The return of Debbie Downer

I was kind of a “Debbie Downer” yesterday, wasn’t I? Well hold on. It may get worse.

Writing of Amazon killing Big Box which killed Mom & Pop, and what peril that leaves us in, made me reflect once again not only on our ugly places but on how readily we chase after attractive things — sex, lower prices, extreme convenience, etc. — oblivious of consequences.

I’d already been ruminating on such things after listening to the latest Kunstlercast, which made me aware of how fragile our whole existence has become because it’s all mediated electronically now.

I’ll be chatting with Rocky Rawlins who is the man behind The SurvivorLibrary.com, a phenomenal website that contains scans in pdf-file form of hundreds of books on basic technology and the skills for applying them, mostly dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s hard to overstate the scope of this vast trove of practical knowledge — everything from bee-keeping to wagon and coach-building. In other words, what you need to meet The Long Emergency. The scientific elegance of these books and monographs is something to behold, the clarity of the language and precision of the instructions is breathtaking. I think you’ll like Rocky very much.

Why should we care? Three letters: EMP.

Electro-magnetic pulse damage was a topic of conversation in both of the Republican debates on Thursday night. Rick Santorum, one-third of the warm-up debate, warned of the possibility of an EMP being used as a weapon, a “devastating explosion” that would “fry out” anything with a circuit board. “Everything is gone,” he said. “Cars stop. Planes fall out of the sky.” If Iran got a nuclear bomb, he warned, they could explode one in the atmosphere over the United States and break every phone, car, computer and anything else electronic underneath.

During the main debate, Ben Carson raised the same issue. “[W]e have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electric grid,” he said, adding, “Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point?”

(Washington Post) It doesn’t even have to be nuclear.

Or if you don’t like that, try Kunstler’s Long Emergency. If I had read Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I think I’d have something from him about now.

Then, for me, the piece de resistance: Rod Dreher reflecting on the painful accuracy of a New Yorker profile (he justifiably trusted the author, and let him tag along for a week as Rod promoted The Benedict Option). This stretch and what followed is very self-revealing:

OK, I have to share this passage about Andrew Sullivan:

The writer Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and Catholic, is one of Dreher’s good friends. Their friendship began in earnest in 2010, when Ruthie got sick and Dreher, moved by a spirit of generalized repentance, e-mailed Sullivan to apologize for anything “hard-hearted” he might have said in their various online arguments. Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.” Talking to Sullivan about Dreher, I was reminded of Father Matthew’s law: “You’ve got to love your dad even if he doesn’t love you back in the way that you want him to.”

Andrew is right: I’m a mess, but I hope I’m a mess in the best possible way.

I can’t let go of the story of my family and its fate …

We now live in a world that was made for somebody like me, with my aspirations and talents. It is a world in which people like Daddy and Ruthie, and what they stood for, can scarcely thrive. (I read Chris Caldwell’s piece on the situation in France, and it resonates with regard to the small places like West Feliciana.) The values and the customs and the way of seeing the world that meant everything to them is very hard to sustain. The great tragedy of my family is that my father and my sister held onto their vision so tightly that they made all those around them whom they catechized far too rigid to survive the shocks of their passing. And now the family that they revered above all else is shattered. What will happen to the land that my father acquired, cultivated, and revered, after my mom is gone? Ruthie loved the land as much as he did, and planned to live on it till the day she died. And she did — but she did not count on dying at 42. Everything that seemed so solid, so unbreakable, has dissolved, and is broken.

I’ve been thinking about how things might have gone differently had I been able to return to St. Francisville when Ruthie was first diagnosed. What if I had been there during the 19 months she lived, and had discovered the awful truth while there was still time to resolve things. Might everything been different? Maybe, maybe not ….

What the confluence of these thread brings to mind is a famous man’s famous aphorism:

Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” The evidence of ingrained sinfulness, he thought, is apparent everywhere in acts of violence, in the mistreatment of the vulnerable, and in the greed built into economic systems. Even human beings’ greatest accomplishments are inevitably tainted by sins of pride and self-interest, he argued. The problem is not just that humans commit sinful acts but that they are by nature sinful.

