I enthusiastically commend to you Rod Dreher’s new book How Dante Can Save Your Life. It’s a fascinating, joyful, sobering and at times deeply moving testimony of power, not only to the The Divine Comedy in particular but to literature in general. Rod calls himself a “witness” and not a scholar. That’s the idea, but I would nonetheless urge literary scholars to read his book and savor the way a medieval text can speak so pertinently into a 21st century soul. Continue reading “Why seminary needs fiction”
In the April 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, reviewed his father’s The Scarlett Letter. Towards the conclusion of his stunning, 9,000+ word essay, the younger Hawthorne reflected on the moral irony of Hester Prynne’s world:
This [the scarlet A] is her punishment, the heaviest that man can afflict upon her. But, like all legal punishment, it aims much more at the protection of society than at the reformation of the culprit. Hester is to stand as a warning to others tempted as she was: if she recovers her own salvation in the process, so much the better for her; but, for better or worse, society has ceased to have any concern with her.
“We trample you down,” society says in effect to those who break its laws, “not by any means in order to save your soul,—for the welfare of that problematical adjunct to your civic personality is a matter of complete indifference to us,—but because, by some act, you have forfeited your claim to our protection, because you are a clog to our prosperity, and because the spectacle of your agony may discourage others of similar unlawful inclinations.”
But it is obvious, all the while, that the only crime which society recognizes is the crime of being found out, since a society composed of successful hypocrites would much more smoothly fulfill all social requirements than a society of such heterogeneous constituents as (human nature being what it is) necessarily enter into it now.
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor from Liberty University and a research colleague of mine via the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written a helpful perspective on the popular “red letter” interpretation of Scripture. Christians who identify themselves as “Red letter Christians” argue that the recorded words of Jesus deserve special attention and/or status of interpretative control in reading the Bible. Unlike a more traditional evangelical hermeneutic, red letter interpretation does not begin with the assumption that all of biblical canon is authoritative, but imparts authority to non-Jesus texts to the degree that they appear consonant with the “message” of Jesus.
Dr. Prior’s piece lays out a few of the problems with this interpretative approach. Excerpt:
Furthermore, isolating the red letters apart from their narrative context breeds contempt for that context, particularly the hard parts of Scripture. This leaves believers with no adequate answer to the kinds of charges made increasingly by anti-theists. Thus when Richard Dawkins asserts in The God Delusion that the “God of the Old Testament” is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” too many Christians are ill-equipped to respond.
Yet, Dawkins’ hermeneutic—which consists of interpreting passages completely severed from the interpretative framework of the text as a whole—is not all that different from the hermeneutics wrought by the “Jesus-first/Bible-first” dichotomy. Under this spell, Christians are left much like the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century who are said to have drawn the carriage curtains closed when rolling past the mountains because they could not reconcile such wild irregularity with a worldview based on order and symmetry.
“Contempt for context” is well-said. The “red-letter” hermeneutic unwittingly creates an internal dissonance within the biblical narrative. One cannot logically receive the claims of Jesus’ divinity without also receiving His claim that He fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, a claim that is incoherent unless one believes that the entire biblical canon is already authoritative and divine by the time Jesus comes to fulfill them.
Yet this isn’t the only problem with the red-letter approach. In fact, I would argue that the disregard for context, while a serious problem, is tertiary compared to the difficulties it creates in Trinitarian theology.
The doctrine of the Trinity teaches not only that God exists as One in three distinct Persons, but that those distinct Persons relate to one another in God’s redemptive work. Thus, the Father sends the Son to redeem humans by paying the penalty for sins back to the Father (Romans 3:25). Even more, the Father raises the Son from the dead to in order to vindicate the Son’s claim to be one with His Father. He raises the Son BY the power of the Holy Spirit, which the Son gives to those adopted into Him by the Father (Romans 1:4, 8:11). So each Person of the Trinity serves the Others in an eternal, God-glorifying mutuality of redemption.
Now red-letter Christians would agree that the Holy Spirit inspires the words of the Bible. But by privileging the words of Jesus as some sort of hermeneutic control over the rest of the canon, they obscure the relationship between the Spirit and the Son. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Son. The Spirit that inspires the writing of Scripture does so in service of the Son. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance all Jesus had told them and would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).
