So, of course, when one first posts on a blog made up of serious academics, read by thoughtful, educated people, one wants the post to be clever, well-edited, and planned, not cut and pasted from a recent Facebook rant (also, one wants it to include cleverly placed videos and pictures, as so many Thing posts do, but who’s got time for that??). However, our own Chinglican at Table can be very persuasive, and after enlisting me as a contributor to A Christian Thing some time ago, has not lost hope that I will, in fact, actually contribute something, so has asked me to post the following from a recent Facebook thread. Obviously, I would ask that you please forgive the rant-y nature of this initial post.
Aside: I also would like to have had a bio up before I posted this, for a little context, but alas, though an avid user of social media (you can find me here and here, in a less pseudonymous form), and moderately technologically adept, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to add to the bio/about page. So, here’s a biographical summary: I’m a grad student at Regent College who studies religion in China, so I’m ostensibly interested in theology, attending theological graduate school as I do (spoiler alert: not that interested), but my interests also include dogs/animal rescue, American politics, West Coast 90s rap, feminism, and Crossfit. Oh, did I mention China? Because I’m really into China.
Anyway, there has been an article that has gone “viral” (in quotes, because it can only go so “viral” among a subset of Christians that is fairly limited in size but includes most of my Christian friends) (and probably yours), which observes that many evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries are inadvertently sending students down the Canterbury Trail, across the Tiber or, less commonly (in my experience) to Wittenberg or Constantinople. Many are posting this in a sort of smug way, as in, “that’s right, we ARE worshipping at high churches, as a response to evangelical schlock! Thanks for noticing!” This kind of posting skips right over the fact that the guy is clearly suggesting that a) this is a problematic trend and b) that serious, Reformed catechesis could stem the tide! His blogroll consists of Neo-Reformed standards, so we know where he stands. This caused me to reflect on the little-noted (but, IMHO, glaringly obvious) similarities between the appeal held by the neo-Reformed movement and the Catholic Church.
Here is what I posted, alongside the link:
As my friend Jonathan D. Fitzgerald would say: ‘altogether now, “evangelicals are converting to Catholicism!”‘ In other words, this is a trend piece about an ‘old news’ trend…in other words: yawn. EXCEPT: this guy, who appears to hail from a neo-Reformed background, himself, identifies the appeal/retention power of robustly confessional Protestant churches as the same appeal held by high church traditions. WHICH I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO TELL EVERYONE FOR YEARS. I think the simultaneous rise of the new Calvinists and the conservative catholic converts are a) two sides of the same coin, with that coin being discomfort with the realities of postmodern/late-modern rootless existence and b) troubling.
After I posted this, I got (justifiably) a couple of “what do you find troubling?” queries from various Facebook friends. I’m a busy lady (read: it’s July! I needed to sleep in and take my dog for walks!), so a couple of days of radio silence ensued before I posted the following, which Chinglican asked me to share–unedited–here (although WordPress thankfully removed the smiley-faces, as if to force this post to look slightly more professional):
I like how I sort of mic-dropped this and walked away, not answering people’s follow-up questions! What I meant by “troubling,” in case people were still wondering, is not that I am anti-Catholic or anti-Reformed. I respect many things about both traditions. In fact, I attend an Anglo-Catholic church, so I am “getting high” myself. What upsets me, i.e. what I find “troubling,” is that the sectors/iterations of the Reformed world and the Catholic Church that are experiencing general growth or attracting converts–Mars Hill in Seattle, the PCA in general, Piper, Driscoll, Mohler, Grudem et al, The Gospel Coalition, on the Reformed side or the “magisterial Catholic” scene, e.g. Kreeft/Hahn/Howard-esque converts, First Things and Register readers, the “JPII/B16 generation” types and Tridentine Mass lovers, chapel veilers, etc.–are both inextricably linked, in my mind, with very rigid and essentialist gender views and throwback, nostalgic traditionalism, both of which are a reaction to the challenges of navigating a world where patriarchy is no longer legislated or systematized in the same way, although we certainly have a long way to go, God knows.
Oh, Rome Sweet Home–gag me.
It is troubling to me that the discomfort wrought by figuring out how to share responsibilities in the home and workplace, whose career takes priority, how to make sure boys are still attended to and empowered in schools when girls have equal opportunity and are often more suited to traditional academic contexts, the problem of perpetual adolescence, the challenges of modern discussions of sexuality, etc. etc. have driven many to the easy answers of “biblical womanhood,” in the sense that, perhaps these problems wouldn’t exist if men just provided for their families and women took care of the home, NO PROBLEM TO SEE HERE! (neo-Reformed complementarianism) OR to Catholic teaching on gender, which doesn’t beat you over the head with proof texts, but with biology, i.e. if we just realized that WOMEN HAVE VAGINAS AND MEN HAVE PENISES, so obviously men are supposed to initiate/lead and women receive (my summary of Theology of the Body), then we would have modern gender issues all figured out. and also JESUS WAS A MAN, btw, so only men can rep Christ in the Eucharist. Don’t you see how important HUMAN BODIES ARE?
I’ve said many a time that I’m a “single issue voter” when it comes to ecclesial identification or attendendance, so I’m sure my view doesn’t shock anyone. However, I think the trend is particularly troubling, beyond the gender questions, because the gender questions bring up something larger, i.e. things that become problematic when you go in this direction.
Complementarian text, “Girls Gone Wise,” includes makeup, apparently.
On the Tiber-swimming side, my greatest pet-peeve, also illustrated by the gender issue, but potentially illustrated by about any other issue, is that there is an endless stream of criticism of evangelicalism for being–I am not joking–really sexist, for say, not letting women preach or suggesting that there be certain gender roles in the home, based on biblical prescriptions of one kind of another, and yet a “see no evil” approach to all of the blatant and rife exclusion of women and bizarre biological theorizing that compose Catholic gender teaching and practice. Or, say, the evangelical attitude toward LGBTQ people (“so hateful!”), with no acknowledgment of what makes up the entirety of the US Bishops’ current agenda (“the Catechism’s position is so gracious!”). or criticism of evangelical silliness/anti-intellectualism, while dismissing any criticism of Catholic oddities/superstitions as being MYSTERY AND TRADITION.
All dudes up there, too, guys.
I mean, just please keep your thinking caps on in regard to all manifestations of the Christianity itself that you’re reacting to, even if you can’t see through the exotic (dare I say, Oriental) incense clearly enough to critique the new (or “ancient”) and different.
I think that BOTH the longing for a Westminster Confession/Sola Scriptura/Inerrant Bible full of clear, theological guidelines AND for an Infallible Magisterium and Tradition with a capital “T” are ways of avoiding the hard work of thinking through the ambiguities and challenges of modern existence. And I find that troubling, indeed.
*Note: I am a bit of a stickler, when it comes to spelling or grammatical errors, so am particularly nervous about this unedited post being rife with them–a good friend already noted on the ‘Book that there is a their/there error somewhere I have yet to identify. Yikes! So, I ask your forgiveness in advance.
This, in brief, is how some people see an attraction to Catholicism. We are complex human beings who have squarely on our shoulders the responsibility of being faithful to a long and arduous quest for truth that involves much searching, reflection, and exercise of our consciences, minds etc. But some of us are weary and broken. Worse still, some of us are lazy. And so we are attracted to an institution that can do our thinking for us. We can give up a God-given mandate to search and rest on our laurels while we let an all-powerful system take care of the rest. The more heroic stance is the one that remains tentative, open, and uncertain, whether this is in the secular realm or in regard to faith – for instance, many justifications of Anglicanism suggest this openness is one of the merits of it.
What I want to ask is whether this is a valid critique. Are people like me – with a deep attraction to Catholicism – simply lazy copouts? Or is there another side of the story? I suggest the latter, and here’s what I propose. People who make this charge have a fairly strong sense of self, what their self is, how it does it’s thinking. This sense of self in fact is not something that has come naturally to post-lapsarian humans. The self that we are called to pay attention to, to exercise, to depend on rather than authority, is a self built over the past two thousand years of Christian history. It is a self that owes its origins to the Christian salvation of the self that had been corrupted in Eden. And it seems we are all too happy to throw out all these trappings – all the props that contributed to making this self – and suggest that it is on this self we solely depend, and any other dependence is weakness.
Of course, as many of us know, this sense of self is very quickly collapsing with the collapse of what might be called Western Christendom. Please note I am not here making a judgment about what ought to be done about this or trying to say we should just go back to “the good old days.” I do think though that this concept of self is weakening – has indeed grown very weak – and so we are left in all sorts of postmodern crises of identity.
As someone very closely attuned to such crises of identity, it is very hard for me to identify with those who simply want me to take responsibility and forge on as an individual, embracing uncertainty over allegedly cheap certainty. Why is this hard for me? For one, I know what mental illness is. It makes one wonder what exactly one’s self is. It is profoundly disturbing to find that you can’t always trust what you think is the “I” doing the thinking, and I know how often I mistake mental illness for the true voice of this “I”. I suppose in a sense this has also allowed me to see how this works even in cases where mental illness is not involved. People often think they are asserting themselves, being radical and heroic individuals etc. And they are so often not aware that something other than the “I” is doing their thinking for them. There are an infinite amount of cross-pressures – to borrow a term from Charles Taylor – that masquerade as their selves. As we know from the Eden story, rebellion itself is the oldest of clichés. And so, when people lionize the heroic individual self forging its way toward truth, I can’t help seeing, not individual heroes, but mass-produced sophists. It is very rare when an individual – a real philosopher – breaks out of this, and usually when they do, their highest realization is that they really don’t know anything at all, and their end is a cup of hemlock. Modern people though, not liking the taste of either self-doubt (real self-doubt, not the fashionable half-hearted kind) or hemlock, are quite content with sophism producing a tentative non-committal attitude toward the rest of faith and the world. In my opinion, this lack of faith – not only in religion, but even in very basic human relationships – is one of the most grievous losses in the modern world.
