Willow Creek Babylon

I attended Willow Creek Church precisely one time, probably Fall of 1992 or 1997 (class reunions at 5-year intervals put me in the neighborhood of South Barrington).

Willow Creek was the model church for Evangelicals — everyone wanted to be like them. If your church was stagnant or shrinking, an fun-filled, expense-paid trip to Willow Creek for the Church Growth Committee was de rigeur.

The show I attended that Sunday morning left me a bit conflicted. Jane Austen explains:

“I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”

“Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

(Pride and Predudice) My skepticism, I think, was that it was all very catchy and slick (I’d have paid $5 to hear the band in particular — on Saturday night at an auditorium or bar), but not so near much like a church.

Willow Creek’s fall, about which there’s no shortage of news if you hadn’t heard, is calamitous, like that of Babylon the Great in the apocalypse. It deservedly calls the megachurch model into severest doubt. Bill Hybels is the Evangelical Cardinal McCarrick.

At least I assume it is felt that way, for I myself definitively left the world of Willow Creek wannabees in November of 1997.

UPDATE: Triumphalist connotations in my original ending were, it was brought to my attention privately, quite strong. My intent was offer the Orthodox Church for consideration of those burnt out on megachurches for any reason, not because I think it immune to the wiles of the Evil One vis á vis any particular sin.

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

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Just too freaky?

Fr. Lawrence Farley responds irenically to a self-described “freak” who nonetheless finds headscarves on young women in church just too freaky:

[T]hese women’s use of the veil serves to differentiate them from the secular world around them. In the days of [the critic’s] grandmother, the goal was to assimilate to avoid the dangers of xenophobia. In today’s world, the goal is different—it is to avoid assimilation with the godless and insane society around us and (in the timeless words of St. Peter) to “save ourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). From her words one might imagine that [the critic] was stuck in the past, facing the challenges of yester-year when the assimilation of immigrants was the pressing need. But now, and at least since the late 1990s (when she said the headscarf appeared in her world), the challenge for Orthodox women is to build a healthy counter-culture in which to live and raise their children. If they choose to make the wearing of a veil when in church one component of that counter-culture, who is [the critic] or anyone else (including me) to say otherwise? The words “a woman’s choice” can and have been horribly misused, but surely here is one instance where a woman’s choice ought to be respected.

I hope this suffices to mollify the critic (on at least one of her criticisms).

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Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

(David Foster Wallace via Jason Segedy, Why I’m Leaving Twitter Behind.)

By modernity, I mean the project to create social orders that would make it possible for each person living in such orders “to have no story except the story they choose when they have no story.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Wilderness Wanderings

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Encore!

This morning, I read an outstanding Rod Dreher blog that used the passing phrase “conscientious objector in the culture war.”

More than eight years ago, I wrote a long blog with almost exactly that phrase as its title, bearing this preface:

This may be the most controversial and polemical thing I’ve posted. I’ll tell you in advance, and in conclusion, that I’m disinclined to be dogmatic about most of it. Your mileage may vary.

Well, Dreher prompted me to find it and re-read it, and I would no longer endorse that preface:

  1. I have written much more controversial and polemical things since then.
  2. While “dogmatic” may not be the right word, the blog — almost every word of it — now reflects well-settled convictions, tested by eight years and buttressed (especially point 3) by the election of Donald Trump.

Everything else, I’d still endorse, So I’m indulging myself by re-publishing myself — a rare step that I don’t intend to repeat often.

* * * * *

One of the minor irritants in my life is Franky Schaeffer. I’ll go long spells without thinking of him, and then I get a catalogue from his publishing company, or maybe he pops up in the news (having once again found limelight). And I seethe.

But lots of people love limelight. Why does he, of all people, irritate me? Probably because his life is so parallel to mine, through all the twists and turns.

  • Evangelical: Check.
  • Produced the movie Whatever Happened to the Human Race; watched the movie as a turning point.
  • Now Orthodox: Check.
  • Religious Right activist: Check.
  • No longer Religious Right activist: Check.
  • 60-something years old: Check.

But he’s too strident and angry. He’s sort of a Christian James Howard Kunstler (another approximate contemporary of mine) but without Kunstler’s ubiquitous F-Bombs. Kunstler acknowledges that his speeches are a form of theater (listen to Kunstlercast #103 here); I think that’s true of Schaeffer, too, though he’d probably deny it.

