The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.

Why Sex is Making us Morally Stupid

C.S. Lewis, writing on June 3, 1956 to a man who asked him about masturbation, offered the following striking and relevant advice:

For me the evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. [Emphasis in bold added]

Obsession with the sexual life is obsession, in the end, with the self—it is a pure expression of the incurvatus in se, what in George MacDonald’s thinking is “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” When my sexuality is the measure of my life and relationships, then I am also removing from influence those people who would challenge me into real mortification. I have elevated my flesh in such an idolatrous way that any call to the willed death of the body is viewed with horror and suspicion. But the deeper danger of such lust, according to Lewis, is what this process does to my imagination. If my job is to extend beyond the prison of myself, and if my faculty of imagination is one of the key areas of my mind given to my by God to accomplish this task, then imaginative activity which corrupts and retards this process is a profound danger.

Claustrophobic Man Sitting

When the pursuit of bodily pleasure dominates a life, that person’s intelligence becomes suspect, and in time inevitably crippled. I was struck by this clearly while recently reading through Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He writes that “an unchaste will to pleasure has the tendency to relate the entirety of the sensory world, especially sensual beauty, to only sexual lust.” The unrestrained desire for pleasure begins to work its way through the perceptions of the individual until the sexual appetite defines all other appetites. Lust becomes synonymous with pleasure. Pieper continues, “Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything, for its own sake.” The mind which is dominated by porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], by pleasure, sees in bodies only objects for consumption, sees in women only opportunities to express itself in lust. Pornography’s unique power is in its ability to render the irrational rational. The consumer of porn maps onto his or her mind not only a set of images, but a certain way of thinking, and those pathways are carried away from porn and applied in the rest of life. Lust in this way inevitably cripples moral knowledge.

Why should this be the case? Because the eyes are the organ that perceives beauty. When the eye is no longer searching for beauty itself, but seeking to map onto the world an expression and application of its own lust, then that lust in time warps perception of the good. What is best, and what is preferable, become enslaved to my personal desires. Pleasure makes subjectivists of us all. In turn, with beauty and good both soured, the capacity to apprehend truth is also corrupted. In this way, a man or woman who is led by his or her sexual desire is engaged in a process of dehumanization. After all, who would fail to agree that a crippled capacity for beauty is dehumanizing? He who suffers porneia to thrive in his life is being reduced to brutishness and eventual stupefaction.

Disintegration_Cyril Rana

Flickr: Photo by Cyril Rana

Lest you think this simply academic, this diminished capacity for moral knowledge has been on vivid display in churches which have chosen to affirm what is traditionally, and Scripturally, considered to be sexual deviance. The general convention of the Episcopal Church, after the US Supreme court ruled Gay Marriage to be the law of the land, immediately introduced new services and prayers to bless such unions. One such prayer, introduced at that time, is recorded by Robert Hart, writing in the March/April 2016 issue of Touchstone Magazine:

An Episcopal priest named Kimberly Jackson, of the Diocese of Atlanta, read a prayer to begin their version of communion: “Spirit of Life, we thank you for disordering our boundaries and releasing our desires as we prepare this feast of delight: draw us out of hidden places and centers of conformity to feel your laughter and live in your pleasure.”

God, then, conveniently affirms our choices and “releases our desires”—He gives us what our warped imaginations desire. The result, today, is not only that such unions are blessed, but churches have paved the path for openly gay clergy to rise to the highest ranks of church office. Moral corruption is pervasive, and the capacity to see such corruption is curtailed. It is doubtful that the Church has faced since the days of Arius a crisis of moral knowledge more serious than the one which confronts it now.

Church_on_fire_Credit_butterbits_via_Flickr_CC_BY_SA_20_CNA_8_3_15

Pieper concludes his argument about purity and vision with the following phrase, “only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty.” Purity of sight is a necessary precondition to the apprehension of beauty, and thus by proxy of both goodness and truth as well. And yet, in a very real way it is impossible for humans to achieve perfect purity of sight, if only because, as Jeremiah says, “the heart is deceitful above all else, and is desperately sick” (17:9). The wickedness which corrupts my capacity for beauty, goodness, and truth, is born from within me. From whence will we find help to resolve this dilemma? Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude come to mind—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity precedes the vision of God—but purity is impossible on my own. Therefore I must request help from outside myself. In this, I think Jesus has also spoken an irony—it is not only that the pure will see God, but those who set their gaze upon God who will be rendered pure. The solution is to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and beauty.

