What in Heaven’s Name Do You Mean by ‘Better’?

rulerThe other day I had an argument with a friend about what he meant by the word ‘better.’ You see, we currently hold differing metaphysical views, me being a Christian, he being a, well, something of an inquisitive philosophical floater with former Christian inheritance. Now, I love chatting with him because he’s brilliant, keeps me on my toes, and is, well, a funny guy. Still, I was pressing him on the notion of what he meant when he talked about the idea of ‘better’, or ‘health’, or ‘good’, and so forth, if he didn’t hold to some supernatural standard, or that the world was created with a certain rhythm and order, a God-given way things ‘ought’ to be that it failed to live up to.

I was reminded of this when I ran across Lewis’s argument in “On the Poison of Subjectivism” in Christian Reflections. Here he’s dealing with the sort of moral relativism that results from rejecting the idea of natural Law written into the order of things by the Creator, and recognized, however imperfectly, by human nature made in the Image of God. Instead, our moral opinions are socially-constructed value judgments that we have been socially-conditioned to accept, and which we can create, change at will, and even “improve.” But this, says Lewis, is a rather confused approach to things (oh, and, just to note, he’s writing in the middle of WW2):

‘Perhaps’, thinks the reformer or the educational expert, ‘it would be better if we were [socially-conditioned otherwise]. Let us improve our morality.’ Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that our indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese, and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words. (pg. 73)

Lewis then bemoans how obvious, and yet how little this is understood by his contemporaries:

All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that “good” means “what we are conditioned to like” goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be “better” that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s name does he mean by “better”?

He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more “real” or “solid” on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, “We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community” – as if the maxim “Thou shalt promote the good of the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement that he claims to be rejecting. (pg. 74)

And here’s where we start to get to the point where my disagreement with my friend comes up. For him, the notion of making life better, or progress was tied up with what science could tell us about what leads to the objective flourishing of humans. But where, pray tell, does science find this standard of human flourishing?

Or he will endeavor to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on “instinct.” “We have an instinct to preserve our species”, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them. (pg. 74)

In a sense, science can’t tell you what to value as good. It can only measure and tell you how to arrive at what you already value as good. If you value survival, then science can tell you how to survive best. We have to assume certain values and then use science to measure reality in light of those we already possess.

In which case, we’re still left with the question: “What in Heaven’s name does he mean by ‘better’?”

Soli Deo Gloria

The Danger of “What This Really Means…” (TGC)

At some level we’re all Nietzcheans now. During online debate and interaction with those whom we disagree, we often default to a “hermeneutic of suspicion” associated with Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and their later disciples Foucalt and Derrida. For those happily unaware of what that phrase means, it’s essentially a way of interpreting and reading everything with a certain level of skepticism, concerned to uncover the real, hidden motives behind any argument, statement, or position. It rejects the face-value reading, because “what this really means” is probably something else, mostly an attempt maintain hidden relations of power or control.

friedrich-nietzsche-540x304For instance, claims about maintaining the order of the family made by a politician are “really” about supporting the material interests who profit from current structure of society. In the religious realm, a claim by a pastor about the nature of church government is about maintaining his own clerical position of authority.

When it comes to debating the hot-button issues of the day, it’s quite tempting to resort to “what they really mean” stories about our opponents. For instance, are they opposed to gay marriage? Then it’s not really about the Bible, but about maintaining their own righteousness by comparison. Are they in favor of it? It’s not because of a moral stance, but it’s really about their inability to stand up to the culture for Jesus.

Actually, a hermeneutic of suspicion is necessary at times. Often we see that claims to truth really are pragmatic masks worn by those looking to sell something or increase their own power. There’s a reason nobody trusts politicians. There is good reason to query claims made by “experts” in commercials trying to sell us things. One of Kevin Vanhoozer’s 10 rules of cultural interpretation is this: “Determine what ‘powers’ are served by particular texts or trends by discovering whose material interests are served (e.g.. follow the money!).” In fact, as Christians, we’re called to exercise a sort of hermeneutic of suspicion against our own self-serving hearts, the claims of the world against the truth of the gospel, and so forth.

That said, there are some problems with our stumbling rush to decode the hidden motives of our interlocutors.

You can read the problems with this approach over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile as Judgment

fall of samaria2 Kings 17 recounts the story of the Fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians and her Exile:

But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:4-6 ESV)

At first it looks like a simple case of power politics gone wrong. Hoshea backs the wrong horse in putting his trust in Egypt, calling down the wrath of the more potent political power found in Shalmaneser’s Assyria army. Open and shut case here, right? If we’re dealing with the purely human level of motivation and machination, then yes. But the author of Kings invites us to peer deeper into the providential working of God in the events of Israel’s Exile. Please don’t skim this, but read it carefully:

And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. (2 Kings 17:7-18 ESV)

Reflections on the Exile as Judgment. As I was reading through this story earlier this year, I was struck with the clear progression at work here. In this short narrative passage, we have a constellation of disputed but crucial themes involved in understanding the deeper logic at work in our theology of atonement and sovereignty. I’ll list them in no particular order:

