Heckfire and Brimstone

Twice this week, I caught snippets of NPR or APR stories about a Pentecostal preacher who stopped believing in hell. Or maybe it was a single story, replayed, and I caught different snippets.

As Rob Bell discovered, getting squishy about hell is kind of an Evangelical capital offense (at least for now, until Evangelicals’ “firm foundation” slips along the greased Zeitgeist into uncharted territory). So I was unsurprised when today’s radio snippet included that Carlton Pearson’s church had gone bankrupt and that he now is improbably preaching in Unitarian-Universalist Churches. His preaching in such churches is improbable because his preaching style is hellfire-and-brimstone, albeit without the hellfire substance any longer.

I have no reason to think that Pearson came to his new convictions dishonestly. It’s hard for me to see any incentive to deny hell in the Evangelical or Pentecostal world, even if one has a mixture of financial motivation; there’s probably more job security and money in cultivating fear of death and hell, which grows like a weed with minimal encouragement.

In Evangelicalism, although it’s pretty common knowledge that hell is a customary part of the cosmic map, there’s no Pope, Bishops, or Ecumenical Councils recognized as authoritative. If you can put some Bible lipstick on a pig, there’s nobody to say “that’s a pig, not an angel” with any real force behind it, howsoever obvious the truth or vehement the rebuttal. So if an Evangelical erases hell from his personal cosmic map, there’s at best a weak argument that integrity requires abandoning the moniker “Evangelical.”

Apropos of that, I listened as Pearson preached, in black church style, a hell-free-and-brimming-with-hope sermon that was pretty impressive in its intensity. If orthopathos, right feeling, really is the center of Evangelicalism, it’s hard to say that Carlton is peripheral, let alone out of orbit entirely.

I listen to stories like this pretty dispassionately these days. The Orthodox faith by consensus of the Fathers affirms hell, but it never has become credal (“and He shall come in glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end” — that’s it), and there have been and still are voices very sympathetic to universalism.* Though I’m with the Fathers, I cannot but admire the compassion for the world that make it hard for some to affirm hell.

In fact, despite my own Calvinist background, just about the only people in these debates about hell who totally creep me out are those who seem to feel some deep emotional need for hell to exist and for most people to go there. This classic statement from Section VII of Article III of the Westminster Confession (which Confession I loved and which statement I accepted, albeit with little enthusiasm) captures something of that feeling:

The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.”

(Emphasis added) Maybe I’m reading it anachronistically, but that bolded phrase now gives me the willies. Eternal wrath and “glorious justice” seem difficult to reconcile in a way that would permit a decent human being, at least in our current state of seeing as through a glass, darkly, to exult in anyone’s eternal torment.

Yes, anyone’s.

20 years after having left semi-Evangelical Calvinism and 40 years after having left explicit and unequivocal Evangelicalism, I find myself at a loss to understand Evangelical line-drawing, their determination that this is a deal breaker but that is not.

Nothing is more important to Christianity than proper Trinitarian doctrine, and specifically Christology. But the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood cheerfully solicited and publicized the subscription of the Nashville Statement by two men who deviate from orthodox Trinitarian views (see Alastair Roberts here). I could probably come up with a snarky explanation, but having said I’m at a loss to understand, that would be double-dealing.

* * * * *

* That something is not credal does not imply that it’s unimportant. As noted recently, though, we seem to lack a vocabulary for matters that are neither credal nor adiaphora.

Consecrated

Christianity Today features an article titled “Why God Still Works Through Fools Like Samson.

The very timing of the article hints that many CT readers recognize a particular prominent person (who shall be unnamed by me as he was by the author) as a “fool” of Biblical proportions.

But it’s not pious rationalizations of the fool’s doings. There’s no “12-dimensional chess” or other piffle.

Instead, it puts a surprising spin on how little “spirituality” may be involved in being “consecrated” for some divine purpose. And it stands on its head, for any discerning reader, the faux spiritual assurance that a consecrated fool will Make Anything Great Again. Au contraire.