I sense, too, that my reasons for dropping out of the culture wars are different than Schaeffer’s. I sense that partly because he seemingly just changed sides, now inveighing against his former friends, writing screeds, kiss and tell books, dubious fiction (his Calvin Becker fiction trilogy was quite calculatedly ambiguous about the extent to which it was autobiographical), paranoid apologies for Barack Obama, and sucking up to media personages who call him things like “a former leader of the anti-choice movement.” (They just love to get some sound-bites from an angry ex-whatever.)

But I really dropped out because:

  1. The culture wars are unwinnable on the present terms.
  2. I suspect that the strident tactics make most things worse rather than better.
  3. I don’t really trust my former allies.
  4. I don’t really trust the candidates we’re supposed to vote for.
  5. I still don’t trust my former adversaries.
  6. If I’m a prominent culture warrior, it will spill over harmfully into other areas.
  7. Maybe I’m just a worn out old hippie pacifist.

1. The culture wars are unwinnable on the present terms. We may get a majority vote for the “right” side on this issue or that, but that will not end the war. There will be other battles. There will be guerilla warfare. There will be no peace, and there’s only a minimal chance for the “Right” to win. Not until the Right’s own culture changes.

Changing culture is the work I’m about now – feeling my way rather than barreling ahead. That’s much subtler work than culture war. I’m not sure how good I am at it. But I’m convinced, to take just one Culture War example, that we won’t stop abortion until we change the toxic combination of unchastity and avarice that gets women pregnant and then justifies aborting the innocent child to maintain prosperity (greater or lesser).

The Right is not with us on that. Fox Radio recently aired an ad, between Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly, for an online service for married men seeking adulterous affairs. (I didn’t hear it, but read about it from someone who didn’t note the incongruity of this appearing on a putatively conservative news source.)

Whaddya think? I’m betting that the ad wasn’t there for the 13 liberals who were eavesdropping on Fox that day, but for the red-meat, red state regulars.

TownHall.com syndicated columnist pages every day have ads for “conservative” slogan t-shirts draped on attractive young lasses, selling conservative politics, like everything else, with sex. Today there’s a sexy avatar for some video game, too. It’s all a racket.

This could as well go under the caption “I don’t really trust my former allies.” But on present terms I think the idiocy of modern pseudo-conservatives belongs in this “unwinnable” category, if only because their position on the sexual side of the culture wars seems to be “anything goes, so long as it’s not gay.” That’s a losing position long-term as well as being a sign of untrustworthiness.

2. The Culture Wars are unwinnable on present terms partly because stridency and contempt beget stridency, contempt and alienation.

Whichever side of the Culture Wars you’re on, think about the fundraising letters you get. Are you edified by their tone? Do you appreciate the sober, educational emphasis? Do you find yourself walking away with something of substance to ruminate on?

If so, I’ve got bad news for you: you’re an idiot. (Shall I write that slower? You. Are. An. Idiot.)

The groups who used to send me fairly sober letters have gone strident. The groups that used to send me strident letters are now frothing at the mouth. And I’m sure the other side is doing the same. Shrill is the new green.

I don’t care who fired the first volley. That’s lost in the mists of history like the instigation of the Hatfields versus the McCoys. I’d like the shooting to stop. I’d like artificial divisions to end. I suspect there’s more common ground than either side presently will admit because of how things have been framed. Let’s tone it down a bit and then explore what the real divisions are. The more we insult the other side, the more we paint both sides into corners from which dialog, let alone truce, is impossible.

[Update: We now teeter on the brink of civil war. I had no idea it would get so bad so fast. I commend Better Angels]

3. The culture wars are unwinnable on the present terms, too, because there’s darned little difference between the two sides on some of the deep presuppositions.

They’re both, ironically, secular. One side is secular because they don’t believe in any divine rules. You know which side I’m talking about. (Hint)

The other side – my side – is mostly secular because they functionally believe that God’s only presence in the world is His rules. They “honor” Him by keeping his rules – sort of the way a rank amateur “paints” by number. That’s why I don’t really trust them. The tranformative significance of the Incarnation: God the Son, Who took on our flesh forever – qui sedes ad dexteram patrem (who sits at the right hand of the Father) in resurrected human flesh – is lost on them. God is up to something more than commandment monitoring and forgiving transgression of the commandments. The incarnation changes everything. [Update: The seeds in this paragraph have grown into my episodic forays into the realism/nominalism distinction and explicit scorn for sub-Christian anthropology.]

