David Koyzis teaches political science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, and is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2003). He has just completed another book manuscript on authority, office and the image of God for which he is seeking a publisher. He is an amateur poet and musician and has a special interest in sung metrical psalmody, especially the 16th-century Genevan Psalter. Born near Chicago and living now in Canada, he sometimes calls himself a Franco-Greek-Cypriot-Finno-Anglo-American-Canadian, one of the smallest ethnic minorities in North America.
A fairly predictable Huffington Post publishes an equally predictable opinion piece by Marilyn Sewell, titled Saying Goodbye to Tolerance. It seems Sewell has had a change of heart, as she recounts below:
I am a Unitarian Universalist, and we consider ourselves the most tolerant of faiths. In the 19th century Universalist churches were known for opening their doors to dissenters of all varieties, and our modern-day UU churches have continued to provide space for those who cannot find a welcome mat elsewhere: atheists and agnostics, religious humanists, political dissidents. We UUs see ourselves as “broadminded,” and so tend to say things like, “There is truth in every religious tradition. We respect all religious beliefs.” In one of our services, you might hear a reading from the Bible, but just as likely from the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk. However, in spite of our long history and tradition of tolerance, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant — specifically, of the theology and practice of many evangelical Christians.
Mind you, Sewell has not come to a particularly startling conclusion. It’s all been said before — many times, in fact. Yet it does underscore, once again, the inevitable divide between a religion that recognizes an authority outside of our own individual wills and one that affirms a vague spirituality eclectically embracing, well, whatever happens to appeal to us at the moment. As it turns out, an eclectic spirituality, indiscriminately drawing on a diversity of incompatible traditions, cannot tolerate a genuine religion claiming that God has revealed himself in specific ways to specific communities. The central issue is precisely one of authority. Do we accept an authority transcending our contemporary ethos and cultural prejudices, or are we in effect the authors of our own spirituality, borrowing what we approve and rejecting what we do not approve within these competing authorities?
It is fashionable these days to claim to be spiritual but not religious. And why not? The dictionary tells us that the word religion stems from two Latin roots re + ligare, the latter of which means to bind, to tie up. To be religious means to bind oneself to a particular body of beliefs of which one is not the author. It means to accept that one is personally bound to a way of life and faith to which one submits or, more scandalously, to which one has been committed by others, most notably by one’s parents or sponsors at baptism.
This binding character of religion is difficult for our contemporaries to make sense of, given the modern predilection for attaching personal obligations to the voluntary principle and the concomitant suspicion of all duties we have not freely assumed. We would prefer to go up to the spiritual smorgasbord, sampling a little of “the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk” without actually becoming a committed Muslim, Native Spiritist, Taoist or earth goddess worshipper. Many of us like to dabble in exotic spiritualities without having to identify with any one of them.
Sewell in no way breaks new ground with her newly discovered penchant for intolerance. Dabblers are compelled by their very dabbling to disdain those who will not dabble and who persist in believing the truth claims of one particular religion. Believing Christians, for example, read the Bible, not as one source of wisdom amongst many others, but as a single story of creation, fall, redemption and ultimate consummation in Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God. Taken on its own terms, this biblical story makes a claim on our lives that we dare not relativize for the sake of conforming to the contemporary canons of tolerance. Such purveyors of “tolerance” as Sewell are actually in the grip of an alternate redemptive narrative whose claims are just as exclusive as those of biblical Christianity and whose tiny communities are even more parochial.
Nevertheless, eclectic spirituality ultimately fails to satisfy, precisely because we are not autonomous. We inevitably submit ourselves to some authority because this is what we are created to do. If it is not to the God who has saved us through Jesus Christ, it will be to some other god of our own devising. Yet because this god is as fickle as our own protean personal preferences, it will not ultimately bring the rest that our restless hearts crave.
The Education Minister of Ontario, Canada — a professing Catholic who sends her children to Catholic schools — declared October 10 that the province’s publicly funded Catholic schools may not teach students that abortion is wrong because such teaching amounts to “misogyny,” which is prohibited in schools under a controversial anti-bullying law. “Taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be considered one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take,” Laurel Broten said during a press conference. “Bill 13,” she asserted, “is about tackling misogyny.”
Three comments are in order. First, a provincial education minister lacks the authority to dictate to a church organization what its teachings should be. That authority belongs to the ecclesiastical office-holders themselves. Given that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly claims to guarantee “freedom of conscience and religion,” a government official is duty bound to refrain from interfering in such matters.