To put it another way, modern society suggests that, at the end of the day, the complex “I” that I am must always remain on top and in control. To trust (at least when it comes to religion – I say nothing about nation states…) is a form of weakness, and though we may admit that there are some areas where we have to trust, it is important to keep such areas at a minimum. There is no place for throwing ourselves into something as a last ditch effort when all else seems lost – because we know ourselves to be strong and not lost. Would that I were lucky enough to be this strong. Actually, no. I am glad I am not, because this sounds a little to me like a description of hell.
To come to my point, most people assume that I am looking for something that my self recognizes as good, true, noble etc. They imagine me here, sitting in my armchair, surveying all the candidates and taking notes. But this is not the case. The case is much more like that of a dying man on a battlefield – I am doubting that he will interview his doctors to see which he gets along with, or which has the best bedside manner. No, the one thing he cares about is whether it is a doctor who can save his life. You see, I am not looking for something for myself; rather, I am looking for something that will root and sustain the self I am, a self-fast fading in the backwash of postmodernity, the self that is simultaneously the most mysterious and deadly thing we encounter as humans. It is not so much that I want to be Catholic. It is more that it is only within Catholicism that I can conceive of preserving and saving a self that even has the capacity to say “I want…” to anything.
Why Catholicism? Because of two things: obedience and catholicity. As far as I can tell, obedience and trusting others is the only way out of a self so ingrown it can no longer see itself. This, for instance, is why Anglicanism is hard for me. Yes, I can, as people like Chinglican and others say, be as Catholic as I want within Anglicanism. Yes, as Catholic as I want to be, excepting my need for boundaries and obedience. The Anglican church is quite happy to let me be as Catholic as I want, but it is also quite happy to let me be as hellish as I want. There is a terrible reality behind the idea that one can be oneself as an Anglican; perhaps one can, but one can also be oneself in hell. People balk at the power and authority the Catholic church claims. But such people, I suggest, do not understand – really understand – the power of sin and its entanglement with the fallen self. Sin is not so little that we can face it on our own.
But why the Catholic church? After all, there are plenty of churches everywhere happy to make me obedient (for instance, why not Mark Driscoll’s church?). My answer depends on catholicity. I want to be subject to all the saints in the room. This, indeed, is the difference between the Catholic church and a cult (because cults demand obedience too). The Catholic church in its ideal form is a mechanism for making all the voices of the saints (present, past and future) heard in a society that wants to confine meaning to the present moment. It is the widest possible jury of my peers. Unlike a cult, which generally depends on a particularly charismatic person who draws people away from their historical moment into his own world, the Catholic church draws the modern world itself into a crowded room of saints. As a Protestant, I have always considered it important to pay attention to what the Christian across from me says when we are doing a Bible Study – I may disagree with him or her, but we are both Christians, and I should at the very least be troubled by our differences. But how much more when we are reading the Bible with saints? Shouldn’t we be just a little troubled that those Christians we encounter from the past differ from us in some areas? Not that we can or should go back, or that we should automatically assume that Christians in the past got it all wrong and we get it all right. But we should be troubled, for they are Christians and we are Christians.
And yes, to anticipate the question, a lot of Protestants actually do think like this. They do look at as many saints as possible. But what they lack (as far as I can tell) is the mechanism for processing this tradition and the call to obedience so necessary as a safeguard against the waywardness of the self. You see, for the past number of years, I have been such a Protestant, trying to engage as deeply with a fully catholic Christianity as I can. But the task is daunting. I have spent some six years just looking at Gregory the Great, and I still cannot say I have “mastered” him – not that that would be a wise thing to say under any circumstances. But if it takes me so much time to even begin to think through the work of a single Christian from the past – indeed, a space of time that was only available to me on account of academic funding – how can I expect to process the rest of tradition? And how can I invite others to this burden when they probably have even fewer resources and time than I have been blessed with?
The temptation in this situation will be obvious: to play a game of cherry-picking exegesis with tradition. Pick the sexy saints, the Francises and the eminently quotable Augustines, and make a coat of many colors to match our moods. Again, here is where the whole issue of the self comes in. It will be much quicker and expedient to salvage what we like and abandon the rest. For all the claims that Anglicans make about tradition, I cannot help but see the Anglican church (where it is dealing with tradition, which is not everywhere) as one picking up “retro” scraps of tradition here and there and making it into hipster garb – it is flashy, but I prefer the seamless robe of Christ.
In contrast, the Catholic church is cursed with the burden of tradition – and I say this in the same way that I would say that humans are cursed with community and love. The Catholic church cannot think about something for a moment but there is a stutter from the past, a hiccup, something that must be considered. It makes for very slow processes of thinking and complex ones, but for my money, the complexity is something that reflects the complexity of reality, not an undue multiplication of entities without charge. As most modern people point out, tyranny would be easier – embrace what is progressive, what is winning etc. – but if we are going to listen to all the Christians in the room of history, who in turn are tasked with listening to all the people in the world, things are going to get messy and complex and yes it will take a while to think about things. That is the price of listening and loyalty – not just to those who exist in the present moment, but to those who have gone before us and will come after us.
The term “brony” describes a male (often adult) fan of the recent TV childrens’ series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. When I first heard about brony culture, I was just a little unsettled. Men of my generation have trouble growing up – much to the chagrin of many eligible women I know who have suffered at the hands of their prolonged adolescence – and to me this sounded like another instance of immature infantilism; I won’t exactly say that I was ready to pull a Mark Driscoll and tell them to “man-up,” but I will say that it made me wish there were more sensible guys around, if not for my eligible women friends, at least for the dignity of our sex. I may not have been ready to tell such men to man up, but I could at least insist that they grow up. To a certain degree, I still think this. But I have come to see that the actual process of growing up may be more complicated than I initially thought. Perhaps growing up is not simply a matter of becoming serious. Perhaps it is also a matter of becoming (as George MacDonald famously put it), not childish, but childlike.
You see, while I would not call myself a “brony” per se, My Little Pony happens to be my five year old son’s favorite show. As most parents will know, this means I have been witness to almost all the episodes multiple times. And the conclusion I have come to is that, at bottom, what appeals to a certain kind of male about the show is its representation of the kind of story we no longer tell. By this, I mean the fairy tale that does in fact entertain some idea of innocence.
In modern culture, we love fairy tales, but we always insist on digging up in them very dark twists and sub-themes. Almost all of them (we presume from psychoanalytic theory) are about sex. Hansel and Gretel must be witch hunters. That Prince Charming cannot be the protagonist has become something of a modern cliché. Snow white becomes a sexualized vampire figure. Etc. I do not mean of course to say that we should have no revisionist fairy tales; in my opinion, the recent Snow White and the Huntsman film did quite a good job of adapting the tale. But it is perhaps tragic when a film like Shrek – that was so humorous to us who were brought up on the original stories – can no longer be understood in a generation that no longer has these stories. Irony and complexity can only work when the basic building blocks are grasped, and we seem unable or unwilling to pass these on to our children. All we can see are the sarcastic adult versions, and even when we encounter an original, we still think that it masks something far more sinister than its literal vehicle suggests.
What I want to suggest, though, is that there is in us not only a deep desire and need for complexity, nuance and treatment of a sinister reality; there is also in us the desire for something beautiful, something innocent – older writers would call this an Edenic impulse. And what I want to suggest is that My Little Pony is popular among males precisely because they have no other cultural referent pointing them back to a certain kind of fairy-tale innocence that they were created to need.
The reason the show does this so well, I suggest, is because it is pagan in the best possible sense – it is a classical pagan story. I am not here using the word pagan pejoratively, but rather descriptively. As in classical philosophy, friendship in the series is one of the highest goods. The ideals – the seven elements of harmony that figure prominently in the show – are reminiscent of the classical cardinal virtues, with a nod to the theological virtues thrown in via the number seven. There are composite beasts that look like they could come from a classical or medieval bestiary, and dragons are penalized for their hoarding capacities. There is even a nod to the classical grammarian in us all, that insists on pluralizing “pegasus” as “pegasi” (this, by the way, is a far greater “take-home-message” than the ones I see on most childrens’ shows).
Considered all together, these elements make for a show that, in an imaginative desert, stands out as a mythopoeic beacon. It is sad, of course, that we are not at a historical point where children are being fascinated by the really great mythopoeic stories – the ones that held the likes of Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, and MacDonald in their thrall. Nonetheless, we must work with what we are given, and even if My Little Pony will not exactly outlast the Grimm brothers, it is a significant pointer in our culture back to the childlikeness for which my generation – and particularly the males of my generation – are starved. At least, culturally speaking, there is still some kind of space wherein girls can appreciate real mythopoeic innocence (or at least I feel it may be easier – but am willing to be corrected); in male culture, though, such innocence appears as “girly” against the backdrop of a hyper-violence channeling all the ferocity of past epics with none of the wisdom or the reasons these epics provide for fighting.
I think when we understand this we may be able to evaluate so-called brony culture in a different light. Rather than understanding it as a stunt or stutter in the “serious” development of an adult, perhaps instead we should understand it as a transitional space in culture for those on their way to becoming childlike. And such childlikeness is to be by all means encouraged, for it in fact involves a maturity and wisdom beyond the stiff and unimaginative thing we think of as adulthood. As T. S. Eliot liked to remind us (channeling I think Heraclitus), “the way up is the way down,” and perhaps we will find this true of the young men that we simply want to “man up”; maybe the problem is not that they have become children, but that they have not become children enough.