“Love God and do as you will” would strike them as modern relativism. They’re very anti-relativist. Except on Ecclesiology. Then they’re apt to utter Babbitry like “Isn’t it swell that there’s a church for every taste!

At the other end from the relativist “conservatives,” there’s a Protestant Church in my home town that produces a disproportionate share of Religious Right activists. Several of them have been elected to public office. But they’re theonomists, or more specifically Reconstructionists. If they had their way, there would be 18 Old Testament Capital Crimes in our law books – including sassing parents. They’d shut down my Church and desecrate its icons. They might, for all I know, execute me for one of those 18 capital offenses for the icons in my home prayer corner. [Update: One of their ideologues brought disgrace upon himself and his wife via their religious “covenant” without a marriage license. I must spare you details of the breakup.]

“And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of …” the folks I encountered who dreamed of kingdoms, feigned righteousness, broke promises, shot off their mouths, tried to set fires, escaped the edge of euphemisms …. (Cf. Hebrews 11:32-34) These are the folks with whom I’d be a “co-belligerent” (Francis Schaeffer’s coinage to distinguish temporary and unreliable political friends from reliable “allies”) were I to continue in the culture wars. And they outnumber many-fold any well-formed Christians of historical and liturgical bent.

We Orthodox have been here before. After the attempted union with the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Florence (see also here), the Orthodox decided they’d risk rule by Sultan over rule by Pope.

That is not a throw-away line: I’m not so sure a secularist regime would be worse than what Christian Reconstructionists would bring upon me and my fellow Orthodox Christians that I’m willing to be bedfellows with Recontructionists.

4. In the current terms of the Culture War, the highest form of involvement, other than sending money in response to strident or frenzied letters, is to vote for Republicans. Any Republican.

In 2000 and 2004, it was Dubya. He was, we were told, a good Evangelical Christian. He cited Jesus as his favorite philosopher. He talked about America walking humbly in the foreign policy world.

Then 9-11 came, and he turned into a fierce Commander In Chief. And, oddly, Imam-In-Chief, as he assured us that “true Islam is a religion of peace.” (Well I’m glad he cleared that up!)

And then came, too, the second inaugural, when he declare as U.S. policy the eradication of tyranny from the world and the planting of democracy. If you don’t understand how delusional that is, read it again: eradicating tyranny from the world. As national policy.

Many Religious Right figures in 2008 backed Mitt Romney, Mormon and heir of a 50s moderate Republican, George Romney. Mitt was, deep down, one of us – despite his left-leaning administration as governor of Massachusetts – they assured us. Now they’re pushing Sarah Palin, about whom I’ll not say much except that I do not now support her and see no sign that she has the goods to gain my support later. (I don’t even think she’s all that “hot,” for whatever that’s worth.)

I’m not gonna play Charlie Brown the placekicker to the GOP’s Lucy Van Pelt any more.

[Update: Do I really need to belabor how right I was?]

5. I still believe pretty much what I believed before on what makes for good living and a just society. I’ve even kept a hand in the debates by writing letters to the editor on a few hot-button issues. Those letters are far less demonizing of the opposition than the sort of letters I used to write. But I check the online comboxes and see that the other side has no lack of equally-but-oppositely mad partisans of its own, leveling vitriolic attacks on me, no matter how reasoned my argument, just because I reach conclusions they don’t like.

But even at more elite levels than smalltown cyberpaper comboxes, I’m still convinced that the other side is untrustworthy. One occasionally will catch one of them committing candor, as has Chai Felblum of Georgetown law school. Imagine a constitutional case with this issue:

Whether the inferred right to marry a member of the same sex, which is inferred from the right to engage in homosexual sodomy, which is inferred from the right to privacy, which is inferred from penumbra of he 4th, 9th, 10th, 14th and other consitutional amendments, is of sufficient constitutional gravity to warrant compromise of the explicit constitutional command against laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion?

Chai Feldblum would answer “yes.” I’m not making up her response (though I did make up the highly tendentious – but brutally accurate – faux issue statement). I appreciate her candor.

But her candor tells me that there’s no home for me in the left where Frank Schaeffer has seemingly pitched his tent.

The Orthodox Wedding service includes, for just one example, “grant unto these Your servants …a peaceful life, length of days, chastity, love for one another in a bond of peace, offspring long‑lived, fair fame by reason of their children, and a crown of glory that does not fade away.” You can’t pray that with integrity over a same-sex coupling, whatever you might think of it otherwise.

