A Hothouse of Mutual Admiration

I have been on a blogging sabbatical for pretty much the last three months, I’m afraid, and I wouldn’t blame most regular readers if they’ve given up this blog for lost, especially as its last utterance was hardly a dazzling display of intellect.  But as the maelstrom of conferences and job applications is finally drawing to an end, I hope to resume some sustained blogging over the coming weeks and hopefully months.  However, the posts here are likely to be more personal, occasional, and aimed at my immediate community, as I devote my more public blogging energies to the various other fora in which I have been asked to write.  You will find monthly posts from me on current events at Capital Commentary, monthly essays on historical political theology at Political Theology Today, monthly book reviews at Reformation21, and hopefully regular contributions again at Mere Orthodoxy and The Calvinist International (as well as, Lord willing, essays at Humane Pursuits).

With all of that, I may not keep my promise of blogging here again for long, but I’ll at least make a start over Christmas break, with, among other things, a series of posts sharing delightful excerpts and insights from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which I recently had the great pleasure of re-reading for the first time in several years.  Most posts will include some brief notes of application or elaboration, in addition to the quoted excerpt; in other cases, Lewis’s observations may serve as the occasion for more extended reflections of my own.  For now, one of the former, from the inimitable Letter #7, on pacifism and patriotism:

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.  Not always, of course, but at this period.  Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep.  Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.  Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse of mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.*  Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.

We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity of a secret society or clique.  The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties of the Church of England.**”

*”thought to be impersonal”—what a sharp observation and rebuke.  For too long in our evangelical circles have we comforted ourselves with the mantra that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  Oh, it’s the sin of homosexuality that we hate, not homosexuals or gay rights activists.  It’s Darwinism we hate, not Darwinists.  Socialism and liberalism we hate, not socialists or liberals.  We forget that to truly hate a sin while loving the sinner is a work of grace, against which so much of our sinful nature militates.  In reality, what generally happens is that we so adamantly hate what we take to be sin that we tell ourselves that no sane person could love something so hateful.  Those outside our small coterie, who espouse this deplorable doctrine, are thus scarcely to be considered rational beings, but are virtually blind brutes, and thus are not worthy to be patiently listened to, patiently talked to, or treated with dignity and respect.  All of this, of course, at a very unconscious level; few would ever come out and admit to such feelings.  At the same time, we have so convinced ourselves that pride is an essentially personal sin (more on pride in a later post), that it is always about having too high a view of my own individual merits, that we never pause to consider whether we are in danger of succumbing to that far more insidious and destructive corporate pride which was what Christ and the Apostles so rebuked the Pharisees for.  To be sure, some of them suffered from individual self-righteousness as well, but far more pervasive was their national self-righteousness, their conviction that they were God’s favored people, and all those outside were under judgment.  This kind of pride can co-exist with the most self-flagellating personal humility, and often does in contemporary Reformed and evangelical circles.

**And, one might add, down to the various micro-denominations among the American Reformed, who seem to have perfected this kind of factionalism into an art form.


The Way of Enemy Love: Dismissing Jesus, A Critical Assessment, Pt. 7

In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences.  In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action.  In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.

In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended.  In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive.  Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with.  The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined.  If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion.  On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends.  But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.

PrintTo be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.”  But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence.  Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war.  While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More


The Way of Sharing: A Critical Assessment of Dismissing Jesus, Pt. 6

Jones’s fifth chapter, “The Way of Sharing,” calls Christians to a life of bounteous, exuberant generosity, but one which goes beyond the pale, stingy virtue that we tend to think of as “generosity” or “charity.”  Too many of us complacently accumulate vast possessions and then give out of our excess, secretly congratulating ourselves on giving up something that we are entitled to, and making sure (subtly, to be sure) that the recipient knows we have made a sacrifice.  It is not hard to see that this is not a Biblical model of generosity.  Instead, we are called to transcend the opposition between “mine” and “yours,” to be people of whom it might be said, “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32)  Rather than saