Becker and the Anti-Hero Church

beckerI finally got around to reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Denial of Death.  Wow, have I been behind the curve. I’m only through the preface and the introduction, but it’s already been an illuminating few pages.

In a nutshell, Becker begins to argue that humans desperately crave cosmic significance—we all need to be heroes who accomplish great deeds of worth and value in order to have a sense of meaning. Cultures, by their nature, provide hero-systems through which we have the framework to achieve that hero-status. In some it is great material accomplishment, in others it is physical heroics, or literary vitality, or religious holiness, and so forth. Cultures are relative in the way hero-systems are constructed, but they all provide them, nonetheless.

Of course, writing after the 1960s and heading into the 1970s, the question that loomed large was: what happens when the major cultural, hero-systems failed? What happened when they were exposed? When it turned out that you could be solid, honest, businessman working for a corrupt corporation? Or that you could throw yourself on a grenade to save your buddies in what ends up being a senseless war? Or that consumerism might just be rotting away at your soul, so that he who had the most toys when he does, dies a villain instead of a hero of industry?

This was the crisis of the youth heading into the 1970s—at least from Becker’s point of view. We all still need that sense of cosmic heroism—a way to achieve meaning in our lives that sustains, strengthens, and drives all our actions. But what do you do when the cultural, hero-systems of the day have all been unmasked?

And here he makes a potent observation about the Church and religious faith:

“And the crisis of society is, of course, the crisis of organized religion too: religion is no longer valid as a hero system, and so the youth scorn it. If traditional culture is discredited as heroics, then the church that supports that culture automatically discredits itself. If the church, on the other hand, chooses to insist on its own special heroics, it might find that in crucial ways it must work against the culture, recruit youth to be anti-heroes to the ways of life of the society they live in. This is the dilemma of religion in our time.”

-Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pg. 7

Written over forty years ago, Becker is still on to something, for better or for worse. Religion and Christianity aren’t totally discredited in the “youth” today, but by most markers, it’s certainly down. Something like thirty percent of millennials identify as “Nones”, and even the more specific, religious confession among the rest is far squishier, syncretistic, and self-consciously peripheral to the core of their lives than in the past.

This is why I see a warning here for the current church, going in two directions.

First, there’s a warning about the danger of a sort of Christian traditionalism that sees itself conserving more traditional culture, almost out of sheer inertia. The kind of “good, old days” golden-ageism that rightly praises the holy elements of cultural, hero-systems of previous generations (stable families, long-term company loyalty, visible religious confession, etc), but tends to be rather myopic about the various, short-comings of its compromises along economic, racial, gender, or social lines.

I’m painting with a broad, maybe unfair brush, but the longing for a return to the days of our parents or grandparents without a critical edge to the various accommodations and failures of the Church as a prop of civil religion, or the “moral, Evangelical, suburban lifestyle” will not help us here.

Of course, the danger we’re likely to be less aware of when reading Becker is of latching onto the next wave of culturally-approved, heroic-meaning-achievement. Seeing that the Church has been identified with older, hero-systems that don’t connect and even drive off the youth, there’s a rush to jump on any bandwagon and the ideologies attached to it, in order to show that “Christianity really does get (insert issue X)” so as to catch the wave. And that may work for a while.

But in the long-run,  there’s got to be something distinctively Christian about the way the Church invites people into a meaningful life that doesn’t simply end up being a version of their neighbor’s meaning-system with a Bible-verse attached to it–because when that goes (and it always goes), so does the Christianity that’s attached to it. Or, even more—if Christianity just presents itself as another version of the currently-appealing hero-system, then why bother with it? Today’s progressivism may be (and likely will be) tomorrow’s traditionalism. And given the vagaries and inconsistencies of history, some hero-systems considered regressive today, may end up making a comeback in the near-future.

So, for instance, it’s right and good to show that Christianity has a deep logic to it which funds the work of activism for broader racial and social justice. The gospel does have social implications along those lines. But when you do so,  you have to do the hard work of showing the way these currently common values are rooted into the distinctively Christian story of Christ and him crucified, or the way that the Church offers certain distinctive ways of approaching reconciliation and truth in ways that might run counter to the dominant, activist, hero-system. Indeed, that they’re not even really part of a typical hero-system, in that sense.

Otherwise, what happens when people get burned out by that system? What happens when you’re a failure within it? When you just don’t measure up? Or key personalities within the movement end up exposed? Or someone hijacks the cause for personal gain? Or the acids of deconstructive suspicion begin to eat away even at the struggle for justice? At that point, are there distinctively Christian practices and theological values of grace, forgiveness, Sabbath, or truth-telling, rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ, that continue to fund this work in the Church even when the rest of the world has moved on to the next, big thing?

I’m not sure that will happen, but as with so many of the great, meaning-imbuing causes of the last few centuries, it’s a possibility. Christianity needs to have a message, then, that does one thing that Becker hints at and another that he doesn’t.

First, it needs to cultivate—at least in some areas—what Becker called an “anti-hero” ethic. This is often what some refer to as a sense of being “counter-cultural.” I say that with trepidation, mostly because of the sort of criticisms my friend Matthew Lee Anderson has noted with the cheaper appeals to it. But all the same, that sensibility of knowing that Christianity stands apart (even at those moments when it stands in solidarity with!) the meaning-systems of the world is important if it is to not get dragged down into with them when they sink.

Of course, even more obvious than engaging those areas we do share in a distinctive way, we’ll be required to simply refuse to go along with others. We will have to stand apart not only the way we do things, but in what we do and advocate altogether. The rush towards reinventing every aspect of sexual and gender ethics seems to be only the most obvious example. This is one of those areas where, yes, progress in understanding can be made to a degree, but unsurprisingly we will likely have to stand almost entirely apart and inhabit the freakish space the early church did in this regard.