For too long we have allowed ourselves to imagine that there is a divide between our sexual purity and our capacity for moral intelligence, between our sexual conduct and our pursuit of knowledge. Silently, as we allow ongoing and unrestrained life to our lust, we are also strangling our awareness of the beautiful, the true, and the good. Only a sight that is reaffixed on the beauty and holiness of God will be able to rescue us from the horror and stupefaction of our own persistent and self-serving inward gaze. Only a renewed commitment to God as He is, and not God as we want Him to be, will rescue the Church from its frightening trajectory towards apostasy.

Some Reasons to Feel Depressed about Christian Publishing

Bob Ross, anyone?

Bob Ross, anyone?

I don’t intentionally read depressing literature. It’s not my thing. But sometimes I accidentally read something that leaves me depressed, like the other day when I came across an essay by Christian author Philip Yancey called “Farewell to the Golden Age.” Reading it left me glum in two different ways.

In the piece, published on Yancey’s blog, he laments the demise of the publishing industry, particularly as a way to make a living. Where once an aspiring author could reasonably consider submitting articles to magazines, writing a few books, and by means of cultivating this exposure generating some income, changes in the publishing world have made this nearly impossible. The “Golden Age” of publishing, where to be an author was a viable (if difficult) career choice, is over.

Yancey’s essay isn’t particularly novel, but as a seasoned author (and seasoned especially in the world of Christian publishing) his words carried some sobering weight. That this is depressing to me ought to be, I hope, self-evident. I am myself an aspiring Christian author, and yet the field from which I aspired to harvest is one that is increasingly unfruitful. What is more, an author like Yancey who has succeeded in that field is advising other authors to look elsewhere.

But the real nugget of depression is not the difficulty of success—the real, deeper reason is the feeling I have that I was born in the wrong era. Talk of the “Golden Age” makes me long for the Golden Age, to wish I had lived in that time and place where books and words meant more to people, to a time when journalism was a valuable commodity and books were precious. Of the many sins of this digital age, I lament the cheapening of literature perhaps most of all.

No comment.

No comment.

This cheapening is having a far more devastating effect than perhaps we have yet fully acknowledged. It is not news that publishing has seen radical changes in the past few years, but those changes are beginning to affect not only publishers, but also authors, and in fact literature itself. To state it simply, as paid authors become a rarity there will be a necessary reduction in the quality of authorship. Hire a cheap contractor and you will get cheap contracting. Film a movie on a B-grade budget and you will get a B-movie. The cost we are willing to pay for a service is commensurate with the value we get out of that service. There are, of course, exceptions—some B-grade budget movies turn out excellent, and some A-grade movies are terrible. But on the whole, you get what you pay for, and the reduction in monetary value of books is going to result in the loss of quality in literature. I lament the loss of the Golden Age because it is a loss that affects literature itself.

And yet, I don’t actually wish that I lived 60, or 90, or 200 years ago. Sometimes (like I’m sure many others do as well) I find myself wishing I lived in a different age, assuming that the problems of that age were somehow simpler and more manageable than those of my own age. This is, of course, a lie. In each age the problems presented were difficult and all-consuming. In each age Christians at the forefront were driven to re-defend the Christian faith in new and novel ways (or, rather, to re-state old truths in modern dialects). I think the reason we sometimes wish we could live in those other ages is precisely the fact that today we have a comprehensive grasp of their problems. If we were to live in those ages, knowing what we know now and thinking as we do at the moment, we’d be able to sail through those troubles with ease. But our easy sailing would be like cheating on the test. It was easy because we knew all the answers.

Quite a fascinating movie, actually.

Quite a fascinating movie, actually.

Not knowing the answers is part of the human experience. The sense of confusion we experience is the same sense of confusion which our progenitors also endured. Their greatness—the very fact that they created a “Golden Age” for us to envy—was in their faithfulness to what was true in the midst of those very difficulties. If we would be great in our own age, then we must strive to be similarly faithful.

For my part, when I consider the issues of this present world, I actually find myself eager to face them: the issues of authority, of relativism, of secularization, and of Christian anthropology have effectively re-set the world mindset. As I see things, we are once again in the midst of idolatrous Rome, striving to carve out a vision of genuine faith that will strengthen the Church and lend energy to mission. Our very crises are profound opportunities to advance the cause of the Gospel, and for this work I am eager.

But, alas, here we come to the second reason why Yancey’s essay left me glum, because in order for the Church to accomplish this revitalization of faith, she will be required to think. And in order to think, the Church will need to read quality literature—books, essays, journalism, and yes, perhaps even blog posts. And yet, I suspect that the greatest enemy to the bolstering of faith is the quick-fix attitude Christians take toward their spirituality. A three minute YouTube video may give you a rush, an inspirational quote may uplift you for a moment, a worship service or sermon may exalt you for an hour, but real, proven, valuable faith must grow through the effective cultivation of the Christian mind and heart. This will require attention, sustained thought, and perseverance. In particular, it will require us to read good books.

This brings me back to, well, me. I am eager to address what I perceive are the problems of this present age, but I am distressed by the difficulty of effectively advancing Christian thinking. How does one get people to think in an age of quick fixes? When the drug of choice is the high of video—and by proxy of the digital image—how do you cultivate a taste for the slower and more satisfying pleasure of reading? For people who have learned to skim for the sentences in bold, how do you teach them to read carefully with a pencil in hand, making notes in the margins? I don’t have the answers. For my part, I suppose the only thing I can do is to attempt to write well. That, and take my own advice: be faithful in the midst of these challenges.

Responding to the Shift in Evangelical Thought

Boston GlobeOn January 12, 2014, Ruth Graham, a classmate of mine from both high school and college, published a piece in The Boston Globe titled, “Can the evangelical church embrace gay couples?” The subtitle read, “A new wave of thinkers says yes — and is looking to Scripture for support.” (Click here to get to the piece—unfortunately, last I checked it had been moved behind a paywall.) In her piece Graham documents a change in the perceptions of American Evangelicals. After noting the traditional Scriptural position regarding homosexuality (that it is clearly proscribed), she moves to several interpreters who are working to alter this perception. Highlighting Matthew Vines—a homosexual who is openly attempting to change the church’s thinking about sexuality—Graham points to his efforts to remove unpleasant interpretations from Scripture. Possibly recognizing that Vines’s approach is too caustic for many Evangelicals, she turns next to James Brownson, a New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan. Brownson has written a book, published through Eerdmans, which argues Scripturally for a revision in Christian perceptions of gender. In short, he argues that the Bible’s focus is more on monogamy than on sexual orientation. Therefore, as long as homosexual relationships are committed (i.e., ‘marriage’), then Scripture-believing Evangelicals ought to have no issues embracing them as normative.

BrownsonGraham’s point is not to engage with Brownson and Vines, but rather to identify the shifting position of Evangelicalism. Vines is one example of the change—although self-identified as a conservative he is still somewhat threatening to the core group. Brownson, published through Eerdmans, is much closer to home. Graham takes this to imply that Evangelicalism is inevitably shifting toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. Graham cites further evidence as well, such as other figures within Evangelicalism arguing for change and Christian colleges and seminaries with LGBTQ student groups. Along with these changes, she cites the overall perception that a defining factor of Christianity is “anti-homosexual,” as well as rising awareness of friends and family who are gay. Graham’s concluding words are highly informative:

In the end, it may not be theology or psychology that changes the most evangelical minds. Human relationships have a way of doing what academic arguments cannot. James Brownson was what he calls a “moderate conservative” on the question of homosexuality until his own son, a well-adjusted 18-year-old, came out to him and his wife eight years ago. “When I had to deal with my own son, a lot of the answers that were part of the tradition I’m part of and that I had assumed in the past just didn’t work,” he said. “We have to be able to talk about real people here.”

Graham has done a fine job of documenting the changes she perceives on the horizon of Evangelicalism, and in what follows allow me to say that there is nothing personal whatsoever between me and her. Nevertheless, the arguments documented in Graham’s article are deeply troubling. They are troubling because they offer the impression that change is inevitable. They are troubling because the logic of the argument is false. They are troubling because they assume, and promote, an incorrect perception of the core of Evangelicalism. But they might be most troubling of all because when I consider the people of faith under my care I don’t perceive that they are equipped to answer these arguments. Then, when I consider those friends of mine who struggle with same-sex attraction and yet seek to be faithful, Scriptural followers of Jesus, I fear for them. What real hope is offered to these believers? Increasingly, none, and they are finding themselves marginalized both from the church they love, and from an affirming community which rejects the Scriptures they hold dear. In the end, followers of Jesus who consider themselves both Scriptural and orthodox (small ‘o’) must be challenged and then equipped to lovingly re-ground their faith in the Scriptures they hold as authoritative.

