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Archive for May, 2007

A Few Theses

A few theses following up my last post to provoke discussion:

1. Secular observers like Alan Wolfe and Harold Bloom are correct when they suggest, contra theocracy fear mongers like Damon Linker and others, that the liberal soul has nearly completed its march through American Christianity such that the American church is no longer an existential threat to the dominant liberal, secular order.

2. These observers are wrong when they argue that this is a good thing.

3. They are wrong from the perspective of one who loves America because the assimilation of Christianity has the effect of collapsing the tension between the otherworldly order of the church and the mundane order of the Hobbsian world of scarcity, competition, and death.

4. This tension is necessary to civilization in the current age.

5. They are wrong, also from the perspective of one who loves the church because the otherworldly order of the church is called to be a constant threat and pressure on the mundane order of the powers of men, whether it take the form of liberalism or something else.

6. Those within the church who seek by various means to eliminate the Hobbsian pole of this tension are likewise wrong.

7. The church must therefore figure out how to both resist the march of the liberal soul through its ranks and resist dreaming up ways to escape the Hobbsian contingency of life in this age.

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As regular readers are no doubt aware, my sympathies in this discussion lie with Darryl’s thesis, especially with respect to the dangers of theocratic and Kuyperian dreaming. However, I keep coming up against what appears to me to be a contradiction within that thesis which, as I see it, risks allowing Darryl’s admirable body of work to bleed out rather slowly. In the comments below, Darryl sums up the creed of the hesitant or conflicted Christian liberal rather succinctly:

Is the church today any worse off than at the time when Paul was telling Christians to be subject to the authorities God had ordained? This question isn’t about the health of the church. It’s about the freedom of Christians to worship and serve God as they seek. The fairly obvious answer is that Christians enjoy far more freedoms and benefits than the early Christians did. … Yes, liberalism has its problems, as did Nero’s government. Do I like cell phones, air travel, or bans on smoking? Of course not. Even worse, do I think abortion is a terrible evil that even pragmatically makes no sense given the bloated budget lines sustaining middle-class entitlements? Yes, emphatically. But despite all of modern liberalism’s woes, I am hard-pressed to understand how the current state of affairs restricts the ministry of word and sacrement, the discipline of the church, the catechizing of covenant children, or the administration of diaconal assistance, the things that Scripture calls Christians to do while waiting for the return of their Lord.

Actually, I rather think the question is about the health of the church, and about the manner in which liberalism undermines that health. I haven’t seen an adequate account of or even a grappling with the deep ways liberalism is antithetical to Christianity in Darryl’s rendering of the church/politics question. Rather, the account we have seems to boil down to: liberalism gives the church freedom to worship and preach, and even though it also gives freedom to abortionists, etc., it is the best possible arrangement in this world through which we are pilgrims. From that point, the discussion almost always focuses on the latter half of the liberal bargain. And I agree with Darryl that the freedom liberalism grants to wrongdoers is not an existential threat to the church. But what gets missed in this discussion is what is, to me at least, the far more important question which concerns the first half of the bargain: is the form of freedom offered the church by the liberal order good for it? I don’t mean to reduce the question to a simple contrast between 21st Century America and Nero-style persecution, here, but rather to ask: is the order of the liberal soul compatible with Christianity?

To this question, Darryl seems to take the side of American whiggish thinkers (who seem in most senses not to be his natural allies) such as RJ Neuhaus and Chuck Colson who say, basically, with a few caveats here and there, “yes,” it is compatible. In my observation, these are thinkers who, when asked to survey the health of the American church, will by and large affirm the basic health of large-tent evangelicalism in its current form. This is, I think, the only tenable position to take: if you are basically comfortable with the liberal order, then you better be willing to accept the current evangelical mish-mash of the American church. The two are joined at the hip. However, I don’t think it makes any sense to affirm the former and lament or reject the latter. Here is a passage worth considering:

Shannon would no doubt agree with Allen Guelzo who wrote in a recent Books & Culture review of John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom that “Catholics might be better advised to forget assimilation to a culture drunk with autonomous individualism”–culture as choice–“and be content with Catholicism’s own authentic strangeness.” Guelzo comes close to suggesting what Shannon might have added himself: the “secular” norms of “individualism” and “choice” have such purchase among conservative, observant Protestants–the sort who are often keen to denounce “secularism” and “liberals”–that Alan Wolfe is correct in The Transformation of American Religion when he deems them “harmless” to the dominant liberal order.