Samson’s problems, according to the article:

From the start he is impulsive, spoiled, demanding, arrogant, and lacking judgment. He shows no hint of kindness or love or what we would call the evidence of a life stirred by the Spirit. He is cruel and vindictive. Incapable of discernment and immune to advice, he twice marries into the families of the Philistines—the very people who are the enemies of Israel. Disregarding every warning and all counsel, he creates conflicts of interest that prove fatal. Betrayal and disappointment are constant themes in his life.

His own people don’t know what to do with him and the chaos he has created. He is a rogue killing machine, yet no one can touch him. His anger and pride control him, isolating him from everyone around him. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “His whole life is a scene of miracles and follies.” There is nothing in the life of Samson that proves his being motivated by the Spirit of God as we understand it. Nevertheless, he is consecrated by God.

Samson may be the first total narcissist in Scripture. He is a textbook case. Narcissists misjudge their own importance and consider themselves to be indispensable and worthy of special rights and privileges. When opposed, they are furious and blame everyone around them. They infuriate other people, and their excessive pride causes others to work even harder just to cut them down and see them humiliated. While thinking themselves sophisticated and shrewd, they are actually more gullible than the average person. They are betrayed by the very people they think they can trust. Finally, they believe they are destined for greatness and, when crossed, they react with revenge and violence—even at the risk of their own lives.

Oh dear! But it gets worse when you reflect that Samson was consecrated

to defeat an enemy and bring down an entire government. His epitaph reads, “He killed many more when he died than while he lived.” Isn’t that what he was set apart to do?

But just because his life had a purpose does not mean it was well spent. He had no wisdom, no maturity, no relationships of any value. We equate consecrated with spiritual maturity, piety, godliness, and a longing to be more Christlike. That was not Samson. Perhaps he was raised up in the same way as Pharaoh: to display God’s power but then be destroyed.

Yes, Samson was consecrated in that he was singled out and set apart to accomplish one mission. It turns out character is not necessary for being consecrated, which can simply mean “designed and set apart for a purpose.” To be consecrated means to be set apart by God, not to be chosen by a popular vote or based on character qualifications.

It turned out there was little that could govern or rule Samson except his own unpredictable nature and ego. There was nothing else of value he accomplished in his life. He was a weapon—not a leader. He never led the people to battle or to victory. He betrayed himself and everyone around him. But he accomplished his mission.

The writer of Judges doesn’t hide any of that or even attempt to justify or condemn his behavior. It is not a tale with a moral. It is not a warning. It is simply a puzzling illustration of how God’s ways are not ours.

Read the “triumph” of Samson here if you don’t recall it.

* * *

On a totally unrelated note (I speak thus to those who would buy a bridge in Queens if I offered it for sale), I worried this morning at two newspaper items.

  1. From the Wall Street Journal: Sessions Warns White House Not to Fire Rosenstein[:] The attorney general said would consider resigning over such a move.
  2. In the Washington Post, a Joe Scarborough column It’s becoming clear that Trump won’t run in 2020, which strikes me as wishful thinking and lamentably closes with a kinky fantasy about Nikki (“With all due respect, I do not get confused.”) Haley taking the Presidential “debate stage to coldly cut the Donald down to size, revealing to the world once and for all that this bloated emperor has no clothes.”

I fear the Wall Street Journal may have incited metaphorical death sentences for Sessions and Rosenstein, the Washington Post for Nikki Haley. I know only a fool would be so willful, but kings of old committed filicide at the first whiff that some offspring had designs on early ascension to the throne.

I said almost from the get-go that “Trump v. Clinton” had God’s judgment written all over it. Now look where we are:

When power dominates truth, criticism becomes betrayal. Critics cannot appeal to neutral facts and remain loyal, because facts are not neutral. As Hannah Arendt wrote of the 1920s and 1930s, any statement of fact becomes a question of motive. Thus, when H.R. McMaster, a former national security adviser, said (uncontroversially) that Russia had interfered in the election campaign, Mr Trump heard his words as unforgivably hostile. Soon after, he was sacked.

