Kill Your Weekends

For Easter Sunday the New York Times released an editorial where Ross Douthat implored secular liberal readers to start going to church again in order to save the aging and dying mainline denominations (Think PCUSA). I have to admit, I did appreciate a few of the things he had to say. Such as the benefits of church communities that societies like the Freedom From Religion Foundation will never match.

Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.

Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.

Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.

… Finally, a brief word to the really hardened atheists: Oh, come on. Sure, all that beauty and ecstasy and astonishing mathematical order is because we’re part of a multiverse or a simulation or something; that’s the ticket. Sure, consciousness and free will are illusions, but human rights and gender identities are totally real. Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.

But the real problem and explanation for why these churches are dying in the first place quickly comes to light when Douthat informs his readers that the mainline have done their absolute best to make us comfortable already, so won’t you please throw them a bone and attend already:

I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.

You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.

And therein lies the rub. By all accounts, the mainline churches should be booming with growth. Yes yes, they are still the largest denominations in America by a large margin (apologies to my LCMS friends, you are much larger than NAPARC but the ELCA is twice your size) and will continue to be even after they lose half a million more congregants over the next couple years. But by all accounts, they’re doing everything right by becoming as accommodating as possible. Why aren’t the membership rolls growing by flinging the doors open wide and establishing no barrier for entry?

This reminds me of an episode of a podcast I regularly listen to, the Judge John Hodgman Podcast. On this show, author and former minor television personality John Hodgman settles real-world disputes his guests have. It’s a great show because it shows a wide swatch of human experience that is utterly foreign to me. From a dispute about having dinner with the extended family five nights a week to whether or not the master bedroom should be turned into a dedicated VR room (and decorated like the Holodeck from TNG), the problems may vary in consequence, scope or importance, but each is real and Hodgman, while funny, also treats each case seriously and in probing often finds, as he puts it, “the crux of the matter”.

The episode this reminded me of ‘Separation of Church and Date‘ bowled me over because it revealed to me what’s common knowledge (I tend to have my head in the sand on many issues). In this episode the dispute is that a woman would like her boyfriend to attend church with her a couple times a year. The boyfriend has set a limit to the number of times he’ll attend church each year, and would also like for attending weddings with religious elements to count towards this limit. My immediate reaction was “Suck it up. We all do things we don’t want to do for the sake of a healthy relationship and besides, going to your friend’s wedding should be something you look forward to no matter what the circumstances are. Stop being a self-absorbed oaf and go be an actual partner.”

Then I learned more about the exact situation. She didn’t just want him to attend church with her on Easter, Christmas and a handful of other weekends. She was in seminary, training to become a pastor herself. One of the events he didn’t want to attend was her own ordination. The Judge then delved into her beliefs as a future “Minister of Word and Sacrament”. She claimed to agree in “something greater than human kind” and when the Judge clarified by stating, “Right, you believe in God” she retorted with “As a label” and when asked about the afterlife she said she was indifferent (Indifferent about the resurrection of the dead, closing tenets of both the Apostle and Nicene creeds?) and said she preferred, as if it were somehow mutually exclusive, to focus on the here and now and making the world a better place.

Someone award her the Kuyper prize.

And so now she found herself in a situation where her live-in boyfriend of 10 years was ambivalent about attending her ordination ceremony. And really, who could blame him? Of course he’s ambivalent, it’s an ambivalent religion with no stakes that makes no claims that demands nothing of you. What’s the point of a Christian religion where its own ministers and elders won’t even clearly state that they believe in God? That’s why fewer and fewer people are willing to give up their Sunday mornings for a glorified social club with a dress-up aspect. Why miss Easter brunch specials and NFL Sundays for some quasi-belief in next to nothing? The denomination even has ministers who deny the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity, in violation of the creeds and confessions they allegedly subscribe to, and no one even blinks at this.

This sort of fuzzy belief at best, and belief in nothing at all at worst has a name and it’s not Presbyterianism, Reformed or even Christianity. It’s agnosticism and atheism. And if the focus is rallying people around political and social causes, that’s what Parties and Committees are for. That’s why Douthat’s pleading to save the mainline will fall on deaf ears. His marks aren’t stupid, they know full well there’s no point in attending these churches and they won’t be conned into it. The only reason that they’re still around is simple inertia.

The great newspaperman H.L. Mencken summed this up in his obituary of  J. Gresham Machen in 1937 (1937, remember that whenever anyone tells you this has only happened within the last few years or decades):

What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.

Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen’s attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.

Moreover, the doctrine that he preached seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be excessively dubious. I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism. But Dr. Machen had the same clear right to believe in it that I have to disbelieve in it, and though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.

These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.

It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.

These postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, “education,” or osteopathy.

That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again–in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed–but he was undoubtedly right.

I apologize for the length of that quotation, but it really hammers home the point and it’s a criticism we Christians should take to heart when we’re worried about being respectable in the eyes of society and our critics. We cannot win respect by throwing essential doctrine off the ship. Altering our religion to make it appealing will only confirm what they already knew, that it truly means nothing at all. If you want respect then you should emulate Machen and strive for a consistent and intelligent defense of the faith. Attending a compromised church out of guilt, as a matter of merely connecting with community, or because a columnist begged you to because the mainline has tried so hard to be palatable to you, is not just pointless, it’s soulless. You’re better off watching football Sunday mornings instead.

Monolithic Inerrancy

While researching an entirely unrelated topic, I stumbled across a quote from J Gresham Machen’s most famous work, Christianity and Liberalism, that caught me by surprise:

It must be admitted that there are many Christians who do not accept the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That doctrine is denied not only by liberal opponents of Christianity, but also by many true Christian men. There are many Christian men in the modern Church who find in the origin of Christianity no mere product of evolution but a real entrance of the creative power of God, who depend for their salvation, not at all upon their own efforts to lead the Christ life, but upon the atoning blood of Christ—there are many men in the modern Church who thus accept the central message of the Bible and yet believe that the message has come to us merely on the authority of trustworthy witnesses unaided in their literary work by any supernatural guidance of the Spirit of God. There are many who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors. Such men are not really liberals, but Christians; because they have accepted as true the message upon which Christianity depends. A great gulf separates them from those who reject the supernatural act of God with which Christianity stands or falls.

This has instantly shot Christianity and Liberalism to the top of my reading list so I can read this in its full context because I almost can’t believe this is an accurate quote. Machen was no liberal, on the contrary, he was forced out of Princeton and the PCUSA for his commitment to orthodoxy and went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in response. Yet this statement of his that can be found in nearly any Reformed Church’s library, is broad and charitable enough that if it was posted in the average Reformed Facebook group we’d have a holy horde doubting his salvation.

But at least Machen was simply being charitable towards others here. He himself fully held to the belief that the Bible was wholly divinely inspired and without error. He just didn’t think we should brandish those with a less strict subscription as being heretics. The same can’t be said for this inconvenient quote from one of our favorite thinkers:

The Book of Job appears to me unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say.”

You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

In what sense does the Bible ‘present’ this story ‘as historical’? Of course it doesn’t say ‘This is fiction’: but then neither does Our Lord say that His Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction. (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason.)

Are we prepared to condemn or at the very least, treat Lewis as dangerous because of these views? His books are doubtless in our church libraries, we trust him with our children (Including his book The Last Battle which contains that troubling story of Emeth). If we give Lewis a pass for these views and welcome him into our homes, are we prepared to do the same for someone who might be sitting in the pew across from us?

Inerrancy is a particularly tricky subject. I’d bet that no matter how strict you consider yourself on the matter there is someone out there who would take your view as insufficient. If you hold to anything other than 6 day, 24 hour creationism you can find yourself on the outs very quickly (despite this not being a controversial subject until relatively recently). If you rightly think that the Earth is spherical and revolves around the sun there is a whole cabal out there who will gladly inform you that you don’t take passages like Joshua 10 seriously enough. Think the Theory of Relativity is a legit scientific theory? Reconstructionists will tell you that you don’t take God at his word.

