This blog was begun out of Facebook posts I began writing during Advent. And so it is perhaps fitting that, as this time of year rolls around again, I should offer some thoughts on the season. As usual, they will be vexing and vexed, but here goes.
To begin, I don’t know who to be more frustrated with: those who reduce the season to commercialism and saccharine songs that are not even good by pagan standards, or those who allegedly want to put the Christ back in Christmas – by which they usually mean their favourite id(e)ol(ogy) which they have given the name Christ. If I were feeling uncharitable, I might make some sort of comment about it being impossible to put the Christ back in Christmas without putting the Mass back in Christmas, and you can decide for yourselves what I mean by that – at the very least, it means that it is certainly hard to understand Christ apart from the work of His bride through whom he has chosen to reveal himself. But I am not feeling much more uncharitable than normal, so I shall leave it at that for now.
What I do want to talk about though is how we navigate this odd holiday context in which Christ is in some way inescapable – for simply calling it “the holidays” or dating the world back to BCE rather than AD is just a manipulation of language; there is still the history behind the thing we are celebrating, and the uncomfortable fact that in secularity we are left with neither supernatural nor even basic pagan reasons for keeping the feast. In such a context, we are left with a vague feeling that we should have warm hearts and special generosity around this time because – well, because it’s Christmas.
Perhaps the most positive way we can put this is that the season is a mystery in the cultic sense – we don’t really know why or what we are doing when we celebrate Christmas, but we do so anyway because something in the mystery draws us; like Bryan Adams we simply feel that there’s “something about Christmas time,” and because of the difficulty of sustaining such a mystery religion in a modern, “progressive” world, we find ourselves longing for the infantile innocence of stupidity, which we excuse by mislabeling it as childlikeness, but nonetheless need if we are at all to maintain a state of confusion of which we are rightly fond as something preferable to pure secularity. In the immemorial words of Josh Groban, “you have everything you need, if you just believe” – and it is integral to the maintenance of this season that the fact of belief rather than the content of what is believed in is emphasized.
But if this is a problem for those who want to celebrate Christmas but have no idea why, it is equally a problem for Christians, who ought to know better than to simply lock themselves in a fortress-like dualism over against an ostensibly confused culture. We all know the rhetoric on the other side, the return to the “true meaning” of Christmas, whether this is understood as the iteration of Christ’s nativity narrative, a particular sobriety, the ousting of mammon, or the rather childish abolition of Santa Klaus and other Christmas mythopoeia. What always astounds me about this position is the dead certainty with which these people seem to know the “true meaning” of Christmas. Really? Is it so simple to grasp the fact of God becoming human and also remaining God? Have we really got a handle on this such that we can go about like busybodies correcting the imaginations of our friends and relatives? As you can see, I am happy about neither stance – confused secularism or dead certain faith with an emphasis on “dead.” So where can we find the answer? In ghosts, evidently.
Yes, quite seriously, I think we would do well to pay heed to Dickens and the spooky stories of twelfth night because they get at a fact about Christ’s incarnation that neither the secular sops nor the hard-nosed Chistian killjoys understand; what is primary about Christmas is that it is uncanny. Let me explain. In literary theory, when we talk about “the uncanny,” we are not talking about simple concrete gruesome horror, nor are we talking about something that cannot be known at all. No, what is uncanny exists in a realm that is related in a complicated way to our epistemologies – in negative terms, we might say it is uncertain, or in more positive terms, we might say it is a mystery. The uncanny disappears when certainty appears on either side, that is, when the ghost we are afraid of is debunked, or when it is put to rest within a solid and comprehensive metaphysics. In some Christmas traditions, this uncanniness is negative, as in the case of the poem “Old Christmas Morning,” but in Dickens, the uncanny ghost exists halfway between the worlds of marvel and terror, and the uncanniness of time – that is, the ungraspability – is shown in the persons of present, past, and future. What I want to suggest is that, far from being a distraction from the “true meaning” of Christmas, this tradition of uncanniness gestures in an analogical way to the central story of Christmas – the uncanniness of Christ’s incarnation. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” speaks more truth than ought to be allowed such a schmaltzy song when it speaks of “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories,” for in a very real sense, the stories are of a piece. What ghosts are to our perception in a negative sense, the incarnation of Christ – inspired after all by a Holy Ghost – is in a positive sense. And we know this from the gospel of John.
For it is in John more than any other gospel that we get the fullest account of Christ’s birth. No, it is not the gospel we usually associate most closely with the Christmas story, given the omission of historical details. Yet there is a strong case to be made that John does in fact recount the Christmas story in the opening of his book – the difference is that he is recounting it from a metaphysical rather than merely human perspective. John, the eagle, looks into the sun of righteousness, and is dazzled. To say John points to the “true meaning of Christmas” here would be moot; rather, the logos has got hold of him and won’t let go. The fish need not draw attention to the whale.
But if this – what John is describing – can happen, then anything might happen. And this is the explanation of the uncanny stories that crop up at Christmas. Our imaginations are tantalized. In such a world, challenged as it is by the incarnation of God, men might come back from the dead. Flowers might bloom in the bleak of winter. Sinners might even learn to repent.
Aside from the more frightening instances of uncanniness, this also helps explains much of the needless frivolity, absurdity, and complete silliness of Christmas – which is perfectly justifiable on Christian grounds. In a world in which God can become incarnate, even the most foolish of things has potential to be folly for God. We do very silly things like sing songs of hope in the middle of a blizzard, or gather together with the people we argue most with – our family – and talk about peace on earth, good will toward men. Indeed, this overturn – this incarnation – may be enough even to redeem the most unredeemable of things. Even kitsch and schmaltz and jest might with the mages lay their gifts at the manger. This comes to pass, when a child is born.
What is clear then is this – that, when Christians seek to have a stranglehold on the “true meaning of Christmas,” they often miss the fact that its truest meaning is dazzling mystery, a mystery indeed patient enough to wait out their clumsy attempts to wield it like a club. Seculars and pagans get the bit about mystery – but without anywhere to point, it collapses into a dualism between ignorant sentimentalism and cynical despair. And it is with these problems in mind that I want to wish you all a Christ-haunted Christmas.
The description is Flannery O’Connor’s, asserting that if the US south is hardly Christ centered, it is certainly Christ-haunted. And it is precisely this perspective I propose in our approaches to Christmas. The season is saturated with Christian images, and imagery, and palimpsests, and erasures. Yet simply trying to go back to a “good old days” when people knew what Christmas was about is not the answer; nor is the answer steamrolling current society so we can rebuild a Christmas worthy of Christendom. No, what I suggest is a return to the mystery of incarnation, a mystery so powerful it does not even need to speak about itself all the time, but can in fact sustain imagination and the beauty of the world – from the highest instances of these to the silliest. All these instances point of course to the one Instance in the scansion of the inscape of creation, and we would do well to follow O’Conner in the realization that even a chaos and confusion of symbols and theologies – a thoroughly haunted labyrinth – is not a great obstacle to a God who calls order out of chaos and enters that order in the ambiguity known to us as flesh, and as the Ghost Who haunts us, moving as He lists.
Today is Corpus Christi Sunday. The evangelical Anglican church that I attend probably doesn’t care very much, but I do. In fact, I care quite a lot, even though, unlike Churl and Audrey Assad down below, I actually don’t feel much need for myself to actually become Roman Catholic, much as I hunger and thirst for greater catholicity and for the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions to keep getting blown together by the Spirit. But still, I do believe in the Real Presence, I am looking forward to Pope Francis’s worldwide eucharistic adoration, and I celebrate Corpus Christi Sunday.
Why?especially because I’m not planning on becoming a full-blooded Catholic, remaining instead as what Churl calls a ‘knock-off Mars bar’ (don’t you worry, Churl, no offence given, no offence taken). My answer: Corpus Christi Sunday changed my life.
About four years ago, I was in a very similar predicament that I am currently in: I was doing a graduate degree in the social sciences while longing to study Christian theology. I hope I’ve made progress in both, especially in bringing the two together, but as it happened, my journey–in the middle of thesis writing that time, no less–took me to a retreat at a Congregation of Holy Cross house of studies in Berkeley, CA. I knew the house superior, as he was my creative writing mentor when I attended a Holy Cross high school in the Bay Area, and as soon as I got there, he piled on the Balthasar, O’Connor, and Hopkins and told me to read it all. I was very obedient, or so I think I was. I also read some Michael Ramsey during that time, I think, but shh.
In any case, during those two weeks, I had to do something I’d never done before: attend daily mass. I had served as a pastoral apprentice for three years at various Chinese Anglican churches before that, so I had some vague idea of what the liturgy was going to be like (not that I could do it from memory, like my pre-new rites Catholic brothers and sisters). Those two weeks, we read through the Book of Tobit for the first reading; though the Thirty-Nine Articles (#6) knocks off St. Jerome to say that it’s a book that ‘the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine,’ I have to say that the story of Tobias and Sarah, the demon Asmodeus, and the archangel Raphael made for a lot of good fun at 8 AM every morning, especially among people who saw the book as part of the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. One of the mass attendees, a staff worker at the Jesuit theological school across the street, told me after mass one day, ‘I love it every time we get around to Tobit. It’s such a thrilling story, don’t you think?’ (Confession: I then went and read Judith to see what that was like. Even more scandalous.)
I also wore a black hoodie to mass every morning to see if I could be mistaken for a Franciscan monk and given communion; I was asked if I was an ordained Anglican priest (I’m not, and don’t plan on being one), but no, unfortunately, it didn’t work. But it did get me, good evangelical Anglican that I was, exposed to Corpus Christi, a solemnity I’d never heard of (OK, at that point, I hadn’t heard of a lot of stuff; I had no idea, for example, what the heck the ‘sacred heart’ was, even). I was exposed to Corpus Christi because the last Sunday I was at this retreat was Corpus Christi Sunday that year. Yes, I know that Corpus Christi is usually celebrated the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but like many Catholics, the Holy Cross Center did it on the Sunday.