So while the Chai Feldblums of the world might not smash my icons like the Reconstructionists, they’ll soon enough take away my Church’s tax exemption, or otherwise put on the squeeze, because they’ll consider us a hate group for continuing the two-millennia-long practice of connecting marriage to procreation.

6. If I’m a prominent culture warrior, it will spill over harmfully into other areas of life. I was reminded Sunday how diverse my parish is. We have Romanians and Russians who were born, or even came of age, under communism. We have Greeks who think that 2nd Amendment mania is barbaric (in at least one case with justification that I can’t gainsay – a family member gunned down in cold blood by someone who went postal). We have young people and middle-aged academics who lean left. We have demographically unknown visitors most Sundays. I have something to learn from some of them.

Just as I don’t want someone to ask me “why are you here since you’re not Greek?,” I don’t want people of Right-leaning disposition to come up to me at Church and make some dismissive remark, which they assume I’ll find hilarious or profound, about a Left-leaning idea that may be held by another parishioner within earshot. I don’t want there to be ethnic, racial, socio-economic or political barriers to people. Political trash talk about trifles at Church is apt to drive people away though we have a faith in common and should be together on Sunday.

7. Maybe I should try a bit more empathy. Maybe I’m not angry because, unlike Frank Schaeffer, I have a day job, with a comfortable living, and don’t have to raise a fuss to sell my newest book. Maybe a brain or personality disorder prompted Franky to call Barack Obama’s election “miraculous” and to prophesy epochal political healing on Obama’s watch.

Maybe Frank’s suburban Boston parish (I think he’s in Brookline, Michael Dukakis‘ hometown) has a leftist litmus test and he caved in. Or maybe he’s rebelling against his upbringing in neutral Switzerland as I declare myself a Swiss-like neutral in the Culture Wars.

Or maybe I’m not angry, by and large, because I’m a child of the 60s, a former Conscientious Objector to conventional war, and now old enough that I’m kind of tired of fighting of all sorts – worn out, if you will. Maybe we really need young, testosterone-crazed Christian guys (and gals crazed by whatever crazes women) who still are eager for a fight. I see my role as one to ask questions of any such young hotheads from the perspective six decades gives. Such as the ones implied by what I’ve just written.

[Note: The rest of this is dated or refers to a blog template I no longer use.] So who am I hangin’ out with these days if not with the Alliance Defense Fund and the acolytes of R.J. Rushdoony? Check the bloglinks to the right – Especially Front Porch Republic (“Place. Limits. Liberty.”), Distributist Review  (guardedly). Small Is Beautiful has taken on new meaning for me. (My benighted generation got a few things right before we sold out or got complacent – and appreciating E.F. Schumaker was one of them).

I can’t even rule out Father Stephen. Nothing he writes is “about politics,” but everything he writes is about sane, human and humane living, which surely connects up somehow.

Basically, I’m going back and rethinking all things political and cultural. I’m wisdom-hunting. I read Wendell Berry essays and poetry, Bill Kauffman books, Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, Scott Cairns’ Poetry, W.H. Auden (“For the Time Being” is now on my list for every Advent).

My conversion to Orthodox Christianity started it in a way. I soon realized that the Church has not always prevailed, and has produced martyrs in every century. And that’s okay. Better we should lose honorably than win by selling our souls.

* * * * *

I heartily recommend the Dreher blog I opened with as a complement to this.

Jesus, loser

I think Christian Smith pretty well described Moralistic Therapeutic Deism when he coined the term, but Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s definition is now my favorite:

The function of Church in society is to keep spiritually healthy and morally upright those who are pursuing the American Dream.

But according to Luke, the Gospel is to leave all things and embrace the cross daily.

Could anything be more opposed to the cross of Christ than a life dedicated to the quest for personal prosperity? … What Jesus warns this man about is a life in which he loves God with his whole heart, loves his neighbor as himself, and goes about making as much money as he can … Wealth itself so easily becomes idolatrous.

If wealth is the mark of success, then think about it: Who are the failures? Who are the “losers”? …

Can any philosophy be more at odds with the cross of Christ than the [social Darwinist] survival of the fittest? The cross is the absolute answer to Darwin, just as the absolute answer to Nietszche and the will to power. The cross stands against all of that.

