7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write

zwingli

Poor guy didn’t know how much literature he was gonna ruin.

This last week Peter Leithart ruffled some feathers by claiming, in an admitted “gleeful fit of reductionism”, that Zwingli is the reason Protestants can’t write (poetry or fiction). You can read the two pieces here and here. What follows assumes knowledge of at least the first.

Now, once you read them, you see that he’s actually making a narrower, more specific claim. If Protestants take a certain view of the sacraments, the Real Presence, of the reality linking the sign and the signified in the Lord’s Supper, etc. that has an effect on the shape of your poetics, your literary abilities, your view of the way the world and literature connect up. People who take Zwingli’s memorialist view of the Supper with its thinner link can’t help but fall into bad writing because their options are limited, while Catholics with their thick views of the way that signs can do something are in a better position to cultivate the proper imagination, the proper poetics that leads to great literature.

There are many things to say, but before I say them, a few caveats are in order.

First, I actually love a bunch of Leithart’s work. I say this not as a total endorsement, but simply to set the context. I’m not a critic.

Second, I’m not a Zwinglian. I take Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and of the Real Presence and so forth. I’m in a church that takes the Supper every week. With real wine (sorry, Mom).

That said, I have tended to find that reductionism of any sort, gleeful or not, is unhelpful.

In this case, I find Leithart’s thesis unhelpful because I think it clouds our ability to actually see the phenomenon before our eyes, which is the apparent inability of North American Evangelicals with of the last 100 years or so (which is basically who he’s talking about, having ruled out Anglicans and other large swathes of Protestants who have “sacraments” and a Prayer book) to write the sort of literature that’s broadly recognized as quality. It’s too clean of a “just-so” story that hinders us from addressing the varieties of conditions that play a role in such a complex phenomenon as cultural production.

It’s also unhelpful because instead of drawing people towards the liturgical practices and theological convictions Leithart wants, this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the “Suicide Death-Cult” tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth. Or, for a certain sort, a quick dip across the Tiber to embrace their inner Dante.

Also, I’m really just dubious about the whole connection.

In what follows, what I’d like to do is simply re-complicate the account and briefly list a number of reasons Zwingli might not be the main cause for Protestants of a particular sort lacking literary capabilities. Some are other contributing factors and others are questions I have about Leithart’s account.

First, what of eschatology? It seems quite plausible to construct a narrative around shifting literary output and cultural engagement on the basis of the major shift in eschatology within Evangelicalism in the last hundred years. In other words, why not blame Darby and the Scofield Bible instead of Zwingli and Marburg? If you’re so busy trying to get people saved from a world that’s about to go up in flames after the rapture, what does producing subtle literature matter? Of course, I know Dispensationalists with lovely literary sensibilities over at BIOLA and so forth, but it seems a narrative of this sort could easily be written with some force.

Next, we might speak of one feature of Bebbington’s quadrilateral defining Evangelicals: conversionism. This contributes in two ways. First, building on the last point, if conversionism is at the heart of your religion, then there’s always a certain urgency of having better things to do with our time like save souls, than build culture. In which case, certain habits, sensibilities, etc. will be less likely to be promoted in our congregations. Second, it would contribute to a need to evangelize and edify in all that we do, quite explicitly. Think of God’s Not Dead, or the way Lecrae became suspect as a sellout in some circles once he hit broad-based appeal and didn’t make every song an explicit sermon. Though, this element doesn’t seem relegated to Protestants, since it’s a mentality that even the heroine of Leithart’s story, Flannery O’Connor, was pushing back against in her own sacramental, Roman Catholic context. Apparently, sacramentalism wasn’t as strong of a bulwark against moralism as all that.

Also, broadly following the Modernist/Fundamentalist fight, there’s the broader fundamentalist disengagement from culture for fear of its corrupting influences. Of course, that also limits exposure to the good sorts of cultural influences that you need to produce the proper literary sensibility for good writing. It’s not implausible to argue that we’re still feeling the effects of it. Indeed, Evangelicals still tend to do a lot of the silo, bubble culture thing with Christian music, literature, and so forth, which is even now affecting generations of young, possible future Evangelical Protestant writers.

We can also note here the prudery involved in almost all explicitly Evangelical endeavors. We created the websites with content ratings listing every “d” word and instances of “low cleavage”, in order to protect ourselves from the crudities of mass culture. And there’s some wisdom there, of course, but when you think about the constraints that general moralism can have on Evangelical artistry, you begin to see why some of it is stilted. This was one of the bits that Leithart was on to, but was rendered less plausible by tacking it onto the un-sacramental poetics.

Another possibility one could suggest is a tight focus on historical, propositional truth, facticity, and so forth, as well as the broader loss of narrative preaching. We’re recovering it now, but you could imagine that a church tradition caught up with the question “did it happen”—which is massively important—might lose sight of cultivating a broader sense for why it matters, reading for rhetorical shape, and so forth. I’m not at all sure about this one, but someone creative could probably make a go of this reading.

Of course, there’s the old Mark Noll stand-by of populism and anti-intellectualism having infected the Protestant-Evangelical mindset. That doesn’t tend to produce the sort of fruit in keeping with righteousness Leithart is looking for. Why not go there instead of long narrative about Zwingli’s long hands reaching out from Marburg to choke our literary talent?

