Today is the First Sunday of Lent, and I thought it might be a good day to issue a call for a feminist theologian who would provide some good counterpoint to the three of us men here on A Christian Thing.
Why a feminist theologian?
Because, as I learned in feminist studies, feminism in its current state isn’t solely obsessed with gender. It has more to do with power.
I recall, for example, the opening vignettes in Rosemary Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk. There, Jesus is portrayed as someone who comes into the world to show it that with all of its conceptions of a god of sovereign power and might, the God revealed in Jesus is one who refuses power and thus liberates us from the structures of oppression by revealing our false theologies.
Or maybe we don’t just need a feminist theologian. Maybe we need a womanist. A womanist comes out of the black liberation tradition, a critique of the black liberation theology of James Cone for not taking into account theological reflection done from the perspective of the oppressed black woman portrayed vividly in the work of Alice Walker.
Why all this on the First Sunday of Lent?
Because of our meditations on the temptations of Jesus in the desert, the refusal to align himself with the powers to make the kingdom of God happen, the repentance from the way the world works by jockeying for power, the in-breaking of the eschatological kingdom that is constituted by love.
Part of that re-alignment has been pointed out by yet another feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. In Memory of Her takes its cue from Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel that we’re meditating on this Year B, to make the case that when Jesus said that the woman who washed his feet would be remembered in all proclamations of the Gospel has in fact been conveniently forgotten in a patriarchal re-constitution of Christianity.
We need a feminist theologian on A Christian Thing because we are already doing feminist theology. We are pointing out that the gendered stereotypes in conventional evangelicalism aren’t cutting it. We are demonstrating that bad theology is an alignment with the powers. We are arguing for the doing of Christian theology with the oppressed and the damned, with the depressed and the colonized, with the un-labelable and the unwanted. And we are positing that this is Christian orthodoxy because it is this that constitutes the real communion that Jesus lived with the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the “sinners.”
We are also three heterosexual men doing what could converge with trends in feminist theology. We probably could use some help, but then again, come to think of it, maybe we’re answering the call already.
Maybe I’m mistaken to call for feminist theologians to join this blog, per se, then, as if the three of us were interested in perpetuating Christian patriarchy.
But taking up In Memory of Her, though, it might be nice if a few women joined, not least to undermine the “masculine feel” that certain neo-Calvinists might mistakenly think we are implicitly promoting by being a de facto male plurality.
Thanks to Chinglican and Captain Thin for adding necessary clarification, insight, and nuance to my rather terse critique of Driscoll. I wish they could be there to tell my students what I mean when I am lecturing. Sometimes I am too aphoristic.
Today, I want to talk about Lent, particularly about the motif of desert asceticism usually associated with it. I was at an Ash Wednesday service the other day, and the text was from Hebrews 3. What was interesting about it was its focus on the desert as a negative place. Among Christians of my generation, the desert has in a sense become crowded – we like the desert fathers’ radical critique of society, and we like the wildness it represents outside the walls of the staid established church etc. But in Hebrews 3, we see not an instance of noble desert asceticism, but an act of rebellion; Anglicans will be familiar with it from the “Venite” section in Morning Prayer:
“Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did. 10 That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’ 11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
This led me to wonder what the difference might be between positive and negative desert experiences. For Christ and for many of the Church Fathers, the desert brought them closer to God. But the desert experience here only distances Israel from her God and the land he promised her.
Interestingly, the contrast between these experiences is something we also know from our own experience. We can think of those whose faith has been greatly deepened by desert-like experiences of suffering; we can also think of those who have been hurt again and again and again until they collapsed under their wounds and lost their faith entirely. We can probably empathize to a certain degree with both. What I want to explore here is how we might take up our own suffering – our own desert experiences – in a way that is positive and faith building rather than negative and corrosive.
Particularly interesting to me are the verses following this passage in Hebrews 3; the author talks about the negative desert experience as being “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness,” and I think we all know what this means. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” says the old saying that so wonderfully sums up what such hardening is about. Betrayal – deceit – makes one more careful and more guarded; sooner or later, it causes one to trust no one but oneself. And I wonder if this is not what this verse is about, if Israel did not in the desert experience and enact the deceitfulness of sin so often that it trusted no one – including God. One does not get up one day and decide to rebel against God; it gradually happens as we experience fallen-ness – the deceitfulness of sin – and guard our hearts so tightly against its effects that not even God can get in.
But what can we do about this? We cannot pretend we are not sinners, and cannot pretend that we do not experience sin’s deceitfulness daily in its manifold manifestations in the world (I include here the experience of suffering). And what is one to do except become hard? How can we remain spiritually tender amidst the hardness of the desert?
My first thought is that we can’t – which is why Christ has done this for us and imparts this to us through his spirit. Christ is the only one who can both set his face like flint toward Jerusalem and still have the tenderness to forgive his enemies and make plans for the future care of his mother while on a cross. You see, the miracle of Christ is not simply that he endured excruciating pain – even Jack Bauer can do that. No, the miracle is that he endured excruciating pain and remained fully human, open to God and others, without hardening his heart like a stone. If I might put it this way, it takes One who is fully God to remain fully and openly human while one is suffering – and that One is Christ.