I didn’t actually go to mass that day, and I didn’t take part in any procession (true story: the first Corpus Christi procession I ever saw was in The Godfather, Part 2). Instead, I went to a Chinese charismatic church (gasp!). My fifth-grade Sunday school teacher was a children’s pastor at that church, and come to think of it, it was pretty meaningful that I got to see her on Corpus Christi Sunday because she was the first to teach me a high view of communion. She even advocated (unsuccessfully, unfortunately) for us kids to be able to go downstairs whenever the adults had communion and to simply observe if we weren’t baptized yet (we were credo-baptists, and I was baptized when I was nine, but that’s a long story–the short version is that my best friend was getting dunked, so I wanted to as well). She told us that communion is a sacred moment that we should get to observe and even partake of, as it’s a moment of being very close to the Lord. If my charismatic auntie didn’t know how close she was to the Real Presence, I hope she finds out some day that she set me on a sure course toward acknowledging the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
In any case, that year was a particularly difficult year for me because three years in the ministry apprenticeship meant that I had made a lot of enemies. This is not to say that everyone who does ministry makes enemies this early on in their career, but in case you couldn’t tell, I can be fairly outspoken, and I was confused on where I stood in relation to the neo-Reformed tribe, so that made for a fairly combustible combination. Suffice it to say that I lost some friends, managed to alienate others, had others alienate me, and suffered a few dating rejections too (as the kid in Love Actually says, there’s ‘nothing worse than the total agony of being in love’). As Corpus Christi Sunday was coming to a close, this charismatic auntie took me into her home for a session of healing prayer.
Yes, now that I’ve said the two words ‘healing prayer,’ you now know how deep in the bowels of Pentecostalism I was at this point. I saw my priest friends at the Catholic house of studies the next day and tried to explain why I had missed not only mass, but pizza and movie night, and I said that it was some kind of Ignatian thing where you imagine rooms and people who have hurt you, etc. etc. The priests looked at me really funny, like I had gotten involved in some kind of crock science, and if you know what ‘healing prayer’ is, I’ll bet at least one eyebrow has gone up on your face in both curiosity and ridicule. Let me confirm for you your worst fears. ‘Healing prayer’ is indeed sort of like the Ignatian exercises, except that you never get out of the first week and you focus on sins done to you, which is why you need ‘healing.’ Most people I’ve seen come out of ‘healing prayer’ thus have this sort of euphoric feeling of having dealt with everything bad in their lives, only to sink into a complete malaise and paralysis the week afterward because you just raised your awareness of stuff, given it a hurtful hermeneutic, and said that you dismissed it when you really didn’t. As a warning to the wise, then, if anyone ever approaches you to do ‘healing prayer,’ just go find a proper Jesuit spiritual director.
I had no such warning, but God is both humourous and gracious. I won’t describe to you in lurid detail what I imagined or saw or confessed, but suffice it to say that while my charismatic auntie wanted to keep taking me to the agony in the garden because my ministry experience was apparently very agonizing (it was, to be sure, but that’s a different post), I didn’t want to leave the Upper Room. I think as I described what I saw in the Upper Room and all the people I wanted to forgive (turns out, in hindsight, that I should probably have been asking for their forgiveness…OH WELL), she was like, ‘OK, can we finally go downstairs now? What’s with the Upper Room?’
It takes time to reflect on these things, but as I think back on that healing prayer session now, I think I was just basking there in the Real Presence, at least virtually speaking. Indeed, during those two weeks, a lot of eucharistic things happened. Yes, I was introduced to daily mass, the sacred heart, and Corpus Christi. Yes, I couldn’t get out of the Upper Room during healing prayer. But probably the most significant thing was this: the week prior, on Trinity Sunday, I returned to the church of my childhood after years of not having darkened its doors, after its multiple scandals had devastated many of my childhood friendships, and in an act of forgiveness and reconciliation, I took communion there.
It was in that act that I learned what a schismatic I had been for so long. Having left that childhood church after my friendships were devastated by Toronto Blessing crazies, a sex scandal, a leadership crisis, and the ostracization of our entire Cantonese congregation, I had been wandering, looking for a home, a place that I could agree with and a place where no more bad political stuff would ever happen. I never found it. So I wandered from church to church, even working at some of them, and in time, I also took on a sort of neo-Reformed persona to be able to articulate a theology of why I wasn’t about to stay at a church that failed to preach the Gospel. As my theological system lay in tatters, my social science thesis in disarray, and my personal church history littered with skeletons, I finally realized in that moment of deep forgiveness that I was the schismatic.
And that is why, as a Chinglican, I celebrate Corpus Christi.