It has become a truism of late that some disaffected evangelicals want to become Catholic because Catholicism has so much more of a robust faith than Protestantism. (A few years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy was a big deal too–arguably still is!) While many more have a more informed account than the hipster one I will provide (I have some smart Catholic convert friends, you see), a typically recent narrative often goes something like this:
Unlike the format of rocked-out worship songs followed by a lengthy sermon, Catholicism (it is said) has a liturgy, a call-and-response between people and priest. Unlike the marketing ethos that pervades much of evangelicalism, Catholicism is like coming home to what Tolkien might call the ‘Last Homely Home.’ Unlike the cheesy literature that fills Christian bookstores that won’t let Rachel Held Evans use the word ‘vagina,’ Catholicism is the religion of what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the ‘lay styles,’ the people like Dante, Péguy, and Hopkins who saw the glory of the Lord, got sucked in, and wrote it all down in sublime poetry. Catholicism rocks these evangelical converts’ socks because it’s just everything that they were looking for in evangelicalism but couldn’t find because evangelicalism has become corrupted by the free market and its chief political proponents, the Republican Party and their hard neoliberal equivalents in other countries.
As someone who grew up as a non-denominational evangelical and was confirmed into the Anglican Communion (what those who have jumped the Tiber might call the Americano version of Catholic espresso; I’d like to state for the record, however, that the primate who confirmed me had apostolic succession), I can attest to the feeling that Catholics have something that evangelicals don’t have. Catholic theologian James Alison talks about being blown into the Catholic Church from his evangelical Anglican background by falling in love with a classmate who had a grace that he associated with being Catholic (apparently, as a child, his family had John Stott as a close family friend). I remember living in a Catholic house of studies where the daily mass’s liturgical homily was more Christocentric than I had ever heard at an evangelical church. I also always go back to that time I attended mass at a Catholic church where the cantor led worship from guitar with a full band and took us to sublime heights (he even slipped in a Hillsong piece); incidentally, that day was the first day they used the new rites, and while everyone was sufficiently confused about the ‘and with your spirit’ and ‘under my roof’ lines, my sister described the music as giving her an ‘eargasm’ (Rachel Held Evans would like that). Even before that, I recall first partaking of the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy–which, incidentally, reminded me a lot of Catholic school (as one priest reminded me, you know who stole from whom)–and realizing that the Gospel that evangelicals always tried to articulate in fresh ways was already fully expressed in the liturgy.
Readers of this blog will be tempted to channel everything I say through those personal experiences. Fully aware of positionality issues, however, I’d like to state for the record that they are not what I mean by the Catholic thing, that is, the central theme that some readers have identified in my contributions to this blog: everybody seems to be a closet Catholic. In other words, however readers may assess the motives behind my Catholic gymnastics, I am categorically not trying to impose my own aesthetic fetishes on other brothers and sisters in Christ.
That said, the readers of this blog should not be blamed for thinking that I engage in frequent psychological imposition. This is really my fault, my own grievous fault: I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have committed a great sin of omission, for I have failed to define two very key terms. They are Protestant and Catholic. While most readers will take these terms’ meanings to be obvious, the crisis in theology and religious studies around terms like religion, secular, ritual, and myth suggests that I shouldn’t assume that everyone agrees about what these terms mean. Certainly, as we saw in the Anglican post, I’m inclined to a certain understanding of what it means to be ‘Anglican,’ one which, as I noted in the post, other Anglicans might recognize as a validly different form of Anglicanism and proceed to insult it accordingly. In like fashion, I’d like to say exactly what I mean by these two other terms. By Catholic, I simply refer to churches who recognize their communion with the see of Rome such that the see of Rome likewise recognizes its communion with those churches. By Protestant, I refer to churches that were once in communion with the see of Rome but fractured that communion in the sixteenth century for this, that, and the other ideological reason. As you can see, the theological method I’m using here is not very different from my assessment of Anglicanism, that is to say, the form of communion takes primacy over substantive confessional points. (Here, if you are an evangelical, can I beg you to hold your fire for a sec? I’ll get to the confessional points by the end.)
You can see now why I think so many people are closet Catholics. Schism is never pretty, and as Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac argues in his book Catholicism (with the cheesy English subtitle Christ and the Common Destiny of Man), the Holy Spirit gives Christians a ‘Catholic spirit,’ a desire for union with the rest of humanity. The fact that Protestants are out of communion with Rome should be cause for grief for the sheer fact that there are Christians (not to mention other humans) with whom we are not in communion, for the ontological reality in Christianity (well, the orthodox versions, at any rate) is that communion is what we’re made for. To say that the confessional differences on the Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, and the primacy of Rome are sufficient to erect boundaries should still be cause for ontological pain because plainly put, regardless of the reasons, schism still sucks.
This is, of course, why you have to laugh when an evangelical tells you they became Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. After all, everything I just said doesn’t give you much substantive confessional difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, per se. Take, for example, the typical conversion narrative that an evangelical Protestant might rehearse: tired of the market commodification of evangelical Protestantism, they became Catholic to practice a fuller form of the faith. This narrative, however, raises all sorts of questions. For one thing, don’t Catholics also participate in the market commodification of their own faith at times? I mean, have they ever visited a Catholic bookstore? Luther might also have one or two things to say about coupons, building projects, and cheesy jingles about hell and purgatory in the sixteenth century.
To drive home the point, I often scratch my head at the actual substantive difference between a Catholic youth ministry and a Protestant youth ministry. For every evangelical who tells me that they grew up in a big youth group, did the big flashy youth ministry thing, and have now resigned in disgust because it’s not about numbers but truly contemplative faith, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve ever heard of World Youth Day. For every evangelical who tells me that they’re sick of Christian music, I’m curious to know if they’ve ever listened to Audrey Assad, Jackie François, and Matt Maher, much less heard that selections of Hillsong, Vineyard, Maranatha, and even that classic evangelical hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ have all been imported wholesale and oftentimes unproblematically into Catholic worship. (In fact, given this all of this awesomeness–I happen to really, really enjoy listening to Assad, François, and Maher, thank you very much–I’m really rooting for Brooke Fraser to join this Catholic musical dream team, as she and André Crouch would say, ‘soon and very soon.’) For every evangelical who feels disillusioned with Christian media, I wonder if they’ve ever heard of EWTN and whether they know that Bishop Fulton Sheen donned in all of his episcopal regalia was really America’s first televangelist. For every evangelical sick of evangelical fundraising, I’d like to know if they’ve ever heard of a diocesan capital campaign.
The only real difference that I can really think of between Catholics and Protestants is this: being ‘Protestant’ is often tied to ‘maintaining a Protestant identity’ or holding onto ‘denominational distinctives.’ Sometimes this means adding a Latin ‘sola’ before everything and an English ‘alone’ after translations. Other times, it means abstracting Scripture from its historical canonization process and debating whether it’s scientifically inerrant (talk about form over substantive confession!). Still other times, it requires explaining why Catholics are wrong about everything, a favour that Catholics used to return by explaining why Protestants were wrong about everything (thankfully, the tone has softened). This, of course, is where the complaint about ‘protestantization’ in theology and religious studies comes from: over time, these ideological distinctives, formed through cognitive belief and emphasizing individual interiority, began to be believed by Protestants as that which composes religion itself. It’s little wonder that Jefferson Bethke decided to take a potshot at this account of religion; whatever complaints you might have about his oversimplification of religion and his ties to the neo-Calvinist crowd, his return to praxis, as well as his likely unintentional repudiation of overly ‘protestantized’ religion, should be welcomed as a surprisingly ‘catholicizing’ statement of faith. (Oops, I did it again.)
Ecumenical movements also provide excellent counterweights to how these variants of ideological maintenance don’t have to run the show, which means, thankfully, someone like me can still be a Protestant because I started out that way journeying toward greater communion. You could arguably say ditto about folks like Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. In fact, if you look at the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) reports, you might find it a bit interesting, amusing, and (to some) troubling that the Anglicans end up basically agreeing with the Catholics on the historic primacy of Rome and the special role of Mary in the Church. As has been noted on this blog, relations between Catholics and confessional Lutherans are also getting mighty friendly. And this ecumenism isn’t just something ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ do; there are progressive ecumenical conversations going on about social justice even while there are conservative ecumenical conversations happening about confronting secularization. The trouble is, with ecumenism also came some (and let me stress: only some)fundamentalists and evangelicals who accused ecumenists of being modernists caving into a culture of relativism and failing to uphold biblical standards and doctrinal statements, that is to say, letting the Protestant guard down.
It’s people in the latter camp that my Catholic gymnastics target. While I’d argue that most Christians (if they’re honest) have seen the light on communion and ecumenism–whether or not they actually become Catholic or not is another story (I haven’t)–there are some who seem to insist that this is not the light. My tack is to argue that because they are Christian, they simply don’t know that they have already seen the light. To this end, I am not saying that they want to become Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. In fact, I’m saying that those who become Catholic to get away from all the evangelical hype and give substantive confessional reasons for doing it might be jumping out of the fire into the frying pan (I certainly think that’s true of those who become Anglican, myself included). However, I am also saying that I believe in the Holy Spirit, and if indeed the Spirit guides us into all truth–the truth that God in Christ is making all things new and reconciling things in heaven and things on earth into a Christological unity–then why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind not at least long (even secretly so) to participate in the greater catholicity of the church, even (oh, my) with Christians in the see of Rome? Why would anyone think that schism is a good thing to maintain? And if one truly confesses belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, why wouldn’t one at least entertain the possibility that God being God of the living and not the dead allows us to converse with the saints across time and space, including the Blessed Virgin?
What I mean by the Catholic thing, then, is nothing short of wanting to be part of the whole communion of saints, which incidentally usually acknowledges the primacy of the see of Rome in some way, shape, or fashion; at least it has as early as Clement of Rome’s first letter to Corinth in the late first century. In fact, nobody in recent times has recognized this interesting formulation better than Pope Francis himself. In his first appearance on the Loggia, Pope Francis never referred to his papal office as having primacy, per se. Instead, speaking as the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the see of Rome as ‘the church that presides in charity over all the churches.’ To be in communion with Rome is not so much to acknowledge papal infallibility, per se (much as Vatican I would make us believe that we have to). It’s to be in communion with the see that has historically held primacy as the unifier of all the Christian churches since the first century. Being in open communion with that see is technically what’s supposed to make you fully Catholic. Being formerly in communion with that see, but having broken it off for this, that, and the other reason is technically what makes you Protestant (unless, of course, you are the Society of St. Pius X).
