is the understanding of the historical experience of the United States in the light of some divine purpose. This sense of divine telos sanctifies the origin of America as well as its consummation. And within an understanding of divine purpose, which reaches both to origin and consummation of the nation-state, lies the individuation of that purpose, so that each American finds a divine purpose in the choices he or she makes. Further, the political leaders of America are seen as divine agents who must uphold strict moral standards. These leaders stand in the pantheon of other political heroes who have taken on religious significance, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.

Though the authors of Judgment Day do not reproduce long-standing beliefs in America as a “redeemer nation,” by failing to distinguish adequately between the “spheres” of church and state, they demand from the head of the American state “religious” responses to political (and legal?) crimes. In demanding “religious” responses, these theologians and religion scholars assume two things. First, they assume that Mr. Clinton is able to repent and confess. Second, they assume that the average American will be able to recognize adequate repentance and confession and will be able to forgive and trust wholeheartedly.

Because they assume these two things, the mainline authors of Judgment Day are surprised and dismayed at Mr. Clinton’s failure to repent. They bemoan the President’s inadequate confessions, which often are coupled with harsh attacks on his partisan opponents. Mr. Clinton’s accusers are also dismayed by American failure to recognize the President’s inadequate repentance. If the opinion polls are to be believed, the American public approves of Mr. Clinton’s leadership while distrusting him personally. This is decried, by one contributor to Judgment Day, as “amoral Machivellianism that ill befits us as a people and that undermines a political system in which law embodies what is best, most capacious, and most hopeful about us as a people.”

Why is it so surprising to these theologians and religion scholars that Americans expect their leaders to be somewhat Machiavellian? After all, every day women and men go to work in the new capitalism where the only thing that matters is the bottom line. Trustworthiness, the ability to repent and confess, compassion, truthfulness--these virtues do not matter in the new capitalism. Rather, creativity, flexibility, the ability to “turn the deal,” efficiency--these are the values of the new capitalism. By practicing these values each day in the work place, Americans are not trained to trust their leaders or their co-workers. As creativity demands “re-engineering,” as flexibility and efficiency demand “downsizing,” so the American worker learns distrust on the job. And by spending each working day in the atmosphere of distrust, evaluating individuals not on character but in economic terms, the American worker learns a certain admiration for the CEO who may be a “jerk,” but who is a “successful” leader, as measured by the bottom line. By expecting leaders like “the Prince,” Americans learn to distrust their leaders, whether in the corporate world or in the political world.

Why is distrust such a problem for these mainline theologians? Because distrust implies the very lack of community that neo-conservatives and liberals hope to reverse. Neo-conservatives and liberals play on the importance of community and covenants in order to provide groundwork for a united society working for the “public good.” Max Stackhouse expresses his discomfort with Mr. Clinton’s scandal for the precise reason that it provides an example at the highest level of “covenant breaking.” This example is not merely a picture of the American condition; for Stackhouse, Mr. Clinton’s behavior provides an example and excuse for other Americans to engage in covenant-breaking behavior, which in turn will lead to the unraveling of the American social fabric. By Mr. Clinton’s failure to provide the necessary repentance, America will be demythologized and schism will be the result.

However, from an older Christian perspective, any hope for a society built upon a general adherence to the “public good” and to a vague notion of Christian principle ultimately is a pipe dream. For at the root of Christianity is the doctrine of original sin. As a result of the fall, distrust among men and women in the world is to be expected. After their disobedience, as a mark of distrust, Adam and Eve clothed themselves with skins because they realized they were guilty. Likewise, as a result of the fall, humankind seeks to satisfy their own ambitions and desires while covering it up. We are, in a word, selfish. Thus, the only real basis of national unity is where individuals’ self-interests intersect. Generally, self-interests intersect in the economic realm; as long as the economy is bullish, society can cohere somewhat peacefully, though not necessarily virtuously. With self-interest as the reigning virtue in the world and the economy running full steam ahead, it is no wonder that Mr. Clinton has confessed to very little and that the American public appears to support him. After all, people understand that the most important thing we all must do is to protect our own self-interest.