Yup. Individually and collectively, we’re a hot steaming mess. Lemmings. Pleasure-seekers. Idiots. Bundles of complexes and compulsions. If you think you’re an exception, you’re probably just uncommonly oblivious.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The Hank Hanegraaf teachable moment

1

Ed Stetzer’s Christianity Today blog on the conversion of the Bible Answer Man to Christian Orthodoxy has been eating at me.

Here’s the part that bugs me, in what I consider the relevant context:

The early church was indeed more focused on the Eucharist and was more liturgical in structure, nature, and expression. There are things we can learn from that today, but we have to also acknowledge that much of what we see was, indeed, cultural. As a missiologist, I’m not drawn into early Christian cultural forms and am concerned that some are equating them with eternal truth.

The question I want to answer: Are we looking for the right things? Do we want to model with exactitude the cultural form of the early church? Is that the ultimate value?

Don’t normalize cultural church forms.

I’m not moving toward Eastern Orthodoxy, so let me add why. For one, I think the tendency towards (big-O) Orthodoxy and its liturgy is missiologically unhealthy, not just theologically problematic. Many segments of Orthodoxy take Hellenistic (or other) cultural forms, consider them normative to today’s context, and apply them as the “true” or “authentic” way.

That’s not helpful and it actually hinders the advance of the gospel, which in part explains why American Orthodoxy has far more converts from evangelicalism than it does from secularism.

Don’t import, export.

A better approach than importing and normalizing cultural church forms is one that is built on Sola Scriptura. In the way of Jesus, and walking in the Spirit, I believe we need to go back to scripture for each and every generation of Christians and ask, “What would it look like to live out this timeless scriptural faith in this time and in this place?”

This, then, exports the truth of scripture to our modern context.

Perhaps the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a good time to remember the value of Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solo Christo, and Sola Deo Gloria as signposts for our unique expression of the gospel that goes deeper than tradition. In fact, it brings us to principles which are expressed in different cultural languages using different cultural methods.

(Where would we be without “missiologists”?)

In the way of Jesus, and walking in the Spirit, I believe we need to go back to scripture for each and every generation of Christians and ask, “What would it look like to live out this timeless scriptural faith in this time and in this place? …” That sounds benign, even noble. But — lex orandi, lex credendi — the attempt to separate “timeless” message from the liturgical medium strikes me insouciant at best, mad or disingenuous perhaps:

Lex orandi, lex credendi (Latin loosely translated as “the law of praying [is] the law of believing”) is a motto in Christian tradition, which means that it is prayer which leads to belief, or that it is liturgy which leads to theology. It refers to the relationship between worship and belief, and is an ancient Christian principle which provided a measure for developing the ancient Christian creeds, the canon of scripture and other doctrinal matters based on the prayer texts of the Church, that is, the Church’s liturgy. In the Early Church, there was liturgical tradition before there was a common creed and before there was an officially sanctioned biblical canon. These liturgical traditions provided the theological framework for establishing the creeds and canon.

After almost twenty years in Orthodoxy, serving a pretty rich array of parish-level portions of the Divine Service, I’m pretty confident in adding some qualifications to that description:

  1. The liturgical tradition, the lex orandi, was not superseded by creed. The creeds and canons of ecumenical councils were responses to particular heresies that were troubling the Church. The Church could recognize heresy, and refute it by creed and canons, partly because heresy departed from the tradition. The creed was not the telos of liturgy or a comprehensive distillation of the credendi. But doesn’t it hit “the essentials”? Darned if I know, though I doubt it. I have little interest in the putative “essentials” of the faith; I want the fullness.
  2. The liturgical tradition, the lex orandi, was not superseded by the biblical canon. I confess some tension here. Christians in richly liturgical ancient traditions can be tempted to neglect personal familiarity with scripture. But Christians who despise the tradition often butcher the scriptures beyond recognition. We don’t have thousands or tens of thousands of denominations because God spoke with forked tongue in the Scriptures, but because people have consecrated themselves as mini-Popes.

