- Jacobs on the temptation of Christian Public Intellectuals
- Jacobs on Christian Public Intellectuals and the Sexual Revolution
- Kevin Vanhoozer on Biblical Authority after Babel
- Rod Dreher on you-know-what
I quote in there Jean Elshtain, “The problem with becoming a public intellectual is that over time you grow more and more public but less and less intellectual.” I think that almost every day the Christian intellectual is faced with a pressure to compromise one side or the other of his or her identity. And this is something that I think about a lot because I know that—here’s a personal turn—as soon as I started working on this [Harpers Magazine] essay, I knew what I needed to be prayerful about, which was overcoming the temptation to say what a Harper’s audience will want to hear, and to try to stick to my guns the best I can while at the same time being aware that I’m not talking to my fellow Christians there. By and large, most of the readers of Harper’s are not religious believers, or not strong religious believers. Few of them, even the ones who are religious believers, are not people who have a strong Christian vocabulary. So, I’m writing as a Christian there for a secular audience, which means there are things that I would love to say about this whole phenomenon that I cannot say for that audience. I just wanted to make sure that what I do say, I believe to be true. That is, I cannot say everything that I believe to be true, but Lord help me that I don’t say anything that I don’t believe to be true.
MOHLER: I don’t know that any one of us can know the whole story because there’s a human dynamic at work here as well. You know just in terms of the kind of intellectual contexts that we face today, one response to your article–I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, it appeared in the Christian Century–which then and now is the mouthpiece of mainline Protestantism, in so far as it still has a mouth or a mouthpiece–writing in that, in response to you, Carol Howard Merritt wrote that what was now the great moral fact is the LGBT revolution and then she wrote, “And if that means Christian intellectuals lost their seat at the table, then so be it.” And I think that makes the issue, the reality, the challenge far more difficult than it was in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s. And I think whether it’s your institution or mine, not to mention every aspect of American culture, we’re going to feel that pinch.
JACOBS: I think that’s exactly right. And I think this is interesting because the argument there—I did see that, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to it because the article said, “Well, you know, Jacobs, you may say this and you may say that, but what I hear is white, male privilege.” And I thought, well, I just don’t have a way to respond to that. I can be responsible for what I say; I can even be responsible for what I fail to say; but I cannot be responsible for what you hear. And so I gave up on finding a way to respond to that…
Yeah. “You know, Ms. Merritt, you may say that what you hear is white, male privilege, but what I hear is ‘STFU.'” Your supposed reading between the lines is just a less physically assaultive form of no-platforming. Anything Jacobs said short of complete agreement would be conveniently “heard” the same way. Darn Bulversista!
JACOBS: … [W]hile Christians were working hard to strengthen their own institutions, the sexual revolution was happening right under their noses. And so, you have somebody like Richard John Neuhaus, who is perfectly welcomed to the table, as long as he is an anti-war activist.
JACOBS: As long as he is saying that the Vietnamese government is God’s instrument to bring America to its knees; for humbling the arrogant American project — when he says that, and when he uses Biblical and prophetic language to say it, he is welcomed at the table. But then when he said, “Oh, wait a minute, if as Christians we are supposed to care about those who are most helpless, about the least of these, then who is more helpless, who is less than an unborn child?” And as soon as he said that, as soon as he said that social justice in a christian point of view has to be social justice for the unborn as well as for those who are living in poverty, whom he ministered for years and years, then he was done. Then it was over. And so, it is not something that it is—what we are being told in many number of ways is that Christians cannot bear prophetic witness to sexuality. Then you can be on board of the train, you are not bearing prophetic witness, you are just agreeing with what everybody else has already come to believe before you did, you know.
(Emphasis added) The impeccability of the sexual revolution is one of today’s most baffling dogmas, and sexual liberation in almost any form trumping the first amendment’s free exercise clause (i.e., one person’s non-textual constitutional right constraining another’s explicit right) is a gigantic judicial blind spot. I trust that the blind will in due course be enlightened and feel suitably mortified at their stupidity, rather as we all feel today about Korematsu.
They start off right where I hoped they would, at least acknowledging a forceful and plausible accusation, particularly from Bradford Gregory, whose book I “enjoyed” as well as “contemplated” (see yesterday’s comments from Chris Armstrong for the distinction).