Second, if one has to resort to name-calling in setting forth one’s position, it amounts to a tacit admission that one’s arguments in its favour are weak and not easily defended in open debate. Broten again: “That debate [over a woman's right to choose] is over, it has ended and it should stay that way.” That may indeed be her view of the matter, but simply pronouncing a subject closed does not necessarily make it so. Campaign Life Coalition and ProWomanProLife among many others would definitely disagree with her assessment.
Third, and perhaps most basically, Broten seems to be defining a woman’s identity as a mere assertion of autonomy, that is, the right to choose apart from any “thick” conception of the human person obviously dependent on norms not of our own making. If a woman wishes to harm her own body or the foetal life growing within her, it is her decision to make, whatever its impact on herself, her loved ones and the larger social fabric. Broten is, of course, entitled to her viewpoint, but why she feels entitled to impose it as unquestioned dogma on everyone else is far from clear.
Is America becoming the next France? Is our political system becoming as polarized as that of the French Third and Fourth Republics?
According to the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, politics is the art of conciliating diversity peacefully in a given unit of rule. Some political systems have done this better than others. The U.S. is among the more successful in enabling people of varying interests and viewpoints to get along within a common constitutional framework commanding near universal loyalty.
Until recently the political parties themselves played a role similar to that of the system as a whole. Yes, Democrats and Republicans were opponents, but each party was a broad-based coalition of citizens with a variety of commonalities — some economic, and some ideological, regional and religious in character. Progressives and conservatives found a place in both parties, coexisting willingly, if not always enthusiastically. Southerners tended to vote Democratic, while northerners voted Republican. Different Christian denominations were at home in each party as well: Catholics and Southern Baptists supported the Democrats, and northern mainline and evangelical Protestants the Republicans.
Edward Alfred Goerner was longtime professor of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and I was privileged to have him as my PhD supervisor more than 25 years ago.
The first thing one noticed about Goerner was his flair for the dramatic in both mannerism and dress. He was born in Brooklyn, but his speech was closer to the now fading Mid-Atlantic English once associated with Hollywood and the New York stage. Many Domers will recall seeing him regularly walking from his home just south of campus to his office or to Sacred Heart Church, wearing a cape rather than the usual overcoat. When he read the scripture lesson in the liturgy with his distinctive resonating voice, he brought something of the Shakespearean theatre to the task at hand.
Goerner was the consummate undergraduate teacher, whose dynamic paedagogy had an inevitable impact on my own. He began each class session with the same prayer: “Send us, O Lord, your Holy Spirit, among whose gifts are wisdom and understanding.” He would then proceed to lecture on the finer points of mediaeval political theory or on the three books he would assign to his introductory undergraduate students: Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Plato’s Republic. I owe my own respect for these classic texts to his teaching, and I have tried in some fashion to pass this respect along to my own students.
Goerner did not publish as prolifically as some of his colleagues. His written works included Peter and Caesar and two edited volumes. There was also his two-part essay in Political Theory weighing whether Thomas Aquinas’ was a natural virtue or natural law thinker. (My own sense is that he was both, but that’s something for another post.) Yet he had a considerable influence on the people he taught, myself included. I have my own students reading primary sources in political theory, as did Goerner, reflecting his obvious debt to the late Leo Strauss, under whom he had studied at the University of Chicago.
Although I cannot say that I was personally close to him, I found him most encouraging of my academic interests, especially the comparison of Roman Catholic social and political teachings with their Kuyperian Calvinist counterparts, a subject that found its way into the final chapters of my own Political Visions and Illusions. I had not seen him in over two decades, but I would occasionally hear from him in the intervening years. A few years ago he wrote to recommend Rémi Brague’s The Law of God, which I promptly purchased and read, agreeing with his assessment of its significance. Most recently he had written me after seeing my name on this document, which had been spearheaded by one of my former Redeemer students.
I was further privileged to pass along to him another of my former students, whose dissertation on John Rawls he would supervise. We thus managed to share in the education of a future Christian scholar in political science.
May Edward Alfred Goerner rest in peace until the resurrection.
Once upon a time the Democratic and Republican Parties were big-tent organizations, trying to appeal to as wide a swath of public opinion as they could manage. Although the Republicans were generally conservative and the Democrats generally liberal, there was a huge area of overlap between them. They were divided, not so much by governing philosophies, as by somewhat divergent interest groups along with their pet issues. Big business tended to support the Republicans, while big labour was onside of the Democrats.
In those days there were conservative Democrats, many from the south, who championed the rights of the states over what they saw as an excessively intrusive federal government. Senator Strom Thurmond and Alabama Governor George Wallace exemplified this group. There were also liberal Republicans, such as the late Illinois Senator Charles Percy, who introduced legislation to encourage the building of affordable housing for low-income families. After the US Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973, the two parties were internally divided on the issue, with pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats sharing the political landscape with pro-life Republicans and pro-choice Democrats. Even Senator Edward Kennedy initially considered himself pro-life.
