Monday, October 30, 2006

I was there

I can't allow the season to end without a final Cardinals post. It was simply amazing to be in the stands with my oldest son (section 369, row 12, seats 19-20), watching something in person that I thought I would never get to see. I never thought I'd have the opportunity even to go to a World Series game; but to go to the clincher was simply amazing. It was quite literally the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

It was a cold night, but Samuel and I were prepared--I had a turtle-neck, fleece sweatshirt, and Cardinals jacket (with fleece lining) on; he wore his thickest winter coat. We bought hot chocolate just as the game began (it was cold by the 4th inning) and were able to stay pretty warm. I had also brought wet gear (rain suit, towels, blankets) in case the rain came back; it had rained hard until about 5pm. But really, it was a beautiful night.

It was interesting to watch my son's interest. It was the first ball game that Samuel had made it all the way through. Usually, we leave after the 6th inning (around 9pm) and listen to the rest of the game on the way back home. However, he was able to stay interested most of the time. I think more than anything he was glad that he was there. Samuel has always enjoyed being with his parents on one-on-one adventures (I took him to Gettysburg when he was 6; he was a delight); and that, in some ways, was as important as the final score.

But when Wainwright struck out Inge to end the game, and everyone was high-fiving and hugging and laughing, it was neat to watch Samuel dance and laugh and high-five as well. I don't know if he really understood the enormity of it all (the first World Championship for the Cardinals since I was 11); but he certainly enjoyed himself like I did. We hugged several times and plugged our ears while the fire works went off right behind our seats.

As for me, I kept hoping that this would finally ignite his love for this game and make this a common interest that we could share. There are other things that he likes that we can like together; but growing up, it was always baseball for me that helped identify me as we changed schools or moved to a new place. And it was always on the mound when I pitched, or reading the sports page, or watching a game that I felt most like myself in those confusing years.

As he has grown up, I've taken him to a number of games--his first game was in July 1998, watching the Phillies and the Marlins in 90 degree heat. He wore a little Phillies jumper and we watched our favorite player, Scott Rolen, play third base for the Phighting Phils. I've taken him to minor league games in Lexington, Kentucky, and Louisville as well as games in Cincinnati. And this past summer, he played baseball himself for the first time (his left-handed swing reminds me of Stan Musial).

Over the past few weeks, perhaps for the first time, I saw inklings of it in my nine-year old boy--Samuel would ask me when he'd come upstairs in the morning if the Cards won; he would check the paper on his own to see the score; and he wore his Cardinals' Albert Pujols tee-shirt a lot. And maybe, just maybe, this might be the season where he would come to love the game in the same way that I do.

All simply because I was there and he was too.

Try, Try Again

For those of you who remember this earlier post, I will try again to read John Owen: I broke down and purchased Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor. If nothing else, I'm looking forward to reading the introductions by my friend Kelly, who has another Owen book coming out next year.

Friday, October 27, 2006

One more win... go for the first Cardinals' World Championship since 1982. And, if the rain stops, we'll be there tonight (our Game 4 tickets are to be used for tonight's game). I hope that we can finish it tonight because I don't want our team to go to Detroit to face Rogers and the snow (although the snow would enable everyone to see the, um, smudge in even greater contrast).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rain, rain go away...

...but it doesn't seem to be going away. My son and I sat in the rain for an hour and a half last night before they called the ball game. The weather forecasts don't look much better for today and tomorrow. In a fluke of rain checks, our tickets will actually be good for game 5 (if they play game 4 tonight), which means if Soup wins that we could actually see Dream Weaver close out the Tigers...

In the meantime, this New Republic post about Wainwright's strike out of Beltran to end the NLCS was really interesting. To think that in all the years of baseball, that moment was amazingly rare. It is even more amazing because Beltran has been a Cards-killer for several years.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Sorry that I've been too busy to write anything--October is always a ridiculous month for me, for some reason, and my life amped up in a big way a few weeks ago. That, coupled together with the Cardinals wonderful and crazy World Series run, has sapped most of my brain power.

Still, some tidbits:
  • I'm not reading anything scholarly or particularly religious right now. Befitting the Cardinals playoff appearance, I've been working my way through James Giglio's Musial and Richard Peterson's St. Louis Baseball Reader.
  • I'm continuing to preach through Daniel at Covenant Presbyterian Church. Last week was Daniel 9. I've really enjoyed doing this, because I think it has been the closest I've come to implementing (however unsuccessfully) some of the insights of Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Preaching. The focus of each chapter has been on some aspect of the character of God.
  • Along those lines, I think Daniel 9 is the climax of the book, because it represents the proper response of God's people to Daniel's prophecy--namely, repentance and confession. However, people will only confess to a God who will not crush them, but rather is a God of mercy, which is exactly how God is presented in that chapter (Daniel 9:9).
  • This Sunday, though, I'm taking a break from Daniel because it is Reformation Sunday. I'm planning on preaching Hebrews 12:18-29, "A Reformation of Worship." I'll be doing this same sermon at Covenant Seminary's chapel on Tuesday as well as later in April 2007 at a worship conference in the Kansas City area.
  • Through God's grace and the kindness of friends, I'm hoping to be at tonight's game with my son (and rainsuits). If Soup can do it again, we'll have three shots at finish off the Tigers and enjoying the first World Series parade since 1982.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Joy in Mudville

Obviously, in the light of my previous post, there is great joy in, St. Louis, because our Cardinals made it past the National League's empire of "evil" and into the World Series with their 17th NL Pennant (all teams from New York bear this character for me--especially the Knicks, but that is a different story from a different season). As this blog makes plain, the Cardinals have a much better shot at winning this thing than most pundits give them.

