Are We Losing a Generation? (CaPC Podcast with @dandarling)

capcThis week at the Together for the Gospel conference I had a chance to hang out with my editor Richard Clark and connect with Dan Darling of the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission to do a little podcast for Christ and Pop Culture. We chatted evangelism, the new cultural situation we find ourselves in, and whether or not we’re “losing a generation.” It was a good time.

You can go listen to it here at the Christ an Pop Culture site.

You can also go check out Dan Darling’s CNN article on the same subject here.

Soli Deo Gloria

In Which Calvin Defends Lip-Gloss (Christ and Pop Culture)

lip-glossMy wife spent this last Saturday morning ministering to and mentoring young women in foster care. As part of a larger program, she spent focused one-on-one time with a number of six teenage girls, listening to their stories, talking to them, and giving them a gift that she has cultivated with care and grace over a number of years: proper skin care and a knowledge of how to apply makeup that works with their facial features.

A number of these young women have grown up in difficult and abusive homes. Some don’t have mothers. Others had never had a stitch of makeup on in their lives and wouldn’t know where to start. And so, my wife, expert that she is, taught them how to wash their faces, massaged them, and then helped them understand how to use makeup in a way that amplifies and accentuates their natural features–eyes, cheeks, lashes, and lips–instead of drowning them out in a wash of paint.

I see this as a service and not simply a misguided encouragement to vanity, and to make my case, I’d like to call to the stand a witness: Genevan Reformer John Calvin’s theology of the body.

You can go read the rest of this, admittedly provocative, story at Christ and Pop Culture.

Keller, Evangelical Polarization, and the Folly of Measuring Coffins

So, the Evangelical twitter world just had another blowout this week. While these sorts of things happen every month or so, providing a bit of cathartic release from the build-up of rage, veiled contempt, and genuine frustration, this last one over the World Vision hiring policy kerfuffle seemed particularly nasty. Hysterical accusations were levelled, tweets were tweeted, unfriendly farewells were traded across the aisle, and a few sane arguments were sprinkled in for good measure.

In the middle of it all, on an unrelated note, Tim Keller tweeted out this:

It echoed his opening analysis in his best-seller The Reason for God, which seems worth quoting at length:

There is a great gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil. This is particularly true when religion is the point at issue. Progressives cry out that fundamentalism is growing rapidly and nonbelief is stigmatized. They point out that politics has turned toward the right, supported by mega-churches and mobilized orthodox believers. Conservatives endlessly denounce what they see as an increasingly skeptical and relativistic society. Major universities, media companies, and elite institutions are heavily secular, they say, and they control the culture.

Which is it? Is skepticism or faith on the ascendancy in the world today? The answer is Yes. The enemies are both right.

Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well. The non-churchgoing population in the United States and Europe is steadily increasing. The number of Americans answering “no religious preference” to poll questions has skyrocketed, having doubled or even tripled in the last decade. A century ago most U.S. universities shifted from a formally Christian foundation to an overtly secular one. As a result, those with traditional religious beliefs have little foothold in any of the institutions of cultural power. But even as more and more people identify themselves as having “no religious preference,” certain churches with supposedly obsolete beliefs in an infallible Bible and miracles are growing in the United States and exploding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Even in much of Europe, there is some growth in church attendance. And despite the secularism of most universities and colleges, religious faith is growing in some corners of academia. It is estimated that 10 to 25 percent of all the teachers and professors of philosophy in the country are orthodox Christians, up from less than 1 percent just thirty years ago…

In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. There was once a confident belief that secular European countries were the harbingers for the rest of the world. Religion, it was thought, would thin out from its more robust, supernaturalist forms or die out altogether. But the theory that technological advancement brings inevitable secularization is now being scrapped or radically rethought. Even Europe may not face a secular future, with Christianity growing modestly and Islam growing exponentially.