When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, this was still largely the lay of the land, but no longer. In recent years the two parties have become increasingly polarized. Although there is still a dwindling number of pro-life Democrats, the party leadership has deliberately marginalized them. Those who persist in maintaining their convictions on this issue find themselves unable to advance within its ranks. Even Democrats for Life America is compelled to pose this question on its website: “Can you be pro-life in a pro-choice party?” Although Catholics and Southern Baptists were once integral components of the Democratic coalition, the current secularizing leadership has pulled the party in a direction that would have been unthinkable to Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Sensing that the Democratic Party was moving away from the American mainstream, the Republican Party successfully reached out to these two core groups in the 1980s, thereby adding the so-called “Reagan Democrats” to its own support base. The Republicans looked set to establish their own dynasty for years to come, capitalizing on the missteps of the opposition. With the current administration’s attack on the religious freedom of faith-based organizations, this should be the Republicans’ year. But things may not turn out that way.
Although the libertarian component had always been part of the Republican coalition, it has gained more visibility with the Tea Party in recent years. As Mitt Romney was poised to become his party’s standard bearer last month, he chose as his vice-presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has Tea Party support. Ryan once professed to be heavily influenced by Russian-American author Ayn Rand, who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. An atheist and avowed opponent of altruism, she championed the individual over the community, as seen in her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which have a cult following amongst North American libertarians. Rand’s preferred social ethic would see a minimal state at best, along with a strict laissez-faire economy. From her perspective, the welfare state is not just ineffective and expensive; it is immoral.
Sad to say, polarization has brought out the worst elements in both parties. The Democrats seem to be controlled by those who misunderstand the comprehensive claims of religious faith, narrowing freedom of religion to a mere freedom of worship. The Republicans appear to be flirting with social Darwinists who believe in survival of the fittest. Not a pretty picture.
Yet there is more here than meets the eye. Both parties accept the historic liberal preference for individualism and voluntarism. One defends the right of individuals to follow their own personal and sexual preferences, even at the expense of institutions with stricter internal membership standards. The other believes the individual should pursue his or her own economic goals, even at the expense of the commons. If Democrats and Republicans are indeed polarized, it is not, after all, over basic principles; it is over who has rightful title to those principles.
I will not presume to predict a winner in November, but I will predict that there will be no happily ever after.
Although Poland as a whole did not embrace the Reformation in the 16th century, the country nevertheless managed to produce a metrical psalter of high quality that is virtually unknown by outsiders. This is the Psałterz Dawidów, or David’s Psalter, consisting of 150 metrical texts by the great Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski set to tunes by Mikołaj Gomółka. So highly esteemed was this collection by Poles that it has reputedly been used liturgically by both Catholics and protestants. Midi files of the tunes can be found here: Melodie na Psałterz Polski and pdf files of the scores here.
More than a century ago, Englishman Henry Alexander Glass happened upon an old copy of the Tate and Brady metrical psalter dated 1771 in an old book stall. By the 1880s metrical psalters, while still in use in Scotland, had long ceased to be used liturgically in England, so Glass, curious about the volume he had discovered and unable to locate a general history of metrical psalters, decided to write one himself. The result is the highly readable The story of the psalters: a history of the metrical versions of Great Britain and America from 1549 to 1885, published in 1888 and well worth reading even today.
Glass, about whom I have found next to nothing via a google search, had a good ear for the witty turn of phrase, as evidenced throughout the first two chapters. On p. 8 we read that “George Buchanan rhymed the Psalms in Latin,” followed by a parenthetical bit of dry humour: “for whose convenience perhaps scholars can tell” (8). We read also of George Wither, whose psalter appears not to have been highly esteemed, especially by his peers, and who found himself imprisoned during the English Civil War. He was not alone: “When he was afterwards taken prisoner during the Civil Wars by the Cavaliers, Sir John Denham, himself afterwards to be enrolled in the list of versifiers, desired his Majesty not to hang [Wither], ‘because that, as long as Wither lives, I shall not be accounted the worst poet in England’” (33). As for the authors of the Sternhold & Hopkins psalter, their “piety was better than their poetry,” and with respect to the Bay Psalm Book of the New England Puritans, “[q]uotations from it have afforded amusement to almost all writers on metrical psalmody” (34). (more…)
Do Americans expect too much of the president of the United States, and do presidential candidates themselves unwisely encourage such unrealistic expectations in voters? Read the complete article here.
One of the drawbacks of versified psalmody is that it may reflect too much the prejudices of the versifier and not enough the biblical text. I came across an interesting example of this in Henry Alexander Glass’s fascinating and witty book, The Story of the Psalters. Some Reformed Christians believe that liturgical song should use the human voice alone and that musical instruments do not belong in church. The 18th-century hymn writer and psalm versifier, James Maxwell, followed this belief, which he incorporated into his paraphrase of Psalm 150:
As did with instruments the Jews
His praises high proclaim,
Let us our hearts and voices use
To magnify His Name.
As they with minstrels in the dance,
And instruments well-strung,
Prais’d God, let us His praise advance
With well-tuned heart and tongue.
Like cymbals let our cheerful tongues
His praises sound on high:
And let our sweet harmonious songs
Transcend the lofty sky.
In Glass’s words, “Finding it impossible to keep out the instruments in Psalm cl., [Maxwell] ingeniously lays the responsibility of his compelled references on the Jews.” Although I myself do not adhere to this prohibition of musical instruments in worship, there is something to be said in its favour. But first the other side:
One can hardly get around the explicit biblical commands to praise God with musical instruments. The notion that worshipping with such instruments belongs only to the old covenant does not take seriously enough the continuities between the old and new covenants. Most significant is the lack of an explicit prohibition in the New Testament itself. As far as I can see, there is no credible biblical warrant for keeping musical instruments out of the church’s liturgy.
On the other hand, there is nothing sweeter than the sound of a cappella voices joined in praise of God. In fact, the very phrase a cappella means in Italian “in the manner of the church or chapel.” There is a very ancient tradition, particularly in the eastern churches, of exclusive a cappella singing in the liturgy.
Then there are the praise bands, which have become ubiquitous in protestant churches in recent years. Although in principle I have no confessional or theological difficulties with the use of drums, or even electric guitars and the like, they do have a tendency to drown out congregations and discourage their participation in the liturgy, which becomes thereby a form of what can only be called litur-tainment. Perhaps it’s time to bring back a cappella worship in church, not in legalistic fashion, but in recognition that the psalms and canticles are supposed to be, well, sung. And singing requires voices intoning words, which is something no trumpet or drum can manage to do.
The New York Times‘ contrarian wunderkind Ross Douthat wonders aloud: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, against the backdrop of the collapse in the membership of the Episcopal Church.
The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)
By the time I reached the age of 18 I had probably “asked Jesus into my heart” 5,000 times. I started somewhere around age 4 when I approached my parents one Saturday morning asking how someone could know that they were going to heaven. They carefully led me down the “Romans Road to Salvation,” and I gave Jesus his first invitation into my heart. . . .
[But h]ad I really been sorry for my sins? And could I really have known what I was doing at age 4?
So I asked Jesus to come into my heart again, this time with a resolve to be much more intentional about my faith. I requested re-baptism, and gave a very moving testimony in front of our congregation about getting serious with God.
Not long after that, however, I found myself asking again: Had I really been sorry enough for my sin this time around? I’d see some people weep rivers of tears when they got saved, but I hadn’t done that. Did that mean I was not really sorry? And there were a few sins I seemed to fall back into over and over again, no matter how many resolutions I made to do better. Was I really sorry for those sins? Was that prayer a moment of total surrender? Would I have died for Jesus at that moment if he’d asked?
So I prayed the sinner’s prayer again. And again. And again. Each time trying to get it right, each time really trying to mean it. I would have a moment when I felt like I got it right and experienced a temporary euphoria. But it would fade quickly and I’d question it all again. And so I’d pray again.
Although my experience was quite different from Greear’s, I did go through something of a crisis of assurance of salvation in high school. It was not a major crisis, but it was enough to cause me to wonder whether I had gone through the right procedures to “get saved.” At some point it finally dawned on me that I needed to trust the promises of God in Christ and not the efficacy of my own decision-making abilities. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I love so much the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
This was published today in Comment, the daily publication of Cardus:
Just before the dawn of the recording industry, popular songs were sold to the North American public in a format requiring of customers more musical literacy. When Let Me Call You Sweetheart and Down by the Old Mill Stream were published in 1910, their popularity was judged by sales of sheet music, and not yet by the records that would come into their own during the interwar years. Yes, people would attend performances of these songs by local bands and choirs, but they were more likely to gather round the upright piano at home and sing them together. People had to make their own music rather than rely on others to make it for them. Obviously not everyone had professional-quality voices, but that didn’t matter. Young and old alike sang their hearts out.
Although I was born well into the recording age, I grew up in a family that sang with gusto at the slightest provocation. We had two pianos in our house, and everyone played at least one musical instrument. We were raised on the old movie musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and, of course, Meredith Wilson, whose score for The Music Man harked back to that earlier era just before the outbreak of the Great War. In fact, so many times did we play The Music Man soundtrack that scratches eventually caused the record to skip. (If you were raised on CDs, ask your parents or grandparents what that means.) The notion of Julie Andrews breaking into song in the course of her day did not strike us as the least bit unusual.
An article of mine was published last week in the Center for Public Justice’s Capital Commentary:
This year marks the 225th anniversary of the United States Constitution, by far the oldest functioning constitutional document still in effect. It has weathered the vicissitudes of history, including a devastating Civil War that threatened to fragment the nation and its people permanently. By contrast, the German Basic Law dates only from 1949, and the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic from 1958. What is the key to the U.S. Constitution’s remarkable longevity?
One well-known narrative has it that the Founding Fathers were skilled constitutional architects, fashioning a political system whose internal institutions are so perfectly balanced that no one of these could gain the upper hand and suppress the others. The Fathers read Baron Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, in which the author argued that liberty is most likely to thrive under a constitution providing that power check power. Where legislative, executive and judicial powers are not separated, there can be no liberty.
Yet Montesquieu never claimed to have invented this separation of powers. Read more here.
As promised, here is something I wrote about Chuck Colson for Christian Courier. It appeared in the 14 May issue:
As a young man, I cut my political teeth on the Watergate scandal, which brought down a sitting president and led to the conviction and incarceration of several members of his administration. One of these was Charles Wendell Colson, known to everyone as Chuck. As Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, he gained a deserved reputation for ruthlessness in the conduct of his office. Thus the announcement in 1973 that he had become a Christian was greeted with a general sense of disbelief by many who knew him. Could someone so thoroughly imbued with the ethos of Machiavelli suddenly take on the mantle of evangelist?
Yet Colson’s conversion was the genuine article, and for the next nearly four decades he devoted his life to the cause of Christ in a very public way. After serving time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, an outreach programme to prisoners and their families aimed at turning around lives that might otherwise be wasted within the bowels of America’s criminal justice system. There were a number of elements in this ministry, including Angel Tree, which has enabled prisoners to give Christmas gifts and messages of love to their families on the outside. (more…)
Matthew Schmitz is dead on in alerting us to the negative impact of Fears of ‘Creeping Sharia’. Several US states, including Kansas, are taking legislative action to stop what they persist in believing to be a domestic threat from muslim sharia law. Such efforts are of dubious constitutionality and are in fact a threat, not only to everyone’s religious liberty, but to a robust conception of what I would call legal pluriformity.
Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld.
Rarely do laws enacted hurriedly in response to a perceived danger take sufficient care to uphold public justice for all. Indeed, state legislators who have too quickly jumped on this bandwagon should reconsider whether they might inadvertently be paving the way for a general levelling of legitimate legal pluriformity for everyone, muslim and nonmuslim alike.
Legal pluriformity means simply that the state is not the only source of law. Every community possesses a jural aspect and is characterized by an internal law to which members are subject. These include the household rules of a family set by the parents, the bylaws of a business corporation, the syllabus in the classroom, the faculty handbook in the university, and so forth. As Schmitz properly recognizes, legal pluriformity also encompasses canon law of the church and even sharia law in the mosque. The notion, popular in some quarters, that all these types of law owe their ultimate validity to the state is a totalitarian conception that should find no place in a constitutional democracy. Let us hope and pray that saner heads will prevail sooner rather than later.
I really wanted to be at the Christians in Political Science conference at Gordon College last week, but was unable to make it. Fortunately one of the highlights, Miroslav Volf’s lecture, was recorded and has been posted on youtube. One of the respondents, Dr. Paul Brink, is a former student of mine.
William T. Cavanaugh has written a very helpful article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, titled, Does Religion Cause Violence? Conventional wisdom in the west today takes it for granted that religion is intrinsically divisive and that an enlightened secularism keeping religion in its proper place better contributes to the public good. But what if that’s not the case after all? Cavanaugh draws attention to the reality that those most likely to charge religious believers with fomenting violence, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, detect no inconsistency in their own willingness to excuse a (violent!) pre-emptive strike against those they view as religious fanatics. Here’s Cavanaugh:
We must conclude that there is no coherent way to isolate “religious” ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer “secular” counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices—jihad, the “invisible hand” of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator—turn violent? The point is not simply that “secular” violence should be given equal attention to “religious” violence. The point is that the distinction between “secular” and “religious” violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.