It is at this time of year that I'm thankful that Pete Enns (who is still a friend though he embraces one of the teams representing the aforementioned axis of evil) wrote this piece for ByFaith magazine. Pete reminds us well, I think, that the joy we take when our sports teams do well is a reflection of the joy we (ought to) take when God's Kingdom advances. Regardless whether the Cards win or lose against the Tigers over the next week, I know that I'm on a team that has already won the ultimate victory because our captain appeared to lose, only to be vindicated before the world as the one really won, the one who triumphed over the devil and won the spoils of battle. And this team will continue to advance against the gates of hell until the end of the age (Matthew 16:18-19).

Or to put it into the language of Colossians and Ephesians: "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it" (Colossians 2:15) and "Therefore it is said, 'when he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people'" (Ephesians 4:7). Thanks be to God that he made us to be victors and conquerers in Jesus Christ and that he gave us a joy that we will never lose.

Not even if our favorite baseball teams do...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Gnashing of Teeth

...Which is what I did last night, watching the Cards lose to the Mets, 4-2. From the 1st inning, when we failed to score with bases loaded, one out, in the top of the inning and then have the Reyes homer in the bottom of the inning, it felt like a bad night.

I hope that Soup can hold them down and we can get up early against Perez and bullpen (this has to be a bullpen game for the Mets; I can't imagine that Perez is going to be effect on 3-days rest, which he will be doing for one of the first times of his career. Plus, Perez has been pitching since March, when he was in the World Baseball Classic; he has to be about shot). Otherwise, this will be a very depressing night. And the continuing evidence of the Lucas curse...

Monday, October 16, 2006

You are what you read, No. 2

A friend of mine recently surveyed a number of pastors and professors regarding the three most valuable books for their ministry. Most of these men were Presbyterian and Reformed in orientation. Nineteen people responded and here is the quite eclectic list with which they came up:

Calvin's Institutes (8)
Dynamics Of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace (2)
Saved by Grace, Anthony Hoekema (2)
Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards (2)
Knowing God, J.I. Packer (2)
Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (2)
The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson (2)
Charity and Its Fruits, Jonathan Edwards
The End for Which God Created the World, Jonathan Edwards
Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson
The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry
Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry
Puritans, Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Knowing the Times, Martyn Lloyd-Jones
On Christian Doctrine, Augustine
Confessions, Augustine
Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, D.A. Carson
Ancient-Future Faith, Robert Webber
The Shattered Lantern, Ronald Rolheiser
The Hidden Lives of Congregations, Israel Galindo
The Complete Works, Francis Schaeffer
Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen
Defending the Faith, D.G. Hart
The Christ of the Covenants, O. Palmer Robertson
Ordering Your Private World, Gordon McDonald
Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Leon Morris
Christian Apologetics, Cornelius Van Til
Collected Writings, John Murray
Structure of Biblical Authority, Meredith Kline
Christopher Wright's books on OT law
A Bunch of Everlastings, Frank Boreham
Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin
The Unfolding Mystery, Edmund Clowney
The Message of Acts, John Stott
The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis
Desiring God, John Piper
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
According to Plan, Graeme Goldsworthy
Not The Way It's Supposed To Be, Cornelius Plantinga
Missionary Methods, Roland Allen
Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Jack Miller
Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown
Holiness, J.C. Ryle
The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen
Decision Making and the Will of God, Garry Friesen
Peacemaker, Ken Sande

This list is fascinating for a number of reasons. The first is how doctrinal it is compared to the Top 50 influential evangelical books that Christianity Today recently complied. But the second is how eclectic it is--everyone from Augustine to Wendell Berry, Jonathan Edwards to Henri Nouwen; not exactly a reading list that we would probably recommend to most potential PCA ordinands.

Or is it? One of the things that strikes me is how God uses all sorts of books and all sorts of people to do his work in his people's lives. Sometimes it is a book that I don't care for (such as Garry Friesen's Decision Making) that God uses to push an individual forward in his will. Sometimes it is a book that many other people wouldn't read (like Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow) that convinces us about the wonder of regular life doing good work in a small place.

I think, if anything, it indicates that the Spirit of God can use all sorts of things to do his good work in our lives. Such a reality should make us as ministers and authors both humble and hopeful.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Viva El Birdos

Well, we have a life--the Cardinals winning last night, even when Carp didn't pitch well, was huge-normus. And though some of his decisions drive me nuts (like bringing Tyler Johnson into to pitch to Delgado in the 9th instead of Beltran in the 8th), Tony's decisions all seem to work right now.

One thing, though--those who've read this blog know that I'm a big Scott Rolen fan. Everyone has noted that Rolen is hurt (which I believe) and that Spiezo needs to be playing (which is probably true). What no one has noted is how poorly Eckstein is playing--2 for 22 this post-season; he seems to be bothered by the oblique and hamstring injuries. If the Rolen logic holds true--i.e., the guy is killing the team, play the healthy player--then why isn't Aaron Miles playing in place of Eckstein? If the argument is that Eckstein is a better defender, then why doesn't that argument hold true for Rolen, who in the 9th inning last night saved a base hit when he came in as a defensive replacement?

In the light of that, I hope that what Bernie Miklasz noted in his column today--a deep rife between Tony and Rolen that may mean that the two can't work together next year--is not true (although it would be intriguing to think that the Cards could try to trade Rolen and a propsect to the Yankees for A-Rod; how would he look hitting behind El Hombre?).

btw--one of the best Cardinals blogs out there is Viva El Birdos, hence the HT title.

Friday, October 13, 2006

God and Country American Style, No. 3

Part one
Part two

Life in the Kingdoms of Men
How then should Christians view the relationship between church and state, and even more pointedly in the light of Hart’s challenge, faith and politics? Both books illustrate the dangers that may come when Christians incautiously allow their churches to become entangled with the state, whether through school vouchers or faith-based charities. Once the state gives public money to churches, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the state demands the right to account for how that money is used in the light of public outcomes. Likewise, Balmer and Hart each show that when political questions take on religious fervor, the stakes are heightened to such a degree that working for the common good becomes difficult, if not impossible at times. Yet I want to suggest that neither book provides good answers, from a Christian perspective, to the question of church-state separation. And it is just here that the much-maligned southern Presbyterian tradition can help us. For though they may have hid behind the notion of the church’s spiritual mission to protect themselves from abolitionist arguments, southern Presbyterians’ careful and biblical thinking on the relationship between church and state provided resources for thinking about this issue today.

Robert Lewis Dabney, that redoubtable nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian theologian, spent an entire lecture on religious liberty and the nature of church-state separation in his course on systematic theology. In assessing the relationship between politics and theology, Dabney’s basic premise was the strict separation of church and state. He argued, first, that all human government was exercised in three spheres—civil, parental, and ecclesiastical. The latter two spheres were “separately recognized by Scripture and distinctly fenced off, as independent circles”; the state had no right to invade either the parental or ecclesiastical spheres. Rather, the state’s purpose was to secure the “secular rights” of citizens, “protecting all members of civil society in their enjoyment of their several proper shares” of those rights. In order to perform this role, the state exercised three functions, as defined by Scripture: taxation, punishment, and defensive war. The church, on the other hand, had as its object “to teach men the way to heaven, and to help them thither.” The church could not coerce or compel belief because, unlike the state, it had “no civil pains and penalties at command because Christ has given her none.”

Because the church and state belonged to separate spheres, each had to respect the other’s domain. For the church to bear “penal power” and to be “armed with civil pains” was “utterly inconsistent with her spiritual character, her objects, and the laws of Christ.” Religious intolerance was inconsistent with “the relations which God has established between Himself and rational souls.” Believing in soul competency, the idea that “God holds every soul directly responsible to Himself,” which meant “no one shall step in between” the individual and God, Dabney thought that each person was accountable to God for belief. To coerce the state’s citizens to observe a specific religion violated soul competency. It was “an absurdity,” Dabney believed, “for that which is not Christian at all to choose my Christianity for me.” In addition, the question of determining what orthodox religion was stood outside the purview of the state. Because there was “no umpire under God,” the state should tolerate a plurality of belief in society and the church should be thankful for such religious liberty. Thus, the “safe theory” was the strict separation of church and state. Dabney claimed that “the ends of the State are for time and earth; those of the Church are for eternity. The weapon of the State is corporeal, that of the Church is spiritual. The two cannot be combined, without confounding heaven and earth.”

That this teaching was a reflection of the hints found in Westminster Confession 23 and 31:4 can hardly be doubted. Even more, it was from this basic understanding of the relationship between the church and state that the southern Presbyterian commitment to the church’s spiritual mission came. Because the church’s mission is to “teach men the way to heaven” and its “weapons” are spiritual and persuasive, the church as church ought not to involve itself in tasks that would distract it from its mission or in activities that properly belong to the state. Even more, involvement in moral causes or public issues was a matter of Christian liberty and not a matter of church decree. It was on this understanding, for example, that James Henley Thornwell argued against the Presbyterian Church’s recommendation of temperance societies or other groups promoting moral reform. “It is hence beside the province of the Church to render its courts, which God ordained for spiritual purposes,” he observed, “subsidiary to the schemes of any association founded in the human will, and liable to all its changes and caprices. No court of Christ can exact of his people to unite with the Temperance, Moral Reform, Colonization, or any other, Society, which may seek their aid. Connection with such institutions is a matter of Christian liberty.”

It is this point about Christian liberty for public involvement that, I believe, ought to guide conversations as they transition from issues related to the relationship between church and state to the relationship between faith and politics. How Christians vote their consciences, how they engage public issues, how they support or not support certain public endeavors is truly a matter of Christian liberty. Thomas Peck, who taught during the nineteenth century at Union Seminary in Virginia, wisely observed that “touching the life that now is, the avocations necessary to sustain the being or promote the well-being of society, agriculture, commerce, manufactures, civil and criminal laws, the man, if he be a civil magistrate, or whatever else, is to be governed by the negative authority of the Bible. He can do anything the Bible does not forbid.” This is to say, in a different way, what the Westminster Confession teaches in chapter 1:6: there are some circumstances that are to be guided by the light of nature and common sense, agreeable to the general rules of Scripture, and these circumstances fall under the realm of Christian freedom.

And so, the real question to ask is how Christian participation in the public realm might be guided by the general principles of Scripture. And, in line with Hart, I think the biblical prophet Daniel is helpful here in thinking about the relationship between two kingdoms: the kingdoms of men and the Kingdom of God. In Daniel 7, the prophet has a terrifying dream with amazing beasts that spring from a turbulent sea: a lion with eagle’s wings; a bear; a leopard with four heads and four wings; and a horrifying, powerful beast with bronze claws and iron teeth. As Tremper Longman notes, while these beasts may represent the four successive kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, Christians might do as well to see these beasts as the way God’s people see the kingdoms of men: amazingly strong, ridiculously fast, and terrifyingly evil, bringing oppression and persecution to God’s people. But Daniel’s dream does not end there: for thrones are brought out and set on the earth and the Ancient of Days sits down to open the courtroom books. This seems to suggest that though the kingdoms of men may believe they are invincible and unaccountable to God, the Most High God will hold all kingdoms to account. Even more, in a coming day, he will strip away their power and give it to one “like a son of man,” whose dominion will be established forever.

