What C.S. Lewis Means to Me

Clive Staples Lewis died today, November 22, in 1963. I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like if this man were not a towering figure in it. This past summer I tried to capture a little bit of the debt of gratitude I feel toward him when we gave our newborn son the middle name “Lewis.” One of the great pleasures I have right now is looking forward to telling Charlie Lewis about the professor whose name he bears, and what a wondrous world he let me enter.

I read Lewis for the first time in high school. Mere Christianity hit me like a battering ram of clarity and reasonableness; it gave a logical shape to the faith I (thought I had) inherited from my parents, but which seemed so often to not fit into the world around me. What Lewis gave me in Mere Christianity was not a mere step-by-step proof of Christianity, nor an unassailable list of “defeaters” for atheism. He gave me something infinitely more important: A reason to believe that the claims of Jesus Christ and the New Testament were reasonable and beautiful. Of course, one doesn’t need Lewis to see the self-authenticating glory of the gospel. But by mowing down arguments–especially the snobbish mentality of modernity that Screwtape calls “an inarticulate sense of actuality”–Lewis paved the way in my mind for Christ.

As I look at the influence Lewis has had on me, I see four characteristics that have shaped (or, that I hope shape!) my thinking and my feeling in my life.

1) A gentle absoluteness

Lewis’s work is consistently characterized by a calm, winsome, yet irresistible firm absoluteness. Lewis did not see a conflict between empathy with those who disagree and unyielding conviction that they were wrong. His book Miracles is a wonderful example of his ability to sympathize with the atheist-materialist worldview in a way that gives his case against it a moral and emotional credibility. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that Lewis spent much of his adult life as an unbeliever. I constantly come back to this fact whenever I am gripped, as many Christians are nowadays, by a fear of “wasting my life.” No life that finds Christ, however late and however feebly, is wasted.

2) A love of the written word

Lewis, professor of English, was a master at saying. I don’t just mean he was a master of writing, or even a master at thinking. I mean he was a master of saying. There is a crucial difference between the ability to talk, or write, and the ability to say. Putting one’s thoughts or one’s research on paper is an exercise between a person and the material. But saying involves a third party–the reader, the listener, the neighbor. Lewis’ ability to say–to say meaningful things in beautiful but precise ways–was one of his great gifts, and I’ve tried and will keep on trying to make it my own as long as I may.

3) A humble time for others

If you want to know what Lewis thought of others, perhaps the best thing to show you is this massive, wonderful 3-volume collection of his collected letters. Lewis made a point of responding (where health permitted) to anyone who corresponded with him. The day before he died, Lewis penned a reply to a young admirer who loved the Narnia books. The note, perhaps Lewis’ last ever, perfectly sums up so much about Lewis himself:

There are simply not many people who would advise a world-renowned academic, novelist, and philosopher to spend time on his deathbed responding to children’s fan mail. But Lewis did, and even as I write, his example shames me in my self-centeredness. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

4) An ability to see

Lewis could see. He could see the way ideas work together. More importantly, he could see the human condition. He understood that modernity was making a case not only against God, but against the individual. He understood that the Christian life isn’t lived in the “big” moments, but it can most certainly be thwarted in the small ones. He understood that materialism was attractive for an educated, postwar Western culture, but that it had a gaping hole at the center.

He also understood that truth was not, contra the linguistic philosophers, a mere power play by subculture against subculture. It’s sometimes said that Lewis would not have fit in with the fundamentalist evangelicals who love to claim him. That’s probably true. But it’s equally true that he would not have sailed quietly among those progressive revisionists, deconstructing the faith for a “new era.” In the Abolition of Man, Lewis exorciated modern teachers who urged their disciples to “see through” the claims of religion:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that a window should be transparent, because the street or the garden beyond is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

That quote has stayed with me since the first time I read it. Is there a better summation anywhere of the folly of learned unbelief?

I sometimes hear it said that the church needs a new C.S. Lewis for today. But that’s not quite right. What the church needs is the old C.S. Lewis of yesterday. And it needs preachers and teachers and moms and dads and children whose souls are shaped by the same transcendent “Joy” that captured Lewis.

I am thankful to C.S. Lewis, and to the Hound of Heaven who chased him–and me– down relentlessly with jealous love.

InterVarsity

In reflecting on InterVarsity’s recent decision, two things occur to me.