Readers of The New Pantagruel will not be surprised to find that Wolfe’s thesis finds little resistance here. Father Richard John Neuhaus, captain of the First Things ship, however, has consistently railed at Wolfe, calling him “the Alfred E. Neuman of the sociology of American religion.” Neuhaus has also suggested more than once in “reviews” with very little analysis that Wolfe’s perceived failure to understand his subject inheres in his status as “a secular Jew.”

I agree with Neuhaus, pace Wolfe, that the assimilation of traditional Christians to the secular status quo is not a good thing for either the Church or the culture. Nevertheless, with serious questions about the integrity of religious traditionalism in general and of Protestant Evangelicalism in particular emerging in First Things and fellow-traveller publications, Neuhaus might do well to ask if he isn’t rather prejudicially shooting the messenger. But no–even when the otherwise admirable David Brooks failed to trash Wolfe’s book in The New York Times, this was clearly due to some lapse on Brooks’ part, and it became another occasion for Neuhaus to snipe at Wolfe. Playing the resentful victim who can never be understood by “outsiders,” Neuhaus’s animated reactions to Wolfe’s presumed “snobbery” resemble the reactions of other cultural minorities who seethe at any criticism from outside the family–criticism that they are quite able to accept from “their own people.”

As Neuhaus observes in his review of The Transformation of American Religion, “thoughtful evangelicals readily admit that their religious world offers a target-rich environment,” and Wolfe’s book “contains considerable truth.” Nevertheless, it is enough of a “caricature” to be dismissed as “superficial sociology of superficial religion–or, more precisely, of religion that the author is determined to construe as superficial.” Or–maybe Evangelicalism really is superficial! Considerably superficial? Nuance and self-critique is not the forté of what McCarraher has called “the embedded intellectual.” Signs of malaise and ideological familiarity indeed!

The sickness reaches also to Books & Culture editor John Wilson as he gushes over Robert Putnam, Lewis Feldstein, and Don Cohen’s book, Better Together. Writing in Christianity Today, Wilson claims that Better Together’s study of Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch indicates “[t]he unmistakable conclusion … that evangelicals can be trusted at the civic table.” They’re generating social capital, and what’s more, they’re still maintaining evangelistic agendas. This is supposed to silence the cautionary critics, “notably disciples of theologian Stanley Hauerwas,” who hold that Evangelicals “have been co-opted by the imperial state.” In a complete non-sequitur which does violence to the real arguments offered by Hauerwas and others, Wilson closes his article by posing Jesus–“a man who dined with tax collectors and all kinds of riffraff”–as a “precedent” over against those who don’t “believe that [Christians] should strive to have a place at the civic table.” I suspect that the civic tables Wilson, Warren, Neuhaus and other Christian culture elites sit at are not populated by riffraff. More appropriate would have been a response to Wolfe’s sense that Evangelicals are selling out their patrimony.

I am under no illusions concerning Wolfe’s place in this debate. He is clearly of the mind that the civic table is a good and necessary thing; a “civilizing” influence on the fervent passions that are prone to grip sectarians such as Hauerwas. Thus, like Neuhaus and Wilson, Wolfe dislikes Hauerwas’s adversarial rancor. Wolfe much prefers what he calls the phenomena of Evangelical “Salvation Inflation.” In an interview with Michael Cromartie for the March/April 2004 issue of Books & Culture, Wolfe says that in the Rick Warren mode of post-traditional Protestantism, “more Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem.” “People confess fewer and fewer sins, and are rewarded with more and more.” This, to Wolfe, represents a positive development within Christianity, making its adherents better civil citizens of a pluralistic democracy. Wolfe’s manner is strikingly reminiscent of a colonial governor writing home with condescending delight to describe the natives’ halting embrace of the modern world.