Second, the even more radical move that Becker does not suggest is to show the way that Christianity up-ends the normal modes of cultural hero-systems altogether. In the cross and resurrection, Christ delivers us from the elements of the world—the typical, socio-religious systems of meaning-creation—and hero-systems our world offers us to achieve our own identity, our sense of cosmic worth, by introducing us into a new cosmos altogether.

In that cosmos, it is not we who achieve our meaning and significance, but Christ from whom we receive it by faith. By faith we are united with Christ and so participate in his life, death, and resurrection which reform the world altogether, imbuing it with its true meaning and purpose.Ours is a meaning and purpose derived, dependent, and secure in his.

Yes, we are invited into his kingdom, into his Church, into a truly meaningful way of living in the world, but all the same, when we preach that message, we offer people a Christianity that stands truly apart from all the meaning-systems of the world. It is a distinctive faith with a distinctive life drawn from its distinctive center—the Lord Jesus Christ. We are different because he is different. We are invited to embrace “anti-heroes” to the ways of life of the world precisely because Jesus, our hero, was crucified by them, rose, and conquered them in himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

Three Stages of “Being A Protestant” (On Not Feeling Guilty About the Reformation)

martin-lutherWhen I was a kid, you could say I had an ecumenical instinct in some respects. It was common at the time (I’m thinking 6th-12th grade) to ask, “Are you a Christian or a Catholic?” meaning something like, “Evangelical or Catholic?” or “Catholic or something else?” depending on who was asking it. This was true of the Roman Catholic kids too. I—being me—took special delight in pointing out that technically they we were all Christians and really, it was a matter of sub-branches. Beyond that, I didn’t trouble myself too much. I knew we had the Bible and they had the Pope, so there wasn’t much to worry about.

Oh, those were the days.

Of course, things begin to change and get more complicated once you get a bit older and especially when you start studying doctrine and history. I got to thinking about this yesterday after a conversation with a friend, so I figured I’d briefly (and roughly) explore this a bit.

In my experience, there are something like three stages or modes of being a “consciously” Protestant—where you adopt your theological stance with a fair amount of awareness of other positions, traditions, etc. Or, at least, there have been three modes that I’ve sort of inhabited.

Unreconstructed Triumphalism – The first is sort of the unreconstructed or un-conflicted joy of discovering you are the heir to the great Martin Luther with his hammer, who put the Papists in their place, rediscovering the gospel again after it had long been buried under Papal dogma. This is often accompanied by a general sense that there was no church between Augustine (maybe even Paul) and Luther. What’s more, Roman Catholics are obviously likely not saved (or maybe by the skin of their teeth). Luther was a hero, Calvin had no blemishes, and there was no blood on our hands in the whole affair. I’m painting with a broad brush here, but you kind of get the feel—the ethos—so to speak. There’s no guilt about it, but there’s also sort of arrogant myopia involved. Protest on, bro.

Begrudging Embarrassment – Then there’s the second kind or stage: a sort of bashful, apologetic Protestantism that’s fairly conflicted about the whole thing. This conflicted stance can come from any number of sources. Sometimes it comes with studying a bit more of church history and theology and coming to appreciate the riches of the broader tradition. Start reading the Fathers and a little Anselm or Aquinas, or some spiritual masters, and you begin to realize the Holy Spirit might have been doing a few things during that gap between the Fathers and the Reformation. This new appreciation for history might occur while simultaneously looking at the worst excesses of pop-culture Evangelicalism and getting the sense that they’re the natural outworking of Reformation theology.

Some have drunk deeply from the wells of recent narratives of decline that lay all the blame at Protestantism’s feet (ie. Reformation –> Modernity and Bad, Bad Things). Sure, there may have been some excesses in the Medieval period, and Luther and Calvin had a point on justification, but…was it all worth it? I mean, are our beliefs that different? Are beliefs even the point? Was all the blood, the division, the dis-unity really the unalloyed victory for the truth it’s painted to be? Can the solas, especially sola Scriptura, be sustained in our day anyways? This is often accompanied by an unspoken (often unrecognized) premise that unity is supposed to be of a certain, more clearly chain-link, institutional sort and is scandalized by the thought of (30,000!) denominations the Reformation has apparently left in its wake. (BTW, that’s a myth that’s been debunked even by Roman Catholic apologists).

I don’t want to make light of this. There’s a real (I’d say) holy grief at this disunity for the sake of witness. And there’s something wise about the chastening of un-catholic pride.

Second Naïveté Protesting – Coming in third is what I’ll call (in a very snooty manner) Protesting with a “second naïveté.” The idea is, once you’ve kind of gone through this sort of chastening, self-critical phase, you push past it to something more constructive. In other words, you get tired of feeling guilty about being a Protestant, about some of ecclesial realities on the ground, and got on with the business of confessing the faith.

How this happens, I’m not entirely sure. I suppose for me it’s involved a few things.

First, there’s been a greater appreciation for just how muddled history can be. For instance, it comes with recognizing that the Reformation was, in many ways, dependent on the diversity already present within the pre-Reformation medieval scene. In which case, Luther with his hammer, and Calvin (with his…pointy beard?) weren’t coming out of nowhere, bursting in and overturning a serene, unity that needed a tune-up. In many cases they were drawing on medieval theologies, and patristic theologies to do the work of Reformation—because they did see themselves as Reformers of the church they loved.