The problem of self-interest also pervades the social organism. Societal sin cannot be atoned for by changing social structures as liberal Protestants believed. Nor can revivalism reign in societal sin as evangelicals hope. Sin that pervades the very structures of society, the very creation itself, will not be dealt with until the redemption of all things at the end of the age. The idea of a “Christian America” that will endure, formed by the social gospel or revivalism is a myth; the United States is in fact only a nation that will someday crumble. A new society will arise to take its place.

What should a Christian response to this “crisis” in the Clinton presidency look like? It will not necessarily equate to the positions of the Religious Right, with their repeated calls for Mr. Clinton to resign or for the Senate to remove the impeached President from office. In fact, the whole affair calls for a reconsideration of the relationship between church and state from a different perspective than either evangelical or mainline Protestantism.

First, the notion of America as a “Christian” nation should be dropped. Protestants as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell have put great stock in the supposition that Christian moral values are necessary for democracy to function. Even the framers of the “Declaration” believe that morality is necessary for democracy, with “morality” serving as a code word for “Christian” moral values. Hailing back to some distant golden age, many Protestants long for a time when America will reverse the tide of secularization and return the government to a “moral” basis, rooted in Protestant social mores. This longing for the re-establishment of the American civil religion is seen by some as the only hope for the continuation of national prosperity and unity.

Second, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal sends an important warning against expecting Christian virtues from political leaders. A far more realistic position to take vis-à-vis politicians is to expect them to be scoundrels and then be pleasantly surprised when they are not. The reason stems from Christian teaching about human nature. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” Even as rabid a skeptic as H. L. Mencken had little trouble with such Calvinistic sentiments. “Public officials, under democracy,” he wrote, “were predominantly frauds, and hence did not deserve to be taken seriously.” Churches would do well to adopt this doctrine, not because someone as sharp-eyed as Mencken held it, but because it is the clear teaching of their own best traditions. In turn, when politicians act with a measure of virtue, we should be pleasantly surprised and chalk it up to common grace or self-interest. Whatever the reaction, a healthy dose of Mencken’s understanding of politics might help churches recover their theological bearings. For the moment the politician’s “leg goes over the political fence, he must learn all of the tricks of the regular mountebanks.”

Third, this episode teaches that there is a difference between the rule of American law and the rule of divine law. Of course, there are similarities between American constitutional law and biblical law. The end of all law is the same, justice. Both constitutional law and the Scriptural law hold out a standard for all human beings in their respective spheres. This legal standard provides human beings with a guide on how to live; when violated, the law prescribes punishment in order to restore justice. This, of course, is rudimentary thinking concerning the role law plays in any type of society. Why then do human beings have law? Is it true, as Jean Bethke Elshtain writes, “the law, ideally, embodies what is best, most capacious, and most hopeful about us as a people”? In Dr. Elshtain’s way of thinking, because Americans have laws against murder, we really cherish life, because Americans have laws against rape, we really cherish marriage and monogamous sexual relations, and so on.

From another angle, however, Elshtain’s statement is poppycock, apparently ignorant of both the nature of constitutional law and biblical law. As for biblical law, Christians learn that the moral law first given to Adam in Eden and summarized in the Ten Commandments demands obedience; upon failure, justice is issued by way of eternal punishment. God gave humankind his moral law, not because it embodies what is best about human beings, but because it reveals his own holy character.

As for the laws that make up the American Constitution, the framers did not produce a constitution that summarizes what is best about men and women. Rather, they recognized that human beings need protection from one another. As Madison writes in Federalist No. 51, speaking of the need for separation of powers and the role of government in general, “It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Because men are ambitious, Madison claims, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” This lust for power, this ambition, this pride of life – these things do not signal what is best and most hopeful about humankind; rather, the founders recognized profoundly that human beings are deeply flawed. If left to exercise unchecked power, human beings naturally would prove tyrannous, would eliminate or restrict civil and religious liberties, and would subject a large portion of the population to the whims of the government. Thus, the U.S. Constitution was framed by those who understood that we need protection from ourselves.

Nonetheless, a vast difference exists between the constitutional law of the United States and the moral law of the Scriptures. When one violates the constitutional law of the United States, it is a crime; when one violates the constitutional law of the Scriptures, it is a sin. Thus, the state can only pardon crimes; the church only can forgive sins. By confusing the role of the church and the state, the entire discussion of Mr. Clinton’s troubles becomes muddled and, in fact, has led to the farce of Mr. Clinton’s repeated apologies and attempts at “repentance.” The state cannot judge adequate repentance; the world cannot judge adequate confession. Only the church has the ability, by the means of Word and Spirit, to judge what is adequate confession and repentance and to respond with forgiveness as Jesus taught.

Why then does Mr. Clinton feel the need for repeated attempts at confession? It seems fairly clear that Mr. Clinton’s pollsters told him that the American public, which does not understand true repentance nor has the power to forgive, wanted him to be more abject, more remorseful, more “sorry.” Mr. Clinton provided the American public with the requisite show of remorse because that is what the public claimed they wanted. Of course, then, Mr. Clinton was politically motivated. Of course, Mr. Clinton’s confessions were propaganda. Why, then, does the “Declaration” berate Mr. Clinton’s attempts at repentance as “politically motivated and incomplete”? What else can Mr. Clinton’s repeated public attempts be but politically motivated? In what other manner does one become a world leader except by being absolutely sensitive to the political implications of his actions? Mr. Clinton, by issuing repeated apologies, was not being a bad Christian; he was being a good politician.

The problem is not with Mr. Clinton’s apologies. The problem is that the authors of the “Declaration” expect a government leader, one who is bound by the U.S. Constitution and who may have committed crimes against the state, to publicly confess and repent of sins committed against God. By confusing these two realms of law, the authors of Judgment Day signal their continued adherence to a civil religion where the president of United States of America is accountable not only to the laws and to the people, but is accountable also to God. We do not deny that ultimately Mr. Clinton is accountable to God for violating the Ten Commandments, in the same fashion we all are. We simply deny that as the leader of the United States, he is accountable to God. Mr. Clinton is not King David; for that matter, he is not even Thomas Jefferson, who it now appears had more than a few dalliances of his own with ladies in his employ. Mr. Clinton is simply a mediocre president of the United States at the end of the twentieth century.

In the end, the church's responsibility is to preach the gospel, not preserve the moral fiber of America. By giving up the entanglements of civil religion, the churches can practice a different kind of politics, one of real peace, forgiveness, and mercy. This “Christian” politics will also free the churches to regard government officials as the Israelites viewed the Babylonian or Persian lords when in exile, as “God’s servants” who bear legitimate authority, whether corrupt or not.

Or like the early church, for that matter. All the apostle Paul prayed for from his government was a social order that made it possible to preach the gospel. Interestingly enough, the politician in Paul’s day was worse than Mr. Clinton. The scoundrel in Paul’s day was a Roman emperor, named Nero, who had a penchant for burning down his own empire’s capital while playing the violin. America only has a president who will be gone in two more years, who committed adultery and lied about it, and who plays a mean saxophone. Americans really don’t have it so bad.

