Perverse rejoicing

With a provenance like the Wall Street Journal’s “Houses of Worship” opinion series and a title like Thank God, American Churches Are Dying, you’d be justified in expecting a mix of self-conscious perversity and unhealthy, un-reflective antecedent bias.

You’d be right.

It’s true that denomination-based churches—Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic—have been on a downward slope for years. But nondenominational evangelical churches are growing in number, from 54,000 in 1998 to 84,000 in 2012 …

Fresh churches replacing and created from old ones, armed with modern ideas to attract and tend to a new generation of believers …

… The leaders … generally focus on creating churches that cater to specific needs. There is a church exclusively for employees of Disney World. Spanish-language services are more popular than ever. “House churches,” composed of neighbors meeting for informal services—usually in living rooms—are on the rise as well. Popular Christian leaders like Francis Chan, a former megachurch pastor who now advocates house churches, offer free training for this model.

Those with denominational affinity will be sad to see a certain kind of church fall away. But the success of new models shows significant groups of people looking for ways to live faithfully, albeit in a less structured way. Could this really signify a religious awakening?

Ericka Andersen.

Wow:

  • “Nondenominational evangelical[s]” (but she repeat herself)
  • “armed with modern ideas” and
  • “cater[ing] to specific needs;”even
  • a church that excludes you based on who employs you.

Yet the cockles of my heart remain ice-cold. I must be some kind of monster. All I can think of is the one holy catholic and apostolic church, and the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints without any license to pander, negotiate over it, or erect barriers around it.

I will not deny a certain je ne sais pas, a certain frisson, at the closure of some churches. And God works in mysterious ways, about which circuitousness I can be awfully dense.

But if this is truly God’s work, it surely is to use these curated, Disneyfied simulacra to prepare postmoderns for the real thing.*

I fear, though, that it’s not God’s work at all. There’s another who sometimes appears as an angel of light, and who does his best work these days with counterfeits more than with frank apostasy.

(* The article’s reference to “House Churches” doesn’t trigger quite so strong a gag reflex. Those might prove to be Benedict-Option necessity in coming darkness here, as they have elsewhere in the world.)

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Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

(Jude 3)

I appreciate Donald Trump’s judicial appointments and a few other things he has done, but I’m utterly opposed to allowing that hateful, unstable and completely self-serving man to serve as President. Maybe by saying it here, I’ll feel less compelled to fault his multiple daily outrages — mere corroboration of his dark soul and tormented mind — in the body of the blog.

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Anecdotes and trends

One man in my parish is very frugal and doesn’t even own a car. He usually gets a ride to our rural church from someone else in the parish. But a few weeks ago, he had to hire a Lyft, and the driver, a Sikh man, asked if he could come in.

He ended up staying for the whole service and coffee hour, taking videos with his smartphone, and was welcomed warmly (there was even a staged photo of him with Father Gregory and another man in the parish with a notable beard).

A few years ago, a Texan Purdue student, from a Hindu family, completed a long catechumenate and was received into the Orthodox Church. Tomorrow, we receive a heavily-tattooed military veteran, formerly in one of the Arminian Christian traditions. A Protestant pastor is a respectful inquirer, and several Roman Catholics are in the catechumenate. Our founding Priest was Episcopalian, our current Priest Lutheran. I was Calvinist. One of my Godsons was Church of Christ, a Goddaughter raised without religion. Converts in our parish probably outnumber “cradle Orthodox,” though some of the converts have many “cradle Orthodox” children that I may be mistakenly thinking of as themselves converts.

[M]ore than every before, people are searching for the One True Church of Christ – they are searching for Orthodoxy.

Roman Catholics are aghast at the Amazonian Synod, the constant vague and confusing statements coming from Rome, and the consistent degeneration of their spirituality. They’re realizing that there is something serious has gone mission, and they know that there is more.

Protestant Christians are tired of the happy, clappy/seeker-friendly service which offers a spiritual experience a mile wide, an inch deep, and is often loaded with gnostic beliefs. They’re realizing that something is wrong, something is missing, and that there is something more.

Non-Christians in these latter days are turning from the world, desperate to find some beacon of Truth in a dystopian society. Many muslims, buddhists, and hindus are finding Christ. They’re having a spiritual awakening. They KNOW something is wrong. They want to fix it themselves, but they don’t know what it takes.

Father John at Journey to Orthodoxy. Need I add that this rings true?

