On the difference between judgment and discernment: A response to Mark Sandlin, Part II

Over two and a half months ago, I began a series of posts in response to a blog post by Mark Sandlin (a liberal PC(USA) pastor) titled “At What Point Do We Get to Say Parts of Christianity Are No Longer Christian?”  Yes, this is the second in that series.  I truly did not intend to take that long to get back to this; life and other topics intervened.  I’m quite sure I’ll have the third up much more quickly than that, since I’ve already started working on it.  For now, though, go read Sandlin’s post and the first part of my response; I’ll still be here when you get back.

If you’ve done that, then I can take my positive comments on Sandlin’s post as read and go from there.  This is important because my first critical observation is actually implicit in my praise of his work.  Sandlin frames his subject in terms of judgment, and frets that identifying and calling out people who are using Christianity rather than practicing it (the distinction is his, and it’s a good one) is “judgmental” and “mean.”  My response, by contrast, is framed in terms of discernment, which is related but significantly different.  I believe there’s a category error lurking at the heart of Sandlin’s argument; it’s a subtle one, but important nonetheless.

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Fairy tales and trigger warnings

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already.  Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey.  What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.  The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.  What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.  Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

—G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

I thought of this quote as I read N. D. Wilson’s recent essay “Why I Write Scary Stories for Children.”  Wilson has much the same message, except that in his case, it comes as a product of his own experience as a parent.

I write violent stories. I write dark stories. I write them for my own children, and I write them for yours. And when the topic comes up with a radio host or a mom or a teacher in a hallway, the explanation is simple. Every kid in every classroom, every kid in a bunk bed frantically reading by flashlight, every latchkey kid and every helicoptered kid, every single mortal child is growing into a life story in a world full of dangers and beauties. Every one will have struggles and ultimately, every one will face death and loss.

There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help. . . .

Overwhelmingly, in my own family and far beyond, the stories that land with the greatest impact are those where darkness, loss, and danger (emotional or physical) is a reality. But the goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness and violence because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put the darkness in its place.

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The anti-sexism of Christianity

There are a lot of historical arguments made to support the proposition that Christianity is bad.  Many of them are sheer, unmitigated tripe.  For instance, there’s the myth of the so-called “Dark Ages” in which, supposedly, the Church suppressed science and rational inquiry.  The truth is that the roots of modern science were firmly laid in the true Renaissance of the twelfth century—and that what’s commonly called “the Renaissance” was a reactionary movement that worked hard to unlearn all that medieval scientists had learned about the errors in Greco-Roman natural philosophy.  That doesn’t suit the agenda of anti-Christian polemicists, though, or the general chronological snobbery of our time.  It also doesn’t suit the triumphalist narrative of scientific history in which the work of science always advances, which has no room for the times when science regresses.

Another is the myth of the Crusades.  Yes, the Crusades happened (that much is no myth), but it’s a widespread myth that they were “brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world.”  In reality, they were a counteroffensive against Islamic expansionism.  Islamic armies invaded the Byzantine Empire in 634, southern Italy in 652, and the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711, plus they sacked Rome in 846.  The First Crusade wasn’t until 1095.  There’s a lot more to be said here, and maybe I’ll write a full post on this at some point, but the Islamic world only remembered the Crusades for the victories of Saladin until Westerners brought the myth to them in the 19th century.

Yet another canard is the idea that Christianity is intrinsically sexist.  To support this idea and buttress their claim that contemporary Christianity is anti-woman, some argue that early Christianity was particularly oppressive to women.  This is perhaps the most indefensible myth of all, resting on nothing but chronological snobbery.  Read more

David Foster Wallace and the life-giving church

As I wrote earlier this month (though I didn’t say this in so many words), for the church to be healthy, we who make up the church need a lived knowledge of our own sin, and we need to confess that and wrestle with it each week in the context of our worship.  Michael Morgan recently offered an excellent reflection on that point, out of his reading of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

At a meeting of the “Advanced Basics” Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group in Boston [Wallace gives us] a crisp—though finally inadequate—picture of what church could be like.  The group is so compelling because of three fundamental dispositions of its people:  they are profoundly empathetic, they are profoundly gracious, and they are profoundly consistent.

First, their empathy. . . .  They all came to be in the same room because their addiction, once invisible, had steadily bubbled to the surface until it had thoroughly enveloped and ruined them.  Right there, on the edge of a cliff between death and AA, they admitted their problem and sought help.  This same basic story unfolds with variable particulars as the rest of AA listens or, more importantly, as they identify.

This remarkable empathy leads to graciousness.  Nobody’s story is too broken, too “Out There.” . . .  Nobody can confess their way out of this strange fellowship.  This is because there’s absolutely zero pretense and therefore zero capacity for condemnation.  Each person in the room has touched the void of their own helplessness, so they can be present with the darkness in others with the humility of one who knows what it’s like to be freed.

Last, the core members of the Advanced Basics group are rigorously consistent.  Wallace writes that each member attends the meetings even if they “feel like they’ve got a grip on [their addiction] at last and can now go it alone.”  For them, AA isn’t a break-glass-in-case-of-crisis option.  They all realize they are never out of crisis since their disease is always prowling around, just waiting for them to misstep.  Their need for healing is innate, not circumstantial, so they pursue healing religiously.

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A Day of reckoning for the IRS?

I first posted on this over five years ago, and I’ve still never come across a better tax system than the one Stockwell Day introduced during his tenure as treasurer of Alberta.

Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day is proposing to de-link Alberta’s provincial tax system from its federal counterpart. Instead of Albertans paying provincial tax on a percentage of their federal tax payable, a tax on a tax, they will instead pay a single rate of 11% on their taxable income, a tax on income.

This move to flatter taxation is to be applauded and Mr. Day has ensured that the move is beneficial to all income groups. [Part and parcel] with the planned move to the single rate tax is a substantive increase in the provincial basic personal exemption and spousal exemption to $11,620 up from $7,131 and $6,055 respectively. And Mr. Day has pledged to index the exemption to inflation to ensure that the hidden tax increase known as “bracket creep” is vanquished from the Alberta landscape. . . .

Alberta has now ensured that those with incomes under 11,620 pay a rate of 0% and everyone else pays 11% on their income above the basic personal exemption. So the effective provincial rate on someone earning $30,000 is 6.7% and the effective rate on someone at $100,000 is 9.7%.

Tweak the numbers to fit the current American situation, but the basic idea is good and simple: put all income into one bowl, exempt the first $X per person, and tax all the rest at the same rate. Cut the tax form down to a page, make the tax code transparent, drastically reduce the IRS payroll (and trim a lot of corporate bureaucracies as well) . . . what’s not to like?

Oh, yeah, and boost the economy, too.

 

Photo © 2006 Thorfinn Stainforth. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Relativizing ourselves

The great problem I have with moral and cultural relativism is that they’re only ever wielded in one direction.  When we invoke relativism, it’s to relativize and thus dismiss those who disagree with us; we never seem to use it to relativize our own assumptions.  Functionally, moral and cultural relativism are a cloak of humility to disguise tyrannical moral/cultural imperialism.

Many of the assumptions contemporary Western mass culture considers self-evident and holds sacrosanct are actually far from obvious, and in fact would be seen as strange and highly implausible by most cultures in human history.  Gavin Ortlund is right:  “Secularizing late-modernity is a strange, new animal.”

Of course, as he goes on to say, “Identifying the historical and global isolation of our culture does not discredit it.  ‘Weird’ does not always equal ‘wrong.'”  However, we should always bear in mind Tim Keller’s wise observation that if the Bible is really God’s word, it will inevitably offend and infuriate every culture somewhere.  There will always be assumptions in any given culture which the culture considers self-evident and sacrosanct that Scripture flatly contradicts.  To that end, it’s worth looking for those aspects of our culture which are atypical or even strange in the broader context of human history, to help us see where we need to treat our own culture as relative rather than normative.

Ortlund identifies three for our consideration:

  • God is in the dock.
  • Morality is about self-expression.
  • Life is starved of transcendence.