MOHLER: Professor Vanhoozer, I have to begin by asking you the one question that seems to pertain to almost every book, but perhaps more so to a book that bears the title Biblical Authority After Babel. That’s after what? Why this book right now?
VANHOOZER: We’re on the cusp of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I’ve been a little disturbed to hear some people say they feel like lamenting it, rather than celebrating it, and one of the common reasons for that attitude is that they believe that the Reformation opened up a pandora’s box with regard to biblical interpretation. So, After Babel refers to the Babel, the pluralistic conflict of biblical interpretations …
MOHLER: … [A]s you acknowledge in the early section of your book, this goes right back to direct accusations against the Reformation and the Reformers. And of course, the historian in me wants to say that’s not at all new. As a matter of fact, you could go right back to the 16th century and at least the apologists for the Roman Catholic Church were making that very same argument, both in terms of what they were seeing in the 16th century and about what they warned would come in the future.
VANHOOZER: Exactly. And it’s not as though we haven’t tried to rebut that argument. But, on the other hand, history seems to provide some evidence that suggests that maybe there was something in that concern. And you’re right, there are Protestants who have tried to answer those concerns from the start. But these concerns seem to be particularly pressing at the moment. Brad Gregory has written a book recently suggesting that the Reformers were the ones that released secularism and individualism and pluralism upon the world. I feel that this accusation is particularly acute now, and I’ve always been one to want to stand up for the underdog, and it seems to me that the Reformers are the underdogs in this conversation. And I wanted to stand up and try to put the best possible face on their achievement.
MOHLER: … I think it’s important to note that as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is now looming before us, a lot of the Evangelical conversation is going to be, understandably, celebratory. But it’s also a time for some self-reflection especially given the kinds of charges that, then and now, are made against Protestantism.
VANHOOZER: Yes. The charges and also the statistics. Mainline denominations, these great denominations that have derived from the Protestant confession traditions, they’re on the decline and people are asking the question, Do we need denominations? What is the church for? And how word-centered should it be? So it is to one extent intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but in another sense I think the book addresses a problem that has been with us for centuries, as you pointed out. What do we do when we disagree about what the Bible means, when we’re disagreeing with people who have similarly high views of Scripture?
MOHLER: You know, that Brad Gregory book deserves close attention. It’s intellectually irritating on the one hand, because he raises a lot of questions that are quite easily answered, but the central accusation in his book is that the Reformation set loose anarchy within the church, interpretive anarchy, a subversion of all authority, and he introduced into the conversation a phrase that you go back to time and again in your book. And that’s “fissiparous particularity,” arguing that the Reformation caused this fissure in the church or an entire set of fissures that continue.
MOHLER: … Stan Hauerwas makes the famous argument, or infamous, that sola scriptura is what he calls the sin of the Reformation. Now, why would he say that?
VANHOOZER: Well, from his perspective, he’s one of those who bought into the idea that the Reformation is a pandora’s box that opens up all sorts of interpretations. So from that perspective what he’s complaining about is giving individuals the right to read the Bible without also encouraging them at the same time to be part of the discipline of the church. That is, he doesn’t simply want to hand over the Bible to undisciplined readers who use autonomy to find things that are in their own interests. So I have some sympathy for what he’s saying, but I cannot go as far as what he says as “the sin of sola scriptura.” This is one of the great glories of the Reformation, that the Reformers wanted everybody, lay people, to have Bibles they could read in their own language because it is the responsibility, yes, but it is also a wonderful privilege to read God’s word for oneself.
MOHLER: A couple of thoughts. I’ve had this same conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, indeed, on this program. He is a provocateur; he intends to be that way and playing that role, and let’s face it, he plays it extremely well. But he’s also on to a problem that I would acknowledge. If you’re looking for horrible examples of this fissiparous particularity, to go back to Brad Gregory, you can certainly find them. You don’t have to have much ability on the internet or television remote control to find plenty of evidence of all kinds of problems with the way that some people handle the text.
It was a frustrating interview in a way, because Mohler and Vanhoozer meandered off (it seemed to me) into general reflection on the Reformation. If those reveries had anything to do with refuting Brad Gregory, it was awfully elliptical. I believe they failed ultimately to refute the Pandora’s box accusation even if they did enlighten me on how the Magisterial Reformers thought themselves catholic and sought to avoid interpretive individualism.