We call this a Thing, as Churl says, professing to have a meeting of the ‘wise’ without being wise ourselves. But as Churl screams at the evangelical churches he’s been at, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he seems to have gotten a variety of responses. Some have shown a lot of love and promised quite a bit of prayer. But he has also quite a bit of criticism from those who don’t know him, precisely the disembodied voice he addresses in his first paragraph. For those of us who dared to share the piece, some of us were subjected to the whims of Protestant polemicists who wanted to debate papal primacy and the use of tradition with us. We were accused of having superiority complexes even as we shared a post that asked where all of our accusers were when Churl (and by extension, others of us on this Thing) were when he/we were wrestling with our faith. Some of us who experienced this also asked, ‘Where the hell were you?’ before we shared that post.
As an Anglican, I stand in solidarity with Churl, regardless of whether he swims the Tiber soon or not. But as a Chinglican, I’d like to give Churl a bit of a reminder. Though Churl doesn’t mention it, one of the common objections to Churl jumping communions is that over there, they pray to this woman called Mary, which means that they love Mary more than Jesus.
For one thing, no Catholic in their right mind prays to Mary; they do talk a lot to her, understand her to continue to dispense the graces of her Son, and venerate her as Queen of Heaven insofar as she is the foremost pilgrim in our journey toward the fusion of nature and grace. For another, this view of Mary, I submit, is neither Catholic nor evangelical. It is Christian, and it brings together the ‘catholic’ and the ‘evangelical’ that we in our small minds have sundered since the Reformation (and arguably even before that). So as a Chinglican, I’d like to give Churl a bit of a reminder: whether he stays on this side or that side of communion with the see of Rome, the Blessed Virgin Mary will be his mother either way. (I realize that this may be a bit of a Flannery O’Connor reading of evangelicals, but Churl thinks that too.)
The rest of this post, then, is addressed to Churl.
Churl, the Blessed Virgin stands beside you. As you cry out in consternation at the evangelical world that abandoned you, Mary is the perfect mother, the Immaculate Conception, the one that John Paul II says in Redemptoris Mater has gone ahead of the pilgrim life of the Church, fulfilling the perfect fusion of nature and grace, bringing the eschaton forward to the present. As much as there will be people who will attack us for having this Marian discussion on our Thing, this conversation lies at the heart of ecumenism, not the new modern ecumenism of the latter half of the twentieth century, but the old ecumenism, as in the ecumenism of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. There Mary was defined (contra Nestorius) as the theotokos, the God-bearer, the one who bears God for the life of the world and invites us to share in that divine nature through her human son. For those who might dispute this significance of Mary as it can’t be found explicitly in Scripture and thus seek to police our devotion to the Blessed Virgin, we might in turn ask them how it is that they hold it as orthodox that we believe in God as a Trinity of persons and Jesus as a hypostatic union of divine and human natures, for one finds these definitions precisely in the same set of ecumenical councils that produced the definition of Mary as God-bearer. That this radically ecumenical view of Christian theology may be scandalous to some might be a good thing; in time, we may finally reclaim the shock value that comes of all three of seeing God as Trinity, Mary as God-bearer, and Jesus as God and man.
And it was thus that though I, as an Anglican, once visited a Catholic nun (of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, no less), and she told me, as we prayed contemplatively and extemporaneously together over the future of my life, that she saw the Blessed Virgin standing beside me. I, an Anglican, believed her. Beyond our institutional differences, we were able to see clearly then what we see now in Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby, that is, we saw the Spirit moving to bring us together as one despite our the impaired nature of our respective communions. The Spirit also brought my wife into my life a month later. She, a self-identified ‘evangelical,’ shows me daily how to embody the ‘catholic’ spirit in her forgiving spirit, her patient forbearance, and her decisively uncanny ability to see the best in the other. I, who purport to be moving in a ‘catholic’ direction, am forced to live as an ‘evangelical,’ always seeking to frame our everyday lives with the prophetic truth of the Word of God. Appropriating free church theologian Miroslav Volf’s terms in Exclusion and Embrace, the Blessed Virgin is both ‘catholic’ and ‘evangelical.’
The Virgin is ‘catholic’ because whether we are in communion with Rome or not, she is the eschatological fusion of nature and grace in the present. She doesn’t care what we call ourselves institutionally. After all, while the schism of institutions is often politically policed by ideologies (‘Catholics are bad because of x, y, z,’ or ‘evangelicals are bad because of a, b, c’), the Virgin, as James Alison reminds us, keeps our faith from becoming an ideology–precisely what you eloquently protested against in your first piece. She reminds us that God is not interested in ideological police work, but in the redemption of the world in a plane suspended between nature and grace, what Henri de Lubac terms le surnaturel. This is no ideology; it is embodied reality. If it is a superiority complex to have such a mother, then so be it. We know, after all, that we are loved and take joy in that love.