–The Reason for God, pp. ix-x

As I thought about it, I couldn’t help observing that it seems like we’re witnessing something of the same thing at work in Evangelicalism, with some slight variations. On the one hand, you see more conservative tribes, especially of the Reformed sort, talking about the growth of the movement, praising the blitz of theologically-conservative books, and conferences. On the other hand, its not hard to find progressives and post-Evangelicals speak about the tide going their way, the upsurge of popular support amongst the younger generations, a similar spate of books, and general grass-roots rejection of conservative ham-handedness.

So who’s right? From where I’m standing, they both are. What seems to be getting lost is the Evangelical middle. Why? Well, probably a lot of reasons, but in view of the last week’s “dialogue”, in the technologically-amplified Argument Culture, centrist voices tend to get marginalized and the loudest mouths dominate the air/screen-time.

Now, though I line up theologically more to the Reformed right, as I you might be able to tell, I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. While the ‘Evangelical middle’ isn’t always some theological safe zone, a spectrum is usually more helpful in terms of thoughtful conversation and deliberation that a highly-politicized, whole-package, two-party system you have to buy into in order to have a voice. In a polarized culture, every event, every issue becomes a battle-line to take your place on. While I don’t mind laying my cards on the table most of the time, I do like having a full deck to choose from.

(This, by the way, is why I love Christ and Pop Culture’s voice. And have you seen the slick new site?)

As for long-term prospects, I’d say that in light the overall secularization of culture and the broader influence of liberal theology in the culture, despite the institutional decline of the mainline that Christian Smith and others have talked about, progressives and Post-Evangelicals do seem to have the cultural edge. Of course, it’s an open issue whether they can pull their disparate streams into the corresponding institutions needed to sustain a full-fledged movement. Its anti-hierarchical, and, at times, anti-doctrinal stance makes that more difficult than more conservative or confessional groups. What’s more, I have admit, I do wonder if the superficial unity we see on flash-point cultural issues, or in vocal opposition to mutually-disdained conservative organizations, covers a deeper, disunity on fundamental presuppositions within it. Who knows? I’m just spit-balling here.

CoffinsFollowing off of this, if Church history teaches us anything, it’s that measuring coffins is an ugly business and an unpredictable one. All you have to do is study the ebb and flow of the Trinitarian controversies in the 4th century to know what I mean. A lot happened between the First and the Second councils of Nicaea. Which is why I’ll admit that I kind of cringe when some Reformed types talk in self-assured tones about the “death” of the emergent movement. The name died, sure, and Brian McClaren books maybe don’t have the sex-factor they used to, but evaluations like that still underestimate the movement’s long-term impact, and metamorphosis into the Post-Evangelicalisms of various sorts we’re seeing.

On the flipside, when progressives talk about millennial exodus from Evangelicalism and hopefully predict the imminent death of its conservative expressions, they ignore how much of that movement is not to progressive forms, but to conservative communions like Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and other confessional traditions. What’s more, these prognostications seem a bit parochial in their focus on the Western, American context at the expense of the growth of robustly conservative Christianity in the Majority world and Asia.

Now, for a final note that may undermine all of my ramblings: we Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Twitteratti (and yes, I do include myself in the mix now), often-times have an over-inflated sense of the importance of our own conversations. For every blog post shared, thousands wouldn’t think to waste their time reading one. Not that it’s right, but more American Evangelicals probably know about Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow breaking up than they do about the World Vision (non-)decision this week. Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and take a breathe on this stuff.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Church’s Speech Impediment (Christ and Pop Culture)

church wordsMost of us take our facility of speech for granted. We form words, sentences, and paragraphs with relative ease and think little of it in our daily conversation. For those with speech impediments, the case isn’t so simple. Rachel Kadish tells of her own story in the New York Times:

As a child, I had a relatively unusual speech impediment: I couldn’t form the sounds shj or ch properly, and this made a large swath of words difficult to pronounce. The word just would come out sounding like chust or shust; double-whammy words like church never emerged cleanly even if I squared myself and took a good run at them…Because I found this mortifying, I learned early to plan each word in advance. Given enough determination, almost any message could be recast in less perilous, albeit slightly formal vocabulary — vocabulary that might have seemed a bit peculiar coming from a child, but served me well. I never offered a suggestion or a choice, only an alternative; I never judged a playground contest, only decided or considered or even weighed it; I’d no sooner have used a word like challenge in front of my peers than I’d have ordered chimichangas.