The basic floor of the cross of Calvary is that Jesus did not survive. He died as a poor man who had nothing to show for his life. He left no bank account. He was a loser. As he died, he was obliged to leave the care of his widowed mother to another poor man. By every standard recognized in the money market, Jesus was a failure. A poor man who died a poor man.

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I also blog short items at Micro.blog.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Fr. Stephen snippets

A Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ

My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: “He who believes in me shall live and never see death.” If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

From the Morning Prayers

I hear the heart’s cry in the prayer quoted above. The depth of its honesty provokes the hearts of those who read it. It recognizes the truth of our will and echoes St. Paul’s observations:

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-21; 24)

There is, I think, an abiding temptation towards Pelagianism (the belief that we can will our own salvation). In Orthodoxy, the teaching of “synergy” often runs in that direction. We indeed “cooperate” with God in our salvation (“cooperate” is the Latinized equivalent of “synergy”). But our cooperation is best illustrated in the prayer above. It is the cry for help from the lips of the helpless. This is not nothing – it is synergistic. But it is not the imagined synergy that some profess. We are saved by our weakness, not by our excellence.

(May 2, 2018)

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

[A]ll of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense.

(May 4, 2018)

Could a liturgy be served without vestments? Of course, though a priest would, even in extreme circumstances, try to cobble something together. The vestments themselves are not mere decorations. Can a liturgy be served without icons? Of course, though it would be wrong to do so unless under extreme duress. There was once a liturgy celebrated in the confines of the prison of Pitesti in Romania. The canons require that the liturgy be celebrated in the presence of a martyr’s relic (all altars have such a relic). It was decided to celebrate the service on the body of a deceased prisoner, the only martyr present. Such things are not extraneous. The liturgy should not be subjected to reductionism.

The givenness of the liturgy, in all its aspects, is a proper subject of theoria – contemplation and understanding. It is a mystery that yields itself to the heart. It is not, however, one more cultural artifact to be manipulated in the interests of consumer capitalism and its deformation of humanity. We are fast losing the memory of who and what we are. It is the confusion of Babel.

(May 11, 2018)

Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and gave sight to the blind. Such actions are incorrectly described as the “relief of suffering.” In many other cases Jesus specifically asks people to suffer: give away your possessions; forgive your enemies; take up your Cross; turn the other cheek; give without expecting in return. Again, there is no authentic Christian voice that does not demand suffering on the part of its adherents.

More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment. It is this reality that modernity, in its truncated account of existence, fails to understand or to describe. The most popular ethic within the modern world entails the relief of suffering. In the name of that ethic, people are put to death. It cannot ask us to suffer without guilt. But if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human.

To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.

(May 15, 2018)

I have seen, more than once, the favorable outcome of a soul whose deepest hunger has, in an unguarded moment, been exposed to the light of the gospel. I know the case of a woman who found God when a priest called her by name unexpectedly. Just her name. The mercy of God is wonderfully opportunistic. I have often thought, “Give Him an inch and He’ll take your life!”

(May 19, 2018)

As I finished up, deciding what “categories” to assign to today’s blog, the quote “Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being” struck me as an instance of nominalism versus realism, so I applied that category. One characteristic tendency of nominalism was to see sin as sinful because it transgressed an essentially arbitrary divine decree. The consequence of sin was not non-being (spiritual death), but punishment by God. In this sense, the Orthodox understanding of sin is realist rather than nominalist.

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

(Philip K. Dick)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Fr. Stephen snippets

It is … difficult for those in the middle-class to understand the reason Christ would have pointed to the poor (with their seeming lack of virtue) so approvingly. Why should the entrance into the Kingdom be easier for them? The question has certainly dogged me for many years. My conclusion is fairly straightforward: their virtue is their lack of virtue.

My mind goes to the speech of the drunkard, Marmeladov, in Crime and Punishment. He is a sad character whose daughter has been driven into prostitution to support the family that his alcoholic addiction has failed. He describes his vision of the end of the world, and declares that he knows that Christ will forgive his daughter’s sins. He adds:

And He [Christ] will judge and forgive all, the good and the wicked, the wise and the humble … And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, ‘You, too, come forth!’ He will say. ‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!’ And the wise and the reasonable will say unto Him, ‘Lord, why do you receive such as these?’ And He will say, ‘I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this thing …’ And He will stretch out His arms to us, and we will fall at His feet … and weep … and understand everything!

There are echoes in his speech of the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom read in every parish across the world on the night of Pascha.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, echoed in Chrysostom’s homily, it is the older brother, the well-behaved and faithful son, who refuses to come to the feast. He thought his brother unworthy.