This means that when Jesus speaks, He speaks by the Spirit, and likewise the Spirit speaks the words of the Father and the Son. So what Jesus says is true and trustworthy and eternal not primarily because He is a distinct Person of the Trinity, the Son, but because He speaks by the Spirit the words of the Father.
So that leaves with us an interpretive choice to make. Either the Spirit has spoken by the Old Testament prophets and by Paul, James, Peter, etc, or He hasn’t. Either the Holy Spirit has inspired the whole Bible, or it hasn’t. We may choose to believe either way, but we cannot believe in some Holy Spirit inspiration for certain Scriptures and less of it for others. Being genuinely Trinitarian in our theology and our worship requires humbly acknowledging the incredible way the Persons of the Trinity speak and act in harmony and accordance with one another. When Jesus speaks by the Spirit, He speaks the words of God. When Moses and David speak by the Spirit, they speak the words of God. The only way to get around this is to say the Spirit did not inspire these other writers, which of course leads to a total collapse in any rational confidence in the Bible.
A much better course is to affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit from the Father and of the Son, spoke through the authors of Scripture in an authoritative way for every context. The fulfillment of all inspired Scripture happens in the person and work of Christ. So all of the Bible points to Jesus, not because His spirit is distinctly true apart from the other Persons of the Trinity, but because the Triune God uniformly speaks the truth about Himself. Rejecting “red letter Christianity” is necessary if we are to properly understand the nature of our Triune God, and worship and trust Him as He desires.
I took the plunge that I had been studiously avoiding and turned on God’s Not Dead, the evangelical blockbuster movie from last year that has thus far raked in cash, awards, and even designation as the “best Christian movie of the year.” I had seen beforehand its 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and read thoughtfully critical takes on the movie. I was more or less prepared to watch a bad film, and indeed that’s what I got.
The failures of “God’s Not Dead” are particularly frustrating when you consider how easily they could have been avoided. There’s nothing wrong with God’s Not Dead that couldn’t be fixed by handing the script to a writer who isn’t eager to portray non-Christians in the worst light possible. The film feels less like a dramatic narrative and more like a propaganda reel, highlighting The Enemy in all their inglorious abominations.
It would be one thing for the movie to caricature non-evangelicals if it had no aspirations to realism in the beginning. I actually would be curious to watch a well-done diatribe against the secularist monopoly on higher education; the potential to learn something in that context seems high. But the medium of dramatic narrative is a higher medium than a lecture. It engages the imagination and moves the spirit in a more significant way. That’s why God’s Not Dead’s animosity towards its non-Christian characters is dangerous; if Christians come away thinking unbelievers in real life are like the unbelievers of God’s Not Dead (and that is clearly the message of the script), they will be carrying a spiteful fantasy into their relationships and evangelism that will be fatal to Gospel conversations.
Fairly representing those who disagree is not something that Christians should be bad at doing. Telling the truth about what people believe and engaging them like honest people isn’t a spiritual gift or an acquired skill. It’s basic honesty. How can I criticize the anathematizing of people like Brendan Eich and Ryan Anderson if after hours I myself enjoy caricatures of those who disagree with me?
I understand why people enjoy “God’s Not Dead.” It’s a brief moment of cinematic glory for Christians who, for good reason, often feel lampooned and marginalized in pop culture. But it’s a moment that comes at the expense of a helpful or even realistic perspective on the dialogues between faith and unbelief. The vast majority of atheists that Christian students will meet in college are nothing like the professor from God’s Not Dead. If these students go into school expecting the contrary, the cognitive dissonance that will result from seeing a reality that contradicts their assumptions will have a worse effect on their faith than a few hours of talking with a unbeliever could ever have.
Every person in America needs to know about what has been going on with Ryan T. Anderson and his grade-school alma mater, The Friends School. Put simply, the ironically named institution has declared it wants nothing to do with Anderson, his degree from Princeton, his Ph.D from Notre Dame, or his numerous fellowships and Ivy League speeches.