I have no great confidence in claims to follow “the way of Jesus, and walk[] in the Spirit.” To my ear, that sound like the standard of most every liberal Christian incitement to apostasy.

“… Many segments of Orthodoxy take Hellenistic (or other) cultural forms, consider them normative to today’s context, and apply them as the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ way.

I’m not sure exactly what missiologist Stetzer is alluding to here, but I know the counter-danger and I’m going to describe it bluntly and maybe even a bit hyperbolically. Adapting the faith to culture has no limiting principle. Applying putative essentials of the faith to, for instance, an individualist, consumerist, capitalist culture in the name of “contextualizing,” produces a faux and feckless faith. It treats as normative “Altar Calls” (in Altarless Churches), where one prays The Sinners Prayer and walks away with unjustified reassurance that he or she is now saved, once and for all, no matter what, for ever and ever.  It’s not entirely certain that someone baptized as an infant who has implicit faith that has never wavered is a Real Christian without ever responding to such Altar Call.

Or maybe that was one or two generations ago. The irrepressible Babylon Bee hasn’t actually done any altar call parodies, now that I mention it. Who knows what hip missiologists are into today without following the fads contextualization assiduously?

Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times has now twice interrogated iconic Evangelicals (Tim Keller, Jimmy Carter) on how little he can get away with believing in terms eerily reminiscent of Stetzer: “What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century?” He then adds specific questions that Stetzer avoids: “Can one be a Christian and yet doubt the virgin birth or the Resurrection?”

Is this not the spirit of the culture into which Stetzer wants to enculturate the “timeless scriptural faith”? What’s the minimum I can pay for this “salvation” thingy? Let’s make a deal. It’s 2017, after all. Let’s have another look at the (truncated Protestant) Bible and see if there aren’t some loopholes. Maybe all I need is a “Life Verse.”

Such is the eventuality of rolling your own faith in every new generation.

2

Apparently, at least one Evangelical radio network has cancelled the Bible Answer Man broadcast in the wake of host Hank Hanegraaf becoming Orthodox. I was reminded of an earlier parallel at Wheaton College:

Evangelicals and Catholics, Not-So-Together

In 1994, prominent Wheaton historian Mark Noll endorsed and promoted an ecumenical manifesto titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” With the signing of that document, the once-yawning distance between Wheaton and South Bend seemed to close just a bit. But then, eight years later, an assistant professor named Joshua Hochschild felt called to join the Roman communion. Hochschild dutifully informed the administration and assured them that—as a Catholic—he could still fully endorse the Statement of Faith and the Community Covenant.

Litfin, however, disagreed on the grounds that no Catholic could share Wheaton’s commitment to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Hochschild disputed this in a series of letters and conversations, and most members of his department took his side. Ultimately Litfin conceded that there was nothing explicit in the Statement of Faith that Hochschild could not affirm; rather, it was Wheaton’s implicit interpretation of the preamble to the Statement—an interpretation of which Litfin claimed to be both arbiter and mouthpiece—that allows no wiggle-room for Catholics.

Thus, in an irony that was lost on no one, an academic administrator laying claim to magisterial interpretive authority fired someone for … not being a Protestant. “This is a matter of preserving our heritage,” Litfin said at the time. “Why change the DNA of the institution?” Hochschild was given a year to find a new job, and is now the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. Soon after the Hochschild affair, Mark Noll himself decamped for Notre Dame. When asked why he left after 27 years, Noll replied that it was more a matter of being drawn toward a new opportunity than of fleeing problems at Wheaton. But he also pointed to his comments in “The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue”—comments which clearly suggest that evangelical institutions would greatly assist their efforts by employing sympathetic Catholic faculty like Hochschild.