Obviously I believe the Bible is the inerrant and divinely inspired Word of God, but for each individual that says this, the term ‘inerrant’ is up in the air. I think we should be careful to not try to make the Bible authoritative over subjects that it doesn’t claim to have authority over. That we don’t twist it to say things it has no intention of saying. At the same time, we must be careful that we don’t work overtime to diminish it so that it ends up saying nothing at all

Tradition in Progress

The two who make it all worthwhile

Having a kid has made me think a lot more conscientiously about establishing traditions for Gideon to grow up with. Family traditions center us and provide a rhythm, structure and familiarity to life that I think is important.

Tradition is more than repetition, it’s anticipation.

Gideon is far too young to engage in the holidays other than being put into cute outfits. Maybe next year we’ll start considering egg coloring, egg hiding and what significance, if any, rabbits will play. A lot of these events will probably be played out at my parent’s house, which is fantastic. Tradition should be multi-generational. But I also want to be sure that a holiday’s traditions aren’t all entirely focused outside our home. Egg activities and Easter dinner with the grandparents is wonderful but we also need to focus on our own little individual family unit as well.

I’ll have a couple years to research and come up with some unique activities (I’m thinking Easter Bonfire for one) so right now I’m focusing on food.

Food is the beating heart of tradition. Nearly all holidays and celebrations revolve around it. Thanksgiving dinner, Birthday cakes, Christmas cookies, Fourth of July BBQs and Halloween candy. Tradition is about community and we eat with our people, so it makes sense that food is nearly always at the center of our observances.

Being the primary cook in my household means I can grab the reigns of the menu and steer the ship in the direction I want. This will generally always mean one thing:

No ham.

Now ham is FINE, I will never turn up my nose at ham when it is prepared and presented for me. I will eat it gratefully and without complaint. I would never cook ham of my own accord though. That’s because, as I said, ham is simply fine. It is a staggeringly average meat that a lot of people love to a degree I don’t understand. I wish I understood, life would be a lot better if I were gaga for ham because it’s a centerpiece for nearly every major holiday.

The weird thing about ham is that it’s not even a matter of disliking pork products in general. Bacon, sausage, pork chops, pork ribs, pulled pork, and pork loin are all foods I love that reach levels of flavor far beyond baked ham. Ham is fine, it’s just a bit boring, and what I don’t want for a holiday is boring.

So this was my initial run for my Easter Eve dinner.

Roasted Rosemary Red Potatoes – Diced up an armful of red potatoes, tossed them into a bowl. Drizzled them with olive oil and tossed to coat. Seasoned with Johnny’s and crushed rosemary. The texture could have been much more consistent. That will need to be improved.

Macaroni Egg Salad – Dice a dozen hard boiled eggs, several celery stalks, a batch of green onions and half a red onion. Mix with cooked and chilled macaroni and add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and some smoked paprika. Season. This turned out great but the original recipe called for 2 lbs of macaroni which was far, far, far too much. I need to get my grandmother’s recipe and try that.

Lamb Shoulder Chop – Prepare a mint and basil sauce (that’s a post all for itself) and let the lamb marinate in it for at least a couple hours. Toss some butter onto a cast iron skillet and plop the chop down. Before flipping over be sure to baste with the remainder sauce. I’m not married to the shoulder chop, a lot of eating around the bone. I’ll probably experiment with another cut next year if I can fine one.

The lamb is obviously the hero of the meal, our ham substitute. I don’t know why we don’t eat more of it in this country, it’s easily up there with my favorite proteins but it’s too expensive to eat as regularly as we might eat chicken, pork, or even beef. That’s a shame, I’ve heard that in Britain that mutton (different from lamb, I know, but still) is one of the most affordable proteins available. For now, I’ll reserve lamb for special occasions and Easter is obviously the appropriate holiday to indulge in it.

I’m also thinking this meal is missing something important, mainly a soup. If I can source it at a good price I think I may try to add coney stew next year, along with prepping the dishes that will keep well (the egg salad, obviously) the day before to cut down on muss and fuss on Saturday. I may also use my Traeger for the lamb next year, rather than the cast iron. Sadly my trusty smoker pal is out of commission for the time being as I give it a thorough cleaning. Assuming I can put it back together, it should play a very prominent role in all these new food traditions.