Tube SocksSo let’s take several aspects of Graham’s piece and answer for them in turn. First, let’s address the perception that change is inevitable. This is powerful rhetoric, and it is powerfully disheartening. Convicted Christians in America have felt for years now that they are losing their place in the culture war. The ability of the media to successfully label Christians by what they are against (i.e., anti-abortion, anti-homosexual), combined with a number of inept attempts at preserving the Christian position in culture through political power, have been devastating to our social position. Traditional Christianity is genuinely on the retreat in the public sphere. The consequence is that Christians begin to feel, where once they were on the inside of the heartbeat of America, that now they are increasingly on the outside; and the feeling of exclusion is a powerful motivator for change. When I was in grammar school all the kids used to wear long tube socks pulled up above their knees. I still have a first-day-of-school picture of myself somewhere all decked out in my knee socks. But one day, unannounced, I came to school and discovered that everyone had begun rolling their socks down to their ankles, and I was the only one with my socks up! I quietly bent down and rolled my socks to be like everyone else. I think that Christians today feel a bit like we’ve come to class and everyone’s socks are rolled at the ankles.

But Christianity, and Evangelical Christianity in particular, is under a misrepresentation. The assumption of the broader culture is that we are a movement of culture rather than conviction. The perception has stuck that Evangelicals are a giant sleeper cell in America which the political and marketing agencies are eager to crack. The runaway success of The Passion of the Christ and political postulations about George W. Bush’s reelection are both significant examples of this. Sadly, American Christians have been more than happy to let this perception stand, and none have done more damage with it, perhaps, than those American Christians who led the culture wars of the 80s and 90s. In those conflicts, the morally appropriate intentions of Christian thinkers were admixed with a morally reprehensible desire to preserve power. Morality became a lever employed to preserve a political position, and in becoming a tool for power our morality became wicked. Whether this is the inevitable consequence of a latent triumphalism in American Christian thought (i.e., “Everything will be okay if we can get a Christian in charge!”), or the inevitable backlash of our need to preserve power, I’m not able to say. What I can say is that in mixing morality, culture, and power, we have opened ourselves to the perception that we are nothing more than a cultural movement—votes, Nielsen ratings, and dollars. In turn, it is our reliance on our own perceived cultural identity which gives power to the argument, latent in Graham’s piece, that “If you wish to maintain your relevance, you must prepare to change.”

evnagelical idea

When I searched for “Evangelical” on Google images, a significant number of images looked like this. There were remarkably few bibles.

Since the time of Luther, when the word “evangelical” was invented as a means to describe this new (or renewed) form of Christian faith, Evangelicalism has been a movement grounded above all else in the conviction that God’s Word sincerely applied is the source of life for the believer and change in the world. In other words, what defines an Evangelical is not his or her purchasing choices or voting habits, but rather his belief in the authority of the Christian Scriptures in faith and life. It was that conviction which sparked the Reformation and has been so globally influential for the past 500 years. And perhaps the first thing Evangelicals must do in responding to the changing cultural climate around us is to re-commit ourselves to the book which gives us identity in the first place. Evangelicals must restore their convictions and eschew the culture. When we do this, it will become clear (as it already is true), that it is not our stance on homosexuality which will marginalize orthodox followers of Jesus, but rather our commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. It is not so much that our beliefs are strange, it is that we have beliefs at all. We must prepare to pull our socks up. We will look strange.

Evangelicalism is a movement of conviction which is grounded in the Christian Scriptures. As such, arguments which purport to be based on the interpretation of Scripture make a powerful claim. But Brownson’s argument is based on false logic, and to see the falsehood is the first step in answering his claim. The first part of Brownson’s argument for acceptance of gay ‘marriage’ within Christianity is to claim that, in fact, the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality. To quote from Graham:

[Brownson] devotes no fewer than four chapters to Romans 1, unpacking Paul’s definitions of lust, purity, shame, and natural law in detail, and emerges with the claim that contemporary believers shouldn’t understand “shameless acts with men” as meaning the same thing we’d now mean by gay sex. For liberal Christians, this kind of argument is common: Passages like Romans I are often dismissed as artifacts of the prejudices of their time. Not so for Evangelicals, and accordingly Brownson walks a careful line in his writing: He makes the case that it’s possible to affirm these verses completely and also affirm same-sex relationships.