Indeed, their argument reminded me of an article in the fundamentalist broadsheet Sword of the Lord from the late ’60s or early ’70s. The article posed the odd if timely question “Did Jesus have long hair?” The author — I believe it may have been none other than Dr. Bob Jones Jr. — gathered information and explained the customs of Jesus’ day, leading, I thought, toward the answer “Yes, but you still shouldn’t.” But instead he delivered what struck me as a total non sequitur by concluding, without elaboration, “No!”
Just so, it seems to me that Mohler and Vanhoozer can’t avoid dealing with significant differences among Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, for example, unpersuasively trying to minimize them to insignificance, it being a necessary dogma of fissiparous Protestantism that despite 38,000 denominations (Vanhoozer’s own figure!), there’s a deep unity on “the essentials.”
MOHLER: You know, in terms of denominationalism, simply in the American experiment, this is our version of the fissiparousness that many accused the Reformers of creating. It goes back to the charge against you as an anarchist. I love the way Winthrop Hudson put it, the American historian, “take it to its logical conclusion, this means there’s a church under every man’s hat.” Yet, as much as we can lament that—you cite the statistic in the handbook of denominations something like 38,000 Protestant, or at least non-Catholic, denominations—yet, what you’re arguing for in your book is that there is a basic theological consensual unity that it real. That goes beyond many of these labels or organizational charts.
VANHOOZER: It is real. The world knows it, I think, as evangelicalism. Timothy George sees evangelicals as a renewal movement that cuts across various denominations, but also going back to the heart of the gospel confession and trying to recover that, as well as the message of justification by faith, the centrality of scripture. People with that kind of evangelical sensibility exist in many of those 38,000 denominations. So, I know it seems counter-intuitive because people think, ‘Oh, Protestants are divided, how much more are Evangelicals?’ But in fact, I think evangelicalism is one way of expressing what I mean by Protestant Christianity.
When I hear that 38,000 denominations have “a basic theological consensual unity” that the world knows as evangelicalism, I can’t help but think of Mars Hill Audio’s Ken Myer once saying that the commonality in Evangelicalism is not theological but emotional — orthopathos (right feeling) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). Vanhoozer may even have let that slip a lá Freud when he spoke of “evangelical sensibility.”
I’m starting to think the Pandora’s box accusation is irrefutable because it’s true. Perhaps Protestants would have better luck with “so’s your Mother” — e.g., Mohler’s swipe at “radical theological pluralism within the Roman Catholic Church” — but being mindful that my Mother is Orthodox, not Latin.
But judge for yourself; I can’t deny some “motivated reasoning” on my part, especially since an accusation that amounted to “fissiparous Protestantism” was a major reason for my becoming Orthodox.
If you really want to get into it, I’d suggest Brad Gregory’s book and, presumably, Vanhoozer’s, which I personally haven’t read.
In February, Mohler interviewed Rod Dreher about — what else? — The Benedict Option book. Mohler managed to elicit some unexpected comments from Rod, which is saying a lot since I’ve read Dreher’s blog from the beginning of the Benedict Option talking.
DREHER: I believe that we are on the edge of and in fact within the collapse of Western civilization. It’s a very comfortable collapse because we’re rich; but it is collapsing, nonetheless, in the same way that the Roman civilization collapsed in the West in the 5th century. I believe that Christians now have got to realize that we’re living in a post-Christian civilization and take measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.
No real surprise there, though the “comfortable collapse” idea felt new. Although the collapse that concerns Dreher (and that most concerns me) isn’t economic, I’m unconvinced that we’re going to remain rich for long. See my various ruminations on the blogs of James Howard Kunstler.
DREHER: … The ice crack, the crack in the iceberg is becoming acute. I think that for me me personally—and I know this is something that meant a lot to you—it was in 2005, Christian Smith’s book about moralistic therapeutic deism, that really showed the shallowness of American Christianity. And I had to realize—I was raised in the 70s, sort of a go along to get along Christian, and I realized this is what I was raised with. And it’s okay when you everybody’s a Christian around you, but when suddenly people are walking away from the faith, you realize you have no roots. And that’s where we are now; that’s why so many millennials are, greater than any in anything recorded history, walking away from the faith.