In the meantime, God’s people live as resident aliens in a foreign land. They live under Babylon and Persia, Rome and England, the United States and China. They see those who belong to the kingdoms of men exercise their amazing power with incredible speed, often with horrifying and evil results. And, like Daniel, they live and move in these realms, living out of their identity as God’s people, recognized as “exiles from Judah” who belong to the Most High God. But they do not become at home here, for they belong to another King and another Kingdom. Even more, as Christians, we know that the Son of Man did not establish God’s Kingdom by power, politics, or persuasion. Rather, he established his reign through a bloody cross and an empty tomb. And though some day, the Son of Man will return as the cloud-rider with his Father’s angels in his train, that day is still future. In the meantime, we live as “resident aliens” in this world, awaiting the full and final form of God’s Kingdom.

Perhaps this general framework can help Christians as they engage in public issues in the kingdoms of men. Recognizing that we are those who belong to a kingdom not of this world means that election year politics do not determine our eternal destinies; it means rather that we live to make manifest more and more the Gospel of that Kingdom. And the way we live is by loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, praying for those who abuse us (Luke 6:27-8). It is by seeking to live peaceably with our neighbors, serving them with kindness and goodness in the hopes that our actions will lead them to repentance (Romans 12:14-21). It is by working toward justice in those areas for which we have responsibility, caring for the piece of land where we live, obeying and respecting those in the kingdoms of men who have the rule over us (Romans 13:1-8; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

And the way we live here as strangers and aliens is by recognizing the liberty that other Christians have to apply their God-shaped common sense to their public actions in ways that may differ from ours, in ways that may not be required for us. Indeed, as those who belong to God’s Kingdom, we learn to thank God for these sisters and brothers, with whose public actions we may disagree and yet whose grace-inspired lives represent foretastes of that age when and that country where all shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

God and Country American Style, No. 2

Part One

Saving Religion from the American Right
D. G. Hart, like Balmer, has profound questions about the relationship between American politics and Christian faithfulness. In addition, Hart comes at the question from the perspective of an American religious historian who has thought deeply about these issues in a separate, yet related, venue: the relationship between Christian faith and academic scholarship. For example, in his The University Gets Religion, he promoted the value of an irrelevant faith, a faith that restricts itself chastely to Word and sacrament and to the church’s spiritual mission, one content with private spheres and unwilling to intrude itself in public spheres, such as the academy. Christian scholars should “stop trying to secure a religion-friendly university while paying deference to the academic standards of the modern university,” Hart claimed. Rather, Christian academics should to glad to “have to live in an apparently schizophrenic manner, separating what they do in the classroom or publish from what they do at home or as part of a community of faith.” For in this way, religious faith would be restricted to its proper sphere—a private, spiritual sphere focused on eternal matters and rewards—where it can be maintained in its full, exclusive, sectarian glory.

Hart utilized a similar tack on the relationship between Christian faith and American politics in A Secular Faith [note: references will be in the text]. Against those who would agitate for the public utility of faith for thinking through public issues, Hart bluntly claimed that “faith and public policy have little to do with each other” (70). In part, this is because, in his view, Christianity (or at least a Christianity that is worth anything) is necessarily sectarian, exclusive, and intolerant. It makes claims about the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation that cut out large swathes of the American population; it suggests that some Americans will experience God’s wrath for not believing in Jesus. To believe that an exclusivistic religion, such as Christianity, can serve as the basis of national unity or a resource for public policy ultimately misunderstands the true nature of Christianity (9). As a result, Christianity is “virtually useless for resolving America’s political disputes” (11).

Hart claims that not only does Christianity have little to say to American politics, but even more, attempts to relate Christianity to American politics actually vitiates and transforms it into a moralistic, activitistic deism, a common denominator faith that has little to do with historic Christianity. Hart ably charted American Christians’ preoccupation with their own “redeemer nation” status, a belief that drew both on Whig interpretations of history that saw America as the potential catalyst for the millennium and on forces within mainstream American Protestantism that sought to maintain hegemony through a dumbed-down, ecumenical faith. This preoccupation led many to embrace an “American Creed” that was supported by a “Protestantism without God” (45). And yet, this American vision of God and progress did spurn amazing technological growth, unprecedented economic expansion, and undeniable military prowess along with a nation committed to civil liberty for all.

This vision of God produced American civilization; it also created movements to maintain that civilization. Hart suggested that the rise of the Social Gospel at the turn of the twentieth century was an attempt to bring all of American life—a life that was diversifying rapidly in the face of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization—under the influence of Christianity. Social Gospel theologians, such as Walter Rauschenbusch and E. C. Smyth, grasped hold of two important theological grips to extend the reach of Christianity: the Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ. While the latter allowed theologians to embrace “an expansive view of Christianity and the Bible that saw its application to all aspects of life as necessary to genuine devotion,” the former provided the conceptual framework for that application (110). God’s will “became the norm for affairs of the United States,” in such a way that not to work for social justice was to disobey what God the King was doing in the world (115). But to work for justice in the corporate categories of the Social Gospel was to forsake the Bible’s emphasis upon the need for a personal appropriation of faith in Jesus and so made Christianity less than what the Bible declared it to be.

Hart’s solution is to return to an understanding of a separation between the church and state. This separation is ultimately rooted in older Lutheran and Calvinist divisions: law and Gospel; kingdoms of sword and word; spiritual and civic righteousness; spiritual and civil liberty; the church as organization and as individuals (35-7, 60-6, 232-4, 244-6). However, the ultimate division that informs a separation between the church and state is a renewed appreciation for and appropriation of the divide between secular and sacred (41). Hart suggests that the word secular actually suggests provisional or impermanent; as a result, Christianity in this current time between the advents of Jesus is “always haunted by a sense of being temporary” (242).