What follows from this, finally, is that any charitable and gracious reading of Christians who actively make schismatic remarks is that they really don’t intend to do so. Assuming the best of the Spirit’s work in their lives, we must assume that what they are really longing for is to become fully Catholic. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us today, there is a season in our journey toward questioning and then re-establishing communion. We are looking forward to the season when we all realize that we long for communion. After all, Catholic or Protestant, we still recite the baptismal creed where we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.’ I promised that I’d get to a substantive confessional point, and I finally have: if we say that the creed sums up the substantive teaching of the Apostles from whom we derive the ecclesial form of succession, we’d better mean what we say in that creed, and if we love our brothers and sisters, we’d better believe that everyone else who says it means it too, some of them more than they know. Together, we all long for the end of schism, for a church that is perfectly one, even as the Father is with the Son, that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son.
Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel reading: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid’ (John 14.27). These words are also the preface in most Christian liturgies to the ‘peace,’ the section in the Eucharistic celebration where we greet each other in the name of Christ, reconciling with those whom we have wronged and joining together in love before partaking of the body and the blood together.
This is more than liturgically appropriate–arguably one of the earliest parts in liturgical development–because the peace’s context is what has come to be known as the ‘Farewell Discourses’ in St. John’s Gospel, the conversation (well, OK, it’s more like a monologue with a few leading questions) where, in light of ‘going to the Father,’ the Lord enjoins his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, to wait for the Paraclete who will lead them deeper into the ontological truth of the death and resurrection, and to live so deeply in the truth that the Father and the Son make their home with them even as the world hates them and persecutes them. The emphasis on reconciling love and passing the peace pervades the other lectionary readings as well. In Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem is convened to deal with the theological assertions of a party of Jewish Christians who want the Gentiles to get circumcised and follow the Mosaic dietary laws. The Council concludes that non-Jewish Christians only have to do the bare minimum as they find themselves at peace with their Jewish brothers and sisters as part of the new covenant: don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, don’t eat blood, don’t engage in porneia. By the time of the second reading in Revelation 21, it’s revealed that everyone here belongs to the New Jerusalem, the new Israel, the new Temple, shining with the glory of the Lord, who is the Lamb (thanks, Balthasar). The mystical communion of the New Jerusalem founded on an ontology of mystical love was aptly demonstrated to me on Sunday morning: at the free church that I occasionally attend with my wife (a likely surprise to everyone who thought I considered non-Anglican churches beyond the pale), the pastor preached on communion as a practice of reconciling love that cuts across the ecclesial boundaries we erect against each other. Without knowing what the lectionary readings actually were, this pastor (in my humble opinion) represents a sign that God still mystically unites his church catholic despite our intentional divisiveness, for he was practicing ecumenism as an evangelical without even being conscious of it.
This ‘mystic, sweet communion’ might well be applied to those who seem inadvertently and unintentionally to be set up as the arch-nemeses of this blog: the young and restless Protestant tribe dubbed the ‘neo-Calvinists.’ Mark Driscoll is in trouble again (what’s new?): at the recent Catalyst conference, he said something to the effect that because he knows his Maker, who is the maker of the environment, and he is certain that God the Creator will burn the whole thing up, yes, he drives an SUV. He followed this with a (typically) sexist joke that those who drive minivans are ‘mini-men.’ Upon making these remarks, my Facebook news feed erupted in anger, some with passive sighs, others with a call to arms, still others disavowing any connection with Driscoll. One friend even resurrected an old allegation that Mars Hill Church is in fact a ‘cult.’
As I’ve said before on this blog, I do not think the ‘cult’ accusation is very helpful and that Driscoll’s sectarian tendencies are better read as a psychological resistance to his longing to return to his roots as an Irish Catholic. In light of these Catholic musings, I wonder if diatribes against the neo-Reformed tribe don’t in fact stoke their sense of justification by sixteenth-century polemics alone. I wonder if instead passing the peace to them might in fact provoke them to reflect on theirschismatic tendencies and in turn infuse them with such a love that will cover a multitude of sins.
What would it look like to pass the peace to folks like Mark Driscoll and John Piper? I think it’s by arguing that they secretly wish they were Catholic, that they really don’t intend to be schismatic but long instead for deeper communion with the rest of the church catholic. The trouble is that they’ve built their pastoral careers on constructing congregations around hard Reformed Protestant theologies, so they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. It is thus up to us to extend a hand of friendship as they struggle between ideological (they would call it ‘doctrinal’) purity and their ontological reality.
I have argued sufficiently in the other post that Driscoll is a closet Catholic in denial, so I will not reprise my arguments here. Instead, in this post, I will subject one of his teachers, John Piper, to a similar (but briefer) treatment. (Incidentally, this treatment has already been undertaken by a hyper-Reformed blog seeking to undermine Piper’s credibility as a Calvinist. Where they wax uncharitable, I will attempt to be charitable to a fault.)
Piper put forward a (likely unintentionally) schismatic argument that if he were to have a conversation with the pope, he would ask him whether he believes that we are justified by faith alone and whether the righteousness of God is directly imputed to believers through their act of faith. If the pope were to disagree with this formulation, Piper would declare him a heretic. See for yourself:
When Pope Francis was elected, Piper put forward a clarifying statement, one that incidentally showed up on my news feed at the same time that Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler denounced the papal office as Antichrist altogether. (I will subject Mohler to Catholic treatment in a future post; stay tuned.) Walking back his comments on Catholicism as a ‘heresy,’ Piper admits:
I am thankful that God is willing to save us even when our grasp of the gospel may be partial or defective. None of us has a comprehensive or perfect grasp of it.
Nevertheless, God’s mercy is not a warrant to neglect or deny precious truths, especially those that are at the heart of how we get right with God. And the teachers of the church (notably the Pope) will be held more responsible than others for teaching what is fully biblical.
While refusing to walk back his absolutist statements on imputation (you can’t cede all your ground without completely losing face, you know), this, in the words of gay Catholic theologian James Alison, is nonetheless an attempt to ‘lower the temperature’ and ‘loosen the screws.’
Piper can do this because the figure in the theological background for his entire theological system is Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher whom I will also argue had loose Catholic tendencies (pax, Edwards). Piper draws from all parts of Edwards to build his theological system, from Edwards’s Lockean tabula rasa in his understanding of the process of Scriptural and scientific exegesis, to Edwards’s meditations on beauty to build a theology of Christian hedonism (i.e. that we exist to glorify God by enjoying him forever), to Edwards’s marriage to Sarah Edwards to build a case for gender complementarity (these themes emerge even more prominently in their daughter Esther Edwards Burr’s diary), to Edwards’s late evangelistic efforts to indigenous peoples to build a case for risking your life for missions (Piper likes David Brainerd too, btw, both of whom, in Piper’s reading, did not waste their lives by becoming too comfortable in academia), to Edwards’s treatment of religious affections to build a case for a Reformed charismatic theology (putting him in line with Sovereign Grace Ministries, the systematic theology of Wayne Grudem, Louie Giglio’s Passion conferences, etc.), to Edwards’s understanding of the freedom of the will to build his seven-point ‘double predestinarian’ Calvinism, to Edwards’s decisive handling of the medically pornographic ‘Bad Book Case’ to fight lustful thoughts in his own life, to Edwards’s long tenure as a pastor to argue that all of these metaphysical musings are precisely the work of pastoral ministry. Edwards, in turn, had an ironically high sacramental theology for a Puritan, which led to him getting fired from his Congregational Church for changing the mode of communion from his father-in-law Solomon Stoddard’s ‘converting ordinance’ to a members-only sacrament (or whatever is closest to sacrament that a Puritan can be comfortable saying: means ofgrace?)that could only be taken if you first inspected yourself for sin and if you weren’t under church discipline for ongoing sin in your life. (As an aside, I would put my finger here to understand Mars Hill’s bizarre church discipline cases: they’re attempts to do right by Piper qua Edwards. For a Catholic parallel, see Bishop Allen Vigneron’s suggestion that Catholics who differ on church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage should not take communion.)
Of course, not all readings of Edwards are oriented to Catholicism; Sang Hyun Lee’s interpretations are notable examples. But you get the point: Piper is a closet Catholic because he reads Edwards as a closet Catholic. (In fact, Edwards’s work can be read as a fully catholic articulation of the Christian faith, as Miroslav Volf tacitly suggests in his reading list in A Common Word Between Us and You.)They both seem to have a fairly high sacramental theology. They take pleasure in contemplative spiritualities. They even both reinforce the gender complementarities in Catholic holy orders. And if you’ve given Piper’s oeuvre a fair reading, you’ll know that he knows the Tradition quite well (never mind if you agree with his assessments) through his discussions of Athanasius, Anselm, and even Aquinas in Desiring God and The Pleasures of God.
The real trouble, then, is that they are both given to excess in their insistence that because they are Puritan, they cannot be Catholic. These excesses in turn can be corrected.
Mirroring an Edwardsian ‘personal narrative’ of divine conversions, I personally know that these excesses can be corrected because I myself am a neo-Reformed convert. I had a conversation with someone this afternoon who said that they got into the neo-Reformed thing because they were looking for something more solidly Protestant after being in a ‘loosy-goosy’ evangelical church, and I daresay that my experience was the same. In university, after passing through a progressive Catholic school that taught me the basics of liberal Protestant biblical criticism and liberation theology as well as Chinese evangelical congregations that could be framed as ‘more grace than works,’ I got into the work of Driscoll, Piper, Mahaney, Harris, Chandler, Bradley, Keller, etc. in university because their Protestant-speak was so appealing. My wife, whom I had attempted to date (rather, court) at the time, tells me that I was kind of an absolutist jerk at the time, and I daresay most of the women who also rejected my dating advances at the time would make similar comments. (So much for the neo-Calvinist expertise on biblical courtship.)