(Can the Middle-Class Be Saved?, 3/29/18)

The Church’s liturgical actions are never memorials. They are a mystical participation in the ever-present reality of the events that they celebrate. In Holy Week, we are raised with Lazarus. We greet Christ with palms. We endure the cleansing of the Temple. With the Harlot, we bathe His feet with our tears. We partake of His Body and Blood. We betray Him and deny Him. We judge Him and condemn Him. In Him we are also betrayed and denied, judged and condemned. With Him we are mocked and scourged. We crucify Him and are crucified with Him. With the thief we find paradise in a single moment. We grieve with Mary and John and bury Christ’s most pure body alongside Joseph of Arimathea. We bury Him and are buried with Him. We descend into Hades and take our place with Adam and all those who through the ages have been imprisoned in death. We are raised from the dead with Christ as He takes captivity captive.

All of this is participation and coinherence ….

(The Mystery of Holy Week and Pascha, 4/2/18)

Reasoning is … something we largely do “after the fact.” Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart. It is a symptom of something else and we do one another a deep injustice when we reduce faith and unbelief to something they are not.

I believe that the death and resurrection of Christ are utterly universal in their reality. They are not isolated events, significant only within the Christian belief system. I believe they are the singular moments within space and time (and outside space and time) that reveal the truth of all things, of all people, and of the heart and nature of the God who created all things and sustains them. I believe this is true whether I or anyone else believes it. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most fundamental and foundational facts of reality.

I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

When we stand before the Cross of Christ, or kneel before it and honor it, we honor as well everything that is contained within it. We honor the unbelief of atheists, the anger and bitterness of the wounded, the shame of those who dare not look at themselves. For Christ has not distanced Himself from such things. The Cross is God’s single point of ingathering, where “all things are gathered together into one in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10). Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness. The Cross is not a stranger to cruelty or every form of mockery and perverted delight. All such things were and are present in that single moment.

(Unbelief and Good Friday, 4/5/18)

The secular historicization of the faith has distorted Christian believing. We treat the death and resurrection of Christ as past events and imagine that our accepting them as historically true is the nature of faith. But they are not merely historical in the secular sense. They are present and real now. As the beginning and the end, they are also always present. By historicizing them, we dismiss them and relegate them to the collection of historical “facts” (things done). They are rather present tense “facientes” (“things being done”). Our present tense actions, done in union with that present tense reality, alone constitute faith. We do not live in the past or because of the past. We live only in and by the death and resurrection of Christ. Because of these things, the commandments of Christ not only make sense, they alone constitute a sane course of behavior.

Christ says:

…If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (Jn. 8:31-32 )

The truth of Christ’s word, His commandments, is only revealed as we abide in them (keep them). When that truth is known, then we will then (and only then) see the freedom that is ours in Him. We are not the creatures of history, but of Christ.

(Bookends and the Resurrection, 4/12/18) This reflection also includes perspective on the interpretation of the creation narratives of Genesis.

When someone says that they “believe” in God, I’m not always sure what they mean. It is entirely possible (and even often the case) that they mean something quite different than what I would mean by the same statement. There is the acceptance of God as a theoretical construct, a mental assent, even a trusting mental assent to the existence of a higher being who loves, creates and provides for creation. That trusting assent may have a significant amount of content: the “God of the Bible,” or the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. In many cases (even most), however, trusting assent to the existence of such a God does not alter the shape or nature of creation itself: it remains the same neutral, secular world. This is the situation I have described as a “two-storey universe.”

[T]he content of the “superior being” in the two-storey universe is relatively beside the point. Such a God, regardless of content, is not the God and Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ: it is a lightly Christianized version of the ancient sky gods. And in the cultural perception of modern, secularized nature, it is an endangered species. Few attacks on the Christian faith sound as silly as those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Their inaccuracies and caricatures are rivaled only by the rants of the adherents whose god they despise.

But Christians would do well to listen to their critique – for the god they don’t believe in was taught them by someone or the culture at large. To say, “I believe in the god described by Dawkins, only my reasons are very good,” is actually inadequate. What Dawkins, Hitchens and company reveal is an obstacle to faith. If the universe itself is the one they perceive – if it is truly inert, self-existing, self-referential and spiritually neutral, then the case against the God taught and made known in Jesus Christ is strong indeed. Positing a sky-god above and outside such a world is perhaps interesting, but it is not persuasive and, more to the point, not Christianity ….