  1. Sin as Idolatry – First of all, sin is presented to us as both relational and legal violation. The LORD gave Israel the Law, the covenant that codifies in its clear commandments the special relationship between the LORD and his chosen people. All of Israel’s sinful actions are committed “against the LORD”. To despise God’s commandments is to despise the God who gives them. This point is deepened when we reflect on the fact that the sin that is singled out here, almost exclusively, is that of idolatry in its various forms. Reflecting both the metaphors of King and husband, Israel’s violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments can only be seen as a betrayal of trust, fealty, and fidelity to her covenant Lord. In the covenant we have a relationship of law and love. Indeed, in their placement as the head of the commands, we are instructed to understand that, first and foremost, all sin has a God-ward dimension that cannot be reduced to its horizontal implications.
  2. Patience – Next, the God of the Old Testament is radically merciful and patient. After clear violation after violation, God sends warning after warning, prophet after prophet, both before and after the period of the kings of Israel, in order to draw his people away from their sin. I’ve told my students this before, but the history of Israel is not the history of God getting mad and destroying things. Instead, it is the history of God having patience with a people that repeatedly, irrationally, and violently reject him, until his hand is forced to act.
  3. Wrath – His warnings go unheeded. In fact, they seem to provoke only greater disobedience and idolatry of such depravity that includes child sacrifice and every sort of abomination that the Canaanites who dwelt in the land before them were driven out for. And so, God is presented to us as one is who is provoked to “anger” and wrath by sin. Three times God’s anger is mentioned here in this passage, twice after a laundry list of Israel’s sins, and once in the judgment formula. I’ve mentioned Volf’s reflections on God’s anger before, but once again we’re faced with the reality that the holiness, goodness, and yes, the love of God means he does not shrug his shoulders with a “meh”, in the face of gross evil, or really, any evil. For Though God’s emotions mustn’t be thought of in a simplistic fashion, we cannot deny the reality that God observes human sin and idolatry with great displeasure and the will to ultimately remove them. With references to God’s wrath/anger reaching spanning between 400-600 times in the Old Testament alone, if we are to take the revelation of God to Israel seriously, we cannot brush this aside.
  4. Judgment – Which brings us to the Exile. The judgment and exile of the Northern kingdom is clearly presented to us in what can only be described as a judicial execution of as the God’s anger at sin. “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” Judgment is the enacting in history of the LORD’s moral evaluation of Israel’s actions in eternity. Given our prior reflections, we can’t help describing it as a penal judgment rendered in reference to the covenant law. This is not just some “Western, legalizing” interpretation of the event, as is so commonly charged, but a reading that flows from carefully attending to the logic of the text, as well as its placement within the broader narrative of God’s dealings with Israel. That said, we see the logic of the Exile as well. If the land is symbolic of, and part of, the covenant blessings Israel enjoys as part of her relationship with the LORD, it only makes sense that her rejection of the LORD would result in exclusion from the land. It is the “fearful symmetry” of judgment we’ve talked about before.
  5. Multiple-Agency – Finally, this judicial execution is presented both as the work of both divine and human agents. Shalmaneser is clearly given responsibility, acting for what were presumably less than holy reasons like imperial dominance and greed. And yet, in the inspired author’s presentation, without denying or explaining away the freely chosen actions involved, the ultimate agent of judgment is the LORD himself. Again, “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God”, and “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” We see, then, both Divine and human agency at work in one and the same event, one wicked, and one wholly righteous in the destruction and Exile of Israel. While no explicit theology of mulitple-agency is cleanly laid out here, something like it is clearly presupposed.

This is the logic of exile: Israel violates God’s covenant at length, ignores God’s mercy, provokes God’s anger, and brings down God’s judgment. I’ve chosen one key passage where it is laid out rather cleanly, but it’s important to note that each of those five points could be buttressed with skads of verses, narratives, prophecies, and long-range themes in Scripture.

The Cross as Exile – So that people don’t misunderstand, breaking down the logic of exile takes on the importance it does for me because, again, it is that logic that informs part of how we understand Jesus’ glorious, representative work for us on the Cross. As the author of Hebrews hints at, Jesus’ execution on the cross was that of the Levitical scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people beyond the camp in a mini-representative-Exile:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (Hebrews 13:12 ESV)

What’s more, in line with the curse of execution, he suffered “outside the gate” as the Law prescribes (Lev. 14; Num. 15; Deut 17) to exhaust the covenant curse of Exile-as-judgment in our place as our great High Priest, make us holy once more, and institute a new covenant with the people–a truer, more inviolable one–in his own blood:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17 ESV)

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:12-18 ESV)

I know that I’ve only just sketched a basic, partial, and patchwork understanding of these New Testament texts, but when you understand the logic at work in the Exile of Israel, you can begin to see how deeper logic of Jesus’ Exile on the Cross as divine judgment on sin isn’t just some “rationalistic, systematic-theological”, or “medieval”, imposition on them, but rather a way of understanding them describing the Cross as the culmination of a number of themes central to the divine drama of God’s faithful relationship to unfaithful Israel. Again, the dark backdrop of sin and judgment is the only one in which the light of sacrifice and grace can be see in all of its glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Quick Thought On Talking to Young (Or New) Calvinists

letters to a young calvinistFor a number of reasons, lately I’ve been thinking about how to talk to young Reformed types. Well, maybe more how to talk to young Reformed types online. For one thing, I wrote a little piece a few weeks ago on a related subject that attracted interesting attention from some older Reformed types, as well as the questions of eager younger Reformed types looking to learn. I also just read James K.A. Smith’s little book Letters to a Young Calvinist this weekend. And finally, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a number of articles, both positive and negative, talking about the impact, the focus, and the pedigree of the movement. Being under 30, having come to the Reformed tradition only lately, and contributing to the Gospel Coalition fairly regularly, I suppose this puts me, if not in middle of, then at least in a neighborhood adjacent to, the mix.