The first is that critics of the decision need to realize that, even though fealty to IV’s evangelical doctrinal heritage was clearly the decisive factor here, it wasn’t conservative evangelicalism that forced this kind of move. Rather, the political and cultural pressure has been coming from Obergefell champions and theological revisionists. Consider that a couple years ago the organization was “de-recognized” by the California State University system, because of its policy requiring members to hold to a New Testament ethic of sexuality. Progressive columnists praised California for enforcing its ideology and mocked evangelical concern that such a move represented a hostile posture toward historic Christian doctrine. Fast forward to this past summer’s showdown between the Golden State and Biola University, and the reality is unmissable: Organizations and institutions, no matter how much they serve students and taxpayers, are subject to sexual revolutionary tests.

What this means is that InterVarsity was given a choice, not by evangelical subculture, but by the cultural headwinds: Either you can curry favor with states like California by adopting doctrines on marriage and gender that run afoul of your history, your heritage, and your mission, or you can risk alienating some students, staff, and the right side of history, for the sake of the right side of the faith. That was a choice given to them by one side, not the other, and not both.

Second, it seems pretty clear to me that InterVarsity didn’t make this decision because they wanted to “win.” If you were a person in charge of making sure that IV had political protection, sufficient funding, and great PR in the next few decades, would you have advised them to adopt this policy? Of course not. And this is important because it gets to the heart of what many progressive evangelicals accuse traditionalists of–namely, exploiting the culture war for gain. For years, mainline Protestants and others have argued time and time again that conservative evangelical institutions thrive when they play culture war. Thus, it is reasoned, we have an obsession over issues like homosexuality and abortion, rather than mercy and justice, because the former are politically profitable and the latter are not.

But can anyone with a shred of intellectual responsibility look at the cultural and political landscape that InterVarsity finds itself in, and argue that they are engorging themselves on wedge issues? One point that needs to be said repeatedly is that by adopting a formal policy, InterVarsity is showing its LGBT and affirming students and staff that it has no interest in profiting from their confusion. I’m sure this is a difficult time for some who love InterVarsity, but by playing both ends against the middle, never saying anything certain but always nodding a head in both directions–is that really a better culture for InterVarsity to build for those on opposite sides of this theological divide?

You may disagree vehemently with InterVarsity. But what everyone, regardless of conviction, should agree on is that we have here an example of people who are selling out to principle. Right or wrong, truth or fiction–that’s worthy of respect, and also worthy of a moment of grief for a society that so often encourages the opposite.

There Are No Secrets Anymore

Disgraced politician Anthony Weiner has been disgraced yet again…and again, it’s all about some raunchy texts. I can’t really laugh at him, because it’s obvious that he’s dealing with some life-deforming demons that I know too well. My prayer is that he would reach to the heavens for the rescue he desperately needs.

In a brief piece at National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke makes an interesting point about technology and immorality. Years ago, this kind of infidelity was hard to keep secret, because it required physical presence. Then, with technology, it got really easy to keep secret. But now, with the way that modern smartphone technology tracks and archives everything, secrecy is impossible yet again:

By the 1950s, everybody had a car, which they could use to get to the next town — or farther. Motels popped everywhere, as did their discreet proprietors. And the analog telephone provided a means by which those who were up to no good could communicate instantly, and without leaving a substantial record. So fundamentally did this transform American life that traditionalists complained openly about the deleterious effect that modernity was having on conventional mores…

[I]s this still true? I think not, no. Now, there are cameras everywhere. Now, most people carry cell phones and drive cars that track their movement by satellite. Now, most communication is conducted via intermediate servers, and spread across multiple devices. In 1960, the average American could make a sordid phone call without there being any chance that it would be taped. Today, with a $3 app, anybody can record any conversation and send it anywhere in the world in a few seconds…Put plainly, it is now nigh on impossible for anybody to get away with infidelity, especially if one is a public figure.

Maybe we could put it like this: In the age of the iPhone, doing something lascivious while no one is watching is the easiest it’s ever been–but doing it without anyone ever knowing is virtually (pun not intended) impossible. At the very least, those naked pictures and crass text messages are being stored somewhere, on technology that someone with a name and two eyes built and maintains.

Surely, as Cooke writes of Weiner, we know this to be the case. So why is there so much explicitness on cloud servers? I can think of two answers.

First, sexual temptation is stronger, always has been stronger, and always will be stronger than logic. This is why Solomon urges his son to not even walk down the street where the adulterous woman lives.