Scripture readingBrownson may well be right about many aspects of Romans 1—the language in some parts is slightly ambiguous. But Paul’s overall point of identifying how rejection of God leads inevitably to a repeat of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to link his perception of idolatry and homosexuality rather strongly. But this is not the end of the Scriptural story, because in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul condemns homosexual behaviour in the strongest terms, employing not one but two different Greek words for the activities of homosexual sex (i.e., essentially dividing between the active and passive partners in the relationship). On top of all this, it is a principle of both theology and Scripture that God is one (meaning undivided), and Jesus is God. When Philip asks Jesus in John 14 to “Show us the Father,” Jesus answers by saying, “Don’t you know me?” And at John 10:30 Jesus announces, “I and the Father are one.” The voice of Jesus in the New Testament, and the voice of the Father in the Old, are perfectly consonant—and this means that the business of claiming that “Jesus never says anything about sexuality; Paul invents it” (which Brownson doesn’t make, to my knowledge, but is common in these discussions) is absurd. God speaks authoritatively in both the Old and New Testaments.

It is in the next step, however, that Brownson’s arguments enter into false logic. Again quoting from Graham:

[Brownson] points out that in the ancient world, as other theologians have also observed, gay sex was viewed by Christians and Jews not as the expression of an innate orientation, but as a symptom of lustful excess—what Brownson calls “a kind of endless search for exotic forms of stimulation.” But today it has another meaning: Sex with either gender can be an expression of love within a long-term relationship. Christians, therefore, can support Paul’s condemnation of lustful or degrading sex outside marriage, while embracing a category of monogamous, committed same-sex relationship that did not exist in the Biblical world.

The overall logic goes like this: (1) the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality; (2) the Bible supports monogamous relationships; therefore (3) monogamous homosexual relationships are acceptable. As far as I can tell, Brownson’s argument, here documented by Graham, is in fact the standard presentation made by many proponents of same sex marriage.

It's okay when we kill Nazis, right? Right?

It’s okay when we kill Nazis, right? Right?

Proposition 1 is false from the start—it is unprovable apart from significantly limber exegesis of the text. But the false step in logic is in using proposition 2 to explain a change in proposition 1—that the answer to the problem of the Bible’s rather explicit words about homosexuality is to begin talking about monogamy. But this is absurd—we don’t excuse one action by appeal to another. Stealing doesn’t become acceptable if we steal only to help the poor; murder doesn’t become acceptable if we only murder Nazis. Virtue in one aspect does not equate righteousness in another. We’ve been handed a bait-and-switch.

Furthermore, the Bible is remarkably unclear about monogamy—I would suggest even less clear than about homosexuality. In the Old Testament and the Patriarchs polygamy is the order of the day. Of course, you’re only allowed to sleep with your wives. Oh, and their handmaidens as well. (As an aside, this fact—that the Bible’s presentation of marriage is decidedly less than crystal clear—has done little service to Christians who want to ground the “traditional” view of marriage in Scripture. Defining marriage both culturally and Scripturally will take a great deal more careful exegesis than has been given it so far.)

This might sound like I’m throwing out belief in the Scriptures, or at least giving them a hard rap. Not so. I think there are reasonable explanations for a shift from polygamy to monogamy, and reasonable exegesis which can back that shift up. The real point is that using monogamy to explain a change in homosexual acceptance is not one of those reasonable shifts, and is emblematic, moreover, of terrible exegesis.

Graham closes her piece with Brownson’s story—that he adjusted his theology when his son came out as gay. In his own words, “When I had to deal with my own son, a lot of the answers that were part of the tradition I’m part of and that I had assumed in the past just didn’t work.” We will be forced to change, Graham suggests, because the cost of maintaining our convictions will become in time too strong, too close to home. In reality, those who consider themselves Evangelical will be forced into some life-changing resolutions: Do I believe the Scriptures? Does God determine what is right and wrong? And am I willing, in Jesus’ words, to take the Body of Christ as my new family?

Evangelical Christianity (that is, Christianity which takes the Scriptures as its final authority), may exist in its weakest cultural position since the founding of America. Perceiving our ‘weakness’ keenly, arguments which successfully piggyback on our incorrect self-perceptions have enormous power. We have placed our identity on false footing. Consequently levers which challenge that footing succeed. The answer to the loss of cultural power is not to lament the loss, nor to wrestle with the lever itself, but rather to refocus our grounding. It is not that culture is more powerful, it is that we have left firm ground behind. Doubtless, many people will follow these new teachings; in the process they will subtly cease to be Evangelical at all.

Eagleton, Dawkins, and the Category Dismissal

In the October 19, 2006 issue of the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton published a scathing review of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion.” It is not my purpose today to address either Eagleton, Dawkins, or Dawkins’s book, but rather to treat with a single, troubling argument that came from it. It’s what I’ll call, “A Category Dismissal.”