Juvenilization happened when no one was looking. In the first stage, Christian youth leaders created youth-friendly versions of the faith in a desperate attempt to save the world. Some hoped to reform their churches by influencing the next generation. Others expected any questionable innovations to stay comfortably quarantined in youth rallies and church basements. Both groups were less concerned about long-term consequences than about immediate appeals to youth.
In the second stage, a new American adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, churches began to cater to them.
This regression from adulthood to adolescence is a general phenomenon that others have remarked upon. Could the contemporary tendency to replace worship with litur-tainment be one symptom of this juvenilization of North American Christianity?
There are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any. At least 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher. There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities. The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990.
Nihilistic secularism is inherently unstable and cannot sustain a civilization over the long term. Perhaps Britons are finally discovering this for themselves.
Israeli archaeologists digging near the city of Jerusalem have discovered an ancient clay bulla, about 2,700 years old, bearing the name Bethlehem. The artifact is the only known ancient reference to the city of Jesus’ birth found outside the Bible, experts said. The find shows not only that the city existed, but that it probably also had a thriving commercial trade.
The Hakka people of Taiwan and China finally have the complete Bible in their own language. Last sunday Dr. Paul McLean spoke at our church about his efforts to produce this treasured edition of God’s word in the language of one of Taiwan’s minority communities. It’s an inspiring story.
McLean’s son Peter bicycled across Canada to raise money for this important project. May God use this new translation to further the advance of his kingdom amongst the Hakka people.
There is a danger that discussions about the authority of Scripture may turn into exercises in exegetical casuistry. We can use Scripture in the way that lawyers use case precedents either to vindicate or convict a defendant. The focus of concern can become: What can I get away with? What meaning will the text bear? Can it be read to further my cause? A “minimalist” interpretation of Scripture can be as guilty of this as is a Puritan tendency toward “maximalism.” There is a danger of focusing on the texts as documents, and forgetting that the Scriptures are not self-referential. They speak of a reality beyond themselves, namely, God’s creation and redemption of the world and humanity in Jesus Christ. The purpose of exegesis is not only to decipher the grammatical meaning of the text or to find precedents for permissible or impermissible behavior, but to allow oneself to be formed and transformed by the reality to which the Scriptures refer so that one can find oneself within the Bible’s story of creation and redemption. But in order to do this, one must be willing to hand oneself over to the world of the text, to allow oneself to be challenged and even changed by it [emphasis mine].
Very well said. Witt is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Readers can follow his writings and sermons at his website.
This little gem has obvious relevance to my last post and is worth reposting here. Jake Belder is a Canadian “millennial” living in Kingston upon Hull, England, where he serves as assistant minister at St John Newland Church.
Something of a ‘blog war’ over the ‘culture wars’ has unfolded recently, beginning when Rachel Held Evans presumed to speak on behalf of millennials by declaring, ‘My generation is tired of the culture wars.’ This post is not going to be a response to that post specifically, as guys like Jamie Smith and Brian Mattson have already done a fine job addressing the problems her post is laced with.
All this, however, does raise the important question of what faithfulness in the context of our culture looks like. What should we expect as the community of believers when we live under the rule of our King? Last week, I was sitting with four university students as we finished working through Albert Wolters’ book, Creation Regained, and we spent some time chewing over this bit in the postcript, which he co-authored with Mike Goheen (and which loudly echoes the renowned missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin):
Mission entails suffering; faithfulness to the gospel of the kingdom will mean a missionary encounter with the idolatrous powers of our own culture. Loyal allegiance to our kingdom mission will mean a clash of comprehensive stories. The gospel makes an absolute claim on the whole of our lives. The story that shapes our Western culture is likewise a comprehensive story which makes totalitarian claims. There is an incompatability between the gospel and the story of our culture. Every culturally embodied grand narrative will seek to become not only the dominant, but the exclusive story. If we as the church want to be faithful to the equally comprehensive biblical story we will find ourselves faced with a choice: either accommodate the Bible’s story to that of our culture, and live as a tolerated minority community, or remain faithful and experience some degree of conflict and suffering.
Ours is a mission under the cross. The good news may call forth opposition, conflict, and rejection (John 15:18-25).
Though it is hard to get accurate statistics on such things, some estimate that about 170,000 Christians die each year for their faith. All of us would agree, I’m sure, that this is a group of people that really gets what Jesus is saying in John 15. The disaffected millennials – indeed, all of us – should stop and think about this for a moment when we’re tempted to try and find ways around bits of Scripture we find uncomfortable or that require us to be in stark opposition with the culture around us. Hundreds of thousands of Christians are willing to die (and millions more willing to endure persecution) instead of capitulating to a culture that demands they live unfaithfully. And all the while we try to fit Jesus into a mould that will make him easier for us to get on side with.