The Virgin is also an ‘evangelical.’ She will draw you to that Word that you desire, that Word that you rightly note many of your evangelical friends protect as inerrant but fail to actually read and live. It is a prophetic word, a word that calls us to bear God in us with the Virgin as the church, to confess her fiat: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Be it done to me according to your Word.
Be it done to me, the Virgin prays. Balthasar taught me this one. He showed me that the Virgin’s prayer has never been about what she would do for the Lord, which is how many read the Word and attempt to live it out in their everyday lives. No, the way that the Virgin contemplates and lives the Word is to reflect on how the grace of the Lord is causing her to bear God into the world. It happens to her. It is thus that she reflects on the mysteries of the shepherds coming to the cave where her son is born, the old man and woman in the temple holding her child with joy, her son in the temple debating with the elders. She ponders these things in her heart as the word that is done to her. In many ways, then, the Word that is her Son is our hermeneutic for the Scriptures, but this meditation on Scripture can only be made real as it in turn becomes our hermeneutic for everyday life.
It is thus the Virgin who shows us how to truly be ‘evangelical.’ If ever there were an evangelical statement not co-opted by that movement styling itself as definitively ‘evangelical’ while defining itself as not Catholic, not ecumenical, not liberal, not neo-orthodox, and not fundamentalist, it is the Magnificat. As feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether reminds us, Mary is not a symbol of virgin church power; she is a figure of liberation for the wronged, the one who magnifies the Lord because the old order of powers and dominions is cast down, the poor are shown mercy, and the hungry are fed. Those who reject Mary because they purport to be ‘evangelicals’ fail to see that she is showing them precisely how to be an evangelical, one who proclaims that in her Son, the time is up, the kingdom of God is at hand, the Gospel is unveiled, God is visiting his people, reconciling them as he redeems the world precisely by drawing us into himself, his life suspended between nature and grace.
The Virgin is an evangelical because the Virgin preaches the Gospel, and she stands beside you. She is still preaching, you know, which means, as a Catholic friend I spoke with a few days ago put it to me, all Catholics should believe in women in ministry (the Holy Orders bit may be debatable, but in ministry? Well, yeah!). Those Marian apparitions that the Catholic Church have approved–there’s no monopoly on them, for this is the point of an apparition; it is a concrete embodiment for the life of the world, contra the very notion of an ideology. The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego brought the Americas together because by appearing as a little brown girl, the Virgin taught us that racism is of the devil, that skin colour is a stupid way to judge people, that there is neither European nor indigenous in Christ, but all are one, fused together in our collective redemption. The apparition of our Lady of Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous radically challenged the secularization of the French Revolution, unmasking the powers of the secular as colonial through the voice of a destitute girl saying that she saw the Immaculate Conception without knowing what the Immaculate Conception even was. The apparition of our Lady of Fatima to the three children in Spain was a prophetic word against the destruction wrought by geopolitical ideologies in the twentieth century. The Virgin is an evangelical because the Virgin is a prophet, speaking the Gospel of life into a culture of death so that we all, whether self-identified ‘catholic’ or ‘evangelical’ might hear and live the life of her Son.
This is how it will be, then, regardless of on which side of the Tiber you wind up. We are thus more than merely praying for you to make a good decision. We are praying that you will feel the solidarity of the communion of saints that refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of schism and the beautiful gaze of the Blessed Virgin, our mother who stands beside you and me in this hour and who will be your mother whichever side you end up on.
Chinglican would like to thank one of his evangelical Anglican friends for reading this over for him before posting it.
Yesterday’s post was a cry of pain. I state this, not as an evaluation, but as a description. It is as much a cry of pain as those of Job, or the groans of the Israelites that provoked God to bring about the exodus from Egypt. That it was a cry of pain is certain. What we do with that – and how we interpret it is another thing. So I would like to take a moment to perform a little exegesis on that post and add some clarification.
The two points I was trying to make – and ones I still support – are these:
1) Evangelicals who have been complicit in pastoral neglect in the past have no right to suddenly become the theological police when someone speaks of leaving. There are people who do have a right to speak, and those are the people who have been with one from the beginning and intentionally walked with one a long way. Indeed, I would worry if someone became Catholic without speaking to such people. What annoys me are the people who suddenly become interested when they need to tow a party line they have not explored themselves, and do not bother to familiarize themselves with the person involved or the facts. Indeed, I do even admit it is fair for a latecomer to the conversation to offer input, provided they do so respectfully and with the proper awareness that there is a large part of the story they have not lived through. Indeed, part of why I wrote the post was to help myself understand who I should and should not trust as I discuss these things with people.