Why? Because Anderson is opposed to same-sex marriage. Continue reading “We are Ryan Anderson”
In my February defense of the Oscars’ culture of “elitism,” I argued that, if nothing else, the Academy’s film snobbery was a break from the nauseating domination of sequels, comic book films, and franchises in mainstream Hollywood. “A healthy dose of film snobbery is welcome,” I wrote, “if it even slightly punctures the asphyxiating creative stagnation that characterizes Hollywood right now.”
Hollywood’s creative stagnation is undeniable. As I pointed out in February, an incredible percentage of the decade’s biggest films were franchises and sequels. Look at this list from Box Office Mojo of the top films from 2013. Only “Frozen” and “Gravity” were neither sequels nor reboots.
Of course, like many of you, I stopped to have a minor freak out over the new trailer for J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII. What can I say? I’ve watched Star Wars since before I knew what exactly a movie was. I have countless items of memorabilia, extant and otherwise. Star Wars was every bit as much part of my childhood as my own back yard. I’d have to be droid to not be excited about the new film.
And yet, I do wonder: Is the fact that American culture still stops its work week over a Star Wars movie really good news? Should we be proud that the seventh installment in a 40 year movie franchise is virtually guaranteed record breaking profits and fandom? Don’t misunderstand. The problem isn’t Star Wars. There’s nothing wrong with loving a well-told story that delights the imagination. The problem, at least where I see it, is that for a generation that is supposedly as innovative and dynamic as ours, we can’t do anything better than the same characters and worlds that we’ve been watching for an entire generation.
Rather than a sense that we have genuinely creative storytellers in today’s cinema, we seem to be surrounded (and content with) by technological wizards who can make the stories of yesterday come to life in bigger and more expensive ways. The franchise, the umpteenth sequel, the reboot–these are the relics of a culture that is better at Photoshop than photography.
Where are the Spielbergs and Lucases of our time? Are they languishing in obscurity because no Hollywood studio will green-light their risky and un-market researched project? Imagine if the Hollywood that Steven Spielberg tried to break into in the 1970s told him to go home and focus on making a sequel to “2001” or “Planet of the Apes,” something that would be a sure opening weekend moneymaker.
I’m excited about The Force Awakens. I’ll see it as quickly as adulthood will allow. But I do yearn for a fresher vision, another narrative that takes me beyond the galaxies I traveled so well as a child. I hope I get to experience that again.
As far as I can tell it, the “emerging church” is dead.
The time of death is difficult to establish, much like the time of birth was. But there’s no question to me now that the whatever internal mechanisms the emerging church
movement contained are no longer functioning. Its leadership seems largely to have abandoned its project. Compared to the flurry of publishing in the early to mid-2000s, the last few years of evangelical writing have hardly broached the topic. Perhaps most significantly, its most popular champions have almost uniformly given up the pretense to reforming evangelicalism and are now either squarely in the mainline Protestant tradition or else out of the game altogether.
If you type in EmergentVillage.com in your browser, you won’t be reading the latest thoughts of postmodern evangelical theology. THAT site apparently doesn’t exist anymore. EmergentVillage.com is now a home decor shop, which is probably not as ironic as it feels. There is indeed a blog with the name “Emergent” in it at Patheos Progressive Christian, but the site seems to be operated mainly by a few non-clerical mainline Protestants, and–if I may add–doesn’t seem to generate much traffic.
The “emergent movement,” as keynoted by men like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell seems to have little to zero traction. What’s fascinating about these men is the way their recent intellectual output seems to fold neatly into categories that they fiercely protested being placed in. McLaren of all of them seems to have maintained his “conversational” tone. Pagitt and Jones continue to produce their own content, yet neither of them seem to have much use for the emergent movement anymore. Jones will occasionally highlight something about it, but his mentions nowadays feel more occasional than regular (and almost never venture beyond his personal blog page). There’s very little focused attention like the kind that was given to the movement a few years ago.