This of course is why the author of Hebrews encourages those in the church to encourage one another daily as a way of avoiding the hardening that comes from sin and suffering. It takes great faith to believe that God – and not the suffering, evil, and sin we see around us – is in fact the Sovereign of the universe. Yet it is precisely this faith that allows us to remain open, relational, and human when we undergo suffering. If evil is indeed the last word in the universe, we might as well just hunker down and do our best to survive until we die; but if the last word in the universe is a God who exists in an eternal trinity of self-giving, we can have faith that, at the end of the day, He (rather than our own hard shells) will ensure our ultimate protection, even when that is not immediately evident and demonstrable. Through faith in the Spirit of Christ, we face our suffering as humans capable of relationships with others and God rather than as stones. And it is through the church – through encouraging each other daily – that we remind each other of this faith and the way it leads us to God rather than rebellion in the desert.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not against setting aside a day to talk about romance. Yes, the day is heavily materialistic. So is Christmas. That doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate the birth of Christ. In the same way, it’s good to remind our significant others that we love them – and Valentine’s Day certainly provides an opportunity to do that. What’s more, it gives Christians (along with everyone else) a day yearly when public discussion of love and relationships is not only acceptable, it’s encouraged. So if The Christian Post wants to publish a romance-inclined article on Valentine’s, I’m all in favour of it.
Just so long as it’s not this particular article.
What exactly is wrong with CP’s “list of the most eligible, and admirable, Christian bachelors?” Simply put, it’s this: the article glorifies particular individuals as the “ideal” by which Christian women should be judging potential husbands, rather than encouraging them to consider men in light of the qualities God desires of all men. In other words, they’re asking you to take a particular example and then to judge the entire category by it rather than the other way around. “Take note of some of these bachelors’ most promising qualities,” the author writes, “and then search for the same features in the man you plan on dating.”
No, no, no. Don’t do that. It’s bad advice. You shouldn’t look to celebrities (even Christian celebrities) as if they were the ideal. The fact is, any picture you can draw from the public persona of anyone is just that – a public persona. You have no idea what the person is like. You have no clue what’s going on in his or her heart. She or he may be all sunshine and happiness on the outside, but for all you know that person is cruel, self-centered, and an all-around not-nice-guy/gal.
That’s not, of course, to suggest any of the “eligible bachelors” CP lists are somehow bad people. I have no idea. That’s the point: I have no idea, nor do the rest of the readers, nor does the author. Holding them up, therefore, as the standard by which woman should judge all men? Well, that indicates a pretty shallow understanding of how Christian relationships should work.
It also indicates an approach to husband hunting heavy on the objectification. Apparently, the ideal man is a professional athlete (three of four “most eligible men” are) or should (in the other case) at least be built like one.
Now, I know this article was probably meant in a light-hearted vein. But it represents too much of what is wrong with how Christians seek out spouses to let it slide. We focus too much on what is immediately visible, and not enough on the far more important things. How many couples early on in their relationship discuss whether their theologies jive? Whether their job aspirations are compatible? How many children they want? I’m guessing not as many as ought. But really, if you can’t agree on these sorts of things – or at least be working through them – then what business do you have being in a relationship together?
Christians keep entering into relationships with their whole hearts, it seems, but not their minds. They’ve not worked through the heavy issues together. And (if this article is any indication), they’ve also entered those relationships judging their spouses according to glorified “ideal” men and women. So when things hit a bump (as they inevitably will), the entire relationship goes off the road. After all, the ideal man (at least the picture you have of him in your mind) should be flawless. And if that’s the standard by which you’re judging, no one is going to be good enough.
Want to find the “ideal” husband or wife? Stop looking at celebrities and start looking to God’s Word. Then, look around to find someone who matches what God has to say – not someone who merely reflects a celebrity you’ve never met. Admittedly, it’s not as funny a story as The Christian Post put out today. But it’s infinitely better advice.
[An article I wrote for Converge Magazine might be a help to you in beginning to think biblically about God’s plans for men. It’s called “The man God hasn’t called you to be.” Check it out (pages 32-33).]
I think that debating whether or not Mars Hill is a cult is unhelpful, though, and it isn’t entirely fair to Pastor Mark either. Sure, it might give some disaffected people some comfort that they’re justified in leaving Mars Hill without “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But we should remember that Driscoll does talk about how he deals with critics; following Billy Graham’s axiom to “turn your critics into coaches” (and not Jim Jones’s path of alienation), he reads his critics, even the most critical, as helping him improve his ministry by providing “trials and tribulations” through which he can grow (James 1:2). To talk about him and his church as a cult will only read like persecution, framing Driscoll as the oppressed crying out to God for vindication.
But if we are critics coaching Driscoll, I’d like to try another tack.
I do think that Churl has inadvertently hit on a key but unexplored part of the Driscoll complex with his call to revisit Trent. You see, “the world called Catholicism,” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it (Hannah’s Child, p. 95-121), is not something foreign to Driscoll. Driscoll grew up Irish American Catholic, “the oldest of five kids in a hardworking, blue-collar Catholic family near the airport in Seattle, Washington” (Radical Reformission, 11). He describes himself as a “moral religious boy from a Catholic home who, for the most part, stayed out of trouble despite a short wick, foul mouth, and bad temper that resulted in dolling out more than a few beatings to various guys–usually for what they were doing to women and children” (Real Marriage, 6). Besides all the quips about growing up in a church with “a gay alcoholic priest” whose “life of poverty, celibacy, living at the church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell” (Real Marriage, 8-9), he has more than once aptly demonstrated his Catholic creds for his congregation, not least during a sermon on Mary in his Luke series where he says:
I’ll say a lot today about the Catholics, because I was one. And I don’t hate the Catholics, I love the Catholics, but when it comes to Mary, that’s sort of their specialty. I was raised as a Catholic boy and I went to Catholic school. We were O’Driscoll, full-blown Irish-Catholic mix. My grandma was in a lay order of nuns pre-Vatican II. Latin Mass Catholic, I went to Catholic school. Catholic with a side of Catholic and Catholic for dessert, that’s how I was raised.