It is also sadly true that some leave the Orthodox faith. That baffles me, but life is hard — harder for some than others — and people struggle with burdens they cannot (or do not) articulate.  But the trend seems to the contrary.

If any of Father John’s descriptions fit you, we’d love to see you.

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The Lord is King, be the peoples never so impatient; He that sitteth upon the Cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet.

(Psalm 98:1, Adapted from the Miles Coverdale Translation, from A Psalter for Prayer)

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Subliminal religion in politics

“Chase religious ideas out one door and they inevitably come in another — because the human mind naturally rebels against a worldview as incomplete, as manifestly threadbare, as pure materialism.” Ross Douthat

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I used to say “I’m not religious. I’m a Christian,” which was not entirely misleading about Evangelicalism: Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal once referred to Evangelicalism, in its doctrinal diversity if not chaos, as orthopathos, “right feeling,” rather than orthodoxy, “right belief.”

I am fortunate that I was kidding myself about the “not religious” part, and that the truth finally manifested itself. With my religion now being capital-O Orthodox Christianity, I have no hesitation calling myself “religious” (and for today, at least, I have no interest in quibbling over the etymology of the word).

I still casually follow doings in the Evangelical and Calvinist Christian traditions, but even someone who is “interested in religion” as well as “religious” cannot keep up with every tradition other than his own. Part of what I can’t keep up with is the menagerie of people today who earnestly deny being religious (my old denial was playful) while clearly toying with ideas that do not enjoy a Neil deGrasse Tyson Seal of Approval.®

So I was grateful for today’s Ross Douthat column on The Meaning of Marianne Williamson, which was extremely stimulating for anyone who acknowledges that religion is both consequential and ubiquitous. He helped me place Williamson, heretofore only very vaguely known to me, in a religious neighborhood to which I’ve at least paid a little attention in the past.

Douthat’s point is not that Williamson is a serious contender for the Democrat nomination or election in 2020 (though she might be a forerunner in something of the way Pat Buchanan foreshadowed our Very Stable Genius). I would have been a very hard sell on that, as are the pollsters so far.

Rather, I’d call Douthat’s perspective “meta,” in the the sense that he uses Williamson partly as a springboard into the sometimes conflicted psyches of people who fancy themselves staunch adherents of reason and science, and specifically the possible development of a “Religious Left.”

An appetizer:

A recurring question in American politics since the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition has been “where is the religious left?” One possible version has been hiding in plain sight since the 1970s, in the form of Williamson’s style of mysticism, the revivalism of the Oprah circuit, the soul craft of the wellness movement, the pantheistic-gnostic-occultish territory at the edges of American Christianity’s fraying map. We don’t necessarily see it as a “left” only because it has acted indirectly on politics, reshaping liberalism and the wider culture from within and below, rather than acting through mass movements and political campaigns.

Certainly in the eternal pundit’s quest to figure out what a “Donald Trump of the left” would look like, a figure like Williamson is an interesting contender. If Trumpism spoke to an underground, often-conspiratorial populism unacknowledged by the official G.O.P., Williamson speaks to a low-on-data, long-on-feelings spirit that simmers just below the We Are on the Side of Science and Reason surface of the contemporary liberal project.

It’s not a coincidence, against this background, that some of the refugees from contemporary progressivism who form the so-called Intellectual Dark Web or publish in journals like Quillette have commonalities with the Bush-era new atheists who once bashed right-wingers for their religiosity — or indeed are Bush-era new atheists, in the case of Sam Harris, born again as an I.D.W. eminence and scourge of the progressive left. In this trajectory you can see one potential arc for proudly secular liberals, if the left’s future belongs to woke covens and progressive pantheism …

… but then it’s also not a coincidence that perhaps the most popular of the Intellectual Dark Webbers, Jordan Peterson, talks about Enlightenment values in one breath while offering Jungian wisdom and invoking biblical archetypes in the next. Chase religious ideas out one door and they inevitably come in another — because the human mind naturally rebels against a worldview as incomplete, as manifestly threadbare, as pure materialism.

It would take the entire course in miracles to put Williamson in the White House, but she’s right about one big thing: There’s more to heaven and earth, and even to national politics, than is dreamed of in the liberal technocrat’s philosophy.

At this level of abstraction and speculation, other approaches probably are plausible, but by all means read Douthat all if his approach intrigues you. I think you’ll find it rewarding.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

An anniversary and a testimonial

Today is the 52nd anniversary of my high school graduation.