(The Republican Party is organize around one man, The Economist for April 21, 2018)

But those Democrat Philistines still had better be very careful about making sport of him.

* * * * *

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

How Trump seduced the Evangelicals

U.S.—The vast majority of the nation’s evangelical Christians stressed Friday that they were “this close” to abandoning their support of Donald Trump as they coped with a seemingly endless string of moral scandals surrounding the president.

“I swear, if 197 or so more egregious moral failings come to light, I am DONE supporting this guy,” one evangelical from Idaho declared, drawing a clear line in the sand. “My support for this president is not limitless, nor is it unconditional. Just a couple hundred more clear examples of belligerently immoral behavior and I’ll jump off the Trump train so fast it’ll make your head spin.”

At publishing time, American evangelicals had upped the number of passes they’re willing to give the president from one or two hundred to one or two thousand, stating “we didn’t elect him to be the nation’s pastor, for crying out loud.”

This must be, and is, the Babylon Bee. You can get it by Facebook, RSS, and G*d knows how many other ways.

Evangelical support of Trump has been fertile soil for the Bee’s Christian sense of humor. But I heard somewhere yesterday an uncommonly good explanation of how Trump got Evangelical support in the first place.

It went something like this.

Trump gets together with sundry Evangelical mucky-mucks and poo-bahs and says (or likelier signals) :

Look. There’s no sense playing around here. I’m not a pious man. No way.

But I know you. I respect you. You are important to the nation. And I think you have a right to live how you want to live.

So if I’m elected, I was protect you. I will build a wall around you. A beautiful wall. A magnificent wall.

And I’ll make the progressives pay for it.

 

Well, it’s an uncommonly good if you bracket inconvenient questions like “How did they spread the word without word getting out?”

UPDATE:

If this really is the way it went down, this may be an instance where Trump has fairly steadfastly made good on a promise. Witness, for instance, Roger Severino at HHS:

The Trump administration is deploying civil-rights laws in new ways to defend health-industry workers who object to medical procedures on religious grounds.

Roger Severino, an administration appointee to the Department of Health and Human Services, is heading a new division at the department that will shield health-care workers who object to abortion, assisted suicide, or other procedures they say violate their conscience or deeply held religious beliefs.

HHS has proposed rules that would expand the division’s enforcement ability and require many health organizations to inform workers about their federal protections regarding their personal faith or convictions.

The list of coming changes has many worried that HHS is putting religious priorities ahead of those of a secular state. But Mr. Severino rejects the notion that his office is pushing an evangelical or Catholic agenda, saying his unit will protect people of all faiths.

“It’s not about denial of service based on a person’s identity,” he said in an interview. “A retailer like Target happens not to sell guns; that doesn’t mean they’re denying anyone their right to buy guns.”

Just so.

* * * * *

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Evangelicalism at its best

Evangelicalism is a motley mess greatly varied. A substantial proportion having beslimed themselves by worship of 45, a few others soldier on as serious thinkers.

The lads (I can say that: they’re young, terribly young, in comparison to me) at Mere Orthodoxy and the related Mere Fidelity podcast are, for my money, among Evangelicalism’s finest.

For example, last year some “complementarian” Evangelicals brought forth the Nashville Statement under the auspices of the The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. At the time, I was forced to confront the oddness of the claim that the matters of sexuality discussed therein were “at the core of the Christian faith,” or words to that effect. (That concept did not come directly from the Statement, so far as I can recall, but from discussion surrounding it.)

“At the core” seemed not quite right, yet not quite wrong, either.

It must have felt the same to the Mere Orthodoxy lads because they brought forth a podcast on the topic of Orthodoxy and Sexual Ethics last September, which I audited for the first time Wednesday afternoon. It was quite good and clarified my impression the we lack the vocabulary for the importance of topics like sexuality to the Christian faith.