He has also been known to recite the Hail Mary for a wildly applauding congregation.
The trouble, I think, is that everybody, likely including Driscoll himself, thinks that Driscoll had a full-blown conversion to Protestant evangelicalism when the words from Romans 1:6 jumped out at him that he was “among those called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Radical Reformission, 13; Real Marriage, 8), as if Romans were a Protestant-only epistle (see below for Driscoll’s reading of Luther and Wesley).
I’m more inclined to think of him as an Irish Catholic kid in a Reformed Protestant candy store.
Here’s a thought from Harry Cronin, a Holy Cross priest who did his doctoral thesis on how American playwright Eugene O’Neill was a lapsed Irish American Catholic and who currently writes plays about redemption in alcoholic and queer experiences. Cronin argues in his doctoral thesis, Eugene O’Neill, Irish and American: a study in cultural context, that though O’Neill publicly left the faith, he couldn’t divorce himself from a Catholic imagination of Eucharist, confession, and purgatory. The same goes for his plays like Dooley, Dark Matter, and Memoirs of Jesus where Cronin always seems to highlight the redemptive truth of the human experience most manifest in Eucharistic transubstantiations in the queerest of places.
Ditto early twentieth century Irish writer James Joyce’s sacramental modernism. Joyce publicly renounced Catholicism, a shift autobiographically fictionalized in the Stephen Dedalus character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, yet in a letter to his brother, Joyce writes:
Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do?…To give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.
Ditto Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Lady Marchmain, the freakishly devout Catholic matriarch, is arguably worse than Driscoll’s “gay alcoholic priest who wears a dress.” And yet, one by one, each of the main characters, even the ones who have fallen the furthest from the Church because of Lady Marchmain’s overbearing conservative Catholicism, find their way back into communion because there’s just something about Catholicism they can’t shake. “I can’t shut myself out from His mercy,” one of the characters says at the end.
Ditto Jennifer Haigh’s recent 2011 bestselling Faith: A Novel, where a lapsed Irish American Catholic woman investigates in the wake of the 2002 Boston Globe Catholic sexual abuse scandal the claims that her brother, a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, sexually molested a young boy. There is a Lady Marchmain matriarch–a conservative, rosary-praying, priest-adoring Mary McGann–whose daughter Sheila is the protagonist lapsed Catholic, whose adopted son Mike marries a Protestant and struggles alone to raise their kids Catholic despite his own lapse, and whose her birth child–Fr. Art Breen–is the investigated priest. For Haigh, the draw for Catholicism is not so much the sacramental power of the Church (as in Waugh), but rather the pull of the Mary McGann figure for the children as they discover womanhood, the guys in the women they are attracted to, Sheila in the woman she becomes. And yet it makes me wonder, the sacraments aside, if Driscoll’s Catholic family, including the lay nun, has shaped the way that Driscoll sees the place of the church in the world, not to mention also his (in)famous understanding of gender roles. Move over, John Piper.
Ditto philosopher Charles Taylor’s reading of Charles Péguy, a French political philosopher who left the faith only to return again because he just couldn’t see how he could subscribe to a notion of freedom that was continuous with the tradition of the past without returning to Catholicism. Peguy coined the term réssourcement, to go back to the sources of the past for political mobilization in the present, a term that Swiss Dominican theologian Yves Congar says became the motto of Vatican II’s re-receiving of the biblical and patristic traditions (The Meaning of Tradition, 6). Says Taylor of Péguy:
And yet it wasn’t really surprising that Péguy, “mauvais sujet” though he was, returned to Catholicism. In a sense he never left it. Péguy hankered after a time of creative action, linking different periods together, but he had an acute sense of how impossible this was to attain humanly, in fact of the seemingly irresistible slide into the mechanical and the habitual, the punctual present which is determined by the past, but no longer in living relation to it. All this pointed towards a Christian idea of eternity. (A Secular Age, 750).
To put it bluntly, could it be possible that what’s happening is that Driscoll can’t shake his Catholicism? Churl thinks that Driscoll would really benefit from re-visiting the Council of Trent, submitting his authority to the Church and her living tradition. I think that Driscoll could do some soul-searching to discover how Tridentine he already is.
Let me give some tell-tale signs:
Mark Driscoll “sees things.” He sees his wife cheating on him in high school. He sees in lurid detail people getting abused in early childhood or having affairs. He casts out demons while doing biblical counselling, telling people with multiple personality disorders to “bring up the demon.” He tells stories of how his kids were scared in early childhood because they would hear horrible things from demons about the impending doom of the Driscoll family and church. This weirds people out. But would it weird the Catholic tradition out? With mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich–or better yet, Bernadette Soubirous and Padre Pio–I wouldn’t think so. And so a Catholic probably wouldn’t try to discount Driscoll’s visions as fake. They’d say that he needs a spiritual director.