2) Staying with the Church in the midst of corruption and believing God is still there often in spite of his ministers is in its strongest form a Catholic doctrine. It may I suppose also be found in some versions of Anglican and Lutheran theology, but of the three the Catholic church has the strongest doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist, and it is this belief that Christ is really (rather than just symbolically) present that suggests faithfulness to the church – we go, so to speak, because it contains the conditions needed to really partake of Christ’s body and blood, not because of good or bad customer service. For instance, imagine I want a real Mars bar. If I am to actually get it, I will have to get something made in the original Mars bar factory. Even if all the staff are rude and the service is terrible there, there is no way around it – I’m sure I could find companies that produce knock-off brands with much better customer service and much better manners – but all my griping about this will not turn a knock off into real Mars bar. This is a somewhat poor comparison because I do not want to denigrate Protestant communion by referring to it as a “knock off” – even in its most symbolic form, it certainly does not deserve to be called that. But I do think the analogy gets at my point. A Catholic theology says there is Something there regardless of the ministers. An Evangelical says the Church is a meaningful body just to the degree that there is a certain level of vibrance, dynamism, etc. If these are wanting, the only conclusion I can come to from an Evangelical perspective is that I should leave and find somewhere where they are not – and I will never find that place because the world and churches are broken. It is not a question of finding a healthy church. It is a question of finding a church that tethers us to Christ in the midst of its unhealthiness. Not that unhealthiness is ever an ideal. But the Catholic I think would say that the beginning of the cure for that unhealthiness lies in Christ’s presence in the church – it comes from outside and into us – whereas for an Evangelical the cure is posturing oneself – emotionally, intellectually, etc. – in a certain way toward Christ and his word. The latter really do want to make their faith their own.
I also want to clarify what I did not mean to say. As Father J wisely clarified in the comment section, it would be imprudent to suggest that one simply become Catholic because the pastoral care in Protestant circles is flagging. Indeed, if this were the reason, it would just make sense to find a Protestant church with better pastoral care – and who in any case can tell if the pastoral situation on the Catholic side is better or worse? No, what I am looking for is a church with a doctrine that suggests radical faithfulness to the Church regardless of one’s experience with it. It is the Church where I may find myself sitting beside Judas and Peter at the Last Supper Table, knowing that I could follow the paths of either of these figures, both of whom denied Christ, but had different ends.
In addition, another thing I did not intend to say (and don’t think I did if one reads the post carefully) is that there were no blessings, or graces, or support in the Evangelical church; God, I am confident, was there. Perhaps not in all the places I was looking for him – particularly not in my inner emotional self so ravaged by sadness and fear – but He was there. I was blessed to be born to a mother with a deep sense of piety and a father with a good deal of heroic endurance, surviving as he was with depression in Evangelical circles. From my mother I have the capacity to feel, and from my father I have the capacity to think. I was blessed to be born into a house jam-packed with books, the books I could turn to when there was no one else, and the seeds of what has become my academic career, tied also very closely to my faith. I was blessed with friends – yes, we were outliers, but we were friends. I was blessed by Bible Quizzing (long story, ask me sometime); the huge chunks of Scripture I memorized through this program are still with me, and the Biblical orientation of the program meant that real Christian friendships could be formed more gently, unlike the more intense Youth Conference deals from which one was expected to go away changed. I was blessed by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the friends who took pains to draw me out of myself; I was blessed to meet my wife there, with whom I have been now for seven good years. The intent of the last post, then, was not to say that nothing was there, but rather that it puts me out of sorts when a good number of people who have not bothered to be supportive suddenly show up and start asking questions when one mentions Catholicism. And maybe in some ways these people are less likely to show up than I expect. I got a surprising amount of encouragement and feedback on the post – sometimes from unexpected sources – and I also have to consider the “amplification factor” of OCD, which I will explain in another post – the part that will take a criticism one heard no matter how long ago and cling to it burr-like so that it is always in my head as fresh as the day it was said, and as menacing.
This of course will leave most people puzzled. If God is in some way in the Evangelical church in spite of problems, why not just stay there? And my answer must be that it can offer no solid reason for staying with a corrupt church, which the church militant will always in some way be. In the face of corruption, it will seek exclusion and perfection (with the illusion that somehow drawing another circle will keep those in that circle from problems) – it is as if one had auditions to decide who could get into a hospital, and those who were healthiest were given precedence while the sick were bumped lower in the line or bumped off entirely (dare I say this sounds like social Darwinism?).
But how can God be both in both the Catholic and Evangelical Church? For an answer to this – and I expect no one to like it – I turn to Flannery O’Conner. O’Conner was in the interesting position of being a Catholic in the southern U. S., which meant she probably saw far more extreme incarnations of Protestant Christianity than I ever have up in the less heated reaches of Canada. And I like her response to these Christians because it was complex. From a certain perspective, one might imagine she was in a perfect place to support her own Catholicism by showing up the sheer lunacy of some of these Protestant extremes. But she doesn’t. In fact, often in her stories it is very strange kinds of Christians – Christians of the sort I am certainly not comfortable with – that are vehicles of grace. For instance, in “Greenleaf,” Mrs. Greenleef collects newspaper clipping of tragedies and crimes, buries them in the dirt, and prays over them in what can only be describe as a charismatic way. She is not the Christian we want her to be. We want the exemplar of Christianity to be sane, reasonable, like (or so we imagine) us. But that is not what we get. I had the pleasure of taking a class on O’Conner in Vancouver, one of the more secular cities of Canada and somewhat correlative to the “north” often criticized by O’Conner. It was extremely interesting watching the students – many of whom had come to this particular theological seminary to escape such “crazy” Christians – squirm at the thought of such an embarrassing person being a conduit of grace. And O’Conner also holds the converse – being Catholic is not a free ticket to assumed superiority. This she shows in “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” where the main character must learn to be chastened of her pride, much of which consists in her assumption of her “superiority” over uncultured low-church Christians. She critiques where we think we are safe, and sees grace where we can only think of shame.
And this, I suppose, is how I have come to see the Evangelical church. From a Catholic perspective, God works both in and outside the Church. In the Church he largely works through revelation, the synthesis of this revelation (tradition), and participation in the sacraments. Outside he works more generally if less directly and in a less immediately perceivable way through all sorts of things in the world – the theological distinction here would place revealed theology within the Church and natural theology without. What I want to suggest – and it is bound to make some angry – is that Evangelicals exist in a twilight zone between these two theologies. Whatever else it wants to claim, much of what Evangelicals have by way of spirituality, theology etc. is a pared down minimalist version of broader Catholic tradition – Evangelicalism doesn’t have the entirety of the tradition, but there are lots of points Evangelicals and Catholics agree upon – the Catholics are different not so much in overt disagreement, but rather in that they have an extra helping of tradition and the real presence etc. This, as far as I can tell from the Catechism, is perfectly good Catholic doctrine, though I will be happy to accept clarification on that point from someone who knows better what they are talking about.
On the natural theology side lies experience. Evangelicals, I suggest, cannot be such without it – the strange warming of the heart – and it seems to me impossible to have such a thing as a negative theology in Evangelicalism, or at least the modern incarnations I am talking about. We are probably not used to talking about spiritual experience as “natural theology” per se, but strictly speaking I think it fits the definition – theology gotten from things that happen in creation, and this includes spiritual experience because such experience is never disembodied (that is, outside creation).
And this leads me to the way I, via Flannery O’Conner, interpret Evangelicalism. Let us start with natural theology. Nature in some way points to God, but the exact way this works out is often circuitous and confusing – nature is both beautiful and brutal by turns – and the character of God is hardly self evident from nature. So natural theology involves interpreting signs that point to God, but also the recognition that these do not always point to God in any kind of straightforward way.
And it is something similar I would suggest with Evangelicalism, but one step up. If nature points to God, how much more a group of Christians? But, I would argue, this group of Christians does not point to God in exactly the way it supposes. Lacking what must always be the first commentary on Scripture, tradition, the signs they produce are often broken, angular, and hard to read. But, as Flannery O’Conner suggests, these signs are nonetheless still signs, no matter how twisted. They may not be perfect, and in many cases may be something we will not want to emulate at all, but we have a strange God who will speak by strange means, through the mouth of an ass if need be. And so, much as I am uncomfortable with the undisciplined and emotive character of Evangelicalism, I cannot deny God’s grace in it. He has, after all done stranger things, not the least of which is stooping down to earth to visit someone like me.
In this post I want to talk about the Evangelical conversion moment. By this I mean the experience that has generally been a staple of Evangelical narrative since the beginning of the movement’s history. This is usually a moment of crisis, of turning 180 degrees from one’s own way to God’s – often it is accompanied by an emotional experience, something like what Wesley described as a strange warming of the heart.
To begin, I would like to give this moment and its importance in this narrative more due than it gets in some circles. In these circles, this experience gets dismissed as more or less an individualistic after effect of the Enlightenment; in this spirit, Archbishop Schori of the Episcopal church described personal salvation as part of the “great Western heresy” of individualism (for a balanced description of the exchange between Schori and Evangelical Anglicans, see this article, particularly the portion that quotes Radner). But Western though it may be (and even that is questionable), her assertion ludicrously puts all of Christendom under censure from St. Paul onward. Though she is not out of line in critiquing the individualistic bent of Evangelicalism, I would suggest the problem is the other way round; our faith in fact is not personal enough, insofar as we in modern Western society have lost a sense of the breadth and depth of meaning once attributed to personhood.
However, this is in fact not what I want to talk about, but rather it is a prefatory caveat to differentiate the following critique from those of Schori et al. And there is need for a critique recognizing that while experiential conversion crises are not a mere recent innovation, they have in Evangelical circles come to eclipse other models of conversion that have been equally important in the history of Christianity, models that in fact may be necessary to speak powerfully into the current postmodern moment.