Kadish goes to elaborate on the various strategies she learned to employ in order to avoid social embarrassment: weighing her words carefully, pausing to find the right word, or letting others fill in the blanks for her, cautiously side-stepping the verbal landmines that could be set off with a stray syllable. As trying as her childhood speech impediment was, coping with her challenges led her to develop linguistic skills that became strengths as a writer and a communicator.

In reading Kadish’s story I couldn’t help but find in a parable for the proclamation of the Church in a culture that has made Christian speech problematic. For many of us, the thought of pronouncing words like “sinner”, “Jesus Christ”, “salvation”, “mercy”, “judgment”–staples of the basic vocabulary of the Gospel–induces that same sort of social anxiety. Some of us fear, not so much mispronouncing the words, as being misheard.

You can go read the rest of my reflections on how the Church can learn to speak with a cultural-speech impediment over at Christ and Pop Culture.

 

Was Jesus a Celebrity Pastor?

Jesus and the crowdsThe apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things –Mark 6:30-34

There’s been a lot of talk about “Celebrity Pastors” lately, especially in light of all the recent Steven Furtick/Mark Driscoll shenanigans. While most of the criticism remains needed, solid, grounded, and helpful, Kevin DeYoung had a few thoughts yesterday, 9 to be exact, that I thought were helpful correctives. (Of course, some might write this off as DeYoung defending himself in advance as a somewhat well-known, well-published, and popular pastor-blogger. I don’t, so I’ll move on.) The first one in particular caught my eye:

The term “celebrity pastor” is decidedly pejorative. I don’t know anyone who would be happy to own the phrase. That doesn’t mean we can’t use it. But it means we should not attach it to pastors in a knee jerk way. A Christian with some combination of influence, social media followers, books, a large church, and speaking engagements may be a public Christian or a well known individual, but let’s not use “celebrity pastor” unless we mean to say he relishes the spotlight, has schemed his way into the spotlight, and carries himself as being above mere mortals. Does this fit some popular preachers? Probably. Does it fit all of them? By no means.

This is important to say: just because so and so happens to be very popular, have a big name, sell books, and so forth, that doesn’t mean they’ve fallen into the celebrity pastor trap. They may just be attracting a lot of attention in the midst of a faithful and smart ministry. I’m struck with the fact that the for the first part of Jesus’ ministry, judging by numbers and popularity alone, Jesus was a celebrity pastor–for a bit.

People crowded towns to see him. They filled up countryside hills like amphitheaters to hear him speak. Everybody wanted him at their dinner parties. They wanted his opinion on important subjects. His ministry was the subject of controversy and great furor…you see where I’m going. Popularity and controversy alone doesn’t make a “celebrity pastor.” What are his practices? Does he seek out the fame? Does he avoid speaking the whole Gospel in order to keep the crowd?

What’s more, the inverse is also true: obscurity and the lack of a New York Times Bestseller is not an automatic badge of righteousness. (Actually, I had one chap boasting at me the other day that he never had a Bestseller. Now, that might have meant something if he had actually written a good book, or really, any book.) DeYoung is insightful here as well:

Let us also acknowledge that one can become something of a “celebrity” critiquing celebrity pastors. This doesn’t make the critiques wrong or inappropriate. But it does mean we aren’t out of the Woods of Pride just because we’ve aligned ourselves against the proud. Besides, are pastors the only Christians susceptible to these pitfalls? What about celebrity professors or celebrity pollsters or celebrity social justice advocates?

Again, the celebrity pastor phenomenon is not a good thing. This is NOT defense of Driscoll or Furtick whose behavior needs to be called out. We need the faithful critics. We just may need to be careful about assuming our own righteousness because we’re so good and ferreting out the wickedness in the hearts of others. I know I’ll probably be a little more careful about the conversations I have around this subject matter.

How about ya’ll out there? What do you think?

Soli Deo Gloria

Ideological Moralism and Gospel Grace (TGC)

My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed.”

— Modern/postmodern ideological moralism

Charles Taylor

I posted that status after reading a little section toward the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self on Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche offers one of the most insightful examinations of how the modern idea that humanity must maintain goodwill toward all—”a secularized agape,” especially apart from the context of grace—can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.

Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication Nietzsche left unexplored:

The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.

In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism. (516-517)

Taylor penned these words almost 25 years ago, but I read them and couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming after us. It’s pretty common to either idolize or demonize our moral sense; we’re supposedly either relativists or morally superior activists. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both. And one “ist” I’d certainly add to the list is “moralists.”

You can go on to read the way this plays out over at The Gospel Coalition.

My Evangelical Story Isn’t So Bad (Or, a Ramble on Experience, Biography, & Theology)

evangelicalsCultural narratives come and go. For instance, looking back at the movies of 50 or 60 years ago, narratives of patriotism and love of country were pretty popular. Nowadays stories of suspicion and conflicted loyalties are far more common. I mean, in the Avengers even Captain America has to have his doubts-about-my-country moment before he dons the flag again in order to be believable or appealing to us.

Over the last few years we’ve seen one narrative in particular rise in ascendancy, the story of broken religious faith–either to be recovered, transformed, or possibly forfeited forever. While they can be found in most traditions, given my own context, I’m thinking of the “I had a terrible Evangelical experience” story in particular. An expanding number of blogs, long-form articles, and memoirs dedicated to telling these stories have emerged, and done quite well. Indeed, it seems to be a wave with no end currently in sight.

Of course, even those specific to Evangelicalism come in different forms. For some, there’s a story of flight from churchly abuse and control. Others share their experiences in “purity culture” with its repressive and distorted teaching on sexuality and personhood. Still others give us insight into communities of scared, intellectual obscurantists set to repress all questions and intellectual honesty. A lot of it is really sad, heartbreaking stuff, for a number of reasons.

In the first place, the like I said, the stories themselves are just sad. I think it would be difficult to read more than a few of them and remain unmoved by the pain of some of our brothers and sisters. Beyond that, at times, they seem to have the unfortunate effect of playing into the larger cultural perceptions/misconceptions people have about Christianity in general, and theologically conservative Evangelicalism in particular. To outsiders there’s a little bit of the “See, I knew it” effect at work. Of course, if it’s the truth, well, there’s no sense hiding it and it’s just something we have to deal with.

I think the thing that weighs on me in particular is that most of this doesn’t reflect the majority of my own very positive experience being raised in Evangelicalism. In other words, I’m saddened because I know it doesn’t have to be that way–I’ve seen it myself.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way - Now, I won’t lie, I’ve seen some stuff. I’ve been at church at least twice a week for most of my life. My mom has led women’s Bible studies since before I can remember, and my dad’s been an usher and an elder of sorts, which means I’ve been there for the pettiness and hypocrisy. I’ve watched churches split because of pride and an overweening sense of power. I’ve sat in worship services that look like concerts and heard sermons that made me long for a Tony Robbins pep talk. I’ve mourned pointless, commercialized building projects put ahead of local service. I’ve even told my own story about the awkardness of growing up Palestinian in a Pro-Israel tribe. In other words, I have plenty of criticisms of what we might think of as generalized Evangelicalism.

Overall though, growing up Evangelical has been a mostly positive thing for me.

I’ve been taught my whole life that Jesus loves me like the Bible says he does and cared about me enough too die and rise again for me. I’ve had a number of good, humble, and faithful leaders and pastors who have lived out that kind of Jesus-love towards me. I’ve had elders praying for me during sicknesses. I’ve had church families deliver meals to my house when my mom was recovering from surgery. I’ve had small group leaders guiding me and my friends through awkward transition years, faithfully pointing me to Jesus when I was tempted to look elsewhere.