Some of my take-aways:

  • When someone like James K.A. Smith approaches this subject, in close proximity to the Nashville Statement, the context of the questions and answers matters a great deal.
  • If anything fits the Vincentian Canon, the kinds of propositions about sexuality affirmed by the Nashville Statement do (at least most of them). They are not adiaphora.
  • There were Christians who supported slavery, and had a hermeneutic to back them up. Was opposition to slavery therefore not a “core tenet”?
  • “Entailed by orthodoxy” does not mean “entailed by the creeds.” Orthodoxy is more capacious than the creeds.
  • The “arc” and anthropology of Christianity makes sexuality if not core, then entailed by the core.
  • “Part of the Catholicity of the Church” is an alternate formulation of “core.”

I was also reminded of some of the calculations that go into individual decisions to subscribe or not subscribe something like the Nashville Statement:

  • One’s own tradition may have already spoken on the topic to an extent that makes signing another statement superfluous.
  • Some of the featured signers of the Nashville Statement are heretical in their view of the Holy Trinity. Is this Statement so clearly right, timely and groundbreaking as to make subscription morally obligatory despite such disreputable company?
  • Subscription of a Statement under the auspices of the complementarian CBMW associates one with views one may not hold, and the tacit buttressing of those broader views is part of the context of a decision to sign or not to sign. Is this Statement so clearly right, timely and groundbreaking as to make subscription morally obligatory despite the aid and comfort it gives a disputed view of proper gender relations in Christianity?
  • Oddly, the Englishmen on the Mere Fidelity podcast had signed while the Americans had not. I think the Americans were more aware of the preceding questions of context.

Of course, it’s also the case that the Nashville Statement had nothing to say about the scandalous rates of divorce among self-identified Evangelicals. Could it be that “speaking the truth in love” is something one does only to gay Christians? (Then it’s not the least courageous, by criteria of C.S. Lewis.)

It absolutely is not the case that I’d still choose Evangelicalism were Evangelicals all like these Mere Orthodoxy lads. The reasons why are beyond my scope today. But I respect those youngsters very much, and occasionally put a few shekels where my mouth is.

* * * * *

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Divine Jest

In the run-up to the 2016 election, a lot of Evangelicals were grasping for Biblical analogies to cast Donald Trump as just the kind of improbable figure that the God of the Old Testament repeatedly used to fulfill His purposes, in a kind of Divine Jest.

Well, let’s hold this up to the light and look at a different facet: Maybe the jest is at the expense of precisely Trump’s Evangelical enablers.

That God has a sense of dramatic irony and narrative surprise seems like one of the most obvious lessons to be drawn from the Trump era. That God is using Trump not as an agent of his good work but as a kind of ongoing test of everyone else’s moral character seems like a not-unreasonable inference to draw.

(Ross Douthat via Rod Dreher) I’d say the whole lotta Evangelicals have flunked the test.

* * * * *

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Evangelicals and Donald Trump

My criticism of “Evangelicalism” (my own former Christian tradition) has been so consistent that even I have felt abashed by it at times.

But two articles in Atlantic — one by Emma Green, the other by Michael Gerson — make me want, for some reason, to mount a bit of defense, if only because Evangelicals and Roman Catholics tend to define the visible Christian landscape in America and many find that landscape, especially as ploughed and re-ploughed by the press, pretty bleak.

It is widely touted that 81% of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and that loyalty remains high. Apropos of that:

  1. There are racial minorities in the U.S. who fit comfortably in the Evangelical definition who are not Trump fans. I doubt that they are counted in that 81% or in the 19% remaining for that matter. Perhaps they eschew the politicized term “Evangelical” now in a perverse feedback loop.
  2. Probably more important is how the “Evangelical” identity is determined. In most polls, it’s determined by self-identification. That’s a problem because we’ve reached a point where many self-identified “Evangelicals” are unobservant and ill-formed — “Christmas & Easter Evangelicals,” so to speak. I even suspect that many who have rarely entered and never joined an Evangelical church will now identify as “Evangelical” rather than “Protestant” if asked for their religious affiliation. (That’s a pyrrhic victory for Evangelical self-promotion.) More careful polls find strong differences between regular church-goers and nominal Christians of various traditions, including Evangelical. It’s only when regular churchgoers profess something startling that you’re got a really good religion story.