Litfin, for his part, offered an articulate defense of the all-Protestant policy in his book, and again on some Catholic blogs after the Hochschild affair. Still, English professor Alan Jacobs hopes that a new president will revisit the issue: “There are many Catholic and Orthodox teacher-scholars who are very sympathetic to Wheaton’s historic mission. Granted that incorporating such people into our community would be a complex task, one not without pitfalls, I think we have to ask ourselves whether it makes sense to deprive ourselves of those resources.”

(Whither Wheaton? See also The Hochschild Affair, the formatting of which has gotten mangled sometime in the past 11 years.)

Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green addresses some of the salient fallacies about Orthodoxy in one report of Hanegraaf’s termination. As my friend Tavi put it, “This text is not about a radio show, but rather about how orthodoxy is lived. Worth reading”:

I have been away from the internet for several days, and only today saw the Baptist Press article reporting that one of the radio networks that carries Hank’s show has decided to replace him, since he has become Orthodox. (For some reason Facebook says the link to that article isn’t working.) The article questions the validity of his interpretation of Scripture, because of his chrismation.

The article is mistaken (understandably) at several points. First, it claims that there are many different Orthodox churches, eg Russian, Greek, etc, and you can’t join “the Orthodox Church” by itself, but have to go through one of those subsets. Yes, that is true, you have to join a specific local congregation. I think that is true of all churches, in every denomination. You can’t join a church in theory, you have to get along with other people in a local setting.

But there is no international administration or organization for Orthodoxy. When people band together naturally, it is along the lines of “people, tribes, tongues, and nations,” and that is the highest level at which the Orthodox Church is administratively united. While some other churches have an international organization that unites at the global level, the Orthodox Church does not. Orthodoxy rejects the idea of a “vicar of Christ” because Christ doesn’t need a vicar–he himself is with us. He is the head, not any earthly person or organization.

This author claims that there are “cultural and theological” differences, and of course there are cultural differences, eg what kind of foods people eat in different lands. There are similar cultural differences among Protestants who are in the same denomination but live on different continents. Cultural differences are not a problem. (I’ll get to theological differences below but, basically, they don’t exist.)

Traditionally, missionaries go out to a new “people, tribe” and bring them the Gospel. At first the missionaries might be Greeks going into Russia, for example, a thousand years ago. In time, the natives of Russia have their own Russian Orthodox Church and are no longer a part of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries into Alaska. Orthodoxy spread south and east from there, and then Eastern European immigrants spread from the East coast of America westward. At present most Orthodox churches will still have in their name the nation that originally sent the missionaries, but there will eventually be a single American Orthodox Church here. It is frustrating to some of us that this administrative unity is taking so long, but one reason it does is that these various-nationality churches in America already function as a single church. We attend each others’ services and take communion; if we move to a new city, we might join a church of a different background than our old church. It doesn’t make a lot of difference (I like to say, the main difference is the kind of pastries at coffee hour). Since we are already experiencing unity at the ground level, the irksome task of dismantling and re-building administratively doesn’t feel particularly urgent, to ordinary churchgoers.

Yet even though the Orthodox Church appears in various national groupings, they all have the same theology. This seems impossible in the West, where even very forceful leadership is unable to compel theological agreement. When I was Episcopalian, the Episcopal church one mile away taught different theology than we did. It seems impossible to have everyone willingly embrace and uphold a single theology. And yet Orthodoxy does.

One reason is that we didn’t have the intra-Christian struggles that the West did. Orthodox cities were attacked and conquered by people of other faiths, and Orthodox were clear about how their faith differed from non-Christian, which perhaps caused them to bond more closely to each other and overlook disagreements. Yet they grasped this unity without being overseen by a powerful international organization; it happened more organically than that, and voluntarily.

The main reason for this unity is that the faith is taught mainly by participation in worship. You don’t even have to be able to read–you can get the equivalent of a seminary education by just attending worship. And worship is held in the local language. The tradition has always been that Orthodox missionaries translate the Scriptures, prayers, and hymns into the local language; if there is no written language, they produce an alphabet and then translate. So there’s no language barrier; every member of the church, from a milkmaid to an empress, can learn the faith just by going to worship. If the priest starts preaching something wrong, the laity can recognize it and refuse to follow him. St. Basil the Great describes lay people praying in snowy fields rather than worship in a church led by a priest of the Arian heresy.