Accompanying the Books & Culture interview, Wolfe received an appreciative but anxious review of The Transformation of American Religion from R. Stephen Warner. Warner prompts readers to avoid Neuhaus’s histrionics and give Wolfe a charitable reading in the I’m OK-You’re OK Evangelical way where every critic is ultimately an okely-dokely heckuva nice guy. (Translation: we ignore whatever he says that rubs us the wrong way or try to put a positive spin on it.) For in Warner’s review, truth and accuracy in analysis take a back seat to pop psychology’s language of diplomacy: Wolfe is “well-intentioned,” he has “new evangelical friends,” and he does a fair job of understanding them. Wolfe is “sensitive to [Evangelicals’] vulnerability to his scorn.” Hence, when Wolfe uses negative terms to describe Evangelicals, it is because he “respects” them “too much not to share with them his disdain for the way many of their number flirt with the worst of American pop culture.” On the other hand, Warner wishes that Wolfe had talked about other, more progressive Evangelicals, such as those who took in Central American refugees in the 80s and helped “delegitimate Reagan-era counterinsurgency policies.”

Warner’s review works the way he thinks Wolfe’s book works–not primarily as a real analysis but rather as a negotiation between secularists and Christians. Warner’s main anxiety about Wolfe’s book is not that its analysis of Western Christianity is badly mistaken but that it is inconvenient for the cultural-political agendas of Christian “movement” literature like Books & Culture: “Wolfe’s well-intentioned purpose to allay mutual fears and disarm recriminations on the part of his two audiences would have been better served if the theme of capitulation had not been such a relentless drumbeat. As it is, he lends support to those who see an eschatological slippery slope instead of a perennial tightrope in every instance calling for their cultural discernment.”

Again, perhaps the point is capitulation, and perhaps it is an accurate point. Can it penetrate the hardened positions and hardened arteries among movement personalities–the passive-aggressive approach at Books & Culture on the one hand and Neuhaus’s aggressive-aggressive approach at First Things on the other?

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Andrew Matthews

Darryl Hart admits that Christendom was far better then the Roman Empire, but asks whether America did anything significant. How America fits in post-apostolic redemptive history is a good question to consider. (I think a case can be made that redemptive history continued after New Testament times. Think of the A.D. 70 Judgment, the conversion of Constantine, the rise of the Papacy, etc.) The following may be suggested for America’s role: America was colonized to begin Christendom afresh in the New World. Its establishment meant the end of heathen barbarism, at least in North America. The U.S. has been preserved an an unofficial Christian nation (Lincoln’s “almost chosen people”) with the resolve to oppose some of the great evils of recent times: Nazism, communism, and Jihadist Islam. America has one of the best track records for promoting human rights, national self-determination, economic prosperity and governmental stability all over the world, especially after World War II through the Cold War. The Cold War was truly a contest between an evil empire and a God-blessed nation. So, I do not accept that God’s will is equally accomplished through the rule of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein.

Since the Church is not exhausted by its ecclesiastical institutions but ecompasses families (and by extension–nations), I see no necessity in preferring the “Pilgrim” metaphor to the “Crusader” metaphor. The NT contains plenty of martial imagery describing the activity of Christians in the present age. This warfare is primarily “spiritual” in the sense that the Gospel addresses the root problem: sin and the demonic oppression that results. St. Boniface was acting in a capacity beyond “wayaring pilgrim” when he cut down Thor’s Oak in Geismar and converted the tribes of Germany. Of course it has been the lot of the Reformed to inherit lands already purged of the demonic.

According to a 2007 Princeton survey poll conducted for Newsweek, 82% of Americans identify themselves as Christian or of Christian heritage. A supermajority of Americans are probably covenantally Christian (i.e., baptized). Can Darryl explain why Americans shouldn’t have a polity and culture that reflects their actual heritage? Why should Americans be happy with the sorry alternative of secular progressivism that virtually guarantees the ascendancy of antichrist in our culture?

But since it can’t be a pleasant experience being accused of cosmic misanthropy, I welcome Darryl to provide an alternate account of W2K than the one I’ve attempted. My critique capitalizes on W2K’s rejection of the abiding validity of the cultural mandate and the substitution in its place of an unstable culture that has no other intrinsic purpose than to gratify men’s needs and wants. Darryl is welcome to explain how this down-grading of humanity’s task glorifies God. Does he hold that God is equally glorified in Constantine and Tony Blair, in Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock, in the Hagia Sophia and Las Vegas’ Bellagio?

Darryl says that “transformationalists” ascribe ultimate significance to culture & politics, and that this was crucial to Rome’s error. I am persuaded he is wrong on both counts. Megapolis is not Metapolis. Megapolis is penultimate rather than eschatologically ultimate. However, this does not mean that the human race should not cultivate the world to its full potential in anticipation of the consummating work only God is able to perform. And I don’t believe Rome ever considered secular (as opposed to ecclesiastical) culture to be an ultimate good.

Darryl affirms the inherent goodness of creation and counter-charges that the “constant need to redeem creation” implies the opposite. My own counter to this is that just as human nature is corrupted but still retains its essential goodness, that is, its purpose to conform and be glorified in the Image of God, so creation has been diverted from its original purpose, subjected to “futility.” Just as believers receive God’s forgiveness anew when they confess their sins and brought back into the joy of their salvation, so things of this life can be removed from service to idolatrous futility and consecrated to serve the Lord.

Since humanity is ontologically related to the rest of creation, as its summit and capstone, all of creation was affected by the Fall. It is consequently the work of God’s grace through the agency of the theanthropic Person of Jesus to restore creation and re-orient it to its original purpose. This is an on-going ministry of reconciliation that the Church performs on the basis of the once-and-for-all sacrifice of our Incarnate Lord. In asserting this basic biblical teaching, I believe I justly claim that W2K is a degraded expression of our catholic and apostolic faith.

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Gas prices are killing my family budget. Maybe the government could help by giving a little less help?
Read this article at Human Events by Terry Easton.

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I did not want this comment to be lost in the shuffle.

This is interesting. Darryl, what you say makes sense in the context we live. Our churches are like regional centers. People travel from miles around to gather to worship in our conservative Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. But this is a unique, and maybe unfortunante, aspect of our present setting.
What if our congregations served our neighborhoods, villages, ect. What if our neighbors where also members of our congregation. What if we all moved into the same neighborhood or village. How would this change the dynamic.
By your agreement, the Session would be answer many questions that were not “spiritual” in nature. The courts of the church would be a parallel court of originial jurisdiction not under the authority of the magistrate. Such courts would have a significant limiting impact on the civil courts, no? Set in an earlier context this explains the rise of canon law over against the civil law. At the very least this represents a Christian limitation on the soverignty of the state but it also implys that the church will have to deal with many “secular” issues.
I wonder if this change of context has caused the office confusion of the last three decades. What is the role lay elders if the church us purely spiritual and not also an incarnate community?
Interesting, right?

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Immigration Amnesty?

President Bush has secured his legacy. The promise of immigration reform has degenerated into amnesty. How should Christians think about the issue?

This is an excerpt from the Understanding the Times Committee Report to the Reformed Presbyterian Synod in 2006. The controversial report was recieved as information. I am the author.

Wars and Rumors of War: Border Security

While American soldiers are fighting in the Middle East, and army of illegal immigrants is invading the homeland. Of course, the invasion of our southern border is not a military conquest but it does have grave cultural and economic implications. The RPC recognizes the moral dilemma involved in the discussion.

First, as Christians, we must remember that we were strangers who dwelt in Egypt. When Israel inherited the land of promise, they were called upon to remember this history of subjection when dealing with aliens in their midst. As such, we should be tenderhearted to those in need and show liberality toward those who seek refuge.

Yet, our sympathy is moderated by the unwillingness of illegal immigrants to show respect toward the American system of ordered liberty. Radical leaders of the pro-immigration movement speak of reclaiming the southwest for Mexico. Thus, as millions of illegal aliens cross the border under the flag of Mexico, the question is not how can we deal mercifully with needy refugees, but rather how can the United States defend its historic, cultural, and linguistic heritage? The moral law of God maintains the individuals inherent right to self-defense. Do nations and cultures have no such right? Such a conclusion would appear absurd.”

A year later, I say amen.

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Andrew Matthews

Whatever can be said about how this man represented Christ in the public realm, for good or ill, I think it’s safe to say that an era has passed.

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