In his review, Eagleton argues that Dawkins’s assessment of Christian theology is, at best, fourth-rate. Allow me to quote his opening paragraph:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

Eagleton presents several arguments in this paragraph that are worth clarifying. First, that Dawkins’s theological knowledge is woefully inadequate given his declarations about theological truth. Second, disbelief in a theological system cripples Dawkins’s judgments regarding that system. Third, this combination (lack of knowledge plus lack of belief) produces the “vulgar caricatures” which permeate Dawkins’s prose (as well as that of other New Atheists). Fourth, the strong emotions of religious rejection fuel the process further. And fifthly, in any other discipline such ‘reasoned’ thinkers would feel obligated to study their subject in far greater depth.

He looks friendly enough, but his pen is filled with bitter ink...

In short, because Dawkins’s arguments are funded on a combination of both ignorance of and contempt for theology, he produces a vast array of easily crushed straw men which pass for arguments. Consequently, because Dawkins argues ignorantly, his arguments reflect more his own personal issues than anything particular about his favorite subject, religion. We can assert, in a sense, that Dawkins has found in Christian theology a favorite punching bag for his own anger issues (at which point we can observe that Dawkins’s arguments and methods say a great deal more about Dawkins than they do about Christianity, but that is beside my main point today).

Now, I asserted at the start that my point here is not to engage with Eagleton or Dawkins per se, but rather to identify a curious kind of argument that occurs within this debate. It is a problem that Eagleton identifies in his opening paragraph, and it is one that, ironically, the very first commentator on this article perpetuates. At the end of Eagleton’s piece, one A.C. Grayling from the University of London writes the following:

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises.

And there you have it—the category dismissal in action. I have denied your premises before you stated anything, Mr. Eagleton, therefore dealing with your religious arguments is tantamount to nonsense. Case closed.

You have an argument? Look at the hair. Case closed.

This is an argumentative twist that ought to raise our rhetorical alarm flags sky high. It is an argument that says, “I don’t have to listen to you because I disagree with you.” It is an argument-ending argument of the same order as, “Because I told you so.” There’s nothing to say in response because one of the parties isn’t listening to the other at all.

Let’s dig into this little rhetorical twist a bit further and see if, by taking a step backward into abstraction, we might better decipher what happened in this argument. Eagleton asserted that Dawkins has not studied enough theology to make useful judgments regarding the subject. Grayling made the counter point that you don’t need to study theology to judge it when you reject its premises. Let’s abstract this further for more clarity: Eagleton says this: X has made judgments about subject Y. X has not studied subject Y sufficiently to substantiate his judgments. Grayling responds with this: X does not need to study Y because X rejects Y.

Viewed this way, it becomes clear that the “Category Dismissal” I’ve identified here is really just a subtle and grand form of ad hominem. Eagleton has made an argument, and Grayling has asserted in response that the fact of disagreement is sufficient argument in matters of religion. “I disagree with you. Therefore you are wrong.” Or, in the spirit of the straw-man ad hominem, “I disagree with you, therefore you are an idiot.” Eagleton has argued for complexity, and Grayling has rebutted him by saying, “You are not worth addressing.” It is a refusal to engage the subject of religion on its own terms due to a priori judgments about religion. It is a highly biased and unethical approach to discourse. It is pervasive in atheist/Christian dialogue.

I don't need hair to make arguments.

Eagleton anticipates this argument in his opening paragraph. After all, if someone (especially a scientifically motivated New Atheist) were going to make a judgment about a given subject, that person, consistent with his/her commitment to scientific inquiry, is bound to research the complexities of the subject before pronouncing a judgment on that subject. But Grayling (apparently) has made his judgments about Eagleton’s assessment of Dawkins without needing to read what Eagleton wrote. This is a move that is (either ironically or tragically) entirely within the spirit of the Category Dismissal. After all, why deal with what is built on premises you disagree with if you disagree with those premises? And what a liberating philosophy of human discourse this is! Under its auspices I can grade papers without having to study them, write book reviews without having to read the books! I can even pronounce judgments on criminals without having to investigate the evidence! Life really is much simpler when I can declare people guilty without having to listen to them.

But this is clearly both unethical and dishonest. If the rhetoric of science is to be consistent, then each claim it encounters must be examined in all its fullness and complexity. If I, an otherwise reasonable person, came to you and assert that, “Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.” You have two options. First, you can dismiss me outright as an idiot because “you disagree with the premise that anyone can rise from the dead and therefore whatever I say in regard to that premise is worthless.” Or you can consider the claim, examine the evidence, consider the source (that I appear to be a reasonable person, not prone to believing in conspiracy theories, alien abductions, or the tooth fairy), and then make a determination on whether or not you will believe my claim that Jesus Christ lives. Only one response is consistent with scientific methodology. The other is stark judgmentalism.