It’s tempting to respond to these points with complaint, castigation, and nostalgia; but such a response is not productive.  As Ortlund writes,

Gospel faithfulness demands we engage our culture with both truth and love, yielding neither to compromise on the one side nor escapism on the other. This means we cannot simply bemoan the encroaching cultural darkness, swatting at the errors around us with our theological club.  As TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry puts it, “It is not enough that the church should counter the values of the dominant culture. We must be a counterculture for the common good.”

In responding to these metaphysical, ethical, and existential Copernican revolutions in our culture, I believe we must work hard to establish the corresponding subversive biblical doctrine in each of three areas: (1) a high view of God, (2) a thoroughgoing notion of repentance, and (3) a transcendent vision of worship.

Read the whole thing.  It’s more than worth your time.

 

John Horsburgh, Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm from the northeast, 1824, engraving, after a drawing by J. M. W. Turner.  Public domain.

A theology for suffering

All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.

—John Calvin

Calvin knew the truth of this in his bones.  As Peter Sanlon writes in his essay “Calvinism: Best Drunk Shaken,”

It impossible to read Calvin’s work and not see that he spoke from experience.  Calvin himself had a sense of God’s goodness to him, even in trials and struggles.  Exiled, bereaved, persecuted, reviled and unhealthy—Calvin’s life was one in which he still felt God goodness toward him, personally.

Sanlon’s analysis of the ways that Calvin’s suffering shaped his theology, and his expression of his theology, is fascinating.

Read the opening sections of his 1536 Institutes.  The famous first sentence is present in a recognisable form:  ‘Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts, knowledge of God and ourselves.’ . . .

in the 1536 edition, Calvin, after his opening sentence proceeds to assert, ‘Surely we ought to learn the following things about God . . .’  He then lists four lessons all should learn. In the next section, about the knowledge of man, he follows a similar approach of listing the main lessons.  All he says is true and important—but the tone is in stark contrast to later editions of his work.  After Calvin and Farel were forced out of Geneva in April 1538, Calvin wrote another edition of his Institutes.  This version, published in 1539, added the words:  ‘Which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.’  A note of uncertainty, humility and awe begins to permeate what had previously been merely a clear explanation.

The humility Calvin seemed to feel before the awesome reality of God, climaxed in his 1559 edition, which may be seen to be markedly different in tone to the edition published in 1536.  Calvin probes and explores the obscure and intangible links between knowledge of God and humanity.  Gone are the three or four points that must be learnt; added is the section on piety quoted above.  The final 1559 edition carried readers into an experience of the knowledge of God, precisely because Calvin had himself matured and entered more fully into a personal sense of God’s goodness in suffering.  Doubtless there were people that Calvin ministered to in his time of exile from Geneva; they and us benefit from the embarrassment caused to Calvin by his experience of suffering.  Calvin’s sufferings were a shaking which caused his knowledge to be more personally appropriated.  His struggles inculcated piety.

Calvin’s suffering developed his theology in a profound and unusual way.  Many theologians have developed a theology of suffering, wrestling with it as a theological abstraction.  Calvin ended up writing a theology for suffering, in which suffering is incorporated into theology.  Suffering gives theology living depth, moving it from an intellectual exercise to an existential truth, apprehended at the deepest levels of the heart.  In turn, theology gives suffering existential meaning.

Suffering and sadness is a large part of our lot in this fleeting life.  It is how the theology of Calvin is shaken, so that it can be truly refreshing to those who drink it.  I would like to suggest that Calvin was cognizant of this need for theology to be shaken by life’s sadnesses. . . .

Calvin is teaching that a personal, existential appreciation of God’s kindnesses is essential to real Christianity. Indeed, bringing about such an experience is a key goal of his theological endeavors. There must be a sense of God’s kindness which goes far beyond the speculation so highly prized by Aquinas. Piety necessitates a ‘heart certainty’ (certitudinem cordibus) Inst.1.7.4.