Finally, and this is actually a big question for me: what of unbelievers? We can take this question in two ways. First, do unbelievers ever write great literature in the 20th Century? If so, what view of the Real Presence do they take? I’m being somewhat facetious, but I think the question raises the point that far too often we’re given to make these tight connections between doctrine and practice that are far messier out in the world. Second, from another direction, are there protestant sensibilities in unbelieving authors we’re not accounting for? I wonder how easy it would be to find great secular authors grew up in churches—churches with low liturgical and sacramental sensibilities—who might exhibit those tendencies in their own writing?

Of course, all of the foregoing presupposes that we should buy the basic premise that a certain sort of Protestant can’t or hasn’t written great literature. I’m not entirely sure that’s historically true, nor even true now, but I’m not much for going into the history of it here. My point, though, is that this thing is much more complicated that a clean story about the sacraments and we don’t do ourselves any favors by simplifying things to say otherwise.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Hillsong and “Hip Church”

Mere FidelityGQ ran a fascinating article last month entitled, “What Would Cool Jesus Do?” It was essentially a long-form investigation of Hillsong NYC, trying to figure out the phenomenon that manages to pull in thousands of young, cool New Yorkers including people like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. We figured that was worth discussing, so Matt, Alastair, and I took it up in this episode of Mere Fidelity.

Thanks for listening.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mayors and Prophets: Both Servants of the Lord in Tricky Times

kingsAhab’s reign in the Kingdom of Israel was one of the most godless in her whole history. And that’s saying something. Queen Jezebel has instituted worship of the Baals and ordered all the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered. The godlessness is so rampant that Yahweh has the prophet Elijah proclaim a drought and a famine in the land of Israel, in response. If Jezebel and Ahab want the word of Yahweh to dry up in the land, they will suffer the consequences.

What does it look like to serve Yahweh faithfully in this context? In the first half of 1 Kings chapter 18, right before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, we’re given a portrait of two quite distinct servants of Yahweh: Obadiah, the household manager in Ahab’s court, and Elijah, the iconoclastic prophet.

In his absurdly insightful theological commentary, Peter Leithart sheds some light on the distinct roles they play in the Yahweh’s retinue:

As “mayor of the palace” Obadiah holds a high position in Israel, with responsibility for Ahab’s palace, estates, and livestock. Both Elijah and Obadiah (whose name means “servant of Yah”) are faithful servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but radically differ in their position and mode of service. Elijah confronts Ahab from outside the court, while Obadiah works for the preservation of the prophets–and hence the preservation of the word of Yahweh–from within Ahab’s court, subverting the official policies of the court even while acting as chief steward. Not every faithful believer is called to be an Elijah. Many are called to the tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context, to the business of serving Elijah and Yahweh as “master” (18:7) and serving Ahab as “master” (18:8) Obadiah’s position is not merely tricky; it is dangerous. A false shepherd, Ahab tolerates Jezebel “cutting off”…prophets (18:4), but is reluctant to “cut off” any of his cattle…(18:5). Jezebel the Baal worshiper is willing to tolerate golden calves and other forms of idolatrous worship, but she cannot tolerate the intolerance of Yahweh worshipers.

1 & 2 Kings, 133-134

Elijah is obviously the hero of the whole narrative and one of the central figures in both 1 & Kings. Elijah has the word of Yahweh come to him personally. Elijah courageously calls out Ahab, the king of Israel in the name of the true God. Elijah faces off with the prophets on the mountain, calling down fire from Yahweh in the heavens. Elijah is a model of prophetic faithfulness, the willingness to stand outside the compromising systems of empire and power, depending solely on the Yahweh’s protection and preservation to carry out his task.

And yet, there stands Obadiah–the skittish, possibly compromised, bureaucrat. Because, think about it–wouldn’t many of us on the purist end (a rather exaggerated Neo-Anabaptist, possibly), be tempted to consider him compromised? Isn’t he working for a godless king in a regime that seems actively hostile the will of Yahweh? Aren’t followers of Yahweh to remain pure and set apart from evil-doers and the systems of power that they run? To avoid colluding with Empire? Doesn’t running Ahab’s household count?

Well, according to the political theology of 1 & 2 Kings, it’s only because of Obadiah’s willingness to stay within the regime that he was able to successfully resist it and save some of Yahweh’s prophets, ensuring that when Elijah’s showdown happens and the prophets of Baal are overthrown, there’s someone around to preach God’s Word. Obadiah is able to exercise wisdom and rebel from within, only because he stays within.

In times of trial like those facing God’s people in the times of Ahab, the danger is the Elijahs and Obadiahs God has called to serve him might not recognize each other’s distinct calls. Elijah might be tempted to scorn the cowardice and compromise of Obadiah’s wisdom in difficult places. Obadiah, meanwhile, might be tempted to bemoan and begrudge the “trouble” brought on by the rash words and confrontational stance of Elijah, who seems to paint everything in black and white with no shades of grey. And yet that would be a mistake, for God’s wisdom can employ both prophet and bureaucrat to preserve and proclaim his Word, each according to the gifts and privileges that God had given them. In a sense, we need Paul’s theology of the body and the gifts (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). applied outward into the worldly vocations that the citizens of the Kingdom must engage in.

Texts like this are obviously releant in the face of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the “intolerance” or exclusivity of Christian values and truth claims. Don’t worry, I’m not breaking out the “p”-word and claiming that Christians will have to face firing squads soon, or something like that. All the same, let’s not be naive in the other direction. If there are Chicken Littles running around proclaiming the imminent descend of the heavens, there are also ostriches with their heads in the sand. Or worse, those who refuse to see any difficulties ahead because, well, you know, Jezebel “has a point.” Trouble will come and, indeed, has always come for the people of God.