So I suspect that the people who ask “are we Still Evangelical?” are among the more serious and observant members of that tradition, and that, lacking any objective criterion by which to say that others are falsely claiming the label, it would be a good idea to zoom in on those folks to see what real white Evangelicals believe. I think there’d be a least a slight shift from incandescent red toward the bluer end of the spectrum.

* * * * *

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson, improbable cultural “rock star,” has been on a tear, and the Christianosphere is talking. Heck, the Babylon Bee even got into it.

There is no neutral standpoint, so it is legitimate to ask “where’s Jordan Peterson coming from?”

The consensus is that he’s not Christian, and I suspect that he’s on record to that effect. That’s not to say that Jordanism is altogether incompatible with Christianity. I don’t think it is, but you’ll soon see that there’s dissent on that.

An uncontroversial description of Peterson, so far as I’ve seen, is “Jungian.” A more controversial one is “stoic.”

One Charlie Clark, Writing at Mere Orthodoxy (which is thoughtful, reformed-leaning Evangelicals, not Orthodox — I know; it’s confusing) says Peterson is stoic, and it

is too bad then that the backbone of his whole program is what C.S. Lewis called “the Great Sin.” Peterson is, in fact, precisely the character that Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, one of those teachers who,

“appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by Pride.”

For Lewis, “to beat down the simpler vices” by means of Pride is a cure far worse than the disease. And this is precisely Peterson’s strategy throughout 12 Rules for Life.

Clark also sees Peterson as effectively “Pelagian” when translated into Christianese:

Theologically, the expression of Pride is Pelagianism, the belief that you can save yourself without relying on God’s grace. This is precisely what we find in Peterson’s work. Consider what Peterson says Rule 2 (“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”):

Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance…. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this…. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.

Of course, Peterson, not being a Christian (nor perhaps even a theist), does not intend any of these statements in their theological sense. Nevertheless, the posture he is advocating excludes grace. As Peterson would have it, no one has come to rescue you and no help is on the way.

I like the lads at Mere Orthodoxy. I really do. And caution about any cultural “rock star” is warranted.

But I think the balance lies in another direction, described by an Anthony Bradley article that Clark linked. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself, but I’m going to try soaring up to 30,000 feet to give a meta-summary, including a concept the author doesn’t directly mention: So profoundly has the Augustinian idea of original sin, of people guilty and hell-bound from the moment of conception (perhaps this is later Calvinist gloss), shaped western Christendom, that Christianity as winsome toward feminism has for 50 years or so been savage toward men, and young men have known nothing but shaming as a consequence. To shamed and beaten-down young men, Peterson is a prophet.

Is he a false prophet? Where Evangelical Clark sees Pelagianism, Orthodox Tipsy hears echoes of synergism, with which Orthodox Christianity, rightly so-called, is comfortable to that point that we’re often mistaken for Pelagians. (I’m not about to claim Peterson for Orthodox Christianity, but I know he has at least slight familiarity with it from his interactions with iconographer Jonathan Pageau, for instance here and here.)

So, young Evangelical man, let me prescribe this:

  1. Go ahead and listen  to Jordan Peterson, inspired and lifted by his words.
  2. Remember that he’s not coming from a Christian place and there is no neutral place. Be careful. It’s a jungle out there and the enemy of your enemy may not ultimately be the friend you need.
  3. Be aware that the Sunday morning place that continues the beatings you get during the week is a sect (Evangelicalism) of a schism (the Protestant Reformation) from a schism (the Patriarch of Rome breaking from the other four Patriarchs of the first-millennium Church) — and that Augustine and Original Sin are not part of Christian consensus world-wide, even if they dominate in the world Catholicism built.
  4. Get Thee to an Orthodox Church to put Peterson’s message in historic Christian context. Unless the Priest is a convert with original sin notions still lingering, the beatings should cease. Even if the priest is still crypto-Protestant, the Liturgy knows better. God is gracious and loves mankind, you’ll hear again and again and again.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

On the other hand …

Two critiques of the newly-reposed Billy Graham, which I note not just for the record, but because I cannot help but agree.