MOHLER: You know in thinking about a post-Christian culture, many Christians, or for that matter even secular folk, misunderstand what we mean by that. We don’t mean that Christianity’s illegal; we don’t mean that there are no gospel preaching churches; we don’t mean that Christianity has been expunged, some kind of intellectual cleansing. What we do mean is that it now lacks binding authority in a culture where it once had that binding authority, where once it was the primary superstructure of moral accountability and even of meaning and being. And it’s now relegated to—you know I remember what Stephen Carter of Yale said years ago when he said, “God’s now a hobby,” you know, it’s now a personal preoccupation; there’s no binding cultural traction.
DREHER: God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it’s easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere. But go inside those churches. Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You’ll often find it’s very very thin and it. (sic) And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society, it’s considered bigotry, orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry …
DREHER: … Individualism is the religion, the real religion of all Americans. I tell my friends, my Christian friends who can’t believe that we have same-sex marriage, I say, “Look; we have same-sex marriage because we have free divorce and because promiscuity became rampant even among Christians,” and so when gays came out and said, “Hey, we just want the same thing you have,” we didn’t know what to say to them because we had based our own idea of marriage and courtship on individual expression. And we were a paper tiger. That’s simply what happened. We were a paper tiger. And we can’t reason with people who think that emotivism, the idea that the way I feel about something means it’s true or false, well that took place, that took hold in American culture after the 60s.
MOHLER: … I want to go back to that statement that I mentioned that I appreciated so much in the beginning, because your exact wording is very important here, a part of the power of your argument is the lucidity of your prose. You wrote, “Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.” I think that’s really an important indictment. I think that’s largely true. I think it’s irrefutable, as a matter fact.
DREHER: Well, Christian Smith, in some of his later work after the moralistic therapeutic deism research, he found that interviewing Christian kids alone, young adults 18 to 23, 61% of them had no problem with materialism and consumerism, an additional 31% of them said they do have some problem with it, but not much of one. That leaves 9% of confessing Christians saying that, “Yeah, materialism and consumerism, that’s a problem for me as a Christian.” Nine percent; this is the people of God that has been conquered by the culture.
MOHLER: You know, we’ve both given so much attention to that, to the Christian Smith research over the years, and it’s just brilliant, partly because he’s dealing with the same group of young people over a long period of time. And this moralistic therapeutic deism becomes so important to us because that MTD, the idea of the faith of these Christian young people being reduced to moralism, the therapeutic, and a form of practical deism, what is the great indictment there is not the young people, but the fact that they got it from their parents and they got it from their churches.
DREHER: Sure, sure. I heard a few years ago from a reader of my blog who wrote me and said when Christian Smith’s book came out in 2005, he read about moralistic therapeutic deism and a lightbulb went off over his head. He said, “This is our church. This is our Sunday school.” So he was involved in his church, he sat down and wrote a new program for Sunday school much deeper in doctrine, much deeper in church history, to give the kids some meat, some red meat to hold onto. He took it to the Sunday school board, five parents there, and they chewed him up. They threw out what he proposed and said, “We don’t need this.” These weren’t liberals; these were all conservatives. But they did not think that doctrine and all this was necessary, that everything seems fine now, let’s just continue as we are. Well, now we see where that leads.
(Emphasis added) And an extended analogy:
One of the stories I tell in the book is about going to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, a small town in the mountains of central Italy, that was where say Benedict was born. He was a son of the Roman governor. Well, there’s still a monastery there today. Napoleon closed it down in 1810, but in the year 2000 some American monks went there and reopened it. And they wanted to sing the traditional Latin mass, and it’s become a real oasis of Christian peace and beauty. Well, it’s the sort of place where you go there up in the mountains, and you really envy these men, their peace, where they can worship and meet visitors. Well they had an earthquake there last year; the first one that came made their monastery and their medieval basilica unstable. The government said, “You need to get out of here; it’s not safe for you.” So they lived just outside the city, they lived on a hill overlooking the city so they could still go down and minister to the people. But they didn’t have to worry about the church falling on their head. Well, another earthquake came, leveled the basilica, leveled every church in town. But the monks survived, and they survived because they read the signs of the first earthquake. They could tell that this wasn’t going to be the last one, and so they moved to the hills just far enough out so they could be safe. And now, because of that, they’re there for the rebuilding. And not a single person in Norcia, when the most powerful earthquake to hit Italy in 30 years, not a single person in Norcia died because they could read the signs and got out of there. Father Cassian, the retired prior of that monastery, says, “You look at the rubble of our basilica, and that is Christianity in the West right now. Don’t let this happen to you. Get out of the city, so to speak, establish your place, your shelter, your monastery in a safe place so you can be there for the rebuilding.” Here’s the thing. They did not run off to the woods and and go away from people entirely. They still were there to serve the people, but they were serving them from a place where the roof was not going to fall on their head and take them down with it.