Monday, September 18, 2006


You don't expect to find "capital T" truth in a book entitled The College Administrator's Survival Guide. But this quote was so rich and thought-provoking (p. 36):
Academia is filled with insecure overachievers who--no matter how high their objective level of achievement or recognition--fear that they're not worthy of their success and that at any moment they may be exposed as frauds (this phenomenon, which can be found both inside and outside academica, has come to be known as "the imposter syndrome").
This quote was so thought-provoking because I recognize this fear in myself. My "career-track" has been so strange and unusual, I keep wondering when someone is going to wake up and discover that I'm not really equipped to do what I've been called to do; that I spend most of my time flying by the seat of my pants, responding to situations based on common sense and intuition, not real "knowledge"; and that surely someone somewhere is more equipped than I am to do my tasks. When is someone going to wake up and discover that I am a fraud, an imposter, play-acting as a dean, professor, pastor, etc.?

When I think like this, a little voice in my heart (the Spirit?) reminds me of that wonderful text in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 (ESV):
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
Here we find both the amazing status which the Gospel grants us and our ministries and the overwhelming sense of personal unworthiness. What does God say about us?: we are in Christ's triumphal parade; our ministry is the aroma of Christ to God; our ministry plays a decisive role in human destinies; we are commissioned by God; and in God's sight, we speak united to Christ. In view of all this, we cry out, "Who is sufficient for these things?" The clear answer is: No one.

And yet, our sufficiency is not tied to ourselves--and in fact, that is the whole point of this passage in Paul's larger argument in 2 Corinthians. The super-apostles were pointing to their signs and wonders, their rhetoric, their abilities. They failed to reckon with the reality that the Gospel of God's grace doesn't come through strength (which is what Luther called "the theology of glory"), but through weakness, through a deep recognition that we are clay pots (2 Corinthians 4), tents, transient things ("the theology of the cross"). No one deserves to be used by God: it is the wonder of grace that God deigns to use human beings, ones who are sinful, frail, flaterring, prone to errors of judgment, word, and deed.

So, in those times in which I wrestle with my sense of unworthiness, my deep and abiding insecurities, my sense that I am a fraud and an imposter, soon to be exposed as unworthy for the positions and offices to which I've been called--it is yet another time to preach the Gospel to myself: certainly, I am unworthy, but I am united to the one who alone is worthy. And in God's mercy, he takes me, united to Christ, and uses my ministry as part of the unfolding of redemptive-history applied in the real lives of men and women.

Who is sufficient for these things? But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Relentless Greatness"

In the runaway train that is "Ryan Howard for MVP," this was a great, great article by Jayson Stark (who used to write for the Philadelphia Inquirer when I was in Philly). He puts the entire race for National League MVP in context and shows that the case for Albert Pujols is very strong. The best line: "It will be hard to ignore [Howard's projected] 60 homers and 150 RBI. But it might turn out to be even harder to ignore the relentless greatness of Albert Pujols."

IMHO: if the Phillies don't make the playoffs, then Pujols should be the NL MVP, because he has truly been the Most Valuable Player--the Cardinals do not make the playoffs without him.

Online Psalters

Want to find that hard-to-find version of Brady and Tate's Psalter? Watts? Bay Psalm Book? Here is a website that provides those resources.

[HT: SharperIron]

Carl Trueman on the World of the Patristic Fathers

Trueman from the Reformation21 blog:
I was struck by this description of social and intellectual attitudes in the ancient world in Ivor Davidson's Birth of the Church (Baker):

"The followers of Graeco-Roman religions would not have felt the same kinds of responsibilities spiritually as those from Jewish backgrounds. The idea of sin as moral guilt, concepts of estrangement and alienation from divine favor; and the prospect of judgment in a life beyond the present one would not have been automatically assimilable by pagan hearers....Many in the ancient world would not instinctively have understood conversion as a process by which a guilt-ridden, broken individual found inner peace and joy through a crisis of repentance and dedication to God, but they would have known very well what was meant by a shift from one way of living to another in terms of intellectual commitments, social identity, and ethical behaviour."