Mark Driscoll is said to be “obsessed with authority” and “church discipline.” Paul Petry and Bent Meyer were fired for questioning authority. Maddening stories have emerged onto the blogosphere about how ex-members were “shunned” when they questioned the hierarchy. This shouldn’t be the way, these people cry, in a Christian church. But haven’t they heard of “fortress Catholicism,” what with Leo IX fulminating in the Vatican about papal infallibility and the errors of modernism in The Syllabus of Errorsand Vatican I, with Pius XII condemning the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean Danielou, Marie Dominique-Chenu, Hans Kung, et al. for not subscribing to neo-Thomistic rationalism? Haven’t they heard of excommunications where you are “shunned” in the sense that you can’t take communion with the rest of the people of God? I’m not defending “fortress Catholicism” (or the Inquisition, for that matter), of course. In fact, in the current climate of the conservative turn of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the issue of the new Mass rites by the Vatican, I’d say that a lot of progressive Catholics are as disappointed as the Mars Hill Refuge with a shift back to the consolidation of the hierarchy. But isn’t it interesting, friends, that this Reformed Protestant non-denominational church with ostensibly zero connection to the Roman magisterium is doing the same kind of consolidation? Sure, Driscoll probably got this hierarchical idea from the “plural elder” model advocated in Wayne Grudem’s Vineyard charismatic non-denominational neo-Reformed Systematic Theology. But I still wonder if some of it is also from his Latin Rite Catholic background. Perhaps we should think of Mark Driscoll as a “bishop” or even “pope” of sorts with the “magisterium” existing not so much in the Church catholic but the church congregated. I mean this in the sincerest and least pejorative way I can.
(BY THE WAY: Neo-Thomism was a late 19th-century/early 20th-century reading of St. Thomas Aquinas that tried to extract from his work proofs for theological categories. What the nouvelle théologie, or new theology, people were trying to say was that this way of doing theology was just boring because you do a lot of abstract conceptualization to prove Christian theology right, but you don’t do much in terms of what Aquinas thought about being the Church and being captivated by God’s beauty. An example is the Eucharist. In neo-Thomistic thought, the idea was to prove that the bread and wine really transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. What Henri de Lubac critiqued was that if you look back at the Church Fathers like Augustine, they don’t really care about the bread and wine changing–it’s more of a matter of whether you change into the Body of Christ when you take them! In other words, for the nouvelle theologie, theology wasn’t so much about validating categories and proving concepts; it’s about the COMMUNION OF PERSONS!)
Mark Driscoll preaches gender complementarity in such a way that reinforces male eldership. Catholic feminists like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Ruether probably wouldn’t like to hear this, as they attempt to re-read the tradition and the sacraments with a feminist preferential option for the poor, but paralleling Mars Hill, the Church also proclaims a gender complementarity of sorts in terms of saying that Holy Orders belongs to a male hierarchy. Benedict XVI actually has a very interesting reply to Fiorenza: in an interview discussing the possibility of women’s ordination, then-Cardinal Ratzinger says that even Fiorenza is saying nowadays that ordination is not what women seek because to be in an ordo is to be under submission, which is precisely not what women want (The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, 130). Maybe we should arrange for Driscoll to meet the pope.
Mark Driscoll thinks in theological categories. On Mars Hill Refuge, this is called the “theological swordplay” of concepts that don’t seem to have much reference to Scripture. The authors of Mars Hill Refuge may be right to be distressed, but just going back to Scripture doesn’t do justice to the Mars Hill systematic theological method. Listen to or read Driscoll some time. His mind works in categories. There is a category called “sin” where there are a bunch of actions you do that are “sinful.” There is a category called “fornication” where sexual acts performed before marriage belong; after marriage, the category shifts into “visual generosity” and “loving servanthood,” complete with a taxonomy drawn from 1 Corinthians 6 categorizing sexual acts as “lawful,” “beneficial,” and “enslaving.” There is a category called “religion,” which apparently sucks and doesn’t save from the category called “sin,” and there is a category called “Jesus,” whose categorical “penal substitutionary” atonement both categorically “propitiates” the Father’s categorical wrath and categorically “expiates” the dirtiness felt by those categorized as “abuse victims.” Driscoll’s theology works with frozen categorical concepts, and doesn’t that sound just like the neo-Thomistic rationalism that Hans Urs von Balthasar hated so much that he put wax in his ears while listening to lectures in his Jesuit seminary? In fact, if Driscoll was wanting to get out of his frozen concepts and yet keep his strong emphasis on the cross and Christ, he could give von Balthasar’s dramatic understanding of theology a try, either in Mysterium Paschale or, if Driscoll had some time on a sabbatical, in Theo-Drama.