This is where you appreciate their claim they didn’t leave the church, but they were left by it. In their view, they weren’t the arrogant ones, but it was Rome that had arrogated to itself an un-catholic and divisive authority over the whole of the church in contradiction to the Word of God. To see Luther and Co. as the dividers, the de-unifiers, is sort of already to concede the Roman Catholic point, then; it is to buy that story and buy their view of the doctrine of the church, sacraments, and salvation in general.

And this is at the heart of things. Did the Reformers have a point or not? Is Christ’s work alone the basis of the justification we receive by faith, not our meritorious works? Is there a right to assurance for the troubled conscience in the gospel or not? Is Scripture as the Word of God the ultimate authority (the norming norm) in matters of faith and practice for the church, or does the church rule over the Word? On and on down the line we can go (sacraments, worship, etc), but at the core of things is the question whether the Reformation made a recovery of a key dimension to the faith that threatened to be overshadowed or not.

In other words, is there something to “protest” or not? And I don’t mean protest in the modern sense of revolution—but in the original sense of making a confession of faith. If there is, then let’s get on with it. Because, I think, that if we truly get on with confessing these things, not begrudgingly, or with a shamed face, then many of the anxieties that plague the bashful Protestant will begin to take care of themselves.

Because the heart of the Reformation-gospel is not sectarianism, or pride, or disunity, or the things that make for skepticism and dissolution, but (for the most part) the New Testament call to one faith in one Lord who has promised by his one Spirit to make us one body according to his Word. To confess this gospel, then, ought not leave us complacent with ourselves, nor dismissive of the history of the church, nor other branches of the Church, nor proud and boasting against others with a sectarian spirit, unwilling to learn, grow and submit to the Word of God anew. Why should it?

But neither should it leave us anxious, guilty, and laboring with a bad conscience about being a Protestant. Fundamentally it is a message of humility and joy: humility before God and joy in what Christ has done before me and apart from me, now given to me by grace, and worked within me by the Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria

Forget Me Not (Twitter And The Fear of Death)

dark twitterHave you ever been worried you’ll be forgotten by a friend? Say they go on a long trip, or you move, and that nagging fear comes along: if I’m out of sight, will I be out of mind? Will they move on? Will our time together become just a background memory, recalled when triggered, but mostly left in the dustbins of our excess memory banks?

And the deeper question, of course, is “do I matter?” Because our thoughts are an indicator of what matters to us. If someone is thinking about us–if we are at the center, or at least the conscious periphery of their thought–then we matter to them in some way, right? If they care, then we must have value.

I started thinking about this after reading some of Tony Reinke’s interview with Kevin Vanhoozer over the weekend. They delve into all sorts of fascinating issues of discipleship in a digital age, but the segment that caught my attention came at the end:

Two anxieties drive much of what we do today: status anxiety (what will people think of me?) and the newer disconnection anxiety, which is tied to FOMO (fear of missing out). Put briefly: I connect, therefore I am. The question, however, is: connect to what? I’m afraid that, for many, the answer too often is the empire of the entertainment-industrial complex. We live in what has been described as an “attention economy,” and the Sunday morning sermon seems weak in comparison to a Safari surfing session. The latter enables us to ride the waves of popular culture and opinion. The sobering question for the disciple is whether our attention is being drawn to something worthwhile.

Spectacles are ephemeral, which is why those who suffer from FOMO are always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing. Disciples who are awake to reality have their attention fixed on the only breaking news that ultimately matters; namely, the news that the kingdom of God has broken into our world in Jesus Christ. This breaking news demands our sustained attention and a wide-awake imagination.

There’s so much to comment on in this little chunk alone. Still, the “I connect, therefore I am” bit caught my attention, especially as a fairly engaged Twitter user.

Much of the drive to connect online is definitely filtered through and shaped by the attention economy. What’s more, that economy can be an economy in a very real sense for many of us on social media. Having the right opinion at the right time on the right issue can be lucrative in ginning up writing gigs.

But honestly, beyond the crassly economic dimension, I think many of us who spend a significant amount of time online for blogging, work, or communication purposes have felt that existential anxiety.We want to be noticed. We want to be recognized, seen, heard, and I would add, remembered.

This is everybody from the 13-year-old girl wondering if her Instagram post will get as many likes as those of the other girls in her class to the political analyst hoping for Retweets on her latest, insightful live-tweet about the recent presidential debate.

I have to confess, there are seasons and days where I’ve noticed a certain anxiety about not having written anything in a while, or tweeted anything semi-clever in a few hours. Am I a particularly vain person? Possibly. But then, that’s not the sort of thing you’re able to judge for yourself.

But I think there’s a level of fear at being forgotten involved. Sure, I actually love the fun and frivolity of much of Twitter. The GIFs. The jokes. The nested conversations. The reality is, though, deep down there’s part of me that’s scared if I’m out of sight, I’ll be out of mind and I won’t matter anymore.

In a sense, this is one dimension of the looming fear of death that most of us in contemporary, American society never want to wrestle with or name anymore.

When you’re dead, eventually you’re forgotten. Even if you leave a “legacy”, it’s on the truly rare individual who is immortalized in song, statue, or prose. But those are forgotten too. How much more likely are we to be lost in an internet age when every second there are millions and billions of bits of data (stories, articles, ebooks, photos, videos, etc) being uploaded and (figuratively) papering over our photographs on the walls of history?

Of course, Twitter’s one of the most absurd ways of trying to fight the fear of death. The internet is forever, they say, but we all know that’s usually only for terrible things. In a sense, life on Twitter is very much an Ecclesiastes sort of experience. Work hard. Enjoy. Laugh. But remember that you’re going to die and all the followers you built and the reputation you’ve acquired as an insightful GIFer will fade quickly. Invested with existential weight, it too is a vanity of vanities.