I’ll be the first to agree that the ‘culture war’ mentality is problematic and unhelpful (I think James Davison Hunter makes an excellent critique of that paradigm in his book,To Change the World), but deciding that we should be the ones to set the terms for our faith is not the answer. This is simply idolatry, replacing the rule of Christ with our own authority.
Newbigin’s idea that we need to understand ourselves as missionaries in a culture whose story is entirely antithetical to the story of Scripture is so important to remember at this point. We bear witness to the rule of a King who makes a total claim on all of life, and at every point the gospel challenges a culture which rejects that rule. And so we should expect conflict.
Trying to live faithfully under the lordship of Jesus Christ isn’t about making Christianity palatable to the culture around us. As it is, sometimes the total allegiance that Jesus demands will make it feel like we’re sititng all alone in a crowded room. Sometimes it is even going to hurt. But for Christians, it is the only option.
There can be no doubt that many people read the Bible incorrectly and unwisely, missing such literary elements as figures of speech, including metaphors, similes, &c. Reading a metaphorical passage too literally is certainly one way of misreading scripture. Nevertheless, assuming the following account is accurate, there is something disquieting about the recent conference on Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity: Emergent Christians Warn against the Bible’s “Loaded Guns”:
Carl Stauffer, professor of Development and Justice Studies at Eastern Mennonite University, warned against the Bible’s “seemingly divinely ordained violence.” Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren similarly worried about how church-going parents can give their children “loaded guns” in the form of “texts of terror” condoning war and other violence. He wondered whether unfiltered Bible-reading could “leave them with the idea that God is violent.” And he warned: “Bible-preaching/teaching/reading people are the most dangerous in the world for Muslims.”
After McLaren advised emergent parents to seek out the “texts of healing” in the Bible, he talked about how the Bible’s economic teachings could help stave off violence in society. The Old and New Testament narratives “focus on desire—especially competitive desire—as the root of violence.” The best-selling author complained, “Our entire economic system is based on rivalrous desire.” Author, educator, and panelist Ivy Beckwith explained: “Desire is another word for self-interest.”
Is the word unfiltered McLaren’s, or that of Barton Gingerich, the article’s author? It matters because, if it’s McLaren’s, it seems to imply that the Bible needs to be censored by the more enlightened — presumably the conference speakers themselves — for the benefit of the rest of us.
I personally know people who came to the faith, not by going to church or through a Christian friend, but simply by reading the Bible, a book they had not been familiar with up to then. They read it through in its entirety, including such grisly stories as that related in Judges 19-21. Despite the messiness and violence of the scriptural narrative, the Holy Spirit somehow managed to work in their hearts so that they were grabbed by it, fell in love with it and found their own place within it. They did not come to the Bible with the expectation that someone should make it “safe” for them. They never deemed it necessary to accept only those parts of scripture that they did not find offensive or that refrained from challenging their existing presuppositions. Far from it. They were cut to the quick, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-40), asking, not “Who can make the Bible palatable to me?”, but rather “What must I do to be saved?”
Like a microscope into their own soul, reading the Bible prompted them to repent and turn to God for mercy. If some people profess to find the Bible dangerous, perhaps the world could use more such danger.
The signs of this realignment are most visible in politics. A highly traditionalist Catholic, Rick Santorum, who belongs to a parish where the Latin Mass is still celebrated, became the preferred presidential candidate of conservative evangelicals. Over the course of the primary campaign, it became clear that he shares the common conservative evangelical view that mainline Protestants are largely apostates, barely deserving inclusion in Christianity.
Yet the single most notable trend in mainline American Protestantism in recent decades has been the adoption of liturgical practices associated with Catholicism, such as frequent communion and observance of liturgical seasons, particularly since Rome reformed its own liturgy during and after the Second Vatican Council Catholics and most mainline Protestants have long since adopted a common “lectionary” of scripture readings for use during worship services throughout the year. At the same time, the radical theological experiments that were once so fashionable in liberal Protestant circles have been subsiding; mainliners are far more likely to recite the historic Nicene or Apostle’s creeds during worship than are evangelicals. In other words, a growing number of mainline Protestants now worship much like Catholics. . . .
More often than not, the evangelicals who accuse denominational leaders of abandoning “orthodoxy” in moral teaching are most avid to promote innovation in styles of worship. As an Episcopal priest in Maryland ruefully told me of conservative dissidents in his parish during the 1990s: “These people come to church with a Christian Coalition tract in one hand and a ‘praise hymnal’ in the other.”