I don’t think I was taught anything super weird or repressive about sex. I mean, I was in the kind of junior high youth group that made goofy videos with Barbie and Ken dolls to lighten the mood, while they encouraged hormonal 13-year-olds to pursue Jesus’ vision for sexuality without shame or fear. There was definitely A LOT of grace. And while I recently have gravitated towards the Reformed tradition, partially for it’s unabashed enthusiasm for cultivating the intellectual life, I’m not sure I ever felt mentally stifled in thechurches I grew up in.

I’ve seen and been a part of really great, faithful, welcoming Evangelical churches. They’ve provided resources and teaching for cultivating healthy, biblical sexuality. They’ve cared about the outsider. They’ve ministered to the poor. They’ve created spaces for people with questions. They’ve pointed us towards God and our neighbor with humility and passion. In other words, I’ve grown up in a sort of gentle Evangelicalism that I don’t recognize as the background to these stories of broken faith, or betrayed trust.

So, once again, I know it doesn’t have to be that way.

Biography and Theology - Where am I going with all of this? Well, there are a few places I could go, I suppose, but the reality I’ve been working through, again, is recognizing how much biography influences theology, and working through the implications for our conversations with each other. A number of these stories of pain or frustration are told as the background to shifts in theological perspective. Some of these shifts are ones that, honestly, I think are wrong and ultimately harmful. From my perspective, they represent understandable over-reactions to the association of good doctrine with bad practice. I’ve said this before, but in theology, “abuse doesn’t take away proper use.”

Still, these are real experiences and we have to deal with that as we talk about the church, theology, and Evangelicalism. Often-times I’m so locked into seeing people as positions to be corrected, I forget that they are storied-people to be heard. People respond viscerally to words and concepts that have functioned fairly positively in my own life, many times because of our differing stories. My fairly positive Evangelical experience isn’t the only one out there, which is probably part of what accounts for the relative slowness with which I’ve embraced the theological changes I have made. I haven’t been in as much of an existential rush. If I don’t recognize that, I probably won’t be of much use to them as anything more than a sparring partner.

Of course, the opposite is also true. I suppose it’s very hard when you’ve had these difficult experiences to stand back and think, “Well, maybe that’s not the only way of believing X doctrine. Maybe there are sounder, more healthy ways to approach X.” Instead, I’d imagine it’s probably pretty easy to fall into, “You’re an Evangelical, and therefore you and your churches are probably just like the people who hurt me. Whenever you say X, you mean Y hurtful thing” and so forth. But, honestly, that’s not always the case. Just as those of us with positive Evangelical experiences need to realize our stories aren’t the only ones out there, it might help if those with more negative stories try to recognize that same reality in reverse. The positive stories are real too. It’s not all that bad.

Bringing it Back - Reformedish Evangelical that I am, I can’t help but see this as another invitation back to the Scriptures. If we’re going to have conversations that amount to something more than a back and forth exchange of invincible moral experiences, we need to, as I’ve said before, understand what we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience.

We need to see that in the Bible we have the normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story gets the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited, weighed down with baggage, or ignorantly blind like ours tend to be. It’s the story big enough to encompass all of our stories without denying, or ignoring them.

As we re-engage the text then, there’s hope that the same Spirit who inspired these words might illuminate them, opening us up to his unchanging truth together. Those of us with comfortable Evangelical experiences might be awakened from our slumber to deal with the very uncomfortable struggles of others. And those of us with hurts and scars might be willing to receive healing medicines we’ve formerly rejected as poisons.

This was all a sort of incomplete ramble, of course, but for some of us it might be a start.

Soli Deo Gloria

History, Christian Scholarship, and Learning to Re-embrace Our Missionary Past

Many young Christians probably have some mixed feelings about our missionary past. For those of us growing up in the Church, the big heroes are the brave families who head out to spread the Gospel, risking comfort and danger for the sake of the call. In some settings, the 19th-century mission movement is still held up as a halcyon high-mark of the Gospel’s progress in the world, shrouded in mythic glory. Of course, then you go to school, read modern critical accounts, and find accusations (some substantiated and quite damning) of the colonialism, cultural imperialism, and destruction associated with the movement, and the glow fades, leaving a hazy, uncomfortable shadow in its place. Awash in the realization that the history of Christian missions has included atrocities and wide-spread practices deeply at odds with the Gospel, it’s easy for younger, sensitive Christians to become ashamed at any mention of our missionary heritage.

Recently though, there’s been a bright ray of light slowly piercing its way through the gloom. According the latest research, 19th-century Protestant missionaries were not the source of everything wrong with the modern third world. Witness the story of John Mackenzie:

For some reason, no one has written a best-selling book about the real-life 19th-century missionary John Mackenzie. When white settlers in South Africa threatened to take over the natives’ land, Mackenzie helped his friend and political ally Khama III travel to Britain. There, Mackenzie and his colleagues held petition drives, translated for Khama and two other chiefs at political rallies, and even arranged a meeting with Queen Victoria. Ultimately their efforts convinced Britain to enact a land protection agreement. Without it, the nation of Botswana would likely not exist today.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, I analyze some of the implications of MacKenzie’s research, both for what it tells about how to do Christian scholarship, and what it can teach us about approaching our own Christian past. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Few Follow-up Thoughts on Sneering Calvinists

john-calvin

I’m better than you.

So this last week I wrote a post about Sneering Calvinists over at the Gospel Coalition. I basically said that the Reformed have gotten a somewhat justified reputation for being prickly and arrogant, you don’t have to be a crazy, wicked person to reject Reformed distinctives, and since we believe in humbling grace, we should not be terrible to these people. Honestly, not really hard stuff.

Essentially, I was talking about what some other Reformed commentators/theologians, like R. Scott Clark have talked about before. While challenging the notion that Reformed types are of necessity prickly he goes on to talk about the reality of the ‘cage phase‘: 

Let’s admit, however, that sometimes, upon first becoming Reformed, some folk become jerks. Sometimes this phase is temporary. Mike Horton calls this the “cage phase,” when a new convert to Reformed Christianity needs to be put in a cage until he matures. Some, when they first discover “the doctrines of grace” (code for unconditional predestination and justification by grace alone, through faith alone) can actually become angry that they’ve been denied these truths for so long.

For some, this is a temporary phase. For others, they never seem to grow out of it–but they should. If you haven’t before, go read the whole article–it’s worth it.

Well, the reactions were interesting. For the most part, they were positive–from both Reformed and non-Reformed. I had a lot of Reformed people agreeing, a few confessing a need for repentance, and in general, people seemed thankful that somebody within the camp had said it. I even had a few wonderful emails from people looking for book recommendations in order to learn their theology better so they wouldn’t misrepresent it! Also, from the non-Reformed, there were a number of people who similarly grateful that someone from within the camp had said it.

Still, there were a number of hurt, angry, and just plain confused responses that I thought were worth commenting on.

No, This is Not All Reformed People – Just to be clear, for those who couldn’t catch it earlier: I don’t think all Calvinists sneer or are terrible. Actually, I generally like them. I read them. I agree with them. When they’re not teetotalers, I drink beer with them. In fact, the bottom half of my article was dedicated to talking about a couple of them who were instrumental in my own journey into the Reformed fold. As I’ve come in, I’ve found that there are plenty more like them. Finally, the post was featured on The Gospel Coalition–visible Calvinist central. I wouldn’t write for them if that wasn’t the case.

Yes, Arminians Can Be Terrible Too – The other common reaction was the “Arminians have been terrible too” defense. Some wanted to know why I singled out Calvinists in my article, since theological pride is a common Christian inheritance, not unique to the Calvinist. Which is true. I’ve witnessed plenty of Arminian sneering, and sometimes the worst of it comes from those who love complaining about Calvinist sneers. Todd Pruitt had a good balancing word the other day:

For example I could write posts about the fact that the meanest and most self-righteous people I have ever encountered are Arminians. But what would that accomplish? Honestly, some of these posts sound a bit like, “I thank you Lord that I am not like this mean Calvinist.” What is more, until prominent Arminian theologians stop publicly comparing “the god of Calvinism” with Satan, then the reports of mean Calvinists are going to ring a bit hollow.

I couldn’t agree more.

So why focus on Calvinists? A number of reasons. First, and most simply, I was telling my story. It involved moving into the Reformed camp, from outside the camp, and my experience with sneering Calvinists.

Next, the Gospel Coalition is read primarily by those of a Reformed theological persuasion, so it makes sense to focus my argument for my audience. If I’d have aimed it too broad, it’s all to easy for those of us with a bad case of plank-in-eye, to miss the personal application and think “Yes, this is perfect for my arrogant Catholic friend!” In fact, I suspect that some (not all, but some) of those raising a complaint on this score, were simply irritated that they couldn’t dodge my attempted plank-removal service.

After that, I wanted to avoid the danger Pruitt talks about. Again, I can rip off plenty of examples of sneering Catholics, sneering Orthodox, sneering Post-Evangelicals, sneering anti-Calvinists who seem to have no other theological distinctive beyond their central tenet: “Calvinism is the devil.” I could do that, because they exist and they’re a pain as well–God bless ‘em.  Still, while it’s possible, and necessary at times, to point the foibles of those outside the fold–as I’ve done myself before–it’s all to easy for it to be written off as “well, he would say that, he’s Reformed”, or, “Oh look, the Gospel Coalition–Calvinists–are telling people to play nice. Isn’t that cute?”

Following on that point, as I’ve said before, criticisms of those in the Reformed fold are best delivered by those within the fold:

When someone within your fold goes off the rails, they need to get criticized and corrected by those within first. If not, it will probably be done by those with no sympathies for your tradition as a whole, likely imputing their failures to the broader structure of thought. It’s no harm to gently (or less-gently) call out failures or unhelpful distortions within the tradition. In fact, that’s what traditions are: ongoing conversations centered around various shared convictions as well as disagreements.

While I was writing primarily of theological distortions, this can apply just as well to distortions of piety and character. Honestly, I focused on Reformed folks because I’m Reformed and I want us to shed that reputation. I want the whole, “Calvinists are jerks” meme to be manifestly a distortion, so that’s no longer an excuse–crappy or not–for writing off Reformed doctrine. Maybe I’m just being selfish for my Reformed brothers and sisters–I want all the jerks to be their jerks.

Not Good Enough - Finally, there were the non-Reformed who thought I didn’t go far enough. They accused me of still treating other traditions and theological persuasions as lesser and encouraging condescension towards non-Reformed believers–though of a more benevolent sort. To that, I can only reply: I’m sorry. That’s not my intent. I’ve reread it and I’m not sure what I should have rewritten, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve learned plenty from my non-Reformed friends, teachers, and theologians. At points I don’t agree with them, and so I’m going to continue to talk as if Reformed  theology is, in the main, correct. I can’t help that–that’s how belief works. Still, if I demonstrated any arrogance or dismissive tendencies towards other traditions and believers in my attempt to discourage that sort of thing, please do forgive me.

Well, as always, there’s more to say, but I’ll have to wrap it up here today.

Soli Deo Gloria

Atheist’s Letter From Birmingham Jail (TGC)

MLK-in-jailIn April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for his participation in the organized, non-violent marches and sit-ins against racial segregation in Birmingham. On the same day, eight white Alabama clergymen, some Christian, some not, published an open letter on unity that decried the demonstrations and urged patience, asking people to restrict their efforts to the courts and not the streets.

King received a copy of the letter while in prison and in response wrote what is now recognized as one of the most important moral treatises of the 20th century, his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it, King damningly exposed the weakness, moral turpitude, and short-sightedness of the “white moderates” encouraging the protesters to cease their activist efforts until a “more convenient season.” It is passionate testimony to King’s deep moral logic, striking in its clarity.

But many engaged in school readings and college composition discussions fail to see that if there is no God, this letter is meaningless.

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