Sola Scriptura though he might claim to be, Mark Driscoll does use the Tradition in his theological method, that is, in the sense that “sex is gross” (Real Marriage, 114-118). He sees the Reformation myth of Luther marrying Katie von Bora, the monk who wrote On Monastic Vows as a critique of special vocations and marrying a nun to boot, as the liberating moment from the Catholic “killjoy” Church raining on the sex parade (Real Marriage, 19-23); that said, speaking Protestant-ly, he doesn’t quite know what to do with another moment in evangelical history, that is, the tragic marriage of John Wesley, a.k.a. the itinerant preaching founder of Methodism who was converted by “a strange warmth” when he heard Luther’s Romans being read (Real Marriage, 97-99). (Following the Protestant Romans riff on sex and marriage, one wonders what he would have done with Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s non-marriage.) Driscoll also reads the Tradition’s emphasis on sex as procreative as suggesting that sexual pleasure is gross and sinful, and to wit, he quotes a Canadian Catholic bishops’ statement on chastity and procreative sex as the definitive word from the magisterium that “sex is gross” (Real Marriage, 116). Apparently, he doesn’t have much time for Augustine’s understanding of “concupiscence,” that sin sometimes is when you have too much of a good thing (which is a theme that John of the Cross interestingly carries into The Ascent of Mount Carmel where he says that too much spiritual reading is spiritual gluttony). But whether or not he gets concupiscence or not, Driscoll’s one major critique of the Church is just not entirely fair to the Tradition on sex, period. He doesn’t say anything about Humanae Vitaeor Evangelium Vitae; conservative (and controversial) as these encyclicals are for their denunciation of contraception, their conservatism is actually based on a fairly intricate argument that sex is about unitive love in the way that God is love, and that is pretty pleasurable. Besides, for reasons that will become apparent below, Driscoll might actually really like these documents for their discussion of abortion and potential abortifacient contraception. But on the “sex is gross” thing, John Paul II does say in the Theology of the Body catecheses that he wants the Catholic faithful to see that “our human experience is in some way a legitimate means for theological interpretation” (TOB 4.4). Doesn’t that mean that, irony of ironies, Driscoll has some support from the magisterium for his promulgation of sex for unitive pleasure?
Mark Driscoll has a fairly strong Mariology, which leads him to some fairly Catholic sexual ethical positions. Driscoll had a really blunt statement on the Virgin Birth for John Piper’s Desiring God conference on Christianity and post-modernity: “If the virgin birth of Jesus is untrue, then the story of Jesus changes greatly; we would have a sexually promiscuous young woman lying about God’s miraculous hand in the birth of her son, raising that son to declare he was God, and then joining his religion. But if Mary is nothing more than a sinful con artist then neither she nor her son Jesus should be trusted. Because both the clear teachings of Scripture about the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and the character of his mother are at stake, we must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ” (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, 136). Driscoll’s denial of the Perpetual Virginity, the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception aside (and don’t bring up “Co-Mediatrix”–remember, he thinks he’s Reformed!), this is pretty much the fairly standard Catholic (*cough*, “ecumenical”) idea that you don’t have Jesus as God and Man without a mother. This leads to a fairly strong anti-abortion stance. Aside from claiming Catholic creds, it is also telling that his sermon for the Luke series on Mary and Elizabeth was about abortion and his conversion from being pro-abortion in high school as a lapsed Catholic to being a Reformed Protestant pro-lifer who sees abortion as murder. It’s also interesting, good Catholic that Driscoll is, that while he’s supportive of non-abortive birth control measures, he converges with the magisterium in calling “the Pill” a potentially abortive contraceptive device because one of its three functions is “that it seeks to disrupt the ongoing life of a fertilized egg” (Real Marriage, 197). One could make the case, of course, that in general, Catholics and Protestant evangelicals are on the same team against abortion; witness, for example, even Stanley Hauerwas’s support for the generally fundamentalist Operation Rescue, and to boot, there is a whole spectrum within Christianity as to why we’re opposed to abortion, from the people who think of Mary as a symbol of virgin Church power that Rosemary Ruether critiques in Sexism and God-Talk to the more moderate Consistent Life Ethic fans of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s collegial reconciliation of conservative and progressive Catholics. But to make the jump from the Mary and Elizabeth story to abortion? That’s a move worthy of the conservative end of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Believe it or not, Mark Driscoll has a “preferential option for the poor,” especially women and children who have been abused. This should be a compliment to the unintentional Catholic genius of Driscoll because unlike the Church with its sexual abuse fiasco, Driscoll is encouraging people with abuse histories in his church (including his wife) to talk openly about them because they are the poor and the marginalized. He’s doing precisely what Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston had trouble doing, not to mention also what the Vatican had trouble doing during its long delay in investigating the claims that the founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, Fr. Marcial Maciel, was a serial sex offender. What’s Driscoll doing right by the Church? Letting the victims speak out of a preferential option for them, not shifting around the hierarchy that perpetrated the abuse. (Mind you, we’re talking about sexual abuse here, not the disaffected ex-members on the Mars Hill Refuge discussing church discipline abuse.) In fact, going back to Cardinal Bernardin (who was the Chicago archbishop incidentally cleared of all sex abuse charges and is not to be confused with the Boston archbishop Bernard Law that is pictured below), this preferential option for the abused isn’t just a Consistent Life Ethic–it’s a Consistent Sex Ethic from womb (anti-abortion and anti-abortive contraception) to tomb (sex abuse victims and sexual abuse perpetrators, speak out and confess!). In so doing, Driscoll is also trying to re-imagine what it would be like to be in a patriarchal community, that the hierarchy serves the laity in helping them confess their sexual sin and be free to have free married sex. This too, I submit, is a very Catholic idea that goes back to Gregory the Great, “the servant of the servants of God.” While Rachel Held Evans would critique this as unqualified sex therapy, in Driscoll’s world, it would seem that such is the nature of servanthood to the least of these.