Second, though: Is it possible that many in Western culture are actually OK with the idea of people they’ll never meet having access to their naked bodies and lewd messages? Could it be that our pornified consciousness has actually numbed us to the point where, even if we know that our texts and pictures stop belonging to us the moment we press “Send,” we don’t really care? Have we, as the prophets warned, actually become the very smut we love?

A Few Thoughts on “Purity Culture”

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.

 

Sitting Athwart History

Timothy George’s profile of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and its senior pastor, Mark Dever, is a joy to read. It was a joy for me personally because my wife and I are members of a church in Louisville that owes much to Dever and Capitol Hill. My pastor, Greg Gilbert, studied under Dever, and Third Avenue Baptist bears much resemblance to the vision that Dever has cast in his “9 Marks” ministry.

I was raised in very traditional Southern Baptist churches. These churches, I am told, thrived during the middle of the last century. I have to rely on the testimony of others for that information, because by the time I was old enough to notice, many of the churches I saw—including the ones I attended—were losing members yearly, becoming more insular and less evangelistic, and were often more enthralled by their internal politics than by the doctrines of Christianity. I spent my teenage years in an evangelical culture that desperately wanted to regain relevance. Thus, much of the preaching, teaching, singing, and “discipleship” that I heard was crafted carefully in the image of the “seeker-friendly” movement, which sought to make the experience of church palatable to Gen Xers and millennials who demanded entertainment and variety.

I didn’t fully realize what was going on until I arrived at Third Avenue. Then it became ridiculously obvious. For the sake of those accustomed to the secular liturgies of American culture, evangelicalism had tried to make the local church recognizable; but instead, it had made it invisible. Intellectual and spiritual formation of members was being neutered by the efforts to make church fun.

George describes how Dever pulled Capitol Hill away from this trend:

…[Dever] began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past.

This describes perfectly my experience at Third Avenue. These churches are counter-cultural, not only in the content of their gospel but in the character of their pedagogy. And yes, pedagogy is the right word, because for churches like Third Avenue and Capitol Hill, the worship culture of the church is designed not merely to amuse or entertain, but to teach. The teaching doesn’t just begin and end with the sermon. The whole mode of worship is one that demands—and trains—intellectual and emotional maturity. Times of silence invoke the kinds of reflection and meditation that a smartphone culture often finds impossible. Old hymns with archaic but theologically rich vocabulary remind singers of big truths that require old words, not just mantras that could be found in any young adult novel. At any given point in the service there is a sense that members aren’t just spectating or even just participating in an event, but that they are learning in both word and desire.

This is the personal formation that has been lost in the noise of much evangelical church culture. It’s a loss that may carry a higher price tag than we ever thought. Could it even be that our current political crisis—and a crisis it is—is due at least part to the fact that millions of self-identified “evangelicals” are in churches that keep their attention but don’t teach them much? I’m not even talking mainly about the failure of churches to explicate a Christian view of political engagement, though that is certainly part of the problem. I’m talking mainly about the millions of people who name themselves members of evangelical churches, and yet find that reality TV lewdness and Twitter demagoguing are “speaking their language.” Instead of trying to jockey over whether they are actually “evangelical,” it might be better to acknowledge the possibility that many churches have failed to teach their members a better language.

Imagine a member of a entertainment-oriented church. He attends once per week, faithfully but passively. He absorbs many contemporary worship songs, some of which seem inspired by the Psalms but many of which seem inspired by Hallmark. Though he doesn’t consciously register it, the language and ritual he hears in church overlaps with that of commercialism. Everything about the church service is “accessible” to him as an average, working class American Christian. Everything feels new, and interesting, and immediately useful (or would if he could remember it after lunch). The hour he spends on Sunday morning feels like time well spent, mainly because it wasn’t much time and because there’s little cognitive dissonance between life in the church and life in the world.

Can this kind of spiritual formation provide any ballast in the wake of economic hardship, cultural alienation or political anger? Not at all. For those who aren’t being actively formed to think deeper thoughts, the rhetorical power of talk radio and social media demagogues is too invigorating and too empowering. Much of our American political rhetoric is pure showmanship, training the audience to respond as quickly as possible, as emotively as possible, to the world around them. Outrage, mockery, and hysteria feel so real, and when a moral imagination has not been trained to want something more, there’s no defense against them. If the moral imaginations of evangelicals aren’t being formed in church, where will they be formed?