First, a George Will column I passed over, then returned to because, well, it was by George Will: Billy Graham was no prophet.

Because Will is a veteran writer, he tells us right away what he’s going to tell us:

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some, and there are many “miracles around us today, including television and airplanes.” Graham was no theologian.

Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

I made the same points — neither theologian nor prophet — yesterday, but not as an indictment, which Will pretty clearly implies.

The problem, to reframe some of the same points Will makes, is that Evangelist Graham often positioned himself in a fundamentally prophetic role by becoming the intimate of powerful men:

Graham’s dealings with presidents mixed vanity and naivete. In 1952, he said he wanted to meet with all the candidates “to give them the moral side of the thing.” He was 33. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and calling Richard Nixon “the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history.” He told Nixon that God had given him, Nixon, “supernatural wisdom.” Graham should have heeded the psalmist’s warning about putting one’s faith in princes.

On Feb. 1, 1972, unaware of Nixon’s Oval Office taping system, when Nixon ranted about how Jews “totally dominated” the media, Graham said, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.” He also told Nixon that Jews are the ones “putting out the pornographic stuff.” One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying ….

Yes, if you’re going to get that close to power, you’re surely obliged to don the prophet’s mantle, especially if you’re purporting to “give them the moral side of the thing.” To paraphrase Will, we can acquit Graham of dereliction only by convicting him of toadying — or by assuming that quietly, and in private, he did truly “give them the moral side of the thing” in a way that was at least minimally prophetic.

Is there another alternative?

Second, Darryl Hart (who I likewise passed over at first) makes a subtler point, and one that I probably cannot make strongly enough to heal scotomata: Graham’s itinerant evangelism inherently undermined Churches.

Graham’s work, which was completely independent of a church or a communion, undermined implicitly the work of local pastors who were trying to the best of their abilities to evangelize the locals. Along would come Graham and all of a local pastor or priest’s endeavors seemed paltry by comparison. Here I’m reminded of what H. L. Mencken wrote about Billy Sunday and the kind of appeal a popular (and traveling) preacher had compared to the residential and denominational variety:

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb …, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important … It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and … self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

… Mencken’s point about evangelicalism and the evangelists who benefited from it stands. Your average pastor cannot compete with the bells and whistles of a mass meeting and the publicity that surrounds it. Nor can your average minister disregard preaching through a book of the Bible or fashioning a homily based on the lectionary and situating that relatively learned speech into the fabric of a liturgy or order of service (for the Puritans out there). In other words, theology, church government, and convictions about worship constrain a pastor, not to mention the responsibilities of ministering over time to a variety of congregation or parish members in all manner of walks of life. Graham could simply give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row, with a different musical performance or celebrity interview, and then leave town. Your average pastor doesn’t have that pay grade. And if he is actually preparing his flock for the world to come (read death), then a religion that is “a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern” is not necessarily going to cut the Gordian Knot of how sinners become right with the sovereign Lord of the universe.

In other words, not all Protestants were thrilled by Graham’s ministry. In fact, going back to the revivals of the First and Second Great Pretty Good Awakenings, denominationally and theologically self-conscious Protestants (Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed), have opposed mass revivalism because it undermines the work of the ordained ministry and the local church.

Hart says “undermined implicitly.” I say “inherently undermined.” The two are not the same and I stand by my version, precisely because of two things Hart doesn’t mention:

  1. Graham did not merely “give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row … and then leave town.” He or his aides routinely — in my understanding, invariably — told those who responded to his invitation to go back to their churches, provided only that those churches had Jesus and Bible. That was why he caught flak from Bob Jones and a significant number of others: Catholics were sent back into the maw of the whore of Babylon, as the critics saw it.
  2. But despite #1, Graham’s crusades were ineluctibly parachurch, his Gospel transactional, his salvation forensic. Having lived in his world, I can say from personal observation that a whole lotta folks took their “eternal security” to the golf course or beach on Sunday mornings. That kind of tacit falling away was well known to Evangelists, who lamented it but didn’t know how to deal with it. (Campus Crusade for Christ, n/k/a Cru, came up with a “Spirit-filled life” tract to complement “Four Spiritual Laws,” but even then were frustrated by the crypto-lapsi.)