Not only is the church provisional (i.e. “secular”) during this period, but so is the state. Because Protestantism understood this, it was the catalyst for the “demythologizing” of the world and the secularization of the West. Protestants generally sought to move the state into its own sovereign sphere, outside the control of the church—because both spheres, church and state, were temporary orders. Even more, the state could exercise its sovereignty without the assistance of Christian piety, because it was a temporary grant of power to order the affairs of a given country for a time before the coming, final form of the Kingdom of God. By view the state and the church as temporary, “secular” orders for this time between times, Christians do not need to prostitute their faith in order to Christianize the state or culture more generally. To do so is ultimately to “trivialize” Christianity itself (252).

Hart’s argument is powerful, especially for a generation that grew up in Reagan’s America, during the heyday of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Tired of the often angry and unbiblical rhetoric of the Religious Right, it would be a welcome relief to buy Hart’s argument lock, stock, and barrel that Christians can simply engage or not engage the public realm as they choose without bringing their beliefs to bear on it. It would be a relief, but sadly, it is impossible. And it is impossible for the very reason that Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs and practices that can be engaged and disengaged depending on what day the calendar says; rather, the Christian faith conveys an identity—beliefs, practices, and stories—that changes the way we engage all of our lives all of the time.

And it is at this very point that Hart struggles. While he wants to argue that church and state ought to remain separate (with which I agree), he transforms that argument into a claim that faith and politics ought to remain separate. And that is the impossibility of his argument. For example, in describing the “otherworldly” nature of faith, Hart described himself “as a Protestant who firmly believes in the importance of worldly vocations as yielding genuinely spiritual rewards, and who just as firmly believes in the fundamental goodness of creation, I suggest that otherworldliness need not be as politically passive and culturally withdrawn as critics allege” (12). But these two beliefs often motivate political action: to believe that worldly vocations are God’s means for exercising our calling in our world may lead to certain policy statements on “welfare-to-work” programs; to believe in the fundamental goodness of creation may lead to environmental policy that protects rivers, lakes, and streams. To suggest that somehow these “otherworldly” beliefs should not translate into action, or to suggest that “Christian-inspired policy, arguments or candidates” are “inappropriate” on “Christian grounds” (253), is to go against the nature of personal identity itself. Beliefs cannot be separated from practices nor can they help but have public import.

Again, at one point Hart asks the question whether “the Bible [could] be used outside a religious setting for a public purpose,” a question which translates into “whether Christian morality could be separated from Christian doctrine, church polity, or worship” (84). While agreeing with him that developing Christians who live ethically is very much tied to Christian beliefs and practices (and so, to Christian identity), I would also point out that Christian morality cannot be separated from decisions made in the public sphere. And this is simply because Christian ethics cannot be divorced or separated from Christian identity. As a Christian, I cannot separate my beliefs about human life and sexuality, the nature of creation and its care, or God’s concern for the weak and powerless from how I vote, what causes I support, or what policy I help to write.

This greatest evidence that faith and politics cannot be separated is that Hart’s entire book, purporting to demonstrate that Christianity is an apolitical faith, argues this very political claim from the standpoint of the Christian faith. Repeatedly, Hart makes recourse to the Christian theological tradition as well as to the Bible itself to make his claims. Examples of this abound: in a discussion of the phrase “city on a hill,” he delves into an examination of Luther and Calvin’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount to support his claim that this metaphor relates to “churchly rather than political or nationalistic categories” (35-7); sorting through the nature of Christian liberty led him to draw upon Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell and the Westminster divines (60-6); the question of Christian morality led to a discussion of the “third use of the law” and the Heidelberg Catechism (90-1); dealing with Social Gospel understandings of the kingdom of God produced an overview of southern Presbyterian Stuart Robinson’s discussion of the spiritual nature of Christ’s rule (116-9); distinguishing between a personal and public faith meant an exposition of Matthew 6 (176-7); and answering the Kuyperian claims about Christ’s Lordship meant a turn to theological points on the relationship between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church as well as the role of the diaconate (230-2).

The most obvious example that Hart’s argument for a secular faith was a profoundly religious one and hence, an example of the public utility of the Christian faith and its tradition, can be found in the conclusion of the book. There he uses the Old Testament prophet Daniel to argue that “Christians…may also be called to live lives in which they negotiate competing sets of loyalties and responsibilities” (256; see 253-7). While not disputing for the moment the conclusion he draws, this is still a claim drawn from the Bible itself that impacts a Christian’s public stance. And it strikes me that this is profound irony of A Secular Faith: that a book making claims for not using Christianity as the basis for cultural or political approaches does so powerfully by utilizing the Christian faith and its tradition in just that way

God and Country American Style, No. 1

[Note: here is a draft of the promised review essay of Balmer and Hart's recent books. It is in submission with an academic journal, but I thought it might be good, since there was interest, to post it here as well.]

It is not an overstatement to say that the hot titles in mainstream booksellers’ religion sections are those dedicated to religion and politics. Motivated by the fevered rhetoric of the culture wars and exacerbated by the weighty political pop of the Religious Right in the 2004 American Presidential elections, writers both non-religious and religious have lined the shelves with provocative titles all meant to distinguish and separate biblical religion from American politics. While many evangelical Protestants will probably see these titles and pass on buying them, two books that originated within their own ranks may catch their attention. Even more, these books could be the beginning point of reshaping the way evangelicals think about the relationship of their faith and their nation’s politics.

What makes the books by Randall Balmer and Darryl Hart so noteworthy is the fact that these critiques of evangelicals and their faith-based politics were written by men who have garnered a great deal of their livelihood by studying and selling books to evangelicals. Balmer, professor of religious history at Columbia University, first made his name through his book and companion film, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, which recently went into a fourth edition. He also has been a long-time member of the board of reference for the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton College, studied for the ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and was once a published defender of the Princetonian understanding of biblical inerrancy.