For that reason, we need deep, biblical wisdom like that of the book of 1 & 2 Kings, read with an eye to the horizon. As Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). These things happened back then and there, but since the patterns of the world’s sin repeat in history, these texts are still used by the Spirit of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Soli Deo Gloria

My Three Study Bibles

study bible“Of making many books, there is no end.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

To read this, you’d think the Teacher was perusing a recent publishing catalogue, skimming through the “study Bible” section. Each year it seems that another one, or two, or ten are printed by the same publishing house, aimed at an ever narrower slice of the Evangelical consumer base. First, it’s the “Patriots” Bible. Then, it’s the Eco-study Bible. Or the Student’s Study Bible. Or the Red-headed, Left-handed, Immigrant’s Study Bible. And the standard-issue, ESV Study Bible for New Calvinists looking to up their game. The longer (and more cognizant) I’ve been around the Evangelical world, the easier it’s been to become cynical about the whole industry and the concept as a whole.

But then I remember my own study Bibles and I have to tap the breaks on my cynicism ever so slightly. You see, I’ve had three study Bibles in my time, each quite crucial in my spiritual and intellectual development.

First, when I was a sophomore in high school, I started a break-time Bible study with my friend. Initially, we just began to meet at one of the tables to read the Psalms together and pray. Then, more and more people began to join us, so we had to move inside to a classroom to read. Pretty soon, I got the idea to actually start reading a bit and saying something about what we read. Novel idea, I know. That’s when I asked my parents for a study Bible–because as many sermons as I heard, when I got to Romans and Paul started dropping “circumcision” all over the place, I knew I was out of my league.

So my parents got me the NIV Life Application Study Bible. Of course, being a life application Bible, it wasn’t very in-depth on doctrine or massive exegetical insights. All the same, for a high schooler looking to learn enough to share some insights with 10 other high schoolers at break, it was eye-opening. I knew the Bible was the Word of God, but who knew so much of it could speak to my daily issues? In any case, that was my Bible all through the rest of high school and served me well.

Then, came college. Without going into a lot of details, college started out as a dry time for me. Even though I was still in church, I was frustrated at God for some goods I thought he had failed to deliver even though he never promised them. Which is typical. In any case, around Christmas, I knew something had to change, so I started going to a new church and asked my parents for the straight NIV Study Bible that focused more on historical and intertextual notes. And they came through and bought it for me. And I started reading it every day. I’d pray, read the text, and the notes and even began looking up the cross-references. I’d make my own illegible, incorrect notes as well. And things started to come alive for me.

Of course, there were a variety of factors involved at the time including the new church, an iPod (no joke), and a Bible study with some caring dudes. All the same, when my life caught fire again, along with a call to ministry, one of the things it involved was a mass consumption of Scripture. I basically tore through that study Bible. Thankfully, at the time, I was hungry for the Bible as the Bible, so I wasn’t just skipping to the study note section (which is all too easy to do for some). All the same, I learned so much just by reading the text and all the helpful explanatory notes.

I’m older now, a bit more theologically-experienced, and I get the dangers of printing text alongside the text. But seriously, when I was younger, with no access to a theological library, or commentaries, or articles the way I was later in seminary, at church, and now back in seminary, those notes were an entry-way into a new exegetical world. And so, by the end of college, my second study Bible was tore up. I had to shelve it because of how jacked up it had gotten from overuse and carrying it around everywhere.

Finally, when I hit my MA, I got a third kind of study Bible. As it was more of an academic degree, I had to purchase an SBL approved NRSV one. So I snagged myself a HarperCollins Study Bible—which I preferred to the New Oxford Annotated one—and I got to work. This was a different experience, of course. There was almost no life application. Nor was an overly-“theological” approach to commentary the norm. All the same, it proved a trusty entry-way as well, into a more historical and academic approach to the text (with some of the common, boilerplate, historical-critical assumptions) that I would have to master if I was going to get through the degree. So I put some mileage on that one, as well.

Why go into all this? Well, for one thing it’s nostalgic for me to remember. Second, I suppose it’s to remind myself that a number of the things that it’s easy for me to get cynical about the more I press on in my faith (simple, Evangelicalish things that are easily distorted and vulgarized through marketing), had some positive purpose for people. And they probably still do. Taste-wise nor in theological temperament, I don’t connect to some of the worship anthems I used to, but there are a great many of them that are theologically sound and spiritually-salutary songs that I’d be wrong to scorn or write off.

For that reason, I can imagine another young man headed to the ministry deriving great insight from his first study Bible. Or the mom and dad without time to take a class in advanced hermeneutics, still looking to grow in their knowledge of Scripture in order to instruct their children in the Word of life. Or the small group, Bible study leader. Or the missionary without a book budget who needs a teaching aid through the Old Testament contextual issues. And so on.

So, I suppose, for all their possible flaws, I’m saying I loved my study Bibles and I’d caution against the sort of easy scorn those of us with a stack of commentaries on our shelves might be tempted towards. Though there are real dangers to be avoided and some egregious marketing practices to be condemned, there is real, spiritual value in a good study Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Do We Stop Weaponizing Our Victims?

The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about the victims for whom they hold us responsible.

-Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (pg. 164)

girardAccording to Rene Girard, our society, more than any before it, is obsessed with “the victims”–especially those of exclusion, violence, and social scapegoating. And he would know. The French literary critic and anthropologist is something of an expert on the idea of the victim. His works on the ideas of mimetic desire, scapegoating, violence, and their role in literature and culture as a whole are groundbreaking and influential (The Scapegoat, Violence and the Sacred, etc). In any case, according to Girard, you can scan the ancient literature down the generations, across societies, and you find nothing like the widespread concern for the victims in the modern and contemporary period.

You can chalk this up to any number of sources: the effect of the Gospel on cultures through history, the spread and transformation during the Enlightenment of the Christian concept of charity into one of universal benevolence (per Charles Taylor), our post-Holocaust sensibilities, or any number of other social movements. What you can’t do is deny its pervasiveness. As Girard notes, even if we’re hypocritical about it, we at least know we’re supposed to be concerned for the victims: whether oppressed social groups, races, sexes, orientations, or classes.

We are keenly aware now of the way that individuals and groups can be marginalized and kept down by the cruel, powerful, or simply dominant, yet apathetic social majority. What’s more, we know we’re supposed to do something about it in word or deed (or, more cynically, at the very least through a token acknowledgment of complicity via Facebook update).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, insofar as it’s connected with and led to great movements of social justice (Civil Rights movements, advances in gender equality, the rights of the unborn, etc), I think it’s a good thing. Whatever the social roots, I think there are deep, biblical justifications for something like our modern concern for the victim.

Christ himself (among many other things) was a victim of violence and oppression at the hands of religious, social, and political powers. He not only atoned for our sins on the Cross but, among his many works, he exposed in concrete form the oppression and violence against the weak at the heart of a world in rebellion to its Loving Redeemer.

Weaponizing the Victim

All that said, as with any religious insight, sin’s pernicious power can twist and pervert it for its own uses. And, as the opening quote suggests, the modern concern for the victim is no different. In a phrase: we’ve learned to weaponize our victims.

Girard elaborates:

We could use our insight discreetly with our neighbors, not humiliating those we catch in the very act of expelling a scapegoat. But more frequently we turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts, but raisng them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense. Instead of criticizing ourselves, we use our knowledge in bad faith, turning it against others. Indeed, we practice a hunt for scapegoats to a second degree, a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society’s obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty.  (pg. 158)

I suppose I could just remind you of your Twitter or your Facebook feed on Tuesday and you’ll see where he’s going. Think of the vitriolic discussions and finger-pointing around abortion, #BlackLivesMatter, the Syrian Crisis, bullying against LGBT kids, religious liberty infringements, and any number of other important instances of victimization and the importance of Girard’s comments should become apparent. Still, I think it’s worth commenting on in this passage and a number of points to add beyond it.

Secret Substitutions and Weighing the Victims

First, there is the danger of second-order scapegoating brought on by our awareness of our tendency to scapegoat others. As soon as we identify a victim and their corresponding oppressor, we are liable to turn the tables, engaging in “secret substitutions”, and vindictively turn the initial oppressor into a victim of even worse violence (physical, social, economic) than the original victims suffered. We see an instance of online cruelty and become a Twitter mob that doxxes and shames a person out of work and society as a whole, all the while convinced of the rightness of our cause. We’re not oppressors, we’re “allies”, or “voices for the voiceless.”

Then there’s the self-righteous posturing element. Girard points out the way we use the victims to prop up our own self-defense against shame and guilt, our own sense of righteousness. Or maybe it’s not self-justification, but a secularized attempt at penance or atonement that drives us to perform our righteousness before men. We prove and perform our righteousness in a couple of ways, at least.

First, we do so simply by publicly supporting the right sort of victims. Girard speaks earlier about the “weighing of victims” that goes on in society. And we’ve all seen that, right? The comparative element in our online conversations: “How can you care about X, when Y is happening?”

Comparative judgments do have an appropriate place, at times. There are some issues that simply are bigger, more important, or more pressing at a given moment. Of course, the problem is that knowing how to rank them can be a difficult judgment call to make and it’s not always obvious. What’s more, my concern isn’t always a zero-sum game. I can care about more than one victim at a time, or acknowledge the importance of one justice issue while realizing that my voice is needed on this other issue over here.

The devious, second dimension to the comparative judgments, though, is the self-justification that comes with knowing my victim matters more. It’s not just that we want to be righteous by caring about victims, it’s that I care about the right victim, while you care about the wrong one. We want to appear righteous, but we also want to be more righteous than she is.

Which brings us to weaponizing the victim. That opening quote is so devastating because once you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere–especially your own soul. It’s a mirror that exposes to light some of the ugliest impurities in our righteous crusades. Because haven’t you seen that in yourself? No? Well, I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it in your enemies, right?

Haven’t you been agitated by that progressive who is always taking every chance they get to share a devastating story about some victim and immediately tacking the moral on that “this is what Republicans/Evangelicals/Fundamentalists views lead to” or some such statement? Or on the flipside, the way that some legal absurdity just shows the moral bankruptcy of the progressive/Democrat/Post-Evangelical capitulation? Doesn’t this latest tragedy (beautifully) highlight their horrid lack of concern? (A concern which, quite admirably, you have). Don’t these tear-stained faces cry out for the merciless prosecution of our enemies? (Oh, and yes, maybe some aid as well, of course.)

I Am A Danger To Myself

Here’s the thing, I don’t for a minute claim that I escape this, nor, again, that there aren’t situations where that kind of stock-taking and comparison needs to take place. I’ll come clean and say that I have been there in this last month. I mean, with all the Planned Parenthood videos coming out, I’ve sat there appalled at the perceived inconsistency of some of my progressive friends who will trumpet every (in my view) piddling social faux pas, yet remained quiet about it, or whose knee-jerk reaction is to defend the abortion giant. Or be more incensed about Cecile the Lion than tens of thousands of infants butchered. And I honestly think my opposition to abortion and prioritization of it is justified.

But has that been my only concern? Haven’t there been moments where I’ve prided myself on having that sense of proportion? Have there been times when my legitimate concern for these helpless victims hasn’t been edged out my desire to score righteousness points and use that evaluation as part of a broader argument against “deluded” progressives? Am I quieter about other moral issues because they’re not an opportunity to score points against them? Am I more concerned with victims I can hold my neighbors responsible for?

I have to ask myself these questions if I’m going to be honest and avoid running the risk of hunting the hunters, or crassly weaponizing the already-victimized, turning them into objects for my own self-justification. And here’s one of the most pernicious elements of the whole thing: I used myself as an example here, simply to avoid using this post as a third-order exercise in weaponizing the victim against those who weaponize the victims! But I know I’m not the only one here.

Think through the issues, the victims that burden you, and the opponents who anger you. I don’t know what it is for you or who it is for you. Maybe it’s abortion. Maybe it’s racial injustice. Maybe it’s gender or sexuality. Maybe they are friends who’ve gone progressive. Maybe they are Sunday School teachers who stayed Evangelical. Maybe they’re Anabaptists, Calvinists, Roman Catholics, or whoever. And maybe you’re really actually right and they’re really actually wrong. My point here isn’t to say that there aren’t priorities, or a proper place for righteous anger against others on behalf of the victims. Clearly these things actually matter.

My question is this: is your first instinct for the victim or against your enemy? Is it to seek justice or secure righteousness? To bless the hurting or curse the proud? I honestly don’t know sometimes. And that scares me. I remember Paul’s words:

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom. 2:1)

We pass judgment on others in this fashion, only at a danger to ourselves.

Our Hope–the Victim is the Judge

It’s at that moment, though, when I remember my only hope is that one day the secrets of men “will be judged by Jesus Christ” according to the gospel (Rom. 2:16). That Christ Jesus–the One who was the Victim at our hand and on our behalf–is the Judge is my only hope to stand on that final day.

Christ’s gospel is also my only hope to escape this cycle. Only as I continue to recognize my own sin–my violence against God and my neighbor–that put him there is my pride humbled before others. I know that I myself “practice those same things”, in a million different quiet ways. What’s more, it’s only as I continue to trust that his atoning death for sin and resurrecting justification is mine through faith, can I move beyond the self-justifying desire to performatively prove my righteousness against my ideological opponents. My identity isn’t at stake, nor is my need to cover my own guilt and unrighteousness.

Neither of these movements should undercut the motive to seek justice for the victim.

Instead, we are set free to care for the victims as people, for their own sake and the sake of the One whose Image they bear, instead of as pawns in our schemes. Indeed, it opens us up care for more than we had before, since we’re no longer caught up in weighing the victims, making sure we’re working for the “right sort”, the respectable victims who pull up their pants and have don’t have the wrong kind of past. We don’t have to be moralistic advocates. We don’t have to worry about whether or not admitting the evil they’ve suffered plays into our opponents’ hands because, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it’s not about winning anymore.

It even serves as a curb against our worst, vindictive excesses. Since we know that beyond the temporal justice we rightly seek in this world–stopping bullying, ending police brutality, saving the unborn–ultimate, divine judgement will either be served at the last day, or has already been handled at the Cross, we are less likely to vindictively fall into victimizing the oppressor and continuing the cycle of violence.

Everything changes in light of the Victim who is the Judge.

Soli Deo Gloria

Huckabee’s Heart-Change And Ours: Millennial Issues With Love, The Body, and Marriage

weddingA couple of weeks ago the SCOTUS handed down the Obergefell ruling that made gay marriage the law of the land and the universe was engulfed in a sea of rainbow-colored joy. Or anger. Or grief. Or ecstasy. Honestly, there were about as many reactions as there were colors in the dang rainbow. In any case, a swarm of articles on the subject have gone up, both by non-Christians and Christians of all persuasions. Articles full of arguments, historical narratives, questions, answers to questions, cartoons, and God knows what else.

And, honestly, I have tried to avoid them. Pretty much unsuccessfully, but there you have my vulnerable confession of how little I’ve wanted to have anything to do with the subject online. It’s a difficult enough issue to discuss in person, let alone online, especially when you want to be pastoral. What’s more, this is not a hobby-horse for me. In the last four years of ministry, I’ve explicitly taught on the subject twice, and only because the biblical text in question forced me to.

One of the most recent of these articles was by Tyler Huckabee–an Evangelical writer, blogger, and former editor of Relevant magazine–in which he wrote about his change of heart on same-sex marriage. It’s a personal narrative of sorts, with an articulation of his reasons thrown in, and a closing appeal at the end.

What I’d like to do in this piece is offer some incomplete analysis and commentary on his post.