It might sound odd to remember that, but high school was formative for me because, almost impetuously, my parents and I agreed that I should go to a Christian (specifically Evangelical) boarding school. So off I went at age 14 (specifically, Labor Day 1963) to forge a life somewhat separate from my parents — an experience most of my contemporaries postponed for another four years. By that point in my life, living in dormitories was “old hat,” college “same old, same old.”

I should qualify the preceding paragraph by noting that only 40% of my school was boarding students. The other 60% was commuters from the nearby Evangelical Jerusalem: Wheaton, Illinois. I suspect that Wheaton Academy itself was “old hat” for my commuter classmates, many of whom had attended Wheaton Christian Grammar School, whereas I had attended public schools to that point in my life (with my parents requesting some exemptions to let me observe Evangelical taboos about, say, dancing — public schools were not yet required to teach fornication).

We Evangelicals, of course, were very focused on the Scriptures (which we received from the historic Church pretty much unacknowledged) because they, in theory, were our final authority. But those Scriptures are many (66 by Evangelical count, more than that historically) and varied. The inability to fully harmonize them, or to credibly discern the science of cosmic creation therein, leads some Evangelicals to the shipwreck of faith.

There is a different and much more historic way to approach Scripture, and it always amuses me when the New Atheists and their ilk presume that the Evangelical (shared closely with Fundamentalists) approach is the exclusively correct one — before using it to rip such Christian faith to shreds — a presumption betraying an ignorance so profound that they really should just shut up.

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As I write, early in the morning, I’m still re-orienting from a very intense weekend wherein my Orthodox Christian parish Church was consecrated by our Bishop with the assistance of multiple priests and with me leading the singing of unfamiliar hymns proper to a consecration. My Christian pilgrimage has taken me there, deep into the historic roots of Christianity and thus a long way from Evangelicalism, for Evangelicalism is rooted mostly in the frontier revivalist vein of the Second Great Awakening of some 200 years ago.

Over my intense weekend, I made the acquaintance of a professional who joined his son, a recent Purdue graduate who was active in our parish, for the consecration and following Liturgy and banquet. His professional specialty is the same as one of my Wheaton Academy classmates, whose practice has grown large and, by what reputation I knew, very prominent.

I asked our guest if he knew of it, and it turned out he knew it, thought very highly of it, and almost joined it after interviewing with my classmate, his son and his daughter-in-law, all professionals in that field. He confirmed the practice’s excellence, and confirmed my impression that my classmate is still “very tightly wound” (my characterization) — adding some praise of the family’s Evangelical and charitable involvement as well, for it sounds as if the large practice is still owned and controlled largely or entirely by my classmate’s family and presumably has yielded considerable wealth.

Such thoughts of my classmate, and of my different Christian path, brought back to mind our different “life verses” (an ironically extrabiblical bit of Evangelical youth piety). Any time I say “life verse” from now on, you may gloss it as “important Bible verses favored by or associated with this person.”

My classmate’s life verse at the time seemed to be II Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That always seemed to me (though I don’t know my classmate’s mind) like the outward-looking verse of a doer, and my classmate has done a lot — enough that I felt like a slacker in comparison until I went back to school at age 30 for some graduate work of my own. He himself uttered that verse as a life verse (or close to it); the association isn’t my projection.

I’m pretty sure I never declared any “life verse,” but I believe I wrote by my signature in schoolmates’ yearbooks “Ephesians 3:17-19” which reads (in the King James Version):

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.

That always seemed to be to contrast with my classmate’s verse — in my favor, of course, or I could have changed.

I was also quite taken by Hebrews 5:12 – 6:3:

For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit.

This puzzled and challenged me, as “laying again (and again, and again, and again) the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God” seemed rather the whole point of our revivalist (remember: Second Great Awakening) “altar calls,” and I thought “the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” were very deep — meaty, not milky.

Finally, although it may (though I think not) have first obsessed me somewhat later than high school, Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” What makes me think it may have grabbed me later than high school is that I pretty much translated that to “thinking Christianly” (which “mind” justifies better than does the untranslatable Greek nous), and I think that “translation” came in college or even a bit later still.

All three of my passages/”life verses” seem to me introspective, or at least relatively so — “figuring stuff out” more than “doing,” and sinking roots more than (to use the modern barbarianism) “moving fast and breaking things.”

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I don’t know if the best way to characterize our different verses, mine and my classmates, is as acorns, as in “mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.” That metaphor seems like the idea that encouraged us Evangelical lads and lasses, very wet behind the ears, presumptuously to grasp the nettle by picking a life verse anyway.