(I recount a story in “Welcome to the Orthodox Church” about a Brooklyn priest who went to a conference in Chicago in 1893, and talked about his belief that all religions are equal, they all worship the same god, it doesn’t matter what name you use. When he got home again he put his key in the lock and it wouldn’t turn. His congregation had already changed the locks on him.)

Since no one has the authority to change those prayers and hymns, the faith remains the same. What the grannies remember is what their grannies remember, and on back through time. A person who advocated changes could only demonstrate that he had left the Church.

The faith *constitutes* the Church. The faith *itself* is the authority.

The role of the Bible: No one believes literally in sola scriptura. Everyone believes that the bible has to be responsibly interpreted. Everyone believes that some interpretations of the bible are better, more accurate, than others. And everyone believes that leaving a wholly untaught person free to invent his own interpretation of the bible is dangerous.

The question is: where do you get your interpretation?

Protestants often look back to one or several of the Reformers: Calvin, Luther, etc. But these men lived only 500 years ago. What’s more, they were the inheritors of a deeply-established theology based on reading the Bible in Latin translation.

The early church, on the other hand, were people who spoke bible Greek (koine Greek) in their everyday life. It was the language of commerce, as English is today. The authors of the New Testament were members of that community, and wrote with that same community in mind, picturing them as their audience. The early-Christian interpretation of the Bible is going to be more accurate than that of other Christians–no matter how learned or sincere–who lived at a distant time and place. (Especially if they have already thoroughly absorbed an interpretation of the Bible based on century after century of reading it in Latin translation. Just one example is the word energy, or energeia in Greek, which St Paul uses some 30 times to describe God’s presence within us. Paul says God “energizes” in us, but there was no Latin equivalent, so modern bibles say, much more weakly, that he “works.”)

More-recent Bible interpreters are simply at a disadvantage, in comparison with the early church. This is not a claim that the early church was more holy than Christians today, only that they had a distinct advantage when it comes to understanding the Bible. Theirs is the interpretation held by the Orthodox Church.

The role of the Church Fathers is to be a chorus expressing that interpretation eloquently and usefully. No one of them is an expert, as Calvin or Luther might be seen to be. All Church Fathers are capable of asserting ideas that are mistaken (someone said “100% of the Church Fathers are right 80% of the time.”) The Church Fathers are not the authority; the faith itself is the authority, the faith handed down from the Apostles. But the Church Fathers often express that interpretation in a useful and clear way. They learned the faith the same way everybody did: through listening to worship over the years, as the cycle of the year repeated again and again and understanding deepens.

Every church and denomination offer an interpretation of the Bible. The Orthodox interpretation is the earliest, carried forward from the time of the Apostles.

I could write a whole other post about how the the Orthodox continually faces a test of “Is it working?” We Orthodox expect the faith to *do* something. We expect that life in Christ will transform people, most of us in quiet ways, but always some few in every generation who become so united with Christ that it shines out of them in miraculous ways. The existence of such saints in our own time, who repeat the pattern from every age and century, are the evidence that Orthodoxy actually *works.*

This is perhaps the biggest difference between Orthodoxy and Western versions of Christianity: that the latter became occupied with battling over ideas, and so ideas became the most important things, and personal transformation often ignored. In Orthodoxy we believe that, if your theology is right, then you will know God, you will shine with his light (in occasional cases, literally). Orthodoxy can continually test whether its theology is correct by checking to see whether it is still producing saints. Look up a few 20th century saints, like St Porphyrios, St Paisius, St. Silouan, St Sophrony, St. Gavrilia; you’ll see what they have in common, the marks of humility and love (and, in some cases, a good sense of humor) that are the proving ground of Orthodox theology.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.