However, as they say in these neo-Reformed circles, God’s grace is truly irresistible. When I was in high school, a Catholic priest planted just the right sort of seed in my proto-Reformed heart (mind you, for readers who wax critical of Catholicism due to its recent scandals, just as a cigar is sometimes only a cigar, sometimes a seed just a seed). He asked me what we were learning in school, and I replied that we were reading Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ in AP US History. I explained that Edwards’s vision of God as a fearful judge dangling sinners like a spider over the pit of hell was sure to shake any complacent non-Christian out of their wits and send them running to Christ for salvation, just as people did precisely when Edwards was reading that sermon in his New England church. I thought this would resonate well with the Catholic priest; the Fatima prayer is, after all, ‘Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy. Amen.’ Or as the Death Cab for Cutie song goes, ‘In Catholic school / as vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black. / And I held my tongue / as she told me, “Son, / fear is the heart of love.” / So I never went back.’
But this Catholic priest looked confused. Genuinely bewildered, he asked me, ‘Is God angry?’ I sat there speechless, flabbergasted, in fact, probably somewhat infuriated at these Catholics who don’t take doctrine seriously. But he continued, ‘If God is love, can he really be that angry?’
You could say that this priest didn’t know the first thing about Edwards’s oeuvre. You could say that focusing on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ fails to take into account Edwards’s metaphysical reflections on the Trinity, his explorations of beauty, his probing into religious affections, his insights into voluntary agency.
Or you could read it another way. You see, this priest was a devotee of the near-equivalent Catholic figure of Edwards to Puritan Christianity: Hans Urs von Balthasar. Both, after all, put beauty close to the heart of their theological reflections, and both talked an awful lot about ‘the glory of the Lord.’ I am aware that Karen Kilby has taken Balthasar to task for his worst speculative excesses and uncritical sexism. However, one excessive theologian can correct another theologian’s excesses, so another possible interpretation is that my Catholic priest friend was using Balthasar to correct Edwards’s worst excesses. Even if Balthasar were excessively speculative, he was able to check Edwards’s excessive morbidity and obsession with hell. Mind you, whatever you think of Balthasar’s ‘dare we hope all men to saved’ argument, Edwards can be a bit off the deep end with his ‘no, they burn’ answer at times.
It was this Balthasarian seed that drew me deeper into the bowels of Anglicanism, and in particular, a view of Anglicanism in which the state’s co-optation of the church is not necessarily the definitive view of the Church of England. After all, the question this priest asked me was a sincere one: how does this excessive view of hell display the glory of the Lord? While Piper might argue that it displays the absolute sovereignty of God, Balthasar would be quick to note that this sovereign Lord descended into hell on Holy Saturday, emptying himself of power to go to the dead. It is this hiatus, the silence in the death of God, that the logic of our theology is re-constituted, where the beautiful glory of the Lord is most definitively seen in the figure of Jesus, the one who died, the one who is risen, the one who will come again.
Our Sunday Gospel tells us that the Paraclete will draw us into all truth, that is, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger put it in his dialogue with critical theorist Jürgen Habermas (whom he was attempting to draw into all truth as well), the ontological reality that it is this mystic, sweet communion that holds the world together. Assuming that the Holy Spirit guides and directs the neo-Calvinists as our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, they will (of course) be drawn with us into all truth, which means that, if they haven’t already, they will necessarily recognize the ontological reality that we recognize, and the Father and the Son will come to them and make their home with them, along with the rest of us. Our worst excesses will be corrected; our mystic sweet communion will come to fruition. We thus pass the peace to our neo-Calvinist brothers and sisters (yes, believe it or not, there are women in this tribe), acknowledging the peace we have with them even if they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the peace they have with us.
The passage that was read at my wedding was 1 Corinthians 13. Many will (of course) complain that the passage is not about marital love, that it is in fact about ecclesial love, and that to use it in a wedding is to join Hallmark in taking it out of context. Our Anglican priest’s homily, however, emphasized love within the church over the pride that ‘puffs up,’ placing marriage as a sacrament within the context of the church, and I suspect that it is because of those homiletical reflections that I can’t get the passage out of my head as I conclude this post. I realize that when St. Paul says that when he was a child, he spoke like a child, he thought like a child, he reasoned like a child, he is positing a contrast between the present in which we see through a mirror dimly and the eschatological future when of faith, hope, and love, only love remains. But because the church mysteriously lives an eschatological reality in the present, I can’t help but think that a bit of eisegesis is in order. You see, when I was a child, I spoke like a schismatic, I thought like a theologically insecure neophyte about fundamental doctrines, I reasoned like a ‘solid’ Protestant with an overly romanticized view of the sixteenth century. But now that I have become an adult, I have put childish ways behind me, trading schism for communion, hopefully growing deeper into the truth that holds the world together, the realization that, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it in A Better Hope, ‘the worship of such a God [who works through the church] means that we must pray and pray fervently for the reconciliation of Catholics and Protestants, as our very division wounds not only ourselves but the world itself’ (p. 45-46). I can’t wait for my neo-Reformed brothers and sisters to do likewise.
In this way, Driscoll’s most recent debacle need not be interpreted as him going off the deep end as a neo-Calvinist participating in the worst excesses of American Christianity. Instead, the poor guy is kicking and screaming against the Holy Spirit leading him into all truth. We should thus not issue a green Christian diatribe against him, castigating him for his idiotic sexist and anthropocentric jokes that we take to be a pox on the face of the contemporary church catholic. We should rather extend the peace in the hope that he will be at peace as the Father and the Son make their home with him. Pax Christi.
On January 22, 2013, Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated for a second term as President of the United States of America. The inauguration itself had been the subject of some evangelical controversy. On January 9, Think Progress posted a sermon by Pastor Louie Giglio that he had preached in the mid-1990s. The sermon’s title said it all: “In Search of a Standard – Christian Response to Homosexuality.”
Giglio, the founder of the Passion Conferences and pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, promptly bowed out of the inauguration on January 10. He was then ridiculed by the secular media, defended by evangelicals, and finally given The Last Word‘s “Rewrite” by progressive Catholic and MSNBC news host, Lawrence O’Donnell.
The evangelical drama wasn’t over yet. After the Giglio débacle unfolded, Obama announced that he would put his hand on two Bibles as he took the presidential oath: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. That went pretty smoothly.
But then, there was this tweet from within the heart of the evangelical world from Pastor Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church:
Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.
Of course, Driscoll might contest that he could be characterized as being “the heart of the evangelical world” because he is from Seattle, but suffice it to say that it seemed like the Giglio drama was reignited. Driscoll perplexed the secular news media, was defended by fans on his social media pages (while called expletive names by others), was deconstructed by the Naked Pastor, and provoked not-a-few facepalms from Christians who deemed themselves thoughtful. Here’s Eugene Cho, just across the bridge from Driscoll, for example:
On MLK Day, you want me to honor his legacy by responding to a privileged white dude pastor who rarely-if ever-engages civil rights? No thx.
What was fascinating was that, in a piece completely unconnected with these incidents, the same Mark Driscoll posted a response to a young man seeking to know whether he should major in ministry during his undergraduate education. Driscoll’s answer, using the typical Driscoll-isms of masculine appeal to “men are like trucks; they drive straighter with a load,” turned into an all-out exposé of the contemporary seminary as a debt-inflating institution with which young men exploring a ministry option should be very cautious to engage.
True as Driscoll’s advice may have been, however, I found myself wondering about Driscoll’s musings on theological education in the context of the public pastoral débacles of the last two weeks. I mean, it seems these days that it might be better to read a few books than spend money on seminary curriculum built around Scriptural exegesis, church history, systematic theology, and a few practical ministry courses, plus an internship in which you pay the seminary to work for a church. I mean, if you can teach yourself these things, why waste your money and four years of your life? But I wonder if Driscoll’s advice, as responsible as it sounds, might be short-selling his readers.
Indeed, had Driscoll himself received broader exposure and critical pedagogical guidance to a wider set of theological traditions, his critique of Obama might have been more acute. Of course, I am assuming that one receives a broad exposure to a wide array of theologies in seminary, which, from my experience as a dropout from two theological institutions, is probably not a safe assumption to make about many schools. However, there may be a case here that it is precisely pedagogical guidance to the breadth in historical and contemporary theological conversations that should be the added-value of a seminary education over reading a book and that seminaries should be making sure that they are providing this service if they aren’t doing it already.
Take, for example, a hypothetical situation in which Driscoll, instead of being only narrowly exposed to a narrow system in evangelical theology during his theological training, might have critically engaged critiques of Obama and his theological guru, Reinhold Niebuhr, launched by James Cone and Cornel West, both faculty specialists in African American theology at Union Theological Seminary. (Sure, Driscoll has occasionally confessed to reading feminist theologians and not enjoying them, but one wonders if more pedagogical guidance here would have been necessary.) West’s critique of Obama sounds eerily similar to Driscoll’s, but with a bit more teeth:
I mean, that sounds so similar to Driscoll: West is saying that if Obama does not carry out policies of justice for the least of these in poverty-stricken America, he doesn’t have a right to put his hand on a Bible that is filled with verses of justice that speaking of a God of justice in which King believed. If West critiques Obama directly, Cone takes on Obama’s major theological influence, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, where he suggests that being influenced by Niebuhr does not equate being rooted in the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
There was, however, an important difference between Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. that partly accounts for why King became a martyr in the civil rights movement while Niebuhr remained safely confined in his office at Union Seminary teaching Christian social ethics, never risking his life in the fight for justice. Unlike King, Niebuhr viewed agape love, as revealed in Jesus’ cross, as an unrealizable goal in history–a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve. For Niebuhr, Jesus’ cross was an absolute transcendent standard that stands in judgment over any human achievement. The most we can realize is “proximate justice,” which Niebuhr defined as a balance of power between powerful collectives. But what about groups without power? Niebuhr did not have much to say to African Americans, a 10-percent minority, except to recommend nonviolence, which he believed might advance the cause of civil rights, while never winning full justice. Niebuhr’s moderate view was not one to empower a powerless group to risk their lives for freedom. That might have been why he did not talk to militant black groups or black nationalists in Harlem. He had very little to say to them. (James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011, p. 71.)