Indeed, the particular model I have in mind can be seen if we think about the genre of testimony in Evangelical circles, that is, the relation of one’s initial conversion experience. I think in prior generations, these might have seemed particularly compelling, precisely because these generations were shaped by an Enlightenment view of historical progress complete with watershed moments of change, and a romantic imagination shaped by the idea that something actually happens when one encounters the sublime. Conceiving of faith in these terms thus made sense to a generation that believed in change and progress; the problem now though is that in a postmodern generation that has largely abandoned the Enlightenment and Romanticism, these stories do not feel very compelling. By this I do not mean that there is nothing worth keeping in them, even as I do not mean there is nothing worth keeping in Enlightenment and Romantic thought – surely there is. But in a society continually bombarded by language of change, innovation, and revolution, such things become tiresome and even those instances that do have substance beyond the shallow rhetoric get lost in the mix – our lives will be changed during worship in the evening service, and then changed again by the heart-smart cereal we eat for breakfast, and then changed again by the speed of our wireless internet. Innovation becomes mundane routine, and with it the faith grounded in innovative experiences. So how is one to think about such testimonies in light of this general cultural inoculation against them? I suggest that part of the response must involve realizing the importance of some of the other ways of narrating faith that were eclipsed at the advent of the Enlightenment/Romanticism.
For myself, I know what resonates most powerfully are not those stories of dramatic life changes, but the often more quiet (if equally engaging for those with ears) stories of those who have stayed, particularly those who have stayed Christians even in the midst of feeling the effects of ecclesial frustration and politics. This, I think, is the really radical testimony, for the mark of postmodern society is an inability to stay loyal or faithful for long. To be sure, there is a deep hunger for such loyalty, as evidenced in the enduring popularity of Joss Whedon’s shows, which almost always have such loyalty as their core. But if this loyalty is the thing we fantasize about, it appears equally fantastic to us in our inability to enact it – increasingly, our response to personal suffering, discomfort, pain, and evil is to run away regardless of the other goods we might abandon in the process; many of my friends have walked away from their faith entirely, and I imagine they must think me a fool for staying, a partner in a relationship that justifies abuse under the guise of loyalty. But this I think is why my conversion story can say something to these friends that I think the more traditional testimony form might not be able to. I’ll bet I could match them point for point in frustrations with God and His church – in fact, I think in some cases I could frame these complaints in even more compelling ways. But I have stayed, with eyes wide open, and this because I have known a love stronger than death. Not a love that depends on warming of hearts or sentimental experiences or instantaneous changes, but the kind of love that Job experiences with God, that looks harsh and reprimanding and thankless on the outside to those who have not known the paradoxical tenderness of the whirlwind. Put another way, I feel that I know a little about why Job would have died for God both before and after a divine response that makes so little sense in modern terms.
But the way I know this is not via a dramatic conversion moment, but because I stayed – where others grew up in the church and walked away thinking God and faith were dead, I stuck around to see if there would be resurrection – and I found that there was. Indeed, I like to think of my story in terms of the prodigal son – but not the one you might think.
What I am about to say here is something that probably makes me a bad Christian, but I think it is not in fact counter to scripture because what we are talking about is a parable, a divine riddle: I have never felt a lot of kinship with the prodigal son. I mean, who spends their inheritance on whores and wild living when there are books one might buy (or probably in his case manuscripts)? And parties are noisy affairs at best, even with a fatted calf – I share Flannery O’Conner’s sentiment that her primary function at parties was covering the stain on her mother’s sofa. In some ways, I am not in fact sure that when the elder son takes issue with the profligate’s party it is because he would actually enjoy one himself – rather, it is the unfairness of seeing a brother with a devil-may-care attitude have everything come to him while one constantly wracked by anxiety and responsibility can never let his guard down and feels as if he is barely surviving with little recognition or fruit.
But there is a caveat in the story, and that is that we don’t in fact know what became of this son (in fact, we don’t know what became of either son); what we do know is that he is given something far more precious than a party: his Father tells him, “You are always with me and everything I have is yours,” and if this is not the very thing we long for God to tell us as Christians, I’m not sure what is. What if in fact it is not the prodigal who is given the greatest gift at the end of the story, but the elder son? This would not be to say that the elder son is less sinful or less in need of grace than the younger – it is a very dull imagination indeed that could imagine that his stability on his Father’s property somehow exempts him from this. But the reminder that he is with his father and is his father’s heir is in fact the grace applied to his sin in this situation.
The story never says what happens to this son, but if in fact he embraces what his father says, his “testimony” will be very different from that of the prodigal. His will not be a story of running away and then radically turning to discover the grace of God; rather, it will be a story of still discovering this grace miraculously in spite of his close proximity to it, a proximity that would be easy enough to take for granted. It is a story of someone who stayed, perhaps (like us all) from imperfect motivation and not always with a clear understanding of why, but nonetheless stayed. It is a story of discovering, whether slowly or quickly, that God’s grace is deep enough to love not only the archetypal prodigal, but also those who did not leave. The miracle is not only that He goes off to rescue the one sheep that wanders from the herd; it is also that He stays and rescues the ninety-nine left on the hillside.
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.