When I referred to “scotomata,” I was referring to such widespread disregard or disrespect of the “institutional” Church as opposed to parachurch ministries. Of this, too, I have personal experience, even though habitually, and all my life long, I’ve attended church — even when I considered church merely a good idea and in no way salvific.

Those who just bristled at the idea of church being salvific are those with the scotomata. Jesus Christ did not “build [His] Church” just to be the sort of thing you might go for if you go for that sort of thing.

You can look that up.

Hart doesn’t put it that bluntly, but a Calvinistic version of that (i.e., a sensibility that probably doesn’t unequivocally see the Church as salvific) is his sensibility, and I agree that undermining local churches was a weakness Billy Graham’s methods could not avoid.

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Would Billy Graham be disgusted by evangelicals today?

The Washington Post, which features religion coverage well above average, asks as some length “Would Billy Graham be disgusted by evangelicals today?

My short and immediate answer was “If he was, we’d never know it.” I stand by that after reading the article. A Rice University professor gets it right:

Bill Martin, a professor emeritus at Rice University who wrote a biography of Graham, saw a sharp divergence [by Franklin Graham] from the elder Graham. “It was always hard for Billy not to like people. Franklin was always willing to draw lines,” Martin said. “His father was willing to erase or blur lines and widen the scope of people he was willing to associate with. I doubt he would’ve expressed plainly that he disliked Trump. He was polarizing for liking Nixon; Nixon was one of his closest associates. Billy always thought the best of people.”

He repented (I use that word deliberately) of his own at-times excessive political involvements, specifically after Nixon, and he was very much an evangelist — a preacher of the Gospel (as he saw it), and neither a theologian nor (most relevant for purposes of the WaPo question) a prophet.

He didn’t aspire to be a political “player,” and the press that doesn’t get that just doesn’t get him at all. That so many Evangelicals today do so shamelessly forsake a higher calling for that servile one is a damned (I use that word deliberately, too) shame.

[UPDATE: “He saw his calling as above public affairs. Urged in 1958 to run for the Senate, he realized, ‘Why should I demote myself to be a senator?’’’ Mark Feeney, Boston Globe.]

Michael Gerson recalls a wonderful example, from fairly early in his career, of how irenic Billy was becoming as well:

There was initial resistance to Graham’s work among mainline Protestants. As Graham announced more and more crusades, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was not amused. Graham, Niebuhr warned, would “accentuate every prejudice which the modern, ‘enlightened’ but morally sensitive man may have against religion.” Graham responded: “I have read nearly everything Mr. Niebuhr has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning. Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about . . . [but] if I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered they would walk out.”

Maybe “subtle” would be a better term than irenic, but I really think not. Again: Graham was not a theologian whereas Niebuhr was that (and more), but not an evangelist. Billy knew his role, and knew that Niebuhr’s brilliance would be worse than useless if he aped it.

Once Billy stopped speaking for himself, I lost interest, and so overlooked how Franklin may have stage-managed his father to make him appear a Trump partisan. The WaPo article sheds some light on that. It’s probably somewhere in Shakespeare, too.

Memory Eternal to one of The Greats.

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Not just like worldly music

From my personal journal 4 – 1/2 years ago:

Should I ever be tempted to say that CCM is “just like worldly music,” I should resist. There’s a cheesy, oily sound to CCM vocals that marks it as “Christian” music within the first four vocal bars.

And then from 9/13/13:

Tough day. I looked at Syrian beheading photos and listened to CCM for 7 minutes. Ouch!

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