A heart certainty which is to be sensed and experienced, must be forged in the travails of life. By definition that which is sensed cannot be attained by mere speculation. Calvin placed great emphasis upon the fact that knowledge of God must ‘not merely flit in the brain, but take root in the heart.’ There it must be ‘felt, sensed and adored.’ It must ‘affect’ and induce ‘wonder.’ Inst.1.5.9. With these and other terms Calvin urges readers to appropriate his theology.

The sufferings of life shake Christians; the result is that they experience, by faith in the Spirit’s power, God’s goodness in the midst of sadness. Such piety is not, as many Christians imagine, merely an extra, optional comfort to some who suffer. Rather, it is essential for all real Christians. Calvin’s theology must be shaken by life’s trials before it can be tasted for the revitalising drink that it is.

As Sanlon says, “One of the most satisfying aspects of Calvin’s views is that they taste best when shaken by life’s sadnesses.”  This is a great gift to the church.

The god that is failing

The above image is a screenshot of an article from io9.com.  Yes, the title is completely accurate.  John Bohannon writes,

My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany.  We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes.  And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data.  It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research.  Which is to say:  It was terrible science.  The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

At first glance, to the non-scientist, Bohannon’s assertion may seem very strange.

I know what you’re thinking.  The study did show accelerated weight loss in the chocolate group—shouldn’t we trust it?  Isn’t that how science works?

That’s certainly how modern education has taught us to think.  The problem is, you can’t trust the results of a study if you only know the results.  You need to be able to see the process.  We might call this the Weasley Principle, following the words of J. K. Rowling’s character Arthur Weasley:  “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain!”  It’s quite easy to get whatever result you’re hoping to get if you let your results influence your process.  Read more

The freedom of facing our sin

I have thought for some time that one of the greatest problems in the church in America is that our knowledge and understanding of ourselves as sinners is largely theoretical and abstract—and I’m not talking about the liberal wing of the church when I say this.  (Not primarily, anyway.)  We airily acknowledge that of course we’re all sinners, and each of us is willing to admit that he is a sinner or she is a sinner in some generic sense—but try to get most churchgoers to accept that they are specific sinners, that they are guilty of various behaviors and heart attitudes which merit the wrath of God and are deserving of his judgment, and you find out very quickly what it feels like to hit a stone wall at a hundred miles an hour.

As a consequence, our understanding of the grace of God and our need for grace is equally abstract and theoretical.  We may agree that we have a generic need for generic grace, but that doesn’t often penetrate to the reality of the sin in our hearts.  For ourselves, this goes one of two ways.  On the one hand, we minimize our sin:  it’s not that big a deal, God can’t really be all that bothered by it, and what right does that person over there have to get so upset?  We brush it under the rug, where it can grow happily without interference and rot out our floorboards.  On the other, we maximize it:  if anyone knew, they could never forgive me, and God can’t possibly really forgive me either.  Our prayers become desperate pleas to God to just give us more time or more help so that we can stop doing these things before he judges us in his wrath and utterly crushes us.  We set our sin up like a statue in the middle of everything where it can dominate our thinking; we can never get free of it and move past it because we’ve identified it as the central reality of our lives.

Either way, our functional expectation is that we can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t have to, live by grace.  Grace is for “salvation,” which we implicitly understand as simply a “get out of Hell free” card; for normal life, our pattern of living by law remains largely unchallenged and unquestioned.  If we’re guilty of sin, we deserve to be condemned for it; therefore, either we accept that we’re guilty and heap condemnation on ourselves, or else we reject condemnation by insisting that we’re not really guilty in any important way.

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Bearing witness

This has been a brutally hard month for me.  I’m not going to get into the reasonsit wouldn’t serve anyone to do thatbut the result, unfortunately, was not that I rose to the occasion.  Instead, I relapsed into a pattern of escape behavior.

That’s a distinction I learned last spring from a colleague here in northern Indiana.  Talking with a group of fellow pastors and our wives, he noted that we will inevitably have times when we are stressed beyond what we can bear.  That’s true of many people these days, but it’s universally true in pastoral ministryit’s just the nature of the work.  When those times come, he told us, we have two choices:  withdrawal and escape.

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