(Obstacles to Faith in the Modern World, 4/14/18)

Among the dark little corners of the Orthodox world, particularly in its ethnic homelands, is a left-over trace of witchcraft (I don’t know what else to call it). It consists of a collection of superstitions, often mixed with semi-Orthodox notions. There are concerns about the “evil-eye,” “curses,” “spells,” and such. These things are “left-overs” in that they likely predate Christianity, having never disappeared from Europe’s earlier pagan past. These are not practices associated with dark powers, but simply folk practices rooted in bad theology.

It’s not just the Orthodox. My ancestors, Scots-Irish (certainly with a Protestant pedigree) were no stranger to such things. My mother’s mother was said to be able to “talk fire out of a burn,” and to “stop blood.” I was told that these little practices were based in the Scriptures, but they had a slightly occult feel about them. My great-grandfather could “remove warts” in the same manner. The hills here in Appalachia are home to many such things.

There are, however, more popular, modern versions of all this, cleaned up and mainstreamed. Much of it goes under the heading of “positive thought” and “successful living.” All of it is about exercising power over the world around us. It is contrary to the Christian faith ….

(The Power in Thought — It’s Not What You Think, 4/16/18)

[T]he narrative that is the story of modernity is fictional. It’s power and strength come from repetition. Modernity did not end war; human suffering has changed but not disappeared; prosperity has come to some but very unevenly; democracy has created universal suffrage to little or no effect; human dignity is a popular slogan, but largely without content. Has the world truly left behind superstition and ignorance in an ageless march towards a consumer paradise?

Modernity is only a story: it is a narrative disguised as history. The emptiness and pointlessness of the modern narrative begs for questions. I suspect it’s why our hearts ache from time to time and dream of Hobbits. The narrative of Middle Earth, though fictional, has a transcendent meaning and purpose, something that calls for the deepest courage and makes every sacrifice to be significant. That Mordor and Isengard both embody elements of the industrial revolution, endangering even the Shire, are not accidental. They intentionally represent the flaws of modernity. Tolkien’s mythology imagines that such forces can be defeated.

In Tolkien’s world, the characters of Sauron and Saruman make it easy to discern the dark and evil hand behind the engines of change. The diffuse and hidden character of modern powers, masked by the institutions that claim legitimacy, presents only the face of propaganda, the relentless cry of freedom, human liberation and prosperity. There is no spiritual center. Modernity offers freedom for an unknown purpose, liberation for the latest popular cause and a prosperity whose banality mocks the public welfare. The very same mantra has also given the world weapons of mass destruction and placed them in the hands of madmen (including our own). War has become a ceaseless business unlike anything in human history.

The most insidious part of the modern world order is its claim to normalcy …

The genius of Tolkien’s Shire was its ability to live as though the larger world need not trouble their way of life …

The technological consumerism of modernity is not the stuff of paradise, even though it advertises itself as such. The Shire is much closer to a proper ideal. Life is not made for managing but for living. It is this tender reality that whispers to the hearts of modern folk when they pick up Tolkien. It is not a demand that there be no technology, but that the spiritual center of the world be restored. We do not need to become Hobbits. We do need, however, to return to being human.

(Do You Ever Think About Being a Hobbit? 4/24/18)

* * * * *

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.

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.

“Must-run” commentary

Earlier today, all over the world, leaders accustomed to writing their own materials stood in front of their followers and instead read a “must run” passed down to them by their bosses.

No, they were not reluctant newscasters in Sinclair-owned stations foisting off on locals, who had come to trust them for honest journalism, some deeply disingenuous corporate opinion as if it were their own.

They were Priests in the Orthodox Churches of the world, reading some “old news” known as the Paschal Oration of St. John Chrysostom, the 4th-century Patriarch of Constantinople. The bosses are Bishops and the Holy Tradition of the Church:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

Christ is Risen! Somehow that old news is fresh each year.

Indeed He is risen!

Jordan Peterson again

This link was sent from an old teacher, now friend. I’ve modifed it to start with the “red meat” of Peterson’s religious stance. Prepare to be engrossed for maybe 27 minutes.

I don’t know whether Peterson gives an answer or just dances around the subject brilliantly. My friend and I seem to have differing interpretations.

Although I won’t try to distill Peterson’s position, I find this far saner to contemplate than “privilege checks” or insane intersectional tweets from feticidal maniacs.

* * * * *

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.