Similar in background, and certainly no stranger to Presbyterian and Reformed circles, is Hart. Currently director of partnered projects at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Hart has written a noteworthy biography of Presbyterian traditionalist, J. Gresham Machen, served as director of ISAE, trained students for the ministry at Westminster Theological Seminary (both in Philadelphia and Escondido), and also has defended Princeton’s understanding of biblical inerrancy. Books written by such evangelical insiders surely have more weight than the run-of-the-mill titles produced by those who may or may not fully grasp biblical Christianity.

These two titles have another thing in common: both react strongly against the “accomodationist” strategy pursued by evangelical leaders over the past twenty-five years. This approach suggested that the traditional American understanding of a stark separation between church and state was flat-out wrong; in fact, religion should be accommodated in the public square. Chief among evangelicals articulating this stance is Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who has appeared before federal government commissions and in mainstream magazines to argue for tuition tax credits and school vouchers for religious schools and for voluntary prayer by judges, court employees, public school students, and others who use and work at government-funded facilities. Land has prominent allies within the Presbyterian and Reformed world in Gary DeMar and D. James Kennedy, who each promote a vision of church and state in which the state accommodates public religious displays and activities.

Against this accommodation strategy, Balmer and Hart both agree that this approach has dangerous side-effects both for religion and the public square itself. Instead of seeking to force the state to accommodate religion, evangelicals should return to the older American position of separation between church and state.

There is one more commonality to note—while both books contain a number of useful insights, which taken together might point the way forward for thinking about how Christians and churches should relate to the public realm, each fails to present satisfactorily a compelling argument for why Christians should embrace a “separation of church and state.” To be sure, I believe that there is a compelling argument to be presented; further, I would suggest that the resources for doing so will be found within the (southern) Presbyterian tradition. As a whole, my sympathies lie closest to Hart’s own provocative approach.

However, when questions over the separation of church and state morph into questions of the relationship between faith and politics, I cannot help but wonder whether the attempt to craft a detailed and compelling “public theology”—either as a rationale for Christians entering into the political realm or for sitting out the struggles—may in fact go beyond the purpose and scope of the Bible itself. As a result, the answer may not be found in direct biblical mandate, but in “the light of nature and Christian prudence” as well as in general biblical principles that may admit of different strategies for different seasons (WCF 1:6). And if this is the case, then perhaps the greatest need in our conversations over religion and politics might be a healthy dose of Christian charity to be extended to all believers, whether red or blue, whether politically active or passive.

Saving America from the Religious Right
In the acknowledgements section of Thy Kingdom Come, Randall Balmer noted that he wrote his book in reaction to the 2004 American Presidential election [note: all references to the book will be in the text]. Since one son had worked on Sen. John Kerry’s campaign and another had been involved in AmeriCorps, Balmer decided that, rather than “vacillating between rage and despair,” he would write a book in the “hopes of effecting some correction to this country’s ruinous course” (203). From the opening subtitle to the last words of the final, “homiletical” chapter, Balmer laid the blame for America’s “ruinous course” directly upon the shoulders of the “Religious Right.” Who is the “Religious Right”? Apparently, it includes everyone from George Marsden (217n23) and Jean Bethke Elshtain (219n2) to James Dobson (90-2) and E. Calvin Beisner (152-3), not to mention other disparate characters such as Rick Scarborough (46ff.), William Dembski (127-32), Michael Farris (100-1), Tony Perkins (199-200), D. James Kennedy (155), and Rod Parsley (175). To see all of these individuals identified as belonging to the “Republican-Religious Right” complex makes you wonder who was left as the “good guys.”

And indeed, it is this overwhelming sense that Balmer wrote more out of heated passion, rather than calm reflection that mars this book. Tip-off words such as insidious (122, 154), blasphemy (180), false gospel (190), theocracy (64-5, 181), minions (167), lockstep (160), hard-right orthodoxy (155, 160), deception and subterfuge (153) all suggest that Balmer really does believe that there is a “vast right-wing conspiracy” working to take over America. And so, in order to meet the crisis, Balmer wrote this apologetic on areas where the Religious Right distorts Christianity. By the end of the book, however, I could not help but think of L. Nelson Bell, founder of Christianity Today and a leading southern Presbyterian conservative in the twentieth century, who argued against ministers’ involvement in politics this way: “We resent this further intrusion of Church leaders into the realm of international polices for three reasons. First, they are not competent in that particular field. Second, they have no right to use the prestige of the Church in this matter. Third, we think their advice is dead wrong.” In reality, for Balmer, his problem with the Religious Right is not that their proponents are involved in politics, but that they are simply “dead wrong.”

From Balmer’s perspective, religious and political conservatives are wrong on school vouchers, which he typified as “the desire to garner taxpayer support for sectarian education” (82). In fact, vouchers are simply part of a “broader religious war on public education” (87). “Real Christians, those who take seriously the teachings of Jesus, should be fighting against voucher programs and charter schools because they perpetuate divisions, rather than reconciliation, within society,” Balmer claimed (93). But vouchers are only one weapon in that war; another is the homeschooling movement, which contributes both to the destruction of public schools and “a ghetto mentality” among Christians. Never mind that many parents choose to homeschool, utilizing their “fundamental” freedom to determine how their children are educated (82); such parents are betraying “an essential component of American culture” in doing so (95-6).

These religious conservatives are also wrong on “intelligent design” and the attempt to have it taught in public school classrooms. Here Balmer waxed his most conspiratorial, suggesting that “if the Religious Right, in this case the proponents of intelligent design, can win acceptance for their ideas in the academy, then they will have breached the final barrier to their conquest of American society” (122; he has similar statements on 140). The way these academic outsiders will complete their conquest is through “a Trojan horse by cloaking creationism in the guise of science: intelligent design” (123). Never mind that a majority of Americans believe that science ought to be taught from the perspective of intelligent design (as Balmer notes on 124); true Christians will want a public square in which there is “intellectual freedom to pursue ideas untrammeled by confessional agendas” (141). How intelligent design represents a confessional agenda that tramples intellectual freedom is unclear. Again, Balmer fails to engage in debate so much as bring the verdict that intelligent design is simply wrong, “nothing more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo” (141).

A third area where the Religious Right exercises tremendous power wrongly, according to Balmer, is in the area of the environment. As the benefactors of Big Business, they utilize the theological rhetoric of dominion to justify viewing “humanity as the apex of the created order” and trashing the earth in order to make life more livable for humans (151). Instead of actually engaging the environmental arguments of religious and political conservatives, Balmer simply associated prominent names with “a web of deception and subterfuge” (153). To be sure, there are places where evangelicals could be challenged in their practice of creation care; but the way that Balmer has prosecuted his argument will prevent any meaningful conversation from happening.

It may be apparent by now that Balmer’s book was more along the lines of a sermon than a serious and scholarly analysis. That being said, he does offer a solution to save America from the Religious Right: a renewed appreciation and enforcement of the separation of faith and politics. Balmer’s basic premise here is that “religion functions best when it is not tethered to particular political parties or ideologies. Religion works best when it operates from the margins of society and not at the centers of power and when it remains true to the faith and refuses to allow political interests to shape—or commandeer—its doctrines” (33).

While I personally agree that this is the case, it does not necessarily follow that faith should fail to shape political actions—and it is on this point that Balmer hesitates because this is not really his argument. His argument actually is that conservative faith shaping conservative politics is wrong; but his more enlightened Christianity, which prizes pluralism, public education, and intellectual freedom, is right. What is difficult to admit is that both sets of policy commitments flow equally from deeply held faith commitments, which is to be expected because religious beliefs and practices fundamentally shape personal identity. It would be impossible for Balmer to set aside his commitments; and a free state does well to make sure that he is able to make political statements and take actions in line with his personal identity as long as he does not break the law. In the same way, genuine pluralism would make sure to protect all religious expressions, which may result in wide-ranging political positions with which I or Balmer may disagree. This is because “equality before the law” demands that a variety of voices and faiths be accorded the same protections in the public square.

When Balmer attempts to transition his arguments against the relationship between faith and politics to defend a strict separation between church and state, he is less successful because he confuses the two categories. For example, when he worries over the ways some Religious Right operatives “would like nothing better than to dismantle the First Amendment,” he held this would produce “an America where public prayer is mandated in public schools, where school vouchers support religious rather than secular public education, and where religious texts, such as the Ten Commandments, are prominently displayed in government-funded spaces such as courts and schools” (48-9). While such policies may be ill-conceived, they do not act to establish a particular church; rather, they could violate the “religious establishment” clause of the First Amendment, which gets back to the issue of faith and public policy, not church and state. And as Balmer surely knows, exactly what the First Amendment meant is a matter of scholarly debate; certainly, it is a place where good people can disagree. By failing to preserve that meeting place where good people can talk and disagree, Thy Kingdom Come provides little light, but much heat, on the issues facing serious Christians today.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sports Teams and Belonging to a Place

Every once and while, I feel a little guilty cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals. Unlike a lot of people from St. Louis, I didn't grow up cheering for them. My first favorite team was the Houston Astros--Joe Niekro, J. R. Richard, Joe Sambito, Terry Puhl, Caesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz. I came to baseball consciousness when I was 7, figured out then how to read box scores and the standings, and began to suffer and die with my team.

Even after we moved to northern New Jeresy in 1980, I continued to follow the 'Stros. I got Nolan Ryan's autograph, suffered when they lost to the dreaded Phillies of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, and the Dodgers in the playoff of 1981 (which was a strike year). The Yankees and Mets were pretty bad when we lived there (the Yankees went to the series in 1981 and immediately went into the toliet; the Mets were horrid until we moved). But it was hard to follow the Astros when all my friends were Yankees fans.

When we moved to northern Virginia in 1984, I began searching for a new team. The Astros were two moves ago for me, but the Orioles were not really local (I kept hoping for DC Baseball and was gratified when the Nationals finally became a reality a couple of years ago). I ended up settling on the Boston Red Sox, because I was a big Clemens fan--I was 15 when he had his first big year in 1986 and I imagined that I was a power pitcher like him. I even subscribed to the Red Sox fan newspaper for a year.

I stuck with the Red Sox until I graduated from high school in 1989 and then I went to college in South Carolina. In 1991, the Braves made their run and I began to pay attention to them; their AA team was in Greenville and so I paid attention to them as well. But the year I converted to the Braves was in 1993; I lived by myself in an apartment all summer when I had few friends or local connections--the Braves on radio (I didn't have a TV) kept me alive that summer as I listened to Skip Carey and Don Sutton each night in my dark, hot (air conditioner broke that summer; 40 straight days over 90 degree; paint pealed) apartment.

We got married and moved to Philadelphia via New Castle, Indiana in 1994 (notice, we are arriving at places right after the local 9 were in the playoffs). When we got there, I became a Curt Schilling fan, but I followed the Braves through their World Series title in 1995. By 1996, though I was transitioning to the Phillies; listening to Harry Kalas on the radio every night and watching Scott Rolen win his Rookie of the Year award won my heart. I even bought a Phillies jersey.