White Horse Inn: Implications of the Resurrection

For Easter meditation from the White Horse Inn:

“Jesus is our intercessor. Paul says, ‘Who shall condemn us? He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died, more than that, who was raised, who was at the right hand of God interceding for us.’

“What a wonderful doctrine – to think that Jesus didn’t just finish it and go home. He went into the heavenly sanctuary where he had to cast out Satan, our accuser. So now, he is in the court room. We have a loving Father and a defense attorney and there is no prosecutor and he’s interceding every day for us. And because he has been raised, we will be raised as well.” -Michael Horton

John Calvin – A Little Book on the Christian Life

Ever had the problem where you read about the rich young ruler who departed from Jesus in sorrow when he was told to sell all his possessions and follow Him and think “Well, I’m not rich so this isn’t really my problem.” This little book will solve that problem. It pierces the heart of our pride, shows how we arrogantly corrupt our best qualities, turn our vices into virtues, and mock the nobility of others.

If Calvinists read this booklet and took it seriously I don’t think we’d have the reputation we do now. We prove Calvin right as we delusionally turn our pride and conceit into (self) righteousness

Social Gospel?

I came across a post written by the wonderfully named Lex Lutheran yesterday which tackles an accusation I’m seeing a lot of lately. It seems that lately one can’t talk about addressing racial problems, especially within regards to the church, without being accused of promoting a false Gospel, a social Gospel. The only way racism or racial reconciliation seems to be able to get addressed is only when it arises in its most virulent forms such as kinism. Even then, links to sites of horrific hate (such as ‘Faith and Heritage’) get spread about in the comments sections on prominent pastor’s blogs. Discredited pieces of alternative history that attempt to vindicate sinful institutions such as  antebellum slavery get picked up and polished for a new generation of readers, and then we feign surprise, indignation and offense when it’s suggested we may have a sin problem.

In the Reformed camp I believe we should be the first to acknowledge that we may not be as sanctified as we present ourselves to be. That we have hidden sins of hatred for neighbor that nurse away in the black corners of our heart.  John Calvin wrote:

We are all so blinded and upset by self-love that everyone imagines he has a just right to exalt himself and to under-value all others in comparison to self.

If God has bestowed on us any excellent gift, we imagine it to be our own achievement; and we swell and even burst with pride.

The vices of which we are full we carefully hide from others, and we flatter ourselves with the notion that they are small and trivial; we sometimes even embrace them as virtues..

If the same talents which we admire in ourselves appear in others, or even our betters, we depreciate and diminish them with the utmost malignity, in order that we may not have to acknowledge the superiority of others.

If others have any vices, we are not content to criticize them sharply and severely, but we exaggerate them hatefully.

Hatred grows into insolence when we desire to excel the rest of mankind and imagine we do not belong to the common lot; we even severely and haughtily despite others as our inferiors.

If you take what Calvin wrote above seriously, as a problem common to all men, then it should not be surprising to us when we evaluate ourselves that we are not as forward-thinking as we pretend, and when others present this to us we try to turn this appeal into a sinful attack that our conscience can remain clear.

I myself won’t make any radical call to action that the church must take, I’d simply ask that we remain sober minded when injustice is before us, especially when it is waged against our fellow believers (Lex, I believe, is an African American who belongs to a conservative Lutheran denomination. He is certainly a brother in Christ). We shouldn’t hide behind our own perceived righteousness or downplay their suffering. We can even hide behind our own righteousness by puffing ourselves up and telling ourselves, “Well at least I don’t…” Take Calvin’s words above to heart when you examine your own motives, none of us is as innocent as we’d like to think we are.

Lex Lutheran hosts a new podcast called The Wittenberg ProjectIf you like what he had to say earlier, I’d recommend listening to it.

Edit: My friend Emily recently shared an article written by a woman that I believe touches on this subject. These subjects must be able to be broached and addressed without someone screaming “Social Gospel!”