Given that this was the context for the exponential growth of Christianity in the second and third centuries, it is surely encouraging to see that many of the same factors apply today. It reaffirms my belief that the patristic authors are as valuable to us for the way they ask the right questions, as to any particular answers they may give.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A point worth recalling

From Richard Gaffin's new book, By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, p. 22:
"What is worth recalling at this point, because particularly applicable to Paul, is the observation, made at least as early as Calvin, that in Scripture references to the death alone or to the resurrection alone are synecdochic. That is, to speak of the one always has in view the other in its significance. They are unintelligible apart from each other; each conditions the meaning of the other."

Thy Kingdom Come, No. 2

I am still waiting to crank through Randall Balmer's new book until D. G. Hart's A Secular Faith is published (actually, I think it is available, but it hasn't arrived at yet). But this review of Thy Kingdom Come by John Wilson at Books and Culture is absolutely devestating and jibes with my sense of the book after reading the introduction and first chapter.

All that being said, I do think that significant questions can be raised of the current evangelical, accomodationist stance on the relationship between church and state. What we call accomodation (that is, the state should accomodate Christianity in the public square), our secular neighbors seem to read as "theocracy." And if their fear (and our aggressiveness) confuses a position how church and state relate with the nature of the Gospel itself, then perhaps an older model of separation might be better for Christianity in America after all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Clergy Tartan

While some guys like ancient liturgical dress, I've discovered Scottish tartans. And in particular, the "clergy tartan" (or better, breacan na'n clerarch, "tartan of the cleric"), the only Scottish tartan developed for a specific vocation. According to Matthew Newsome, a tartan historian (with an amazing blog devoted completely to tartan history), this particular tartan developed in the 19th century (this article can be found here):

There is a tradition that Highland clergy wore Highland clothing, but were instructed not to wear bright colors. As to the veracity of this statement, I cannot say. Regardless, this is the tradition that has been handed down. The first evidence we have of a tartan for clerics is from the records of the weaving firm Wilsons of Bannockburn, c. 1830. They called their tartan of black, lavender, and light blue “Priest.” Why they called it that is anyone’s guess, but most likely they thought “Priest” was a suitable name for a tartan in muted colors.

Tartan researcher James Logan next illustrated the design in The Scottish Gael, published in 1831, under the name “Clergy.” He changed the light blue and lavender of the Wilsons’ design to white and gray, and one pivot was different. The tartan is next seen in The Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland, published in 1850 by William and Andrew Smith. They attempted to reproduce the tartan as given by Logan, but with Wilsons’ coloration. However, there were problems with the production methods. Sometimes lavender was mistakenly used for stripes that should have been black. And the light blue in some copies of the book turned out a green-gray. Variations occurred from one edition to the next, and sometimes between copies of the same edition. If anyone wonders why there are often different versions of the same tartan in circulation, this sort of occurrence is usually to blame!

By 1850, and the publication of the Smiths’ work, the tradition had already been established that this was the tartan early worn by clerics. They write, “Down till a very recent period, this pattern was generally used by the Clergy in the Highlands for their week-day habiliments; and even now the secular mantle or plaid of the priesthood in the North is not unfrequently made of this, or similar kinds of

The Clergy tartan was next illustrated by James Grant in 1886, in The Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland. He used blue in place of lavender, including for two lines that should have been black, (apparently copying the error from one of the Smiths' books). In his text, however, he says that the tartan was white, black and grey. This would indicate that he intended to illustrate the tartan from Logan's work, but the publisher substituted a different illustration. In later editions of his book, the text described the tartan as dark blue, light blue, and black, but in the illustration this time light blue was rendered as green!

Lastly, in the first edition of The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, D. C. Stewart attempted to make a compromise between Wilsons’ and Logan's settings. This had the undesired effect of creating yet another variation. In later editions this was amended.

Where does the Clark family tartan come into all this? Both “clergy” and “clark” have the same root in Latin-–clericus. The Clergy tartan seems to have been used by the Clark family for that reason. In fact, in some nineteenth century records, the tartan is identified by both names. The practice today that many tartan weavers follow of rendering the Clergy tartan in more muted tones than the Clark tartan is a convention adopted to allow for distinction between those wearing the tartan for family connections, and those wearing it because they are ordained ministers.