Now, some of you might be asking, given that up until now I’ve kept my trap shut, why this? Why his piece? In a lot of ways, I think many millennials are resonating with this one in a particular way. It is representative of the reasoning and feelings of a many of the youngish, Evangelicals on the fence who might read the piece and say, “Ya, man, that’s kind of the deal for me too. Thanks for articulating it for me.” This is a niche that seems worth addressing. Also, we are in similar positions. Unlike guys like Gagnon and Brownson, or DeYoung and Vines, I haven’t written academic or a popular book on the subject. Neither has Huckabee. We’re both bloggers and ex-somethings. He’s the ex-editor of a major, Christian magazine and I’m a soon to be ex-college pastor of a not-so-major college group. Also, everybody says Huckabee is a sweet, reasonable guy, so I figure he’ll be a good conversation partner.

To start, you probably ought to read his article before this one, or what follows might not make sense.

Appreciation. First, there are a couple of things I appreciate about Huckabee’s article.

Obviously, he clearly thought about it slowly and maturely, and I can appreciate that writing it can’t have been easy given the church friends he’s had/has, or the way this might affect future publishing opportunities in the Evangelical world. It will certainly make other spheres of influence easier to navigate, particularly the much broader culture outside Evangelicalism, but there will certainly be some cost. Some might cynically say that the timing is suspicious, but I think that would be unfair. It’s clear he’s been chewing on it for a while.

The other thing I really appreciate is that he doesn’t just do the full “conversion to the light” narrative, and run to seeing traditional Christians holding a classic view of marriage as obviously bigoted, or motivated by some deep-seated animus. That’s something many who adopt an affirming stance only recently can’t seem to stop themselves from doing. And I hope, if Huckabee doesn’t change his mind back, that’s something that he’ll influence others to understand as well.

That said, I’ll try to give you what I take to be the heart of Huckabee’s argument, and offer up some assorted criticisms and questions in no particular order. To be clear, for me, the issue in this article is the affirmation of same-sex marriages or relationships as the church, not the State question, which is an interesting and important, but fundamentally distinct issue for another time.

The Main Argument. The heart of Huckabee’s argument, rooted in his reading of Genesis 2, is that the main aim of marriage is not procreation or the propagation of the human race–the relational God is more romantic than that—but rather to deal with the fact that it is not good for man to be alone. Of course, the procreative function is there, but for Huckabee, it is not primary, nor central, nor even necessary to the definition and reality of marriage as an institution or practice. No, Huckabee sees the issue of loneliness as the pressing one in Scripture, and our focus on procreation has misled us on this point. For this reason, we have unfortunately restricted those with same-sex attraction to the position of irredeemable loneliness solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. And Huckabee admits that he can’t do that anymore.

The rest of Huckabee’s arguments, or emotive stories about the way his textbook Bible college theology crumbled in the face of real people’s struggles, are aimed at shoring up that contention.

The first real comment worth making is that his entire argument for the acceptance of gay marriage is premised on the assumption that marriage and sex are the main or only viable relationships to deal with being “alone.” For Huckabee, close friendships, parental relationships, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, extended families, or even the community of God given to us in the church, are just not in view as part of God’s remedy for man being alone. And this is where I think Huckabee’s main argument shows some real inconsistency.

Huckabee rejects that the claim that the narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 gives us the normative standard for marriage as the man/woman pair. Adam and Eve’s obvious, bodily complementarity, highlighted linguistically in the Hebrew pairing “ish/ishah” in the outburst of Adam’s poetry “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman / because she was taken out of Man” after having Eve plucked from his side (2:23), nor the earlier command in Genesis 1 to be “fruitful and multiply”(1:26-28), nor even the later indications of Torah and Tanakh that marriage and procreative possibility are linked (levirate marriage, Mal.2:15, etc), are relevant. None of these things point Huckabee absolutely to the idea that marriage and the uniting of two to become one flesh is only about a man and a woman. It’s only and primarily about “being alone” and finding someone to fix that problem.

If that’s the case, then why restrict the solution to the problem of “being alone” to the specific relationship of marriage with its spiritual and physical union, just because that’s specifically what happens to occur in the text? In other words, if all these other features of the narrative don’t figure in determinatively as a normative part of the solution to Adam’s “being alone,” why should the sexual union part of it figure in either? Why not just see it as a story of God giving one sexually-non-determinate person another sexually-non-determinate person to be friends with?

I actually think that’s a valid question, in general. Even a traditional reader might affirm the importance of sexual differentiation (all those other feature I just listed) and still note that Adam and Eve together form the basis and beginning of human community in general, which provides a basis for all those other relationships that give humans whole, meaningful lives that don’t have to be spent “alone”, even outside heterosexual marriage.

It is here that Huckabee, like so many of us, has bought into the cultural (and dare I say, “Evangelical youth group”) myth that marriage and sex is the only possible completion of our human experiences of love and wholeness. Ernst Becker pointed out that in the modern period, with the loss of belief in God, we’ve idolized the sexual and romantic Other so that it has become nearly impossible to imagine a full, whole, or even joyful-though-costly life without one. And this conceit I find to be entirely untrue on the basis of Scripture, reason, and not to mention, experience.

While Huckabee worries that the procreative view insults or diminishes those couples experiencing barrenness—which I’d argue it doesn’t—I am quite sure his view ends up diminishing and deeming as lesser the experiences of millions of single, celibate men and women in the Church, both gay and the vast majority who are straight, throughout history down into the present. I refuse to believe the contemporary narrative which sees them as “cursed” by God simply because they don’t have a romantic or sexual partner in this life, something they may even deeply desire. There’s more to be said here, but let’s pass to the next subject.