Bell’s case is more interesting. Of the four Emergent pastors I mentioned, Bell is by far the most well-known. He went from pastoring a several thousand-member church in Grand Rapids to becoming something like Oprah’s official spiritual guru, landing his own television show and accompanying Oprah on her massive, pseudo-sacramental speaking tours. That’s quite a turn, of course, for a pastor whose theology embraced Emergent principles like authenticity and community. I wonder how many Emergent teachers would have identified Bell’s current trajectory as a desirable one back in Emergent’s heyday; I would guess very few.
Doctrinally, it’s interesting to me that a movement that placed so much emphasis on “conversation” and positioned itself as an inter-evangelical dialogue has become solidly progressive in its ethics and soteriology. As Scot McKnight pointed out in an important lecture on the Emergent Church in 2006, the movement distinguished itself largely by its refusal to be “pinned down” on areas of theology and draw meaningful doctrinal lines. Yet between Bell, McLaren, and Jones–and I think its fair to sum up the most active remnants of Emergent in terms of those three men–all of them have affirmed the goodness of LGBT sexual relationships, have repudiated penal substitutionary atonement, and have explicitly distanced themselves from most traditional evangelical camps.
Bell and Jones have been especially aggressive in this. Bell was quoted recently as predicting that churches that didn’t embrace same-sex marriage would “continue to be irrelevant” and dismissed those churches that used “letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” In November of 2013, Tony Jones used his blog to “call for schism” in evangelicalism, urging his readers to separate immediately from any church that didn’t allow women to be pastors.
Now the important thing about those two comments is this: Even if you agree with both sentiments, it is unquestionable that the absolutist and dogmatic nature of those comments clangs loudly against the kind of gentle, “let’s talk about this” tone that characterized much of Emergent literature for many years. If nothing else, we can conclude one thing from all this: The Emergent Church movement has largely folded into a rigidly doctrinal camp with specific theological boundaries that match up well with mainline Protestantism.
My latest piece at Patheos
My latest piece at Patheos observes a significant change in how liberals relate to dissent. Furor like what we saw over Indiana’s RFRA reveals a low tolerance for dissent against contemporary social orthodoxies.
The belief that the Indiana RFRA is a license for discrimination is coherent only if one believes that offering any sort of legal recourse for businesses in discrimination lawsuits is itself intolerant. But that’s exactly where the times have taken us. We have arrived at a place where prominent columnists can speak openly about “stamping out” voices who disagree with New Morality. We see private Christian universities punished for hiring policies consistent with their charters and articles of faith. We see the personal lives of judges carefully screened and regulated for anti-New Morality activity. What is being created before our eyes is in no way secular. It is religion, and religious orthodoxy is the price of citizenship.
The hysteria over Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act is appalling. The law does absolutely nothing that isn’t already done in 19 other states (which also RFRAs) and it has no substantial difference to the laws signed by President Clinton and then-Illinois senator Barack Obama (in 1998).
All that a Religious Freedom Restoration Act does is initiate a balancing test when a private citizen feels that their religious freedom has been infringed upon by the federal government. It provides extra level of strict scrutiny protection by requiring the government to demonstrate a compelling government interest for violating someone’s religious liberty, and requires the infringement to be done in the least restrictive means. Yes, it contains an extra provision that helps adjudicate matters between the government and the aggrieved party, but also between private parties. RFRA ensures that religious liberty is taken seriously in such cases. It does not mean that it will prevail. If the RFRA is good and helpful in cases arising between the government and private individuals, it is as well in cases between private individuals. If people oppose the Indiana statute over its difference from the federal law, they ought simply to oppose both—a radical position indeed.
Nicholas Kristof says that missionary doctors like Stephen Foster interrupt the common liberal narrative about evangelical Christians:
Most evangelicals are not, of course, following such a harrowing path, and it’s also true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work forDoctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.
Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours, than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.
Sure, it puzzles me that social conservatives are often personally generous while resisting government programs for needy children, and, yes, evangelicals should overcome any prejudice against gays and lesbians — just as secular liberals should overcome any prejudice against committed Christians struggling to make a difference.
The $10,000 question though is: What happens when evangelical practice is presented alongside evangelical belief? Given the choice between legal protection for evangelicals’ work and legal anathematizing of evangelical views about sexuality and family, which one would most liberals pick?