Instead, I recall the concluding admonition of the editor:

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

As the Reformers were wont to remind us, we live life coram Deo–before the face of God. While it’s true that there is something of a threat of judgment–a call to remember the fear of the Lord–for those who are secure in knowing it through Christ that judgment comes (Rom. 2:16), there is a beautiful promise.

He is the eternal One who never forgets us, who keeps our lives ever before him–even those we fail to upload in perfect “Earlybird” filters. We are his creatures, his handiwork, and his adopted children who are never out of sight and never out of mind. Death is not the end, therefore. God will remember us into the resurrection and the age to come irrespective of our social media presence, but because of the presence of his Spirit of promise bestowed upon us in Christ (Eph. 1:13-14).

Soli Deo Gloria

The Scapegoating of Batman V. Superman: A Theory of Criticism

Sad Ben Affleck

Don’t cry, Ben Affleck. You were just a Girardian Scapegoat.

I have a theory about Batman v. Superman. No, this is not a fan theory about how to pull everything together (as much as we all love those). Rather, it’s a theory about the somewhat astonishing level of critical vitriol and general “mehhing” (to coin a phrase) of the film.

Three caveats before I proceed:

First, the seriousness level of this thesis is about 50/50.

Second, I am not a film critic in any professional sense. I am a watcher of movies who can occasionally approach “being thoughtful” about such things. I generally understand why I’m supposed to like the movies I am supposed to like and vice versa. While I am not a populist (in general) and I appreciate good film critics, I have to acknowledge that, at times, my tastes veer into the pedestrian.

Third, you should know that I enjoyed Man of Steel and that my overall judgment about Batman v. Superman is that it is a “decent” to “pretty good” comic book movie. It is not The Dark Knight, or Iron Man, or Avengers, to be sure. But it’s certainly not a Green Lantern which is how so many of the critics are treating it. My biggest complaint about the film as a whole was the kind of choppy editing and a couple of plot points that strained my ability to suspend belief (though, I hear there’s a director’s cut with about 30 extra minutes which could change some of that).

That said, Affleck did a pretty, darn good job of being Batman, contrary to my earlier naysaying (you won me over, Ben). Actually, everybody’s acting was pretty solid. Wonder Woman legit. I’m curious about Snyder’s story-line to follow, etc. and I thought there was some very interesting interactions at the theo-political level. Could it have been better? Yes. Was it awful and not worth seeing again? Nope.

Alright, with these caveats/reminders-to-take-this-with-a-huge-grain-of-salt out of the way, I will proceed with my theory.

Here it is: Batman v. Superman is the Girardian Scapegoat of all “Comic-book Movies.”

If you’ve been paying attention to the reviews for the most recent spate of superhero flicks, especially since this last summer, there has been a general tone of exhaustion amongst large swathes of the critic class. They are tired of these things. The stories are so similar. They’re so CGI. They just keep coming and eating up budgets that could be used on other, more original stories, etc. One of the major reasons so many critics gave Deadpool high marks was precisely because its hyper-violence and vulgarity broke up the monotony and predictability for them.

In other words, there’s been an anger/frustration/angst building, brewing, waiting to be vented and aired out.

Add to that the fact that there has already been suspicion about the Batman v. Superman flick for some time. “Is Snyder just going to try to keep doing the Nolan thing? Aren’t we done with brooding heroes? Can Affleck really pull off Batman?”

Enter the thought of French social theorist Rene Girard. In his broader theory of desire and culture, Girard talks about the “The Power of the First Stone.” Without going into all the details, Girard argues for a particular view of desire and the imitative nature of our desires and actions. We want and do largely as we see others wanting and doing. Because of this, Girard says that “casting the first stone”, so to speak, is the most difficult bit of any event of Scapegoating, because it’s without any model. But, once it’s cast, if there is enough social unrest, contagion, etc. built up, the rest start to follow very quickly.

This is kind of what I think happened with Batman v. Superman. Going into it there was already a tilt against the film, and once the first round of criticisms rolled in it triggered this the great, cathartic scapegoating of all the build-up, frustration, and exhaustion with comic films, dark heroes, etc. starts pouring out in this cascade of bad reviews, each more over-the-top than the last (partially fueled by the drive to top the last negative review in an even more clever, witty, oh-so-devastating takedown.)

Now, hear me: I am not saying that nobody is justified in not liking the film. I can see many of the criticisms being reasonable, even if they don’t hit me with the same, persuasive force. I especially give space for purist, fan concerns.

I will say, though, that had this movie come out two years ago, we would not be seeing the same, widespread, critical reaction. I mean, the fact that Thor: The Dark World has something like a 75% on Rottentomatoes.com and Batman V. Superman has a 29% is just a bizarre discrepancy when looking at the films side-by-side.

But when you start to see Batman v. Superman as the sacrificial victim being expelled from society and offered up in a cathartic moment—a sort of collective, critical purge—then it starts to make sense.

So, there you go. That’s my theory about why way more critics seem to hate this film than they should compared to other superhero flicks they’ve liked.

Loving Your Political Neighbor in an Age of Trumpian Anxiety

trump

For some context, you should know that I am a recovering political junkie/idolater. Many who’ve only known me the last few years wouldn’t have picked up on it. Because of my job at church and my own dive into theology, I really haven’t commented on it much, nor given myself over to it in-depth recently. I used to be obsessed as a kid, though.

My dad and I used to follow politics instead of sports and loved it–I still love talking politics with him. I remember the ’92 election and every Clinton scandal from Whitewater to Lewinsky and all the smaller ones everybody forgets (Filegate, Travelgate, Campaign Finance, pardons for money, etc). I remember the Contract with America–not from books. My dad used to print off articles from the WSJ, the Times, the Post, etc. and I’d read them in class when I was bored (and that was in Jr. High). I was downright wonkish. Heck, I even edited the opinion page for my high school paper.