Finally, Mohler — a Southern Baptist and Seminary President — drops a blockbuster that I’m pretty sure I heard of, and passed on, before — probably February, before the transcript was up and thus before I saw his full context. He seems (maybe I’m imagining it) to have the Vanhoozer interview in mind:
MOHLER: Well here we are having a conversation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, that is in the year 2017, and I’m, as an evangelical, speaking to someone who is Eastern Orthodox and had been Catholic, and we can have just about every theological conversation and controversy in the history the Christian church right in this room and in this conversation right now. But I want to turn the tables just a little bit, and I want to ask you a question from your vantage point, and I know you’ll be honest. Does evangelical Christianity, as you understand it, have adequate resources to be sufficiently thick?
DREHER: I don’t know. And I’m being completely honest with you, because I evangelicalism is one thing I haven’t been. I was raised mainline Protestant in a very lukewarm church, came to Christ as a Roman Catholic and now Eastern Orthodox, but I really don’t know. I look at evangelicals from the outside, evangelical friends who are living the life, and I think, “Well, they can do it. Why can’t all evangelicals do it?” But then in my own case, my life is shaped around liturgy that’s been in our church for 1500 years. My life is shaped around the chanting of Psalms and on all kinds of sensual ways that embody the faith. Of course you can have smells and bells and go straight to hell, that doesn’t change you and lead to greater conversion. But for me as an Orthodox Christian and me as a Catholic, the faith had more traction and it drew me in closer and closer. I don’t know if evangelicals can do that, because as I look at evangelicalism I see people who are zealous for the Lord, no doubt about it, but also susceptible to every trend that comes along.
DREHER: I don’t want to be insulting, but…
MOHLER: I asked you the question, you’re not being insulting.
DREHER: In my book, I talked to an evangelical friend, Lance Kenser, he is lives in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, was a state legislator, is a PCA Presbyterian, and he tells me that he didn’t realize until the last couple years that the church was supposed to be about more than just going on Sunday to get a pep talk to help you go out and live real life. This has completely changed his life. He had this realization, and he works for religious liberty and religious liberty activism and has come to see the enormous threat facing the Christian church in America. He’s gotten more and deeply involved in his own congregation. He’s leading a class on St. Augustine’s City of God, which St. Augustine wrote to explain to the Romans, Roman Christians, “Hey, what happened? The Empire’s gone, what happened?” And Lance says that working at the local church to thicken their ties to each other and put the roots down more deeply in their own Reformed tradition is what’s consuming him now.
MOHLER: But that’s going to make the point where I would have to answer my own question. I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond … [I]t’s because I think evangelical-ism as an-ism, is a particular moment in history. The identity has to be, as I see it, in the best way to describe the conversation between us, as historic Protestant. In other words, it takes historic Protestantism, in other words, I am deeply, unashamedly rooted in that which we mark in terms of a 500th anniversary right now. I do believe in the necessary reformation of the church and what the Reformers taught. But modern evangelicalism lacks the theological substance either of the Reformation or the Reformers because the Reformers themselves, Luther and Calvin amongst them, were not at all hesitant, even as they affirmed sola scriptura and did so with full heart and soul, to go back and cite Augustine. They knew they were standing on the shoulders of those who had come before, and they sought to make that very clear. They stood on the creedal consensus of historic Christianity and thus confessional Protestantism, I would argue, is and must be—can be—sufficiently thick. But evangelicalism? Well, not so much.
(Emphasis added) It’s the bold-face that seems to me to hearken back to the Vanhoozer interview. And it’s the sort of subversive talk that’s likely to create disaffected Southern Baptists, withholding their moneys from his seminary.
But unlike Dreher, I have been Evangelical, and I think Mohler’s right for the right reasons — rootlessness — although I’m not sure that reconnecting with the Reformers is a full solution when those Lutheran, Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in the most conscious continuity with the Reformers have drifted into doctrinal laxity and their own form of cultural captivity.
* * * * *
There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)