We moved again in 1998--this time to Louisville, Kentucky. My wife was a Reds fan growing up, the one team I had vowed not to like: they were the dreaded Big Red Machine, who had beaten on my 'Stros back in the day. But the local radio carried Marty Brenneman and the Louisville minor league team was affliated with the Reds in 1999. What won me to follow the REds was when the Reds traded for Ken Griffey, Jr. I became a rabid Reds fan right after their one-game playoff with the Mets in 1999, bought a jeresy, drove the 80 miles to Cincinnati to go to five or six games a year. Plus, it gave me something to talk about with my father-in-law, who grew up going to Crosley Field.

And I followed the Reds until we moved to St. Louis in 2004. I had suffered through countless injuries to my favorite player and we got to town right in the middle of the Cards' amazing 105-win run. One of my other favorite players, Scott Rolen, had gotten to town a few years before me; and I soon learned to admire the Great Pujols. In many respects, it is easy to be a Cardinals fan because they have such an amazing history and this is such a great baseball town. People are passionate about the Redbirds. And so, I converted--bought a jersey, listen to Mike Shannon every night, went to 7 games this year.

I've thought a lot about this phenomenon--and I think part of what is going on is my attempt to belong to a place. Since I moved so much (moving to STL was my 12th "major" move--I've changed addresses more than that), I've never really "belonged" anywhere: went to different schools, saw different parts of the country, etc. And so, to fit in and to belong I began to follow the local sports teams with all the passion of a newcomer trying to learn about it.

In that regard, sports teams can be helpful in creating bonds with total strangers and providing a unity that transcends particularity. Standing in Busch Stadium at the end of NLDS Game 4, after we finished the Padres, I was overjoyed for a team that I had followed for three seasons; my past affliations were unimportant compared to this moment in this place cheering like mad for this team.

I wonder if there isn't something here that speaks to how worship can help us belong to a place as well. Or perhaps our churches should bring out passions more like sports teams. If so, I would rewrite this story and tell you about the churches to which I've belong along the way and how they've shaped my life and given me a place to stand in this world, a place to belong, and an identity to cherish.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Out of pocket, again

Sorry that I've not posted for the past couple of days: I'm in Indiana visiting in-laws and then will be flying to Atlanta first thing Monday morning. So, I'll probably not have any time to post anything until the middle-end of next week.

One short note: during my time here, I've been reading Dan Allender's Leading with a Limp: a powerful book. Perhaps I'll have more to say about it when I get back.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lions, Tigers, and Calvinists: Oh My!

I thought this was an interesting observation by someone who is clearly not pleased by the growth of Calvinism in fundamentalist circles. The "reporter" pins this phenomenon on Christian books (especially books by Piper and MacArthur) and noted the role of the BJU bookstore in this.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised to visit my alma mater's bookstore a couple of years ago and to find all the Puritan works that they carry; they even carry Dabney books (although they still don't stock my biography of Dabney, for reasons that I've yet to figure). When I was a student (1990-3), we had to go to Crossway Bookstore (not to be confused with Crossway Publishers) across the street to find Puritan and Banner of Truth books; now, Crossway doesn't carry those materials any more (I last visited there this past summer).

It was reading books when I was a student at BJU that moved me into the Calvinist (and eventually Presbyterian) camp: Jonathan Edwards, B. B. Warfield, Lorainne Boettner, Charles Hodge, Louis Berkhof, Jay Adams. But it was also reading the Bible and compare what God's Word said with what these older writers said. It was hard to give an Arminian reading to John 6 or Ephesians 1 or Romans 9--and once my paradigm couldn't account for those texts, I willingly became a Calvinist.

One thing for which I've always been grateful is that my alma mater taught me to take the Bible with absolute seriousness and to follow God's truth wherever it would lead. It was the University's position on biblical authority that gave me the freedom to listen to what the Bible taught on God's rights as King in all of our lives, especially in salvation. And perhaps that is why, even more than the good Christian literature being circulated, that many fundamentalist youths are becoming Calvinists.

[HT: SharperIron]

Quiet Time Update, No. 1

Thanks to my brother, Patrick, who noted that I failed to give an update on my quiet time practices. Week 2 was more difficult than Week 1 in trying to re-establish the discipline of reading through the Bible in a year: I missed Monday, caught up on Tuesday (which was the Seminary's day of prayer), was able to read Wednesday and Thursday, missed Friday.

The readings this past week were in Job and Isaiah; reading the Message's rendering of Job really helped me thinking through the speeches of Job's friends. As so often happens, they mixed quite a bit of truth with some error--they imagined a world of pro quid quo--the evil ones get what's coming to them, while the righteous ones have everything go well. God's answer rebuked the friends while agreeing with their assessment that finite humans should not accuse the infinite God.

It made me wonder about how we as pastors often mix good pastoral comfort with wrong views of God in our attempt to minister to suffering ones. I find myself saying, "I don't know" quite a bit in those situations, as in I don't know why God has allowed this to happen. But I also try to say that even these things will work together for our salvation because our God is both Almighty God and faithful father.

BTW--I've done two other things along this line to supplement my intentionality in practicing God's presence. The first is that the kids and I are listening to Max McLean's reading of the Bible each morning as we drive to school; we are nearly half-way through Exodus now (although I worry that I'm going to start reading the Bible publicly like Max does with his slight Anglicized accent!). It has been interesting to hear things that I hadn't noticed before in my own reading of the Bible.

The other thing has been reading short books that encourage me pastorally: I recently finished Charles Brown's The Ministry and am reading J. I. Packer's Prayer and Horatius Bonar's Words to Winners of Souls. I find that I need books like these to encourage my heart pastorally and to keep my focus on what really matters--namely, the transforming power of the gospel has evidenced in real lives of real people.