For years the plan was law school, become a prosecutor, then jump into a politics and help gain the Nation back for Christ. Or something like that. And then, through a long, roundabout series of events, I got the call to pastoral ministry and theology around my freshman year of college and a bunch of that changed. Essentially, I went from thinking about the Nation to the Kingdom, and from political commentary to biblical studies, philosophy, theology, and so forth.

At that point, things moderated for me. I began to cool towards the overtly political, started reading the news less, and sort of when into a political detox mode. It was sort of necessary because—as a bit of hot-blooded young fella—things had gotten all tangled up in a fairly unbiblical, “God and country” sort of way. So the break was healthy.

Of course, I realized that at some point I probably went too far in the other direction. There’s a sort of danger that happens when you’re repenting of some error to see-saw over in the other direction. So, instead of being obsessed with politics and identifying the Church with the Republican or Democratic party, or America as the New Israel, you turn into the guy who loves Jesus-juking every political concern. There’s a sort of apolitical attitude some pious types get that forgets that much of the political instinct isn’t just power-plays and over-realized eschatology, but a real concern to love your neighbor by pursuing the common good of the cities, states, and nations God has placed us in. In essence, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” no matter what, becomes hard to distinguish from burn-it-to-the-ground nihilism with a Jesus-fish slapped on it.

Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out my theology of political engagement that takes into account our creation mandate, the corruption of the Fall, God’s redemption, the unique role of the Church in the World, and even my own place as a theology student and possible, future teacher in the Church. As simple and obvious as all that sounds, I haven’t nailed it down.

I know this because I feel myself getting sucked back into some of the same old patterns of thought and mind that were part of the unhealthy element of my former, political self.

To be honest, the 2016 election is so manic and anxiety-inducing. ISIS, Scalia’s death, the eroding middle class, racial tensions, religious liberty after Obergefell, the Donald, and everything else just seems to be bringing out the worst in everybody. The paranoia. The anger. The consternation and confusion that so many of these sheeple (i.e. my fellow citizens) are so obviously wrong about what matters!…Again, I don’t have this down.

What I have been doing, though, is trying to remind myself of a couple key doctrines as I continue to process my broader theology of political engagement and this election season in particular. I suppose they’re my list of truths that, as an average citizen with moderate levels of political efficacy, will help me stay engaged without becoming obsessed, or forget Jesus’ basic commands to love. Since I figure I’m not the only one who’s been getting sucked in this season, I offer some of them up to you as a brief encouragement as well.

Image of God, Fall, and Neighbor-Love.

The first is quite simply remembering that we’re created and fallen Image-bearers. I recently read that now, as a nation, we are more likely to date and marry someone of a different religion than of a different political party. This is partially because in a secular age, politics becomes our religion.  Whatever the reason, though, the result is that it’s becoming more difficult to relate to people across the political aisle. We’ve become so emotionally and relationally distanced from our political opponents that we have trouble empathetically entering into their intellectual space and understanding their points of view.

This sort of dynamic makes it that much easier to treat them as more than simply political opponents, but ideological threats—the “Other” (sorry for the trigger word). We demonize and thereby lose the ability to dialogue, tolerate, much less love people that disagree with on complex issues like economics, religious liberty, sexuality, and so forth.

Focusing on the doctrines of the Image of God and the Fall help me in at least two ways. First, whoever I’m talking to, no matter our disagreements, is a bearer of the Image of God and is to be treated with dignity, respect, and charity—certainly not with cursing (James 3:9). That doesn’t rule out argument, a sharp joke, or robust rebuke, but it does rule out the contempt that has come to characterize much of our online discourse. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself applies even to Trump supporters.

Second, the doctrine of the fall reminds me that disagreement really can be the result of a sinful refusal of one party to see the truth. And that party just might be me. The fall reminds me that I too have fallen short of the epistemological glory of God and just might stand in need of the correction of my interlocutors. It also sets a curb on my self-righteousness in general, even if I do end up convinced that I’m right on a subject.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out making judgments of character, wisdom, and so forth on the basis of someone’s political engagement. For instance, I’ll be blunt in saying, along with Matthew Lee Anderson, that supporting someone who retweets white Supremacists, won’t repudiate the KKK, breaks up marriages, grossly mocks women, minorities, the handicapped, etc., while there are any other options for an office with access to nuclear codes is a serious lapse in moral judgment. Especially if you call yourself a Christian pastor…But these considerations require that I make that judgment only in the broader context of regarding them as one of God’s Image-bearers, loved by God, and the object of God’s saving activity in Christ just as much as I am.

Penultimacy, Principalities, and Providence.

Paul urged his readers in the church in Corinth to engage in life in the world in something of a counter-intuitive way:

29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Co 7:29–31).

While there are a number of quirks we could get into here, what I see Paul doing is advocating something of a doctrine of “penultimacy.” I don’t see Paul arguing that we should totally cut ties with the world, act as if our marriage vows don’t matter, or that death doesn’t cause us pain. If that was the case, then he wouldn’t spend as much time as he does in his letters addressing all of these issues. He’s saying we should act in such a way that remembers these aren’t the final realities. It’s not so much a matter of whether or not to do these things, but how we should.

In other words, God has acted to redeem the world in Christ. There is a New Creation coming. Yes, what we do in the body and in the world matters for that New Creation life (1 Cor. 6:12-20), but this version of the world is not all there is. Death is not the final word. This marriage is not the final relationship. And—this is where it counts for us—this political order is not the final kingdom of God. These things matter, but they matter in a penultimate way—not in an ultimate way.