Scripture and the Meaning of the Body: One of the main themes that comes up is Huckabee’s handling of Scripture and the body. One of the bits that stood out most to me was his handling of the apostle Paul’s thought on the matter. Of course, that’s not a surprise. If you’re going to change your mind on sexuality and marriage, you’re going to have to reckon with Paul’s many statements on the issue.

Some of his responses are fairly common these days. He raised the often-mentioned and often-answered question of whether Paul “knew” about the kinds of gay relationships we’re talking about now, only to assert that we can’t know either way. I think Paul did, but even if he didn’t, it actually wouldn’t matter given the way Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is thoroughly rooted in his reading of Genesis 1-3. But, we can’t settle that out here.

This section was far more interesting to me:

Paul was a bit reserved about marriage to begin with: “To the unmarried and the widows,” he says in 1 Corinthians. “I say it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self control, they should marry.”

This is a rather dim view of sex, which isn’t all that surprising, considering Paul. He seemed hugely unbothered by anything that wasn’t strictly spiritual. I love him for this, but I can’t help but think he would scratch his head at a good deal of the fuss made about marriage in modern Christianity.

Having spent the last 9 months preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students, knee-deep in commentaries on the subject, I must admit I found the comment rather bizarre. What can Huckabee mean by Paul’s preoccupation with “strictly spiritual” matters? Surely not the idea that Paul didn’t care about both body and soul? That’s the point of the argument in 1 Corinthians 5-7. Read any commentary by Thiselton, Hays, or Wright. I mean, heck, in the chapter right before, Paul says to the Corinthians to honor God in your body (6:20). Why? Because resurrection means the body is for the Lord (6:13), to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19), which is why God bought it at a price (6:20). For Paul, you shouldn’t eat idol food because food can be a form of worship, and, indeed, even eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God (10:31). Everything is “strictly spiritual” for Paul.

This brings me to Huckabee’s criticism of Matt Anderson’s massive article on marriage, procreation, and same-sex marriage. As you might guess, central to Anderson’s point is that eros, the romantic love central to marriage, finds its fulfillment in procreation, as the child becomes an icon of the parents’ love. What I find interesting was that Huckabee criticized it as a “crude materialism” that reduces love to “flesh and function.”

That’s a rather odd criticism of Matt’s piece and there are a number of ways’ of responding to it. The one that’s relevant to us comes in view when we connect this criticism to his comments on Paul, as well as his earlier reading of Genesis 1 and 2. When we do this, Huckabee’s critique reveals a rather semi-Gnostic, anti-materialistic view of humanity as body and soul, flesh and spirit, and his failure to appreciate the way the Creator has written a moral and spiritual grammar into the body itself.

For those who chafe at that idea, remember, Christianity is something of a crassly materialistic faith to begin with. God makes dirt. Then he shapes and breathes life into a man out of the dirt. Then he makes a woman from the man. Then, God becomes a man born to a woman as a gendered Jew in the 1st Century. That’s all very materialistic. Again, our two sacraments involve or are analogues of the processes of flesh and function–dunking the body into the waters of death and resurrection, and consuming the broken body and shed blood of the covenant. It should come as no surprise, then, that marriage is an irreducibly physical reality where two become “one flesh” as a biologically and spiritually complementary pair. Here the physicality and the spirituality are two sides of the same coin. The spiritual meaning depends on the physical and vice versa.

In fact, it is precisely this meaning that is at the heart of one of other Pauline texts that Huckabee doesn’t deal with:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32)

As Paul reads Genesis 2, God takes uses the sign of marriage, specifically in its binary, male and female, complementary-flesh-uniting character to point to Jesus’ own love and union with his Bride. And here’s where we come to one of my points: even leaving procreation aside—which I don’t think you should for very long—you can’t alter the pair of man and woman in marriage without altering the grammar, the syntax, the meaning of marriage and it’s God-ordained purpose of pointing to Christ’s saving love for his Church through the “crudely materialistic” processes of “flesh and function.” Childbearing or not, marriage as a sign-post of the gospel is entirely dependent on the sexual grammar of male and female.

Incidentally, can we all agree that anybody with this depth-dimension to their view of physical union can’t have a “dim view” of sex? Instead, Paul gives us a complex view of sex with a double-movement. First, he de-idolizes our sexual desires and reminds us that they are not ultimate, nor devastating if unfulfilled. He is a contented celibate man, just as his single and celibate Lord Jesus was. He too has the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:40). Second, he points us to the unique, Christologically-charged meaning of the sexual act and the body that finds its expression in appreciating the glory of sexual difference in marriage. It is precisely such glorious tensions that I love him for.

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin, and Loving the Loves of Others. We’ve all heard that phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Nobody actually has a problem with this saying when it comes to something like, say, racism. I mean, think about it. Love the racist, hate the racism, right? Otherwise, what are your options? Love the racist and his racism? Hate the racist and the racism? No. Love the racist and hate his racism seems about the only option, unless you want to go into some other sort of pattern like “love the racist, feel mutely about his racism”, or “love the racist, understand his racism non-judgmentally and be open to a conversation about these things”? Obviously not.

Huckabee says that in this particular case it’s very difficult because the “sin” is part of their identity in such a way that it is categorically different, raising all sorts of problems. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But, I would quickly point out that the gospel is fundamentally about gifting us new identities in Christ. I would say, rather, that in the case of same-sex desires, too often we have accepted the modern mode of identity-construction via sexual desire, which, to my reckoning, is an entirely unbiblical assumption.

Pressing on, Huckabee writes:

But I know that faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love. And a love that must hold people’s identity at bay is an imperfect love—a love that refuses their own loves. If someone were to say they loved me but saw my own marriage as an affront to God, I would say that that person does not then really love me. I could not abide that sort of love in my life. I just could not.

Huckabee says here that he could not abide the sort of love that refuses to love his loves, to affirm his marriage. But does that really make sense? I know he’s been married for a year, and so he’s thinking in relation to his own marriage, but what if we thought about children? I’m not a parent, but I work with students, and if there’s one reality that I’m acquainted with well about them, it’s that they quite frequently love the wrong thing, person, or persons. Or, they love them in the wrong way. In fact, that’s at the heart of one of our most classic definitions of sin and idolatry: disordered love. In other words, at the heart of sin lies the fact that we often love the wrong things, or we love good things wrongly, with the wrong intensity, aim, or way.

Thirty years ago, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote:

Can love ever be sinful? The entire tradition of Christian doctrine teaches that there is such a thing as inverted, perverted love. Human beings are created for love, as creatures of the God who is Love. And yet that divine appointment is corrupted whenever people turn away from God or love other things more than God.

So, take the mother who loves her children above God. That’s an idolatrous love. That’s a wrong love. Or let’s switch back to romantic loves. Maybe the young man who loves his girlfriend possessively and obsessively. Or the woman who loves the husband of another woman as she ought to love her own. Or, take the case of the disordered love of incest. I don’t mean to say incest and same-sex attraction are the same, but simply to bring up a case we still mostly recognize as wrong in our culture. Brother and sister are supposed to love each other, even passionately. But the problem is that we all sense that it’s not supposed to be in that particular way. Even love that has an appropriate object can be wrong if it’s the wrong sort of love for that object.

Each of these cases is of a love—a real, honest love—we are actually called to, out of love, not love and affirm in its entirety. No, at the proper time and context, if we love the person, we cannot love their loves because they are, in some way, destructive. They are another manifestation of the way that all of our loves have gone wrong this side of Eden.  (Note, I say “in its entirety”, because a man can show tender, thoughtfulness to another man, just as the couple involved in adultery can, excepting the act of involving the other in sin, be quite loving to the other.) But here’s the thing: love can, love does, in fact, at times, love must question our loves.

The fundamental question is, “What has God said about our loves in Scripture?” Remember, this is the God of love who created us, who we rejected for the sake of other, lesser loves, and who yet pursued us in love to redeem and bring us back to himself while we were yet sinners at the cost of his Son’s life (Romans 5:8). We must trust that his love moves him to reveal to us the proper patterns and parameters of marital love. And this is true even when it doesn’t feel like it, as any parent who has ever said no to one of the many destructive loves of their children knows. How much more, then, ought we acknowledge that the Infinitely Wise Creator God knows and loves perfectly, even in a way that our finite and fallen minds may find difficult at times? It is here that our generation has yet to truly struggle with the counter-intuitive love of God.

Have I Considered That I Could Be Wrong? Huckabee closes his confession with a final appeal. He tells us that he knows he could be wrong on this issue. Christians disagree here as they have in other places, and he thinks that God won’t condemn either those who affirm a traditional position or a progressive one in the end. But the question he asks is this: 

However, I do urge you to consider: If you are wrong, what is the cost in the here and now? A life condemning others for something they can’t change about themselves? A life judging love?

That’s the wager. It’s not one I’m willing to make.

I have to admit, I’d hate to be wrong here for that reason, if that’s really the gamble. But is it? First, I’ve already dealt with the “judging love” objection above, and to be clear, the relevant question is not my judgment about love, but God’s. But is it really only the traditionalist like me who has a scary wager to make?

Huckabee quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9, earlier, but he doesn’t manage to connect the dots here:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…

Huckabee asks us to consider the consequences here and now. And those are real, though I think even there Huckabee fails to consider the consequences even here and now if he’s wrong. But still, what about then and there? Do we really want to play the “consider the stakes” game, then? Because the thing Huckabee’s argument doesn’t consider is that you might be telling someone to continue walking unrepentantly in one of the many sins that Scripture says constitutes a rejection of the grace of eternal life. What if God agrees with Paul, the apostle Jesus personally appointed by knocking him off his horse and calling him to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles?  Or the way the Church has been reading him for the last 2,000 years and not a minority of white, wealthy, post-Enlightenment Christians in North America and Europe at the beginning of the 21st Century? What if, right?

See, that is just not a wager I can make.

Wrapping It Up. To sum up, I haven’t actually made full-blown argument for natural or traditional marriage. Nor have I dealt with even half of Huckabee’s concerns, nor even my own. All the same, I think his piece reveals much about the problems we Millennials seem to have with issues concerning the meaning of the body, Scripture, and even the nature of God’s love. I pray that if you’re on the fence on these things—a position I can certainly understand—that this article and analysis help in some way.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those look for more resources, I’d recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book on the matter. Or, for a heavy academic work, Robert Gagnon’s. Or, if you want a more personal meditation, I’d highly recommend Wesley Hill’s thoughtful work. Finally, on the subject of sexual differentiation in marriage, Christopher Roberts’ book is fantastic.