As I have stated many times, there is no such thing as a “right” or “entitlement” to wear a tartan. However, when you wear a named tartan, you are identifying yourself with whatever that tartan represents. As the Clergy tartan is widely recognized as representing the ministry, I certainly would not recommend it be worn by anyone who did not fit the bill! Just ask yourself if you would feel comfortable wearing a Roman collar, or a monk’s robes.

Finally, the Clergy tartan does not represent any particular sect or denomination. While it is perhaps most popularly used by ministers of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterians), there is no evidence to suggest that its use was ever limited to one group. Keep in mind that until the Reformation of the sixteenth century, all of Scotland was Catholic. Even after that time, the Highlands of Scotland remained Catholic much longer than the Lowlands. And while Presbyterians are most common among Protestants, you also have the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and many other denominations in more recent times. Yet the Clergy tartan was never mentioned in association with one particular sect. It was always simply said to be used by “Highland Clergy.”

The only denomination-specific tartan that I know of is the Episcopal Clergy tartan designed by Rev. John B. Pahls in 1966. This tartan honors the clergy of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in the USA, and marked the bicentenary of the death of the Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury, first American bishop of that church. So, if you are Episcopal Clergy, you might choose to wear that tartan. But other than that, any Clergy tartan can be worn by any cleric of any stripe.

Among the types of products you can buy in "clergy tartan" is this really cool stole; can you imagine wearing this with a black Genevan gown? Is it possible to be more "old school" than that? (Okay, I'm teasing a little bit, but it is still a cool stole--not $250 cool, but cool nonetheless; I've ended up settling for a $25 tie.)

Ranking the Baseball Parks has a wonderful article that ranks all 30 Major League Baseball parks on a scale called the "Fan Value Index." It takes into consideration things like ticket prices, amenities, parking, atmosphere, and the actual ball club. Surprisingly, no. 1 was Angels Stadium; the new Busch Stadium ranked no. 11.

Speaking of the new Busch, it was a great treat to be there last night with my 5-year old son watching Chris Carpenter shut-out the dreaded Astros...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Now I know...

...a little bit of what it is like to be a New England Patriots fan. Having Adam Vinateri kicking field goals for my Indianapolis Colts is a hugely comforting feeling.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Life Goal

I have one unusual life goal: I want to attend ballgames in all 30 current Major League Baseball stadiums. The problem is that everyone is building new ones, meaning that I have or will have to revisit cities. Thus far, I've been to these ball yards:

American League
Yankee Stadium (NY Yankees)
Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay D-Rays)
Camden Yards (Baltimore Orioles)
US Celluar Field (Chi White Sox)
Ameriquest Field (Texas Rangers)

National League
Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia Phillies)
Turner Field (Atlanta Braves)
Busch Stadium (STL Cardinals)
Great American Ball Park (Cincinnati Reds)
PNC Park (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Dodger Stadium (LA Dodgers)

That is 11 out of 30. I've also been at old Tiger Stadium, the Astrodome, old Busch Stadium, Cinergy Field, and the Vet. Once the new Yankee Stadium comes on line in 2009, I'll have to go back to New York. Next year, I think we will be able to add Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City Royals) to the list; we wanted to go out there this summer, but it didn't work out. I'd love to get back to SoCal before my parents move so that I can go to Angel Stadium (LA Angels).

I also go to minor league games, but I don't count those in the same way: Louisville Bats (AAA); Lexington Legends (A); Asheville Tourists (A); Indianapolis Indians (AAA); the old Greenville Braves (was AA). Next summer, when the PCA General Assembly is in Memphis, I intend to go to the Memphis Redbirds (AAA).

Fundamentalism and the Cult of Muscular Personalities

First, watch this video, so that you'll know what I'm talk about. The video was apparently shown at the youth conference for First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana, currently pastored by Jack Schaap, but served for over forty years by Jack Hyles.

There are a number of things that are so striking about the video--the linkage of key American moments (most relating to war) with the need to be "resolved" to take a stand; the way Hyles was worked into the video, placed on the same level as George Washington, Jack Kennedy, and Douglas MacArthur; and the clear promotion of "martyrdom" in tones that would be indistingishable from an extremist piece from another world religion.

But clearly the most striking part of the video was the ending--splices of Hyles intoning "who's gonna fill that chair" with clips of the current pastor, Jack Schaap, in some of his more fiery preaching moments. It seems to me that the intention is to relay the affection and authority that Hyles had in his own congregation to the current pastor, who has been there for four or so years.

Even more, I was struck by the way that Protestant fundamentalism has always seemed to be attracted to these muscular personalities--real manly men battling against the forces of wickedness and evil in our culture. The result is a cult of personality in which these "gladiators for truth" are set on a pedestal and create independent fifedoms that spin off colleges and publishing ventures, as well as very comfortable lifestyles. (For an academic historian's treatment of some of these issues, see William V. Trollinger, Jr., God's Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism [Wisconsin, 1990].)

The question that I've always wondered is why? Why do these men attract such attention, such adulation, such support? Well, one reason has to be that they provide very simple, black and white, answers to the challenges that face most American families--your teenager is rebelling? Cut his hair short, burn his rock music, involve him in youth group, send him to Bible college. Your marriage is on the rocks? Get involved in church more. Your job not working out? Do Bible studies on your work break; develop a work ethic.

Not only in personal life, but especially in their analysis of the world, these muscular fundamentalists are able to divide the world into heroes and devils in ways that make sense for their adherents: the media, academic elites, bureaucrats (especially Democrats), and pluralists are evil; preachers, missionaries, and evangelists "resolved" to stand for truth, justice, and the American way are good.

Most of all, I believe that these fiery leaders attract others based on their sheer charisma--as men who know what they believe and who know what they are about, they are attractive even when their harshness would otherwise repulse. In that regard, this quality stands true across cultures, religions, or regions--the hypnotic powers of harsh, believable rhetoric can motivate people and create cult-like adherence.

One of the many reasons that I moved away from American fundamentalism (though I continue to be endlessly fascinated by it) was how different this all is from Jesus as presented in the NT. Especially in places such as Mark 10, Jesus presents a different approach to leadership--not lording it over as the Gentiles do, with angry words and strong charisma, but with service that may lead all the way to the death of our reputations, plans, and dreams. Such a humble willingness to serve Christ was missing in my more muscular heroes of my college days; and eventually, while their personalities continue to draw my attention and study, they cannot claim my adherence.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Two things, real quick

1. Ryan Howard is the best bargin in baseball--52 HRs (62 projected); salary: $355,000 (major league minimum). Plus, he is hitting .306 thus far this season.

2. Further evidence that I am a curse on my favorite sports teams: the Cardinals went 7-2 on their most recent homestand; I went to both of the losses--a 9-1 schlacking by the Marlins (Mark Mulder's last game of the season) and a 1-0 painful loss to the Pirates (the only Pirates victory in STL this year). Sigh.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Prayer for the New School Year

Since we began classes yesterday at Covenant Seminary, I thought this prayer--slightly modified from the Church of Scotland's Book of Common Order--was appropriate:
God of truth and love, the only wise God, you have commanded us to love you with all our mind. So bless the work of Covenant Seminary, that in it the truth may never be denied, betrayed, conceled, but be honored, followed, and obeyed. Guide faculty and students in their endeavors to seek and serve the truth: may their learning never cut them off from the community, but lead them towards enlarged and selfless ervice. Grant that learning may flourish among us, as a means both of enriching our lives and of drawing us nearer to you from whom all truth proceeds; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.