Another way of thinking about it is repenting from the heresy of Americanism, which tends to treat America as a new Israel, a chosen nation in some sort of redemptive covenant with God, upon whose shoulders the fate of the Church depends. I believe in providence, so yes, I believe God has plans for America, just as he has for all of human history. I also love my country. But to be blunt, while America is a world-historically significant country, it is not a redemptive-historically crucial one. The Church and God’s plans survived the fall of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the sidelining of the British Empire, and every other nation identified with God’s unique purposes for history. The Church will be here long after America is gone.

Obviously, I don’t want to see the Republic I love and have grown up in (or even the Party) go down—and I don’t think we’re there—but putting the drama of American politics into a broader, theo-dramatic perspective allows us to pump the breaks on our anxieties before they carry us away into thinking we’re involved in an obvious battle of darkness and light, with the sides clearly and neatly drawn into black hats and white hats. No, we forget that our ultimate battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that span both parties and every political configuration and nation (Eph. 6).

It also reminds us that, no matter the details along the way, we do know where it all ends—exactly where God intends it. We forget too often that God’s eye is on the sparrow and he knows how many hairs are on your head—do we think he’s unaware of the primaries? I’m not saying this with a Pollyannaish view of political providence. Reading the court histories in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings is sobering stuff. All the same, God’s providence is a doctrine for sober times—for prophets living in the midst of sinful Israel as much as for Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Even on the far side of the worst disaster and death we can imagine, lie hope and resurrection.

Prayer: A Better Way

Again, none of this is meant as a sort of Jesus-Juke to create apathy to the real, political concern and involvement we are all called to in our various roles as neighbors and average citizens on up the line to elected and appointed officials. If this world and its politics did not matter, then Paul wouldn’t tell us to pray for all of our political leaders, whether kings or elected officials so that they might govern in a way that enables a peaceful and quiet life (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Instead, it is meant as a reminder that part of what makes Christians holy is not simply that we do different things than our neighbors, but that we do the same things our neighbors do differently. We vote, we argue, we serve, we engage, but we do so in the broader perspective of the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension to the throne of the universe from whence he will return to judge the living and the dead. We do it to love our neighbors, not simply triumph over them.

That said, I suppose it is appropriate to close with Paul’s encouragement. Though much of our holiness is caught up in doing things differently, sometimes the different things we do are what enable us to do so. Prayer is one of them because prayer reorients us to all the truths I’ve been outlining.

Praying for our neighbors, our nation, our leaders, our activities puts them in their proper, spiritual perspective. Prayer acknowledges that these things are right objects of our concern—indeed, we are bringing them to God for his concerned action and discernment. Prayer also—since it is for all people—treats our neighbors, our political opponents, and our leaders as worthy of God’s attention and our respect, honoring them as Image-bearers alongside ourselves. Most of all, prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God in Christ for wisdom, for his mercy, and his good, sovereign will.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cross Between the World and Me

betweenAfter a number of months of having it on my to-do list, I finally got around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as an extended letter to his teenage son, Samori, it is part memoir, part manifesto, and part social history, giving voice to Coates’ experience growing up Black in America—with all the ironies, tragedies, dangers, and, yes, joys that affords.

I guess I read it for some familiar reasons. Like many, I’ve read Coates’ thoughtful and provocative pieces on race, justice, and public policy at The Atlantic. My curiosity was provoked by the wide variety of conflicting reviews of it, ranging from fawning praise to cynical rejection.

I’d like to say the biggest reason I read it was to try to and better understand my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Image-bearers, who live, day to day, in a different set of skin than I have. At least, as much as reading a book can help with that. If I’m honest, I think it’s important to kids like me (having grown up in schools reading about the Civil Rights era) to stay “woke” about the reality of race in America. And I say this as someone not typically prone to liberal, white guilt, since I’m not liberal (being raised conservative), nor white (being Arab/Palestinian and Hispanic, a first-generation, somewhat Brown man born in the States).

The experience—because it’s something of an experience reading Coates—was challenging, nonetheless, both emotionally and intellectually. As a theology student, it’s become impossible to avoid reading texts like this in theological perspective and processing them in that fashion. But I don’t think I have to stretch things too much to see the work as a deeply theological one. Indeed, despite his avowed atheism, I found much of Coates’ analysis down-right Pauline.

In what follows, I’d simply like to note some the broadly theological points of contact with and criticism of Coates work and the Christian gospel. None of what I say will be ground-breaking or likely that eye-opening. All the same, I do feel the need to process this as best I know how, so here goes.

The Body

My first impression was related to the feature of the work that almost every commentator I’ve read has touched on: the viscerality and physicality of its anthropology. Coates’ writes constantly of the experience, the value, the suffering, the reality of living in the black body. Philosophically this flows in part from Coates’ materialism, but there’s more to it than that.

With story, with carefully chosen metaphor, and torrentially applied adjectives and verbs, Coates aims to communicate the experience, the consciousness of living as a black body who can be taken, dominated, used, threatened, destroyed, and plundered at all times with seeming impunity. The hardness, the constant fear, then, of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, is not merely psychological, but physiological, welling up in your bones, your muscles, tendons, and instincts too close, too raw, too ingrained by force of history, experience, and even birth to be a strictly philosophical reality.