The tendency for North American evangelicals to defend the fundamentals of the faith while largely abandoning the older liturgical traditions is something that not enough observers have managed to find puzzling. On the other hand, it is also true that the major part of evangelicalism in this continent, though affirming a vague orthodoxy, lacks both a robust ecclesiology and a strong confessional identity, with only a veryfewexceptions. Perhaps then it is not surprising that distinctive traditions of worship should long ago have been set aside as well.
Indeed, rather than leading them towards Rome, along with their mainline brethren, or towards the Reformation traditions, as one might expect, many evangelicals have instead subordinated worship, in utilitarian fashion, to the felt imperatives of church growth and reaching the so-called nonreligious. The result is worship that is not only deracinated but amounts merely to “one damn thing after another,” as one of my favourite liturgical scholars once put it.
So why is it that mainline protestants, who are scarcely less deracinated than their evangelical brethren, are increasingly reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed during worship?
I saw Chuck’s character close up. Chuck gave me my first job, as a research assistant working at Prison Fellowship. He also gave me a lifelong example of leadership. Following Chuck’s conversion, God took hold of a set of extraordinary skills. Christian belief did not make Chuck mild or retiring. He remained driven. He demanded much of those around him, but was quick to praise every success and achievement. He thought the standards and professionalism we bring to the Kingdom of God should be at least as high as those he brought to the Marines or the White House. Faith was never an excuse for mediocrity.
The Bible is a book filled with good things and lots of nonsense too. God — if there is one — is the creator of everything you see in the Hubble plus more. What some collection of Bronze Age mythology says and what is really out there (and in us) isn’t the same thing. Don’t blame the creator for religion or religious books.
I myself will have more to say about Colson’s legacy in the near future. Stay tuned.
I am crossposting this from my Genevan Psalter blog, because it addresses an issue that I’ve seen on the pages of the print issues of First Things in the past:
I have now posted my versification of Psalm 81, along with my arrangement of the Genevan tune. Verses 4 and 5 of this psalm, with their references to Jacob and Joseph, indicate that it originates in the northern kingdom of Israel. If so, that would place its time of origin in the two centuries between the division of Solomon’s kingdom and 721 BC, when it was conquered by the Assyrians. The psalm begins with a summons to the people to praise God in language reminiscent of the final three psalms, viz., 148-150. Instruments referenced are the tambourine, the lyre, the harp and the trumpet, to be employed at a seasonal festival prescribed by law.
At verse 6 God himself suddenly speaks to his people, reminding them of his faithfulness to them in the past in freeing them from slavery. He further reminds them of his promises of protection if only they would be faithful to him and his ways, avoiding the sin of idolatry and worshipping him alone. Here his tone is reminiscent of the final verses of Psalm 95. God laments that his people would not listen, and so he left them to their sinful ways. He reiterates his promise, which is still on offer to those who love him and obey his commands.
The last two verses see another shift of voice, as the psalmist echoes God’s threat of punishment and his promise of prosperity.
Some Christians are uncomfortable singing in God’s voice, that is, in taking on their own lips the words of God as if they themselves were God. I’ve heard this complaint made most often of contemporary Roman Catholic hymns, such as Be Not Afraid and I Will Be With You, but also of the rather quirky Lord of the Dance, which has incomprehensibly found its way into a number of denominational hymnals. Those who do not like to sing in God’s voice should remind themselves that those singing the psalms, which should be all of us, necessarily find themselves doing so on occasion. Psalm 81 is a good example of this. Nevertheless, there is a valid concern here, on which church composer Aristotle A. Esguerra offers some wisdom:
Singing in the “voice of God” becomes problematic when a lyricist puts words into God’s mouth — that is, either loosely paraphrases Scripture beyond recognition (similar to many based-on-a-true-story films), or worse, completely makes something up to place into God’s mouth (and subsequently our mouths when we sing it, and our ears when we hear it). At best, it is an imposition of private revelation on an act of public worship; at worst, it is a lie. Both are unacceptable, and neither are guaranteed to be God’s Word — for if “it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church”, who speaks when the holy scriptures are paraphrased or someone puts words into God’s mouth?
My recommendation? Sing in the voice of God without worry if it’s really and truly the Word of God you’re singing, for God is speaking to you even as you sing — voice of God or not.
I found the Genevan version of Psalm 81 not especially easy to work with, mostly because the stanzas are short, as are the phrases within each stanza. The metrical pattern is 56 55 56. My own text thus contains ten stanzas for what is otherwise a fairly short psalm. The tune is in the ionian mode, which is equivalent to our major scale.
Immediately below the Komlói Pedagógus Kamarakórus (Teachers’ Chamber Choir of Komló, Hungary) performs Psalm 81 followed by Psalm 119: