Retroactively Looking Forward

A full month into the experiment that is 2018 now I thought it wise to shore up some of the more salient thinking points of the previous year to help imagine what our next steps out of the maelstrom might look like.


The first one worth mulling over was posted by the New York Times: “How to Escape from Roy Moore’s Evangelicalism.” In it Molly Worthen gathered a number of the symptoms of what ails evangelicalism on the whole and I’m sure James K. A. Smith would be pleased with one interviewee’s summation of the whole mess being a matter of bad liturgy:

Liberals love to complain about conservatives’ steady diet of misinformation through partisan media, but Ms. Schiess’s complaint is more profound: Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aren’t just purveyors of distorted news, but high priests of a false religion.

It may perplex you, faithful companion, but Fox News commentators have, in actual fact, given their own caricatures Frankenstein-like life by defending First Baptist in Dallas’ “Make America Great Again” Baal-worship with tired gestures towards freedom of speech/freedom of worship. “They’re free to do whatever they want in their own church and don’t need to ask Ben Sasse’s permission!” Because that’s how orthodoxy works, right? For dyed in the wool capitalists even the gospel must make room for a competitive market. More to the point here, Worthen diagnoses our ills and prescribes more invested modes of worship that impart humility rather than hubris. To go slightly farther with that, if it boosts hubris, it may be worship, but it ain’t Christian worship.

Next door to this is Alan Jacobs’ Life Among the Crackheads which examines how to interact with people who are still deluded by the Donald, using the paradigm of addiction to view the issue as one of containment: “Our public sphere is an old neighborhood with a few social-media crack houses in it,” he writes. “And if you’re spending a significant amount of your time fighting with people on Twitter or Facebook or even in the comments sections of websites that still have comments sections, then you’re a crackhead, which means that you’re a danger to yourself and to your neighbors.”

In a similar vein, the Economist asked Does Social Media Threaten Democracy? and answered: yes.

It would be wonderful if such a system helped wisdom and truth rise to the surface. But, whatever Keats said, truth is not beauty so much as it is hard work—especially when you disagree with it. Everyone who has scrolled through Facebook knows how, instead of imparting wisdom, the system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases.

This aggravates the politics of contempt that took hold, in the United States at least, in the 1990s. Because different sides see different facts, they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise. Because each side hears time and again that the other lot are good for nothing but lying, bad faith and slander, the system has even less room for empathy. Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share.

I think the conclusion is a tad too roseate, but perhaps the inevitable burnout of internecine warfare at the voting booth and on Facebook will help us kick our collective habit.

Another home-run is Michael Sacasas’s The Rhetorical “We” and the Ethics of Technology that calls out the mouse in the pocket of overly optimistic commentators who pronounce things like, “If we can decide on the type of society we’d like to create, and the type of existence we’d like to have, we can begin to forge a path there.” It’s brief but absolutely goes for the jugular on the fact that that consensus simply doesn’t exist. A public sphere that may or may not be disenchanted (depending on how anti-Luther you are) but certainly is rent through with the fissures of identity politics cannot speak of a ‘we,” it fears, without losing their “I” in the mix.

On a similar track, although in a vastly more comedic vein, is All Me To Explain My Views on Injustice While I Wait For My Food to Arrive, an uncomfortably hilarious seat next to a pontificating millennial growing steadily more agitated by the wait for his order. It seems like he may have forgotten to check his privilege at the diner door:

No, actually Alex, I don’t think I’m being a Pollyanna. I just think the resurgence of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia we’re seeing is the last gasp of a doomed mindset that will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Maybe not in our lifetimes but some day.

How long has it been since we ordered those pot stickers? Damn, I know they’re busy but this is ridiculous.

Last year, you may recall, was the 500th anniversary of THE REFORMATION but only sorta. Sure, 1517 was the year our boy Martin penned 95 theses for disputation but that document still hovered over the late medieval scholasticism he was trained within and, while it pushed at some boundary issues, it didn’t break the mold to herald something new. That would come the following year with the Heidelberg Disputation, but hey, sure- five hundred years. Why not.

Anywho, this past year witnessed Kevin Vanhoozer and others crafting a document that kept things in proper perspective by emphasizing the catholicity the Reformers sought to maintain, hence: the Reforming Catholic Confession. Survey the signers of this document: you will find Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Wesleyans- a veritable smorgasbord of Protestant communions, each of them emphasizing their continuity with the catholic tradition that is our mother and frames the faith we share. Study that one to wonder anew at the gospel that has been preserved through centuries of faithful transmission.

But then pause. Because this worthy statement was overshadowed for many by the Nashville Statement which aimed for something like a conciliar statement but was issued by persons who dismiss the significance or binding authority of conciliar statements. Denny Burk thinks this simplistic diner talk belongs in the company of the ecumenical creeds, for crying out loud! Besides its passive-aggressive swipes at Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship crowd, it reduced important matters to party-line, biblicist keywords and drew an ultimately cultural— not theological— line in the sand. It bore all the hallmarks of people who had no clue what was the matter with the eternal subordination controversy the previous summer. Mohler et al. indulge once more in the sins George Orwell diagnosed more than half a century ago in his essay, “Politics and the English Language”:

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he ‘felt impelled’ to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: ‘[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.’ You see, he ‘feels impelled’ to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

That “familiar dreary pattern” rots the parochial theologizing on offer from Mohler and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood crowd. Matt Anderson ably exposes some of the many issues with the statement that has, sadly, been touted as a gatekeeper for some evangelical institutions. The CBMW isn’t fit to pour pee out of a boot with instructions on the heel, so just ignore this one if you can and actually read thinkers in the catholic tradition Vanhoozer and others would refer us back to with their statement. Familiarize yourselves with these thinkers, these older brothers and sisters in the faith and avoid that anesthetizing of the brain!

Finally, to sound a note of hope, is Christ’s Mercy Touches Society’s Untouchables. This one reflects on a prison retreat and refreshingly, in the midst of a cultural milieu that increasingly demands death through ostracizing and withholds the very possibility of forgiveness, concludes, “The love and mercy of Jesus Christ transcend civil justice and social disgrace.” That there is a good word for a culture that is all too eager to annihilate even from memory any transgressor of any more. Would that grace informed our notions of civility rather than social media. Until such a time as the Twitter tiger lies down with the Insta-lamb, cling to the gospel that renders lovely the pathologically loathsome: us.




…and Then Like Jacob, Limping On Its Way

Greetings, friends- it’s been a very long time. I’m still alive, and overjoyed that Jesus Christ is still the friend of sinners. How fitting that Advent should have just begun, a fasting season that both remembers and anticipates, intermingling penance and celebration, lonely exile and rejoicing. The miracle of God-with-us is that the holy God makes his home among churls that spurn all he has to offer; this God negates his creatures’ “No” by absorbing that “No” into his own being. And now we remember where and what we have been and what the Son entered into in assuming our humanity. It’s with all these juxtapositions in mind that the late John Webster commends holy reason as the wrestling of limping saints, the continual struggle of justified sinners to bring God to speech for God’s and man’s blessing. More than ever before, this is my ambition, and my likeness to Jacob, my consolation:

Praise, blessing, and sanctifying add nothing to God; they do not and cannot expand or enrich God’s holiness, which is inexhaustibly and unassailably full and perfect. They are simply an acknowledgment and indication. And theology as holy reason finds its completion in such acknowledgment and indication.

To talk of the end of reason in these terms is once again to refuse to segregate intellectual activity from other acts of discipleship. Holy reason is a practice in the life of the communion of the saints; as such, it partakes in the movement of the Church, sharing its origin and participating in its goals. To abstract holy reason from that movement is to arrest its course. And not only that, neglect of the true ends of the intellectual activity of theology in the praise of Good nearly always involves their substitution by other ends, the elevation of technical, historical or philosophical reason, and their detachment from repentant and joyful service of God’s holy name. One could organize an entire history of modern theology around that theme: the intellectual afflictions which have attended the progressive detachment of reason from piety.

None of this should be taken as a suggestion that holy reason is other than a human activity. Theology is not inspired; it is not a sacrament of the gospel; it does not have the authority of the teaching office in the Church. It is not a means of grace, but the human work of thinking and speaking about the holy God. Because it is always a human work, it participates in the frailty and fallibility of its practitioners and of their times. Theology’s reference to revelation does not raise it out of the stream of all other human rational endeavor. Yet in– not despite– its very human character, theology can be holy reason. It can serve the Holy One and the congregation which gathers around him, wrestling with him, beseeching his blessing, and then like Jacob limping on its way.
(John Webster, Holiness [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 29-30.)

May we all limp victoriously through this Advent. Amen.


Happy Halloween For All the Saints!

Ahoy there! The final two posts from Blake’s and my Halloween Top 5s series are posted at Mockingbird: Blake’s Top 5 Introductions to Horror For Kids, and my Top 5 Scary Short Stories. Both will stoke your bonfire and make for good Halloween reading. Once you’re finished with them you can take a bite out of my apologia for Halloween, “Halloween Is For All the Saints”, and freshly appreciate how good God is in providing us with Halloween to enjoy. Stay safe, boils and ghouls, and enjoy your frights!