In attempting to understand, we instinctively reach for analogous situations, even if they don’t quite fit. The closest I’ve come is thinking about life in post-9/11 as an Arab in the States with the last name Rishmawy. I remember getting called sand-nigger, dune-coon, and Taliban on the football field where I got speared in the back for being a “Palestinian.” I remember the chilly sweat that broke out on my skin at the airport, when the guard at the metal detector told me I’d “be in a world of hurt” if the detector went off again when I walked through. As I thought about rendition stories I’d read about, it didn’t matter that I had my cross necklace and Bible in my backpack and coming home from a mission trip—the threat to my young, Arab body coursed in every nerve of my soul. It was a reality bodily and yet more than simply bodily. But again, it’s only an analogy.

In any case, throughout the whole work, every time he spoke of bodies I kept thinking through the dynamic of flesh/body (or sarx/soma) in the New Testament. At times, these terms can simply refer to the physical, biological material of the person—flesh and bones. But most biblical scholars will point out that more often than not, these terms are more of a complex of the spiritual and historical forces that are located within our lived, physical reality. In Paul, the sarx can refer the corpse as the site of the created and fallen dimensions of human experience and nature apart from Christ, while the body is often referring to embodied, human experience in the renewed sphere of the Spirit in Christ.

As I noted, Coates’ viscerality is quite materialist—his description of the spirit and the soul as the charge flowing through his nerves is formally reductionistic in that the physics of the body are all there is. But in another way, his emphasis is quite biblical, even Pauline. Christians confess in their creed, not merely the immortality of the soul (though we affirm it), but the resurrection of the body in its fully physical, material, social, and historical dimensions. To certain forms of spirituality and philosophy, Christianity’s focus on resurrection can appear crassly materialistic. But for Paul, what we do in the body, not merely in our “spirits”, matters. We were created and redeemed, body and soul, at a price–so the body is an object of moral concern and a site of moral care (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Many of us can tend to lose sight of that, however, losing our understanding of the damning, bone-crushing, destructive, disembodying (quite literally) nature of sin, or the gloriously physical relief that the resurrection promises. Coates’ language, his emphasis, I think, has the salutary effect of reminding some of us Christians of the material dimensions of being created good as bodies in the world. As Christians, we surely believe there is more, but we must not believe there is any less.

Sin and “The Dream” as Kosmos

Coates is also a theologian of sin.  This is almost more obvious than the viscerality of his language. For Coates, to tell the story, the history, the experience of the black body is to tell the story of its plundering, its rape, enslavement, subjugation, and burial under the edifice of white society and persons who “think themselves white.” Narrating the black body means narrating the sins committed against it.

There isn’t a blind, Manicheanism in Coates’ telling, though, with pure martyrs and pure villains. I was struck throughout the whole at Coates’ self-analysis, his coming to self-consciousness and questioning of his own motives, his own narratives, his own ideas that he speaks of in response to his mother’s writing assignments. Coates operates with a heavy hermeneutics of suspicion, but one that’s aware of the pervasive nature of sin in the self–in all selves—especially his own. It’s downright Puritanical (not in the bad sense) in terms of its self-interrogation.

Connecting to this theology of individual sin,is his broader cosmology and theology of culture as expressed in his idea of “The Dream”, which he outlines for his son and constantly warns him against. For those acquainted with biblical cosmology, the Dream functions like “the World” or kosmos in John and Paul. The world is not simply the physical creation, but rather the cosmos including and especially human culture under the power of sin, hostile to God and his ways of peace. For the Christian, the world with its desires, pressures, systemic drives, and allure to conformity that threaten to overwhelm the believer with its ways of thinking, behaving, and being. It presents us with visions of the good life (money, sex, power, success, etc) and the standard, often-times godless patterns of procuring it.

The Dream, for Coates, is that of living “white”, of acting white, sequestered away in the safe, suburban communities, built on the sweat, tears, blood, bones, and centuries of black bodies plundered for their wealth–separated from the hard streets of Baltimore where being black and a child could still get you robbed of your body. It is a dream upheld and made manifest in school systems, social practices ranging from slavery to redlining to arrest quotas to the common trope assumption that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to just most 15-year old boys, he’s kind of asking to get shot. Indeed, when you look at it closely, it’s not just that the Dream functions as the World, in many ways it serves as an angled description of what Scripture is actually speaking to.

And so, every time Coates tells his son Samori to resist the deep-seated ways his culture will try to shape and form his affections, his assumptions, his own dreams, desires, and prejudices, I just keep hearing Paul say, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world…” (Rom. 12:1-2).

This, I think, is connected to that deep sense of sin as act and Sin as Power. That’s not how he’d put it, of course, but there is a very thick theology of universal, personal complicity, and at the same time of an external, systemic, supra-personal Power that enslaves, enlists, and overwhelms. It’s not just whites, but blacks striving to be white, who are co-opted and conformed to the Dream. Again, it’s sin as individual acts, but more than that, it is Sin as a power that works its way into corporate systems that have their own logic which, in some sense, can’t be overturned simply by the exercise of the will of one good-hearted individual.

As a Christian, I’m tempted to have recourse to the language of the demonic. Christians have always known that despite God’s rule and Christ’s reign, there is some sense in which world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the god of this age who tends to blind and deceive the world about the truth, especially of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Why wouldn’t he work through social and political systems to lie and wreak death in the world now, if that’s what he’s been doing since the beginning (John 8:44)?

Religion, Truth, and the Crucifixion of the Body

Naturally, following a discussion of the “plight”, a theological read of the book might lend itself to a section on “The Gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But, to be honest, I couldn’t find one. I don’t believe that’s the point, either. Coates isn’t offering his son a grand, universal hope, a solution. He’s trying to prepare him for reality in a world without a coming universal redemption, with people and systems that don’t know they need one. To carve out a life—one with love, tenderness, integrity, and a sense of honest pride—neither enslaved, nor blind to the world as it is. As one friend put it—he’s preparing him for life in this present, evil age when that’s the only one on the horizon.