Yes, that sounds like Obama-style pragmatism to me too. No, I’m not saying that Driscoll needs to become African American; that makes about as much sense as when St. Paul tells circumcised Christians not to seek to be uncircumcised (one wonders: were they really thinking about it?). I am saying, though, that in light of Eugene Cho’s response, Driscoll might have some theological reflection to do about the connection between his neo-Reformed evangelicalism and racial justice. As radical as this may sound for an evangelical, it is not impossible. Witness, for example, Tim Keller’s attempt that was itself a response to John Piper’s attempt:
Recalling Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s (2000) Divided by Faith, the Cone and West aficionados may wince a bit at these appeals to personal repentance and blunt critiques of ethnic churches that come out of an evangelical obsession with individual responsibility at the expense of structural forces. But come on; at least they’re trying, and maybe we should encourage them…especially by helping young clergy reflect on this in seminary.
In addition, getting back to Giglio, one wonders if a more intelligent exchange might have been had if only he had been exposed to feminist and LGBT theology during his theological training. Indeed, the fact that Giglio felt that he had to bow out of the public stage meant that he didn’t know how to think anything else except for what the Gay Christian Network founder, Justin Lee, calls the “gay-vs.-Christian” dichotomy.
Again, in the same way that I juxtaposed Driscoll with Cone and West, I’m not saying that Giglio would have to become a feminist or LGBT theologian, or that he even needs to change his view on sexual ethics (he could remain what Justin Lee calls a “Side B” Christian). I’m saying that if he might have had a few more tools in his theological toolbox than what he had already, that is, if he had been aware of the fabulous work out there, say, written by Patrick Cheng, James Allison, and Sister Margaret Farley (I mean, after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did their thing, who in the theological world hasn’t heard of Margaret Farley), Giglio would at least know that he has to engage this stuff. Or, on that note, what about thinking through what evangelical ethicist Lewis Smedes at Fuller has to say about homosexuality as an identity not actually being found anywhere in Scripture in the revised edition of Sex for Christians? I mean, the sermon is about “biblical standards,” which suggests that at the time, Giglio thought of homosexuality as a loose lifestyle funded by a wealthy lobby to make some kind of sexually hedonistic Epicureanism an acceptable alternate lifestyle with no real moral standards or constraints on pleasure-seeking, which in turn has to be confronted with the truth that there are moral standards and those are found in Scripture (although the moral standards bit was probably learned from Part I of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity). I mean, whatever one’s theology of the body is, with the passage of two decades and a bit more reading, a bit more clergy development, and a bit more counseling, one should know that that portrayal was probably a tad too monolithic. Had he had a few more tools, his response to being called out by Think Progress might have at least been a little more interesting.
In other words, what I’m saying is that there is a very broad theological conversation that is happening, and that part of the point of theological education is to induct people entering ecclesial service into that dialogue. Sure, OK, some people may think I’m dreaming; after all, isn’t pastoral work about walking with the people, counseling them, providing pastoral care, being part of the major events of their lives (birth, baptism, confirmation, wedding, funeral,etc.), and equipping them to live Christian lives? Yes, it is, and part of that happens to be precisely to equip them to be the church, and part of being the church is to be in communion with the church catholic that is having these conversations. And part of the way of training young ecclesial leaders on how to get in on the conversation is pretty standard pedagogical practice: give them a road map to the literature, make it required reading, and make your assignments about critical engagement! Of course, is this how theological education currently works? Likely not. I’m just saying that it’s an imperative.
But, of course, Driscoll’s post on theological education highlights three things that probably need to change before this is possible: 1) the cost of theological education, 2) the utility of theological pedagogy that would be of added value to personal theological reading, and 3) the support of churches for young clergy pursuing theological education. In other words, can theological education actually be available to young clergy who will likely not be able to repay their debts? Might churches be able to pool resources, even relying on the church catholic instead of struggling along as autonomous congregations, to train young clergy? Will seminaries be able to demonstrate that they can provide theological training that cannot be obtained by simply reading a good book by themselves?
Come to think of it, these questions may well strike at the heart of our ecclesiology. They inquire as to whether our belief in debt forgiveness as in the Lord’s Prayer, the parables of forgiveness, and the messianic announcement of the Jubilee actually matches our practice. They probe our models of congregational autonomy when, say, Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem appealed to anything but congregational autonomy; those who disagree will find 2 Corinthians a very challenging read. They challenge our understanding of education altogether, making us wonder when information accumulation replaced the discipleship and formation that seems to have been a long point of orthopraxy in the Christian tradition (thinking beyond Paul and Timothy, for example, one finds examples in Justin Martyr, Origen, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, Basil Moreau, etc.).
That said, the Giglio and Driscoll débacles of the past two weeks highlight once again the real problem of evangelical leaders who are thought to be able to do theology until they are challenged on theological grounds. This is a problem because for all that is said about the persecution of Christians by a secularizing public sphere, to be martyred for less-than-informed remarks isn’t exactly how martyrdom in Scripture works, at least not in the Acts of the Apostles. Sure, OK, out-of-context soundbites were twisted in efforts to drag Stephen, Peter, John, and Paul before synagogue leaders and the Sanhedrin. Stephen, for example, was taken brutally out of context when the Freedmen’s Synagogue said that he was telling Jewish Christians to abandon Moses. But Stephen did not resort to whimpering about being taken out of context because he was too busy being a deacon-waiter or saying that that was not the focus of his message in the first place. No, he faced the Sanhedrin and retold the entire tradition through the hermeneutic of the people of God embodying stiff-necked opposition to the Law and the Prophets so that they ultimately lynched the culmination of the Scriptures. Acts 7 is actually a fascinating theological read, and ultimately, it suggests that people like Stephen were martyred because they understood the breadth of the tradition so well that they told such convincing theological stories with such an acute, subversive, and creative Christian hermeneutic that they couldn’t be silenced except by brute force. I’m not convinced that Giglio and Driscoll have done that.
The last thing I expected to find in Detroit was an Asian American mandate that would compel the scattered groups across the nation into a broad-based pan-Asian movement. I was in for a big surprise. (Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, 57)
A quick recap for those who don’t know: Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 in Detroit on the night of his bachelor party. The context for the whole thing was the mass layoffs that had happened at Chrysler due to the late 1970s oil crisis and the rise of Japanese imported cars into the United States. Framing the layoffs in the popular press and in everyday discourse was a Japanese “invasion” that was going to take over the American economy. (Tom Clancy would have been proud.)
It should come as no surprise, then, that while the Vietnamese Chinese American, Vincent Chin, was enjoying the favours of strippers being paid highly by his groomsmen at the Fancy Pants in Detroit, Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz–both of whom had been recently laid off by Chrysler–were annoyed, thought Vincent Chin was Japanese because (why, of course) all Asians looked the same to them, and muttered something to the effect that it was “because of motherf*ckers like you that we’re out of work.” A scuffle ensued, all parties were thrown out, and then the unthinkable happened: Ebens and Nitz hunted Chin down outside and clubbed him to death with a baseball bat while onlookers, including two off-duty cops, stood by, just letting it happen. Vincent Chin’s wedding guests arrived instead for his funeral.
psst…I think they got the date wrong…unless they’re referring to the date Vincent Chin actually died…
In a judicial twist as outrageous as the murder of Naboth the Jezreelite by Ahab and Jezebel in today’s mass readings, the trial drama that followed spiraled into a racist nightmare. Nine months after the murder, Ebens and Nitz merely got probation because, as the judge said, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” As one local restauranteur commented, “You go to jail for killing a dog.” Vincent Chin’s life, it seemed, was worth less than that of a dog.
The event galvanized the Asian American movement in the 1980s. It resonated on so many levels. There was the level of justice: Vincent Chin’s mother cried out for justice, and notable figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke out on her behalf. But deeper than a cry for justice for the unnecessary death was the plea for justice over the injustice that Asian Americans could never shake the image of the “perpetual foreigner,” for though Vincent Chin was Vietnamese Chinese American–and really, just a regular guy from Detroit–the fact that he could be mistaken for a “Jap” and openly clubbed to death certainly raised serious alarm among Asian Americans from Detroit to Oakland. The deeper question, as filmmakers Christine Choy and Renee Tajima later asked in a film that continues to haunt introductory Asian American studies courses across university campuses, was: Who Killed Vincent Chin?
Today we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin, and we remember with horror the orientalized racism that fed into the white supremacy that exploded on the night of June 19, 1982 with all its ensuing fallout.
And yet I fear that Christians may be tempted to write Vincent Chin off as having nothing to do with Christian theology. I mean, didn’t this all happen in a strip club? That doesn’t sound like the most Christian of places. And so, if Vincent Chin wasn’t a Christian, what does he have to do with us? Don’t we have more to celebrate within Asian American Christian circles, such as athletes like Michael Chang and Jeremy Lin, missionaries like Michael Oh, motivational speakers like Christopher Yuan, and YouTube stars like Arden Cho, Clara Chung, and Jayesslee?
Let me suggest that Vincent Chin still matters, not least because the Jeremy Lins and the Arden Chos of the world still face widely talked-about orientalizing forms of racism, say, in news reporting and in Hollywood auditions.
But let me give two examples from within Christian circles, one fairly liberal Protestant, the other fairly conservative evangelical, to illustrate why I think this is particularly relevant to Christians, and not just Asian American ones. See what you make of these.
Last Sunday, at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, a sermon was preached concerning the Parable of the Sower that basically argued that Jesus was a seed-bombing Zen Buddhist master. The metanoia that Jesus proclaims, the preacher explains, refers to “the big mind,” hinting that it’s not really about “repentance” on the one hand while advancing a quasi-Buddhist Jesus who speaks of the immaterial interconnectedness of us all. I have no doubt, of course, that Buddhist-Christian dialogue is an imperative of our day, as witnessed in Archbishop Rowan Williams’s recent efforts as well as the ongoing Catholic work that followed Assisi 1986.
But to make Jesus an Eastern spiritual sage is a bit of a different story–it ends up sounding like, Oh, all Christians should wish they were Asian so that we can all be smart and spiritual and respect our elders (a conservative might add: …and get persecuted for their faith like in Communist China). Indeed, the sermon seems to play out blow-by-blow right into the five Buddha fingers (sorry, couldn’t resist a Journal to the West 西遊記 reference) of Jane Iwamura’s brilliant critique of the “oriental monk” in popular American perceptions of Asian religions in her must-read Virtual Orientalism. Jesus the Zen Buddhist environmental activist sounds so hip, but it’s actually kinda racist.
But lest you think that this is a liberal problem, I often wonder why there hasn’t been more outrage at Mark Driscoll calling Francis Chan an “international man of Fu Manchu mystery” when Chan resigned from his long-time pastorate at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley.
Driscoll is joined by Josh Harris, the same guy who once kissed dating good-bye, met a girl, called for a Puritan version of metanoia that actually meant “repentance” and accepting “not even a hint” of lust, and calls you now to fall in love with a home church while maintaining a “humble orthodoxy.” (If you read I Kissed Dating Good-bye, you will also remember that Harris’s parents were Jesus People and that his mother is Japanese American, which has all sorts of tantalizing implications for Asian American Christianity and its possible intersections with the legacy of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s. I think also, for example, of Oden Fong and his band, Mustard Seed Faith. But I digress.)
Together, they ask the peripatetic Francis Chan whether his efforts to live the Christian life among the poor around the world isn’t just an irresponsible act of abandonment toward his church. You know, if only he wouldn’t subscribe to his sage-like, oriental monkish qualities, he could actually be a stable, dudely pastor-dad with a pastor-job caring for his church-family; he could even [gasp!] become just like Mark Driscoll, not the crazy guy trying to plant 586 churches in the square mile of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district with San Francisco City Impact.
What gets me about the Driscoll-Harris-Chan interview is its repeated insinuations that Francis Chan is a wandering evangelical oriental monk-sage. I often wonder if it were more widely seen by Asian Americans whether the reaction would be the same as the one toward Alexandra Wallace calling “Asians in the library” loud or MacLean’s complaining that the University of British Columbia is “too Asian.”
Of course, one could argue: but no one got killed in these examples. Vincent Chin got killed. Francis Chan, on the other hand, seems far from dead, especially at the ignorant hands of Mark Driscoll.
But that isn’t the point of the Vincent Chin story.
The point of Vincent Chin is that much of what killed Vincent Chin was the popular notion that all Asians are the same mysterious breed.
On a good day, the religious ones are all nice Buddhist monks dispensing pearls of wisdom like David Suzuki, gems of thought like the Dalai Lama, and meditative riddles that sound awfully peaceful like Thich Naht Hanh.
On a bad day, they’re Fu Manchu and Doctor No with their sinister plots to take over the world.
On all days, they’re these mysterious oriental monks who are moving with ninja stealth into your hearts, minds, and lives.
The commemoration of Vincent Chin is a call to renew the Asian American Christian theological imperative to respond prophetically to such orientalization in our own midst. It isn’t a liberal versus conservative, mainline versus evangelical, spiritual-but-not-religious versus institutional, interfaith versus neo-Calvinist, heterodox versus orthodox issue. Orientalized racism seems to have woven itself into the fabric of Protestant Christianity, period, and if that’s the case, doesn’t denying this reality make us continually complicit in the murder of Vincent Chin? (One also wonders about the contrast of the Roman Catholic Church, which seems to be acknowledging the need for Asian American theologies, as the bishops seem to have done good for themselves in a report on Asian and Pacific Islander presence in the American Church, and even Francis Cardinal George acknowledges this. Of course, I’ve also written about Driscoll being quasi-Catholic, but I digress again.)
I leave it to you to think and pray about how to get the imperative done. I wonder, for example, if it could happen through…
writing more explicitly about this stuff and getting it published in outlets that people will actually read
getting people to read the stuff that’s already published, like Asian American Christianity: A Reader, as well as books and articles already written by folks as diverse and divergent as Sang Hyun Lee, Andrew Sung Park, Russell Jeung, Tim Tseng, James Chuck, Grace Hsiao, Russell Yee, Young Lee Hertig, Helen Lee, Ken Fong, Dave Gibbons, Ken Shigematsu, Roy Sano, Paul Nagano, Peter Phan, Fumitaka Matsuoka, Kwok Pui Lan, Patrick Cheng, Rita Nakashima Brock, Jonathan Tan, Rachel Bundang, Jonathan Tran, Samuel Ling, Peter Cha, Jeanette Yep, Paul Tokunaga, Soong-Chan Rah, Jerry Park, Amos Yong, Esther Chung-Kim, Grace Kao, Frank Yamada, Benny Liew, Rudy Busto, Sharon Suh, Jane Iwamura, Janelle Wong, David Kyuman Kim, Henry Yu, etc. (if you’re overwhelmed or if you know this stuff and think that these people all have very divergent views and shouldn’t all be in the same list, my point is simply that there’s a ton of stuff out there already)
putting out more stuff on blogs, social media, and YouTube/Vimeo
teaching directly about the intersections of race, ethnicity, and theology at the seminary level
inserting into the typical Christian education/Sunday school thing in churches an explicit curriculum on Asian American Christianity
pastors and lay leaders preaching and praying while taking this stuff seriously
But if I can be blunt, it really is important not to write all this off as just another Christian fad. It is actually an imperative. After all, calling Francis Chan an “international man of Fu Manchu mystery” is really not OK when you pair it with the question of who killed Vincent Chin?
Today is the Memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Accordingly, I decided to give his De Incarnatione VerbiDei a re-read.
I read it first seven years ago. That time, I was sitting in a parking lot for a public park in my Vancouver suburb. An auntie I knew from the Chinese evangelical church I was going to–all women my mom’s age are called “auntie”–drove over and asked what I was reading. I said that I was reading Athanasius. Just the name weirded her out. “You are always reading such complicated stuff,” she said.
I would have explained to her that because she was a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity–a book she recommended to everybody (though I doubt she’s actually read it all the way through herself)–she should read Athanasius. In fact, I was reading Athanasius because I had read C.S. Lewis’s foreword to On theIncarnation in one of the versions of Mere Christianity that I had flipped through. He talks about why it’s important to read old books: because each “age” has its particular ways of thinking and doing things, reading an old book helps you see all the blind spots of your own particular “age.” In this preface, Lewis talks particularly about the impact that Athanasius had on his own theological thinking:
When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.
Of course, this sounds all so much like what Molly Worthen has recently written about the Anglophilia of American evangelicals trying to find intellectual moorings for an otherwise anti-intellectual American evangelicalism, and I won’t deny that at the time, I was soaking up the neo-Reformed goodies put out by Mark Driscoll and John Piper. In fact, to come completely clean, I was reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity for a course on Christian Living at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and yes, this was the Calvary Chapel where Pastor Chuck Smith baptized over 10,000 hippies in the 1960s and became the flagship church of what has come to be known as the Jesus Movement. (I learned about Lonnie Frisbee much, much later.)
I’m just trying to say that C.S. Lewis sounded really smart because he was British.
So, OK, fine, I’ll admit that I was reading Athanasius to show off that I could read “complicated stuff” by authors with complicated names with a hint of Anglophilia thrown in. In fact, I have to say that I was being outright Anglophilic because I was reading a horrible nineteenth-century translation that made Athanasius sound like some highfalutin Oxford don. Like Lewis, Athanasius sounded so smart because he was–well, at least in my translation–so British.
Fast-forward six or seven years. I’m completely done with Calvary Chapel’s dispensationalism–I threw in the towel when we were dissecting Romans for verses related to the Rapture–and I’ve jumped ship to Regent College. A paper topic for the Christian Thought and Culture course on pre-Reformation Christianity asked us to take a position on one of the old heresies in the early church. I chose Arianism, partly because a few faculty members had duked it out during their joint lectures over whether Athanasius’s polemics toward Arianism actually made any theological or biblical exegetical sense.
That’s when I read Rowan Williams’s Arius. One of the funny things about Anglophilia is that it’s so selective: American evangelicals love their Lewis, Tolkien, Stott, and all the rest that they re-baptize into their evangelical fold, but they most certainly are not going to take in Rowan Williams. Most of what I’d read and heard about Williams at that point, especially from Anglicans who had broken away from their dioceses over the blessing of same-sex unions, was that he was a “spineless moron” who didn’t have the guts to enforce the moratoria on gay bishops and same-sex partnerships called for in the Windsor Report. I expected him to be equally spineless on fourth-century orthodoxy.
Williams pulled a fast one on me. His analysis of Arius was that Arius was an ultra-conservative pastor in Alexandria whose view of God the Father was too high. He wanted to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son, and that’s why he insisted that the Son had to be sub-divine. Moreover, he was a worship song writer, so he wrote songs like the Thalia so that, as Williams astutely points out, when Arius’s teaching was condemned at Nicaea, Arius still had plenty of fans to keep him company and bury him when he died.
For Williams, orthodoxy did not mean the same thing as conservatism. If anything, it was just the opposite. It was the polemicists like Athanasius who had to keep on their toes, the ones who had to stay creative:
Athanasius and the consistent Nicenes actually accept Arius’ challenge, and agree with the need for conceptual innovation: for them the issue is whether new formulations can be found which do justice not only to the requirements of intellectual clarity but to the wholeness of the worshipping and reflecting experience of the Church. (235)
Little surprise that the conservatives in the Anglican Communion don’t exactly like Williams: after all, who would want to admit that “historic Anglican orthodoxy” with all of its “traditional” teaching on marriage and family is a modern creative formulation that needs more serious theological probing? I’m not even sure that Athanasius would have liked Williams’s assessment of his historical situation, as Williams does go out of his way to say that Athanasius’s polemics might have distorted and exaggerated Arius’s teaching quite a bit.