In short, Driscoll isn’t just any kind of Catholic, if he were to be labeled as such. He sounds more like a conservative Vatican I neo-Thomistic “fortress Catholic” whose theological method interestingly might converge with that of his pre-Vatican II grandmother. The trouble is that because Driscoll is so brash about his Reformed inclinations, we too are inclined to read him through Protestant lenses. That’s why there are calls for transparency, democratization, and the abandonment of what many people call the “cult” of the Mars Hill world. These are very Protestant, if not secular, terms.
But if there’s anything I take away from the stories of Péguy, Joyce, O’Neill, and Waugh, it’s that there is something humorous about “fortress Catholicism.” It’s this: much as you revolt, revolutionize, and reform against all of the authoritarianism, patriarchy, and sacramentalism of the whole thing, if you’ve been in it, you can’t shake it. I would submit that–far from being a cult (unless you’re with Walter Martin in The Kingdom of the Cults where everything that isn’t his brand of Protestant fundamentalism is a cult)–Mars Hill should be credited as a congregational microcosm for what the Catholic Church has looked like–good, bad, and ugly–because of the inadvertent Irish Catholicism of its key founder (one wonders if Lief Moi and Mike Gunn had similar backgrounds). Indeed, though Mars Hill was founded as independent, non-denominational, non-liturgical, and sola Scriptura, what’s funny about the whole thing is that it all sounds very fortress Catholic.
So perhaps the critics should not be calling for democratization at Mars Hill, as if it were really a Protestant church. What they can’t seem to see is that Mars Hill is more Catholic than they think. It may follow, then, that what they want is a Vatican II. But Driscoll’s got that one too: it was called “bylaw revisions and elder restructuring.” Just like it was across the Tiber, sounds like the progressives here also got the stiff end of the rope from this reform.
A better tack, then? Give Driscoll a break and a new reading list. Put some Péguy, Joyce, Waugh, O’Neill, and Chesterton on there. Throw in some Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Shusaku Endo. Make him read and re-read Haigh’s Faith. Get him the full set of von Balthasar’s triptych to wean him off neo-Thomism while preserving a vital Christo-centrism. Make him learn French so that he can be blown away by de Lubac’s Surnaturel. Let him discover ressourcement as he reads up on Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions and Lay People in the Church. If he’s into doing theology from the perspective of the abused, maybe add a womanist theologian, say, Katie Cannon, or staying consistently Catholic, there’s the legendary Toni Morrison. Give our brother some mystical breathing space and maybe hook him up with a spiritual director. And finally, suggest the RCIA in the parish down the street.
My post follows on the heels of Asian American sociologist of religion Russell Jeung’s observation that the current Asian American obsession with Jeremy Lin is, well, weakbecause it seems to inspire emasculated Asian American males (EAAMs) to greater heights of athletic masculinity (implying heteronormatively that Asian American males are girly and weak) and idolatrousbecause its celebration of professional success doesn’t quite square with Jesus’ preferential option for the poor (implying that God is on the side of the rich).
I want to take a crack, though, at something even more theologically serious: Lin’s understanding of the sovereignty of God. But instead of going a more evangelical route and trying to probe whether Lin is best understood in Calvinist (“God does everything”) or Arminian (“Well, I have a part too”) terms, I’m gonna go Christological (“so what does this have to do with Jesus?”).
For Asian Americans, and in particular, Asian American Christians, Lin’s story seems to be about how someone who’s a pretty normal Asian American breaks out against the odds by being in the right places at the right time and ends up playing in the NBA scoring “miraculous” points for the Knicks. As Lin’s testimony makes clear (as also does this blog), “if it hadn’t been for ____, then _____ would not have happened,” and thus, we can surmise the fingerprints of God behind the whole thing. Accordingly, Lin’s story actually landed Chinese American Christians a favourable spot in The New York Times; indeed, the last time we were in there, the story was also about River of Life Christian Center and Taiwanese Christians, but it wasn’t so good because the story was about Proposition 8 (which, to set the story straight, River of Life did not take a stand on). It has also spawned a debate about if there’s any implied racism behind Lin’s story because Lin’s story of busting out of the Asian American stereotypes seems so significant precisely because there are stereotypes.
Lin feels called to pastoral ministry post-NBA career to help other kids figure out what God has called them to do. So in the spirit of Christian love, I’d like to do a bit of inception with the following thought: what is particularly Christian about Lin’s understanding of the sovereignty of God?
The thing about the whole “if this didn’t happen, then how could this have happened?” line of thought is that while it does suggest that there is an Unmoved Mover behind the cosmos, it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about who it is that’s doing the moving. You get a “god” in a generic theistic sense. But you can’t make the jump from there to Jesus because you haven’t the slightest clue who this god is.
The thing is, though, growing up Chinglican, I used to hear a ton about “miracles” just like the story of Jeremy Lin. There would be pastors who’d say things like, “If it hadn’t been for this, then this wouldn’t have happened” to justify how they saw themselves walking in the will of God. There’d be uncles and aunties sharing about their life journeys–really, they were doing theology because they’d say things like, “You know, looking back, I had to have done this first, because God wanted me to do this next.” God has a great and wonderful plan for your life, they’d say, quoting Bill Bright’s immortal tract, The Four Spiritual Laws, and what you need to do is to find God’s will for your life and walk in it. You find God’s will, God will open doors, miracles will happen, and you’ll find fulfillment.