In the middle of it all, one thing that kind of emerged for me is that some of us need to work on how we talk to each other within the fold. So, for instance, looking at conversations around the New Calvinism, some of the more caustic commentary around it seems to be coming not from Arminians, or Post-Evangelicals, or Wesleyans, but, well, the “Old Calvinism” that you might think would be a little more pleased about things.

Now, though I’m new to the whole thing, I’ll admit I kind of get it. As someone who came in more by way of Vanhoozer, Plantinga, Horton, Billings, and Calvin himself than some of the “New Calvinist” lights, I have to say was a bit nonplussed when I saw the notion of covenant, or a renewed appreciation for Calvin’s sacramental theology, weren’t included in a recent prominent list of theological features of the New Calvinism. Covenant made sense to me long before election did, and is certainly as central to classic Reformed theology as election is. Actually, you might say covenant is a more distinctly Reformed category than election is. What’s more, Calvin’s views of the sacraments were part of what led to me favoring the Reformed tradition over others in my earlier studies, and have certainly played a major role in shaping Reformed piety through the centuries.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that much of the criticism coming from, well, Old (or maybe just older) Calvinists has an air of “Get it right the first time, or just shut-up, son.” Now, maybe I’m just a biased young-un’, but I can’t imagine this is a very helpful approach to take. It’s not that a lot of the younger Reformed, or just Calvinist-leaning types, I know don’t want to learn from other, older, more seasoned voices in the neighborhood. I think they do–I know I certainly do. It’s just that I’ve found critical condescension, nor aggressive boundary-keeping, isn’t as effective of a motivator towards theological reconsideration as some might think.

Instead, I would commend Smith’s general approach as a model to Reformed types across the spectrum. Admittedly, Smith himself is known for being…curmudgeonly at times, and even has some shots at the New Calvinism in the book as well. Still, his overall tack is one of gracious invitation. (As a side-note, it’s actually just a great intro Reformed theology, especially of the Dutch variety, for some of us young Reformed types to read.) One of the strengths of the work is demonstrating that decrying deficiencies is less enticing than warmly commending the glories of what you have found to be a richer vein within the broader Christian tradition. Instead of quickly jumping down the throat of the novice (someone with a lot of enthusiasm and plenty to learn) for every early mistake, Smith takes a more fatherly, or even brotherly approach to it.

Kevin DeYoung’s early engagement with Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video comes to mind as wonderful example of this. In it, you see DeYoung affirming the good he saw in the younger man’s efforts, correcting what he deemed to be errors, and in general inviting Bethke and his fans to a seeing things in a more biblical light. And to Bethke’s credit, and I think, the credit of DeYoung’s approach, he responded to the invitation with humility and grace.

So, all that to say, for older Reformed types talking to younger ones, or Old Calvinists talking to New Calvinists, or “Calvinists” you don’t really think count, honey tends to work better than vinegar.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are We All Just Fred Phelps Fundamentalists? (CaPC)

phelpsWhat is Fred Phelps’ one virtue? Honesty, according to Matthew Paul Turner writing for The Daily Beast: 

Since my first introduction to Phelps and his God-ordained hate, we’ve witnessed the lengths he was willing to go to spread his version of the gospel, a message that always focused on God’s disgust for humanity and his soon-arriving damnation…But therein might lie the one, dare I say, redeeming quality of Phelps: that he was always upfront about his beliefs, intentionally wearing his fundamentalism proudly—like a badge of honor—and without a filter.

According to Turner, though Phelps is dead, his “fundamentalist” God lives on. Turner knew if first-hand in an only-so-restrained form in the churches of his youth, and now he detects it hidden in a milder, sound-bite friendly form in the teachings of others:

Is Christian fundamentalism dead in America? I don’t think so. Among this country’s wide and varied Christianities, fundamentalism is very much alive; it’s just harder to recognize. Rather than being fanatical, loud, and obnoxious, today’s fundamentalism masquerades under wide smiles, hipster garb, flowery poetic language, and synth-pop beats…

And here’s where we run up with the problem: Turner’s use of the word “fundamentalist.” Whenever I see the term used in common parlance, especially in media outlets like The Daily Beast, I’m always wary due to the fact that there seems to be some slippage in terminology.

You can go read me disentangle the meaning of ‘Fundamentalism’, find out who counts, and why this matters over at Christ and Pop Culture.

And, P.S.  For what it’s worth Matt, I still like you!

 

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.