The local church’s mandate of discipleship is a mandate for maturity. If evangelicalism has failed in the voting booth, perhaps that is because it is failing in the pews. Perhaps evangelical church culture cannot be satisfied with “relevance.” Perhaps what it really needs is transcendence, to risk sounding out of date and out of place if it means thinking big thoughts about big questions. This isn’t a call for civics lessons from the pulpit. It’s a call for the recovery of the Christian tradition that stood up to Roman emperors for the cause of religious freedom, and stood up to kings and presidents for the end of vicious slave trades. It’s a call for the church to be more than accessible—to be formative, to meet people where they are in order to raise them up.

There is a God-appointed time for Christians to come together, with unity in diversity, and learn to look at the world the way God sees it. That time is the gathering of the local church. Before evangelicals can stand athwart history, we need to sit athwart it first.

Why We Can’t Explain Scrooge

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol begins like this: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” The opening emphasis on Ebenezer Scrooge’s late business partner and friend Jacob Marley is crucial to understanding Dickens’ tale. A Christmas Carol isn’t about how one solitary, anti-social miser was frightened into a sanguine personality, and it’s not about the loneliness of self-centered living. In fact, when you think about it, Scrooge wasn’t a loner at all. Jacob Marley is proof of that.

But we modern readers seem to miss this. Our perception of Scrooge is that he is unfriendly because he dislikes people. We reckon that the three ghosts of Christmas–Past, Present, and Future–break Scrooge’s will by breaking through his defense mechanisms, perhaps like Robin Williams broke through Matt Damon’s child abuse-fueled mistrust of people. That is why we often use the word “Scrooge” to describe people we think are too dour or too introverted, those who rain on the parade.

But that’s not the Scrooge that Dickens created.

The ghost of Christmas Past helps us see this. The first spirit transports Scrooge back in time to three distinct scenes of his life. In the first, Scrooge sees himself as a boy at boarding school, forced to stay while his friends travel home for Christmas. But this moment quickly gives way to another, in which Scrooge’s sister arrives at the school and tells him that “Father is so much kinder than he used to be,” and has called for his son to come home. This moment in Scrooge’s childhood ends with happiness and reconciliation.

The next scene is likewise joyful. The ghost shows Scrooge his time as an apprentice to a garrulous man named Fezziwig. Fezziwig is kind and merry, and throws a delightful Christmas party for his family and apprentices. The point of this small act isn’t lost on Scrooge, who realizes that Fezziwig’s friends love him because he possessed “the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil…The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Under Fezziwig’s wing, Scrooge was a happy, cared for man, who rebounded the love he received into love–at least a temporary love–for others.

What happened to this love? Why did Scrooge lose it? Was it due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect? In our psychoanalytic culture, we would probably assume so. Surely such a change in character must have been precipitated by intense personal trauma? But that’s not what Dickens and the spirit show us. Instead, Dickens’ transformation of Ebenezer into Scrooge is far more subtle and far more perceptive of human nature:

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”

“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”

“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”

She shook her head.

“Am I?”

“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”

“I was a boy,” he said impatiently.

“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”

With that, the two lovers part, and the elderly Scrooge, unable to bear further the sight of this memory, tells the spirit to haunt him no longer.

Dickens is telling us that this moment in Scrooge’s life signals his descent into icy miserliness. Yet there is no psychological pain, no humiliation or unrequited love (from Scrooge, at least). His personal transformation defies Freudian explanation. Scrooge fears the world, yet the world had been kind to him. He fears poverty, yet the poor he had known for so long had shared their joy with him. How is it that this young man, reconciled to his father, rejoiced in by his master, and loved by a woman, becomes the kind of person to wish death on the poor so as to “decrease the surplus population”?

The answer is simple: We don’t know. That is the mystery of human nature, a topic that received Dickens’ masterful treatment many times. Scrooge’s past undermines our modern, convenient explanations of his present. In the end, all we are left with is the fact that somewhere, somehow, Ebenezer Scrooge fell in love with money.

This isn’t a lack of character development on Dickens’ part. On the contrary, this mystery is what gives A Christmas Carol its power. The Ebenezer Scrooge that is a cultural meme is someone to despise, someone on the outside that we may mock and jeer and never have to worry about. On the other hand, Scrooge the protagonist (yes, protagonist!) looks very much like me and you. No spectacular suffering, no singular moment of overwhelming seduction. Just a slow, gradual, sin-ward crawl, day by day, year by year, and decade by decade. His redemption was supernatural, but his moral decay was not.