I tend to think a better organic metaphor is “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” or even Immanuel Kant‘s “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

Scriptures are many and varied. There’s no scriptural reason why one should be guided primarily by II Timothy 1, another by Ephesians 3, Romans 12, and Hebrews 5 and 6. I suspect we latch onto verses because of how our twigs were bent by our DNA, our upbringing and such — even our our gut flora, as science seems to be finding. But I don’t think relativisticly that Evangelicalism is the “right” Christian tradition for my classmate, Orthodoxy for me, because of such things.

I believe there is a deeper human nature to which Orthodoxy responds fully and of which Evangelicalism at its rare best only dreams of. Orthodox Christianity is what I was dreaming of unawares as I dreamed of  being rooted and grounded in love, filled with all the fullness of God, going onto perfection, renewing my nous.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Evangelical and anti-semitic

I learned from George Yancey Tuesday or Wednesday that the murderer at the Chabad of Poway synagogue was the exception that tests the rule: a Church-going Evangelical who commits an ideology-driven crime.

For decades, the commentariat has blamed conservative Christians for heinous crimes, routinely getting way out over their skis on it but never paying a price when it turns out the criminals weren’t regular church-goers, whatever they might have adopted as a religious label.

Still, even a blind pig sometimes finds truffles, and a broken clock is right twice per day. 19-year-old John Earnest was a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC — not to be confused with the Orthodox Church), his father was an elder and he was well-catechized, as Julie Zaumer reports, at greater length than Yancey, in the Washington Post.

Yet Earnest picked up anti-semitic ideology that managed to co-exist with his Christian beliefs.

I’m passingly familiar with the OPC, and can vouch that anti-semitism is not inculcated there, although philo-semitism isn’t as obligatory there as in the different sort of Evangelicalism in which I sojourned from age 14 through my late 20s (through parental inadvertence — our mutual Christian boarding school choice).

Zaumer does a very good job teasing out several such doctrinal niceties within Evangelicalism, as Washington Post “God Beat” reporters so often do (its Acts of Faith is a daily web stop for me). And there are tantalizingly-unexpected data, such as Earnest’s pastor being “the only African American pastor in the entire OPC denomination,” who gets accused of “Cultural Marxism” when he preaches anything about “social justice” (latter scare-quotes for symmetry).

But here I set up my soapbox.

Evangelicalism is not doctrinally homogenous. It has Churches where love of Jews is taught for the “thanks-but-no-thanks” reason that the modern nation-state of Israel is a sina qua non to an end-times script of lurid battles, a bizarre mass body-snatching by God (“the Rapture”) and such; you also have the OPC, its amillenial position being much closer to historic Christianity. What loosely binds them together as a movement is what Mars Hill Audio Journal‘s Ken Myers calls “orthopathos” (“right feeling”) or, if you want to get geeky about it, the Bebbington Quadrilateral.

A fortiori, and setting aside endless debates about who’s right and who’s wrong (spoiler alert: the Orthodox Church is right — and homogenous in Nicene dogma), Christianity is not homogenous.

Likewise, Islam is not homogenous. There’s Sunni, Shia, Suffi, and probably as many other flavors as there are Imams in the world. It is not homogenous, I submit, for the same reason Protestantism is not homogenous: disparate good- and bad-faith interpretations of a holy text held to be foundational.

If you want to say that John Earnest wasn’t a real Christian, or that his Christianity was tragically tinctured with toxic non-Christian (if not anti-Christian) ideologies, you must be prepared to respectfully entertain the same possibility about “Islamic terrorism.”

Having done so, you may conclude that Islam is more prone to terroristic ideology than Christianity, but I doubt that you could honestly and intelligently claim that Islam is uniformly terroristic, let alone the idiotic trope that it’s “not even a religion.”

I may overhear some of the internal Evangelical discussions about this incident, and can easily imagine revisiting it (the part before the soapbox, too). Already, I’ve seen Alan Jacobs link to this article.

INSTANT UPDATE: I apparently misread Zaumer. Rev. Mika Edmondson, the African-American OPC pastor, was not Earnest’s pastor, though he had preached recently at Earnest’s Chuch. The mistake was one of primacy in the story: the first pastor quoted and referred to as “pastor” and quoted as saying “radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church,” which I took to mean congregation rather than denomination.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

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.

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* 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.