It’s with this new ambivalence toward Athanasius that I found myself reading De Incarnatione Verbi Dei this morning.
Lewis says that Athanasius’s writing throws the modern world in sharp contrast. On the one hand, Athanasius’s take on miracles is a robust reply to those who say that these things violate “the law of nature”: if the creative Word became flesh, after all, he can create whatever he wants, and that’s OK in a pre-modern enchanted context. On the other, Athanasius’s assumption that all Christians live virtuous lives cannot be said of Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century British experience. For Lewis, Athanasius’s world is fundamentally different from the modern world, and that’s why we have a lot to learn from him. (One could point out the superficial similarities between Lewis’s view and the heterotopias in Foucault’s Of Other Spaces.)
Forgive me, then, for sounding like a heretic to American evangelical Anglophilia and say that I found Athanasius’s On the Incarnation surprisingly similar to what an old-school Chinese Christian pastor in the late twentieth century would be hammering from the pulpit. In fact, as a second-generation Chinese Christian who has less-than-proudly joined the “silent exodus” by attending a non-Chinese church regularly (see also Doreen Carjaval’s original article in the Los Angeles Times and Esther Yuen’s Vancouver adaptation), I might say that it even revived so old-time resentments toward some of my first-generation patriarchs.
On the face of it, De Incarnatione is a very sophisticated theological argument. Athanasius’s main thrust through the work is that the Word became flesh because while the Word had created the world out of nothing, the Fall was corrupting all of creation back into nothing. You can see this corruption, Athanasius begins, in violence from personal adulteries and murders to outright warfare between city-states. The Word thus takes on a body so that he can resurrect to conquer death. A new existence follows in which adulterers are made chaste, murderers are made peaceful, and wars stop.
So far, so good. In fact, I like the pacifist implications of all of this.
That’s when it gets violent. As Athanasius gets polemical about Jewish and Greek interlocutors about Christianity in the second half of the work, I was like, “Wow, an old-school Chinese church pastor could have said this.” And that ticked me off a little bit.
First off, Athanasius would be as helpful to interreligious dialogue as a Chinese Christian fundamentalist. Maybe it’s my stupid nineteenth-century translation that makes the Orientalism come out so pointedly, but here’s a quick snapshot:
And whereas formerly every place was full of the deceit of the oracles, and the oracles at Delphi and Dodona, and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Cabiri, and the Pythoness, were held in repute by men’s imagination, now, since Christ has begun to be preached everywhere, their madness also has ceased and there is none among them to divine any more. And whereas formerly demons used to deceive men’s fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now, after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the sign of the cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceit. And while formerly men held to be gods Zeus and Cronos and Apollo and the heroes mentioned in the poets, and went astray in honoring them, now that the Saviour has appeared among men, those others have been exposed as mortal men, and Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. And what is one to say of the magic esteemed among them? that before the Word sojourned among us this was strong and active among Egyptians, and Chaldeans, and Indians, and inspired awe in those who saw it; but that by the presence of the truth, and the appearing of the Word, it also has been thoroughly confuted, and brought wholly to nought. (De Incarnatione 47).
This brings back memories of old-school Chinese church pastors fuming at the pulpit about smashing Buddhas and burning them in tin trash cans in new converts’ backyards or imagining demons flying out of Buddhist temples to corrupt the suburb his people are living in. (Chinese women pastors are a recent phenomenon.) I certainly couldn’t imagine this turning into A Common Word or Nostra Aetate. In this view, there’s something inherently bad about religions other than Christianity. Other religions, it would be said, deal with demons and the devil. Christianity is the light that drives out the darkness, the good that drives out the bad.
Ditto Athanasius on Jewishness:
What is left unfulfilled, that the Jews should now disbelieve with impunity? For if, I say–which is just what we actually see–there is no longer king, nor prophet, nor Jerusalem, nor sacrifice, nor vision, among them, but even the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and Gentiles, leaving their godlessness, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham, through the Word, even our Lord Jesus Christ, then it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ is come, and that he has illumined absolutely all with his light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning his Father. (De Incarnatione 40).
It’s not Dabru Emet, that’s for sure. I’ve certainly heard my share within Chinese churches about the ignorance of Jews refusing to believe in the Messiah and how we’re so much smarter because it’s so obvious that Jesus is the one they’ve been looking for. As one Hong Kong Chinese pastor in Vancouver who did his Doctor of Ministry thesis on Jewish-Christian relations pointed out to me, that’s why there’s zero dialogue between Chinese Christians and their Jewish neighbours.
Athanasius then assumes that where Christianity is, it just triumphalistically pastes over an existing religious landscape with its own enlightened geography:
This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already started, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end; and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away; and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the cross. And, to sum the matter up, behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling. (De Incarnatione 55).
Rowan Williams casts a fair bit of doubt on this assessment with the view that there were lots of different kinds of Arians and lots of different factions within Nicene orthodox groups and that these guys duked it out for well over a century and a half. And yet, Athanasius’s polemic against all things non-Christian reminds me of the Chinese senior pastor in my childhood church who used to declare from the pulpit, “Where Christianity is, there is prosperity!” (How Weberian.) As geographer Judy Han writes about Korean Christians, there is often a lack of clarity about what’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of prosperity in all of this.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that–contrary to Lewis’s view of ages as so different from each other–I now find Athanasius’s On the Incarnation to be familiar childhood territory, not the “complicated stuff” with a hard-to-pronounce name laced with Anglophilic otherness. Perhaps, as Charles Taylor points out, the “disenchantment” of the enchanted pre-modern world was never fully completed. Instead, Taylor suggests that we live in a “cross-pressured,” if not “schizophrenic,” world where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t believe in anything supernatural and are subsequently fascinated by anything remotely magical. (Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has a fascinating take on how this all gets reconciled psychologically.) Athanasius isn’t so different from the rest of us, especially me as a Chinese Christian.
And yet, if Athanasius isn’t so different, I’d like to follow Williams and hold him accountable for some of his statements. Woe be to me to take a canonized church father in both Catholic and Orthodox communions to task, but I’m totally on with Williams in thinking that Athanasius may really have exaggerated some of his polemics. This is admittedly a frightful task, as nerve-wracking as trying to have a theological dispute with a first-generation Chinese Christian senior pastor revered by an adoring immigrant congregation. After all, I run the risk of being called disrepectful to my elders, the zhangzhe (長者) revered in popular Confucian ideology.
A helpful–but still admittedly problematic–way to push St. Athanasius a bit might be to follow the comparisons between him and twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth. Athanasius’s take on religion itself sounds very Barthian (or Barth sounds very Athanasian, which is probably more the case):
But men once more in their perversity having set at nought, in spite of all this, the grace given them, so wholly rejected God, and so darkened their soul, as not merely to forget their idea of God, but also to fashion for themselves one invention after another. (De Incarnatione 11).
This sounds an awful lot like Barth railing about religion as the “frontier” of human possibilities, that the whole point of the resurrection of Jesus is to show how far off the gods that we project from our own desires are from the beaten track.
The two of them came to similar ethical conclusions. For Athanasius, this sort of projected religion led to increased human conflict:
For formerly, while in idolatry, Greeks and Barbarians used to war against each other, and were actually cruel to their own kin. For it was impossible for anyone to cross sea or land at all without arming the hand with swords, because of their implacable fighting among themselves. For the whole course of their life was carried on by arms, and the sword with them took the place of a staff, and was their support in every emergency; and still, as I said before, they were serving idols, and offering sacrifices to demons, while for all their idolatrous superstition they could not be reclaimed from this spirit. (De Incarnatione 51).
For Barth, when the German nation-state made up versions of God for the church to subscribe to, it was well on the way to Nazi totalitarianism and the geopolitical madness of World War II.
If this is the case, this is a profound challenge to the old-school Chinese Christian pastors I think sound so similar to Athanasius. It would challenge them to say concretely what the links between idolatry and ethics are. Don’t just say that “other religions” or “folk religions” are inherently, essentially bad and evil systems associated with the devil. Are they actually violent in practice? How so? Be concrete. We believers in the incarnation are, after all, a concrete people.
And what about Henri de Lubac’s argument in Catholicism that the catholic impulse is all about re-focusing spiritualities on Jesus Christ? or Tolkien’s point that all true narratives find their fulfillment in the eucatastrophic redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus? (I realize that the latter example brings us back to Anglophilia, which just goes to show that, as James Cone says about his training in white neo-orthodoxy, it’s pretty hard to shake.)
Or what if, as Stanley Hauerwas has it in his own reflection on interreligious interaction and the work of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, the whole point is that faith is all about embodied, performative practice, not propositional systems? Maybe St. Athanasius is making a René Girard argument, that all of this violence is caused by the projection of mimetic desire into religious ritual.
Sure, OK, maybe we shouldn’t tell St. Athanasius to read our twentieth-century theologians, but what I’m saying is that it’s not that St. Athanasius is wrong about religion. It’s that he’s got thoughts to develop. And our job, far from uncritically revering him, is to push that development along.
The point is, if we really do believe in the communion of saints, let’s not put the artificial distances of modernity, Anglophilia, or canonized sainthood between us and the church doctor. After all, Athanasius’s central point in De Incarnatione is that the Word became flesh to free us from the state of corruption so that we can share in the divine resurrection life. If this is so, St. Athanasius is still alive, and he is our brother.
Catholic popular theology would have us say then, “St. Athanasius, pray for us.” What Rowan Williams has shown us that we can also say is, “St. Athanasius, I’m going to push you on this one.” Growing up Chinese Christian, I’d say the latter is absolutely necessary for a more solid understanding of how the church ought to relate to the world.
But it’s a hard thing to say. After all, we don’t want to be disrespectful to our elders.
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.
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.