Much as I’d like to trust in the God factor to see me through life smoothly, I’m having increasing trouble reconciling what I learned from Asian American Christians about God’s sovereignty to make my personal life smooth sailing and the Jesus I find revealed in the Gospels. Yes, of course, Jesus was led by the Spirit, and in the Acts of the Apostles, the Spirit closes plenty of doors for Paul. But instead of giving his disciples career success, Jesus calls them to throw down their nets, give up their tax collecting booths, and follow him. Instead of guaranteeing security in terms of having a home, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head while reconstituting the family and the nation around his proclamation of the kingdom. Instead of fulfilling the nation’s hopes and dreams of a conquering Messiah, Jesus is crucified and calls you and I to follow him to the cross.
Here’s where the “sovereignty of God” debate over whether God did all the work for Jeremy or Jeremy had to do something to cooperate with God completely misses the Christian point: they don’t talk about who that god is. Jeremy Lin claims to be no mere theist. He is a Christian. I’m just wondering if in light of that, the theological reflection around Jeremy Lin could be more Christian, narrating his story through the narrative of Jesus Christ. As a Christian, Jeremy is implying that the god who’s been leading him is Jesus. But if Jesus calls us to die with him and to live lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience with him, wouldn’t the story be much messier than a straight-line miraculous assent from high school basketball to the NBA? Oh, sure, Lin speaks of racial taunts on the court, being marginalized in the profession because of his ethnicity, and spiritually struggling with “over-confidence” in an effort to posture himself humbly before his God and neighbour. But the God of Jesus is also the God of Job. Humiliating experiences of the cross aren’t as neat and tidy as simply, “My life sucked, but God vindicated me and restored my career.” They are, in a word, humiliating and when the story is heard, it should make people go, “Now that really sucks,” not, “Oh, but God makes it all work out!” As Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar points out, we like to move way too fast from Good Friday to Easter because we don’t like the discomforting feeling of Holy Saturday’s “God is dead.” I’d like Jeremy Lin to invite us to go through his Holy Saturdays with him.
In fact, maybe this is a challenge for Asian American Christian theology. The trouble is that we don’t talk about this as an issue in Asian American Christian theological reflection. It’s probably not just an Asian American thing–Bill Bright sure wasn’t one. But it seems like enough Asian American Christians have a common experience with this “if it weren’t for this, then this wouldn’t have happened” take on the sovereignty of God. I wish to God that someone would help us all with a bit more theological reflection.
Then again, I might just be labeled as “very intellectual,” “thinking too much,” and “not trusting God enough.” I’ll reply in good evangelical fashion: Jesus is a person, and you have to get to know him on his terms. The vague god is great, partly because we can make him/her/it say whatever we want and do whatever we want for us. But to call ourselves Christian–oh, now we’ve introduced a very specific deity into the conversation, and in terms of the Jeremy Lin story, this Jesus is very good at busting our stereotypes of who God is.
I don’t deny that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has been leading Jeremy Lin throughout his career, which is a story that hasn’t ended and may be a story that blossoms into pastoral ministry. But if he goes the pastoral ministry route, I’d really like him to think deeper about some of these things, to reflect in the story of Jesus much more about the racial taunts, getting cut from teams, and the interior struggles with pride. You have to believe in more than the existence of a sovereign god to be a Christian. You actually have to participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in the life of the Triune God whose crucified love calls us to the narrow path of returning blessings for racist curses, tearfully loving resistances to being orientalized and marginalized in the profession, and solidarity with the poor and the weak as penance for pride. If you tell your story like that, I will bet that there won’t be much smooth-sailing involved–actually, there might be a lot of failures in the mix–but then again, as I’ve heard it, the story of Jeremy Lin has never been very smooth, which is precisely what makes it Christian.
Mark Driscoll has scared me for a while, with his unbiblical perspectives on gender and what can only be termed overgrown schoolyard bully antics. I keep hearing that, yes, he is a little much, but at least he has good (or standard, depending on your perspective) reformed theology. To this, my general reply would be, as per James: You believe that there is one God – good – even the demons believe that, and shudder. You see, even demons can have good theology.
What is bothering me particularly at the moment is the recent news of what seems to be an abuse of power in Driscoll’s church. Yes, I realize that with so many denominations there is a lack of Christian accountability, and this is what they are reacting against. And yes, I think there is something wrong when someone compares a church covenant to the agreement you click on iTunes (interesting aside question: does the cavalier way that such programs have taught us to enter into contracts compromise the Christian practice of letting our yes be yes and our no,no?). But from what I can tell, it does seem that the response of Mars Hill to Andrew is grounded more in an exaggerated defensive stance against “sissy” Western culture than in sound Biblical exegesis. Yes, maybe we are supposed to treat Christians under discipline as we would treat tax collectors and sinners – but then again, our model of how we treat tax collectors and sinners must be Christ rather than the Pharisees.