And this is where I think about Coates’ atheism and honest confession that he’s always been alienated from the comforts of religion, having never been raised with them. There’s an understandable ambivalence (though, I don’t sense a hostility) towards religious faith in the book. On the one hand, there is his early incomprehension at those taken with its comforts—their willingness to endanger their sacred, fragile, and single-shot bodies against clubs, against dogs, against death. Religion seemed to cultivate a carelessness about the body. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body…”

What’s more, there’s the problem of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Coates has seen the quick rush to forgive in some churches and communities—calls that seem to glide quickly past the problem of Abel’s blood still wet on the pavement crying out for justice. Or the calls for non-violent suffering for black people from those watching the protests in the streets of Fergusson comfortably seated on their couches in the suburbs. Or reconciliation without any sense of restitution—or even an indictment. You can sense his realism, his history, his cosmic sense of injustice rise up much like protest atheism chronicled in Camus’s The Rebel.

How can religion of this sort not seem like a palliative?

All the same, Coates wonders if there’s something he’s missing out on. Something that he is alienated from in the faces and the souls of men and women he respects who believe differently on this score.

Wales WindowAnd this is where I think about the book I’m reading for Lent, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The front-cover is an image of the “Wales Window” given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was donated as a gift from the people of Wales after the 1963 Klan bombing that rocked the church and robbed the life of the four little, black girls in their Sunday best.

The stained glass is striking. In it, we see a Christ with brown skin, arms outstretched. Rutledge notes that the position of his head hangs at the same angle as that of an ikon called “Extreme Humiliation.” According to the artist, the two arms outstretched are doing different things. The one is thrust out, stiff-arming the powers of death and injustice, while the other reaches out, offering forgiveness for the world. Under him are the words “You do this to Me”, which come from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here Christ identifies himself with his people, declaring that whatever is done or not done unto them, for good or ill, for woe or weal, for blessing or curse, “you do this to me.” You do this unto me.

The central mystery of the Christian gospel is the Holy God who out of the fullness of his own, perfect life stooped, became incarnate, identifying himself with the whole of humanity, and, as the Creed has it, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Savior is the Divine Son who knew no suffering, yet assumed human flesh, a Body in midst of a dominated people to suffer on our behalf and rise again. God became a gendered, embodied Jew in the 1st Century, heir to hundreds of years of political oppression at the hands of colonizing invaders (Babylonian, Persian, Greek), mostly recently of an empire, Rome, that stood as the chief political, economic, social, and religious power the world had ever seen. He grew up under the eye of the soldiers of a people who prided themselves as superior to every other people; a people who used subject nations and cultures to prop up their own; a people who threatened anyone who crossed that system with torture and death. And eventually it was under the administration of their laws, their justice, that his body hung naked, exposed, broken, shamed on a cross, tossed on the garbage heap of history, scorned even by the elite of his own people. In the particular sense that Coates speaks of being black, or at least, not white—that is the space that the Son of God entered in his body. That is the place that his body died.

I cannot do justice to the multifaceted character of Christ’s death, not with 3,000, nor 3,000,000 words, but the thing we must say is that the death he died, he died willingly for sin. He died in order to wipe us clean from the sins we commit as well as deliver us from the Sin we are enslaved to. He died in order to atone and liberate. He died to do justice, to ensure that forgiveness is not offered on the cheap. That reconciliation does not simply walk past restitution and truth, or support a culture of impunity.

Indeed, one the most powerful accomplishments of Christ in the visceral, flesh-ripping, godlessness of the cross is the way it tells the truth and opens our eyes to the violence of sin in the world. The hideousness of the cross, Rutledge notes, the crucifixion of this man who is God, puts to flight sentimental religion and forces us to face up to the malignant, persistent ugliness of sin. It unveils reality, much as Richard Wright writes in the poem from which Coates draws his title. To look upon “the sooty details of the scene” of our Savior upon the cross is to have them “thrust themselves between the world and me.”

And I think this moment in the Gospel is important for me to sit with when reading Coates. Obviously, a concern for the body and Coates’ totalizing fear of its loss, of his ultimate powerlessness and inability to secure it or that of his son, is crying for an answer in the good news of the Resurrection. For Christians, death is not the concluding word, and in his resurrection, Jesus actively and powerfully breaks the power of Sin, the World, the Dream, by showing that despite appearances to the contrary, it does not have the final say of things. This is what gives us hope, gives courage, gives the moral steel that accounts for the paradoxical attitude of Christians towards the body: it is precious, it is good, it is inviolable, and yet it’s loss is not our absolute terror. God’s promises do hold us up.

But the resurrection only comes as good news after we’ve sat in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the Resurrected one only as the Crucified one. Hope for reconciliation, both personal and cultural, only comes after we’ve truly reckoned with the nature of the rupture, confessed, and repented. This is one of what I take to be the glories of the Christian gospel: it forces you to see the truth about the world, about yourself, about your neighbor—both the grime and the glory—and it is precisely there where the God with a broken body meets us.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I have no conclusion, really. With a book like Coates’ there’s always more to say. I haven’t weighed in specifically on any particular charges, critiques, details of history, or political implications to be drawn with respect to things like reparations or #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m not really sure that’s the point.

I suppose at the end of Coates’ work–beyond a better, heavier understanding of the struggles of my neighbors–I can’t help but come away with a stronger desire to plumb the depth of the Christian gospel, to grasp the power of Christ and him crucified and speak it into the darkest reaches of the human condition without maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. A hope hell-bent on truth. A reconciliation forged through justice. A God who enters our life and then invites us into his, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Soli Deo Gloria

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