Screwtape was right:

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

 

How to Surrender the Earth to Thugs

In 1994, Michael Novak delivered an acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize entitled “Awakening From Nihilism.” Novak warned that the oppressive regimes of the 20th century relied greatly on cultural vacuums where transcendent values and religious beliefs had ceased to exist. The value-neutral nihilism peddled by many Western universities was, Novak observed, a breeding ground for totalitarianism and worship of the state.

For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.

The “romance of the will” is the liturgy of individual autonomy and sexual nothingness. It is the spiritual void created when a society believes it can merely create its own meaning by an act of fiat. Leaving the realm of the absolute, the transcendent, and the supernatural does not free a culture from its lessons; it merely creates a job opening for those who demand to be worshipped as gods themselves.

In Europe, ISIS gains converts and recruits. How could a militant, murderous regime gain followers out of the eminently secular, eminently fashionable ranks of the modern West? Perhaps one answer is that Europe’s secular age has failed to answer the questions it insisted it would. A fragmented, irrelevant Christianity was supposed to open the doors to a joyous, thoroughly self-fulfilled consciousness of individual freedom and intellectual vigor. But it appears in 2015 that it has only resulted in a nihilistic embrace of suicide, either for the cause of Mohammed or for the alleviation of boredom.

Here in the US, revolts across university campuses express the indigestion that inevitably follows an intellectual diet of relativism and materialism. Students are dissatisfied with a university culture that displays contempt for tradition, except that tradition that flatters and profits the schools themselves. Long having abandoned any pretense of teaching moral reasoning or character formation, American halls of higher education find themselves powerless to articulate why social media should not dictate their very existences. The classroom has been surrendered to the activist.

You see what happens? The allure of secularism is the promise of a future without the intellectual and emotional boundaries that religion enables. A mind freed from the chains of anachronism is supposed to also be free from the dictates of tyranny. But that is not so. For what we see today is that secularism is not the end of religion but merely an open invitation to the will to power. Whether it be the promise of paradise through jihad, or the promise of equality through activism and intolerance, the human soul will not rest at secularism as a destination, but will pass by it, looking for more solid ground.

C.S. Lewis Explains When To Stop Believing a Doctrine

One thing I’ve read a lot lately from some contemporary progressive evangelical writers is this: If a particular belief makes relationships difficult, or makes people around you feel alienated or upset, you should probably stop believing that doctrine.

The logic goes like this. Jesus said we can judge a tree by its fruits. When people are excluded by or express personal frustration at a point of doctrine, we should be suspicious of that doctrine because of the bad fruit it is beginning to bear. On the flip side, we should evaluate doctrines for their truthfulness in large part by whether or not they bear good fruit–that is, by whether or not, by believing them, we become more friendly, more inclusive, and more ingratiating to the people around us.

But C.S. Lewis has some problems with this idea. And in his essay “Man Or Rabbit,” he explains why this sort of approach of doctrine isn’t a respectable one:

One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine.

Christianity claims to give an account of facts–to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all. [God in the Dock, p.108-109]

When we’re looking at doctrine, our ultimate question cannot be, “Is this helping us?” Rather our ultimate question must be, “Is this true?” That means at least two things.

First, it means that our doctrines of Christian belief are not meant primarily to help us live and work well with others on this earth, but to help us know and be known by God. We should indeed strive to live at peace with all men, and our love for other Christians is a sure mark of our Christianity. But this is much different from saying the essence of our Christianity is our relationships with other humans. Christianity is news from God first, before it is helpful to us.

Second, it means that we simply cannot judge a doctrine’s truthfulness by how seemingly helpful it is in our life. Truthfulness and helpfulness are not the same thing. To conflate the two is really a Darwinistic way of looking at Christianity, as if the “strong” doctrines that further social harmony are meant to survive and the “weak” doctrines that are antiquated or unpopular need to die off. The Bible is clear on many points of doctrine that our neighbors may not admire us for believing, or that may not actually help us win favor and friendship (even inside the church!)

But as Lewis reminded us, truth is valuable apart from its helpfulness. Truth is not merely a means to an end but an end itself. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)

How “Red Letter Christianity” misunderstands the Trinity

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

What happened to the “Emergent Church”?

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

"A Generous Orthodoxy," by Brian McLaren
“A Generous Orthodoxy,” by Brian McLaren

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.