In short, this looks like abuse of power, and it worries me greatly, given Mars Hills’ seeming lack of accountability to other churches. You see, people often make the assumption that institutionalisation kills churches, that it would be so much better if we went back to the good old spontenaeity of the early church. I would rather suggest that, in its ideal form, the Christian institution exists to protect us from the abuses of Biblical and Christian language by those abusing that spontenaeity. You see, when I think of corrupt Christianity, I do not think of the tottering and awkward bulk of the institutionalised church – it is often too bumbling to be able to maintain the prideful appropriation of Christian language for too long – God is always humbling it through its sheepish awkwardness. No, the abuse I fear is when people say we should “just” pray, or “just” be more biblical, or “just” be more discerning, or “just” listen to the holy spirit (just should be treated as a four letter word in the Christian vocabulary). Surely we should do all these things, but the problem is that such advice sets itself beyond appeal; anyone who questions whether its use might be self-serving rather than humble and Christian is accused of setting themselves against these good things – as if pointing out their abuses were the same as dismissing them altogether. And it seems to me that Mars Hill is guilty of this; it is the Biblical church (let me just say here that no contemporary church is Biblical in the way churches think they mean when they advertise this), and questioning it is tantamount to questioning God. This is particularly scary given that Mars Hill is hardly in submission to or under the discipline of two thousand years of Christian belief – it is in submission to and under the discipline of Mark Driscoll. While it may be exceedingly corrupt at times, Christian tradition, practice, and the communion of saints exist to keep pastors – shepherds – from becoming abusive celebrities. Church discipline is important, yes, but I think it should only be practiced by churches insofar as those churches are being the church in all aspects. If Driscoll is so keen about Christian submission to discipline, he should consider submitting his own church to the authority of a two thousand year old Christian tradition. And since he so dearly loves blood sport, I do not feel particularly bad in hitting below the belt and suggesting that he start by studying a certain Council of Trent, presumably undertaken with people like him in mind.
I’ve been reading Lauren
Winner’s new memoir “Still,” and she has a lot to say about something I would call “hiding in plain sight.”. What I mean by this is that while some of us hide by in fact hiding, others of us hide by being very public about our struggles and our analysis of them; this gives us control over how people perceive our troubles, and also projects the illusion that we are managing to deal with them without the help of others. I suppose I notice this in particular because I recently had the interesting experience of being depressed while writing an article on one’s personal response to depression. I like how it came out, and I’m sure people will read it and think how wonderfully insightful it is, and it is just enough to convince people that surely someone with such deep and wonderful insight does not need further help from them. And this is exactly what I want, you see, because frankly I don’t like to need other people – I don’t want to be vulnerable, so I am very public about my own vulnerability. But I think we need to need (God and others) before we can experience grace, and so hedging ourselves into this space of transparent bullet-proof glass, see-through but unreachable, is something we need to pray about – we need God to rescue us. I suppose that would be my advice to those who recognize this in themselves, but I would also encourage fellow Christians to be on the watch to help those who hide in plain sight – I imagine in many cases they are those you depend on most for spiritual strength.
Okay, it’s admittedly pretty lame to make my first post on “A Christian Thing” be a non-post (read: “link to another website”). But then again, I’m fairly lame, so what can you do?
An article I’ve written for First Things’ “On the Square” went up today. It (as the title of this post might lead you to believe) is about Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. Put concisely, it makes a case for the continued relevancy of the monarchy from a Christian Canadian perspecive. So go ahead and check it out: “God Save the Queen: A Canadian Reflects on why the Monarchy Still Matters.”
Well then. Here’s hoping I manage to make my next contribution to “A Christian Thing” a bit more substantive.
I just came back from a wonderful seminar led by the members of Ordinary Time, a worship band consisting of former Regent College students and focusing on liturgical, contemplative, and hymnodic (is that a word?) song. The session was on lament in worship, and it was wonderful to be in a room full of people concerned with the fact that much modern Christian worship encourages the equation of faith and cheerful triumphalism. The session focused on various things: the theology behind Christian lament, the state of lament in popular culture, and the more practical aspect of what it means to lead a church in lament. What struck me though was the constant refrain, throughout the sessions and in group discussion, about those whose stories are suppressed, overlooked, or curtailed because their stories can only be expressed through the lament we in some churches have no place for. Listening to people talk, it felt as if those responding spoke out of a shared sigh of relieve to be in a place where – unlike their churches – they did not need to hide under a cheerful mask.
And this brought me back to something I have been thinking about recently. I think we need to take seriously the passage in Isaiah that says “Comfort my people,” and doing this might mean a recovery of the word “comfort.” When I was more involved with the evangelical church, there used to be much talk about being willing to “go outside your comfort zone” for God. I don’t think this is a Christian idea. I know that it came out of a place of frustration with a faith taken captive by suburbia. But I guess I question the underlying assumption that there are those who are radical Christians, and then those in the rest of culture who are comfortable. The problem is I can barely think of anyone I know in or out of church whom I would describe as “comfortable.” Even in the lives of those who seem to have everything together on the outside, one need not scratch very deep below the surface to find that this is hardly a place of comfort, but rather a frantic and ongoing process of defending a false persona. Even more ironically, the advice to “step out of our comfort zones” fits perfectly with the will-to-rootlessnes that haunts late capitalism. I might go so far as to say that “stepping outside our comfort zone” is late capitalist rather than Christian advice. All this to say that perhaps one of our primary callings in the modern world is to offer a deeper and broader definition of a comfort shaped by the life of Christ’s church. I wonder if we might not start with the words offered me every Sunday after confession: Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all them that truly repent: “Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” It wouldn’t be a bad place to start.