What stands behind the Category Dismissal (to my estimation) is the thoroughgoing materialism that continues to drive the modern scientific worldview. Having made an a priori decision that nothing immaterial exists (which, note, is an impossible claim to verify), any argument or system which treats of the immaterial is therefore (at best) suspect or (at worst) dismissed outright. But as long as there is an a priori dismissal of any kind of evidence, the scientific mindset will be closed off to what is unexpected. It will only see what it is looking for, and never what it is not looking for. But in the same way that shutting one’s eyes doesn’t make one invisible, so shutting out evidence because you believe it doesn’t exist has no power over the actual evidence. Declaring something impossible does not make it impossible.

In the end, the rejection of evidence by way of the Category Dismissal is rude, unethical, unscientific, arrogant, and above all wrong. Unless this kind of dishonest rhetoric comes to an end, there will be no fruitful discussion between atheists and Christians. But this very observation sheds light on what is most unnervingly ironic about atheist/Christian dialogue: a profound absence of reason within it. And here, perhaps, what we must see is that the declaration, “I disagree with your premises,” is not an argument; it is a statement about the feelings of the arguer. And this statement reveals the deeper problem: if the atheist admits that your religious arguments are admissible then in some ways he has opened the door to the possibility of God. Perhaps, then, unfair argument is a kind of last defense, a prickly, irritating, and irrational response to protect the atheist mind from the possibility of God. What that would imply is that what the Christian is up against in discussions with atheists is the irrational—a childish, infantile reaction to the possibility of God. “I deny your premises”–the Category Dismissal–is then the last-defense argument against the possibility of God.

Hipster Faith: A Response

In the September issue of Christianity Today magazine, author Brett McCracken has penned an article called “Hipster Faith.”  It’s more or less an exposé on the “hipster” trend in modern Christianity—the fashionable, emergent, trendy faith that bears all the hallmarks of being the next ‘it’ thing in Christianity.  His evaluation is not particularly flattering, and I wanted to take a moment to address what I consider to be its strengths and weaknesses. (If you haven’t yet, please read the article here.)

Strengths:

Perhaps the strongest critique that McCracken offers to hipster Christians is the observation (somewhat implicit) that what we’re dealing with is a movement based on a reaction.  Here is a group of Christians seeking to break away from their parents’ faith and make it their own, essentially by reacting against it.  In light of this, McCracken can claim that, “In order to be a hipster, one must be a rebel.”

The problem, of course, with reactive movements is precisely their reactiveness.  They are often so focused on not being what others have been that they draw all their sense of identity from their dialogue partner.  They have definition only by virtue of being against something.  When that something which they are against fades, or weakens, or stops caring, then the whole power of the movement is lost.  Then, like the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19), everyone is shouting but no one knows what about.  The ultimate problem is that it is not possible to build a lasting movement upon a negation.  It must be built upon a positive.  Our foundational identity as Church is drawn from Christ, and not over against anything.

Another critique of hipster Christianity—and of many Christian movements in general—is the confusion these movements seem to inhabit when it comes to the concept of the subversive nature of the Gospel.  The logic seems to run like this: Jesus was subversive to religious authorities (a true statement); therefore, to be like Jesus we must subvert religious authorities (a false conclusion).  They then seem to conclude that anything subversive is also therefore Gospel, and this gives the rational force to the disavowal of traditional Evangelicalism.  Hence, McCracken states that “One thing we can fairly say of hipster Christianity is that it frequently strives for shock value.”  He cites, throughout the article, tattoos, alcohol, tobacco, swearing, non-traditional church locations (bars, warehouses).  He says, “If you aren’t willing to engage in at least some of this ‘subversive hedonism,’ you will have a hard time maintaining any hipster credibility.”  Many of these elements are subversion for subversion’s sake—reactions against the ‘rules’ of Evangelicalism.

The problem here is that hipster Christianity, so defined, is a self-negating entity.  McCracken’s comparison with the Jesus People of the 60s and 70s is appropriate:

“In a way, the contemporary Christian hipster is a full-circle return to the Jesus People hippies of yesteryear. But the Jesus People were secular “hipsters” first, then—having converted to Christianity—began to shed their hippie clothes and customs to form communities that were set apart, ultimately becoming their own subculture (e.g., Jesus People USA). Today’s Christian hipsters are doing the reverse.”

Here he hits the nail on the head.  The Jesus People were reformed rebels, people captured by Christ and made new by his grace.  They were ‘fringe’ only because of where they had come from.  The hipsters are reformed people who are now rebelling.  They are choosing to become fringe—and in McCracken’s estimation this seems to be because the fringe is cooler than what they came from.  Christ drastically subverted the culture he lived in, but not because he was attempting to subvert it—rather because he was committed to God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness.  Anyone who makes that commitment will become by definition subversive (see, of course, the eighth beatitude and its closing comment by Jesus himself).  All other subversive activity is mere rebellion against authority.

Weaknesses:

The previous comment provides an apt segue into the weaknesses of McCracken’s article, because subversion by virtue of commitment to Christ’s Kingdom and righteousness is one of the strengths of the ‘hipster’ trend.  Hence, McCracken offers some of the following criteria for identifying a hipster church (critically):

“What makes a church a “hipster church”? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it’s a hipster church.”

These criteria clearly aren’t all that helpful, because most of them have nothing to do with the rebelliousness of hipster Christianity.  First, there are nearly as many names of churches as there are, well, churches.  Some with strange names, some with catchy names, some with ordinary names.  Most people, it is my guess, don’t really pick a church based on its name; they choose it based on the community of people that are there.  Second, of the three clue words, “kingdom, authenticity, and justice” that McCracken offers as hipster clues, go and do a word search on two of them—”kingdom” and “justice” (or, righteousness, dikaiosune accounts for both ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ in the bible) and you’ll see just how very biblical these terms are.  ‘Authenticity’ is the only non-biblical word which clues us in to a cultural preference.  (And, we might observe, a word such as ‘authenticity’, while sometimes an excuse for flagrant sinfulness, can also be a tonic against the pretense of church life in the past.)  As for N.T. Wright, he’s one of the finest biblical scholars living today, and his works will likely be read long after he’s passed into the Kingdom itself.  Third, what’s the point about gluten-free communion? Are people with wheat allergies permanently barred from Holy Communion? I think not.

At another point, when discussing the subversive ‘shock value’ of hipster churches, McCracken points out the trend of sermons dealing with “touchy subjects such as homosexuality, child abuse, sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and so on, sometimes with an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure.”  Apart, of course, from the f-bombs, these are all topics which are real issues in our world today, and which, as the Church, we should be actively striving to address through our mission together.

My point is this.  You could attend “St. John’s Church,” or “Mosaic” in Anywhere, North America, where the minister preached regularly Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God (Jesus’ favourite subject), and about God’s passion for Justice, relating the issues of the bible to issues of today (sex trafficking and child abuse), quoting N.T. Wright occasionally, and offering gluten-free communion because a member of the congregation has a wheat allergy.  None of that would indicate a “hipster,” cool, or particularly rebellious community of faith.

Lastly, McCracken identified the following theological trends as indicative of the hipster movement:

“Hipster Christianity also expresses itself theologically, through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and “new creation” ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.”

Well, I find nothing in this paragraph to disagree with.  In fact, I pretty much entirely agree with it.  Further, if the definition of “hipster” Christianity is that it’s reactive, rebellious, and subversive to Evangelicalism, then these are welcome reactions against the isolationist, destructo-creation trends which mark modern Evangelicalism.  Consider the following: “Covenant” is one of the central constructs through which God has communicated with His people. “New Creation” is central to the effects of the work which Christ has accomplished on our behalf as his Church.  And as regards a “community-centric view of salvation,” it almost seems too easy to point out that the entirely of the bible is intended as a community book, and that the goal of all creation revealed in Revelation is that we will dwell together in a city.  If there is a reaction against Evangelical trends and practices, then it is against the isolating and individualist trends of 20th century Evangelical evangelism.  Church, as Christ’s body, is the goal of creation, says Paul to the Ephesians, and we, as Church, must explore and understand our purpose.  In matters of Ecclesiology—one of the greatest theological shortcomings of the Evangelical church—any recovery or restoration of that area of theology should be a welcome correction.

All in all, the reactive, false, and pretentiously subversive elements of hipster Christianity will fade, as all reactive movements fade.  No church can survive such a groundless, negative, and Christ-anemic atmosphere.  However, the true subversive elements present among the so-called ‘hipster faith’—the creational, covenantal, N.T. Wright reading, ecclesiological, kingdom-justice and culturally relevant elements—these, because of their truly biblical foundations, will and should remain.  Such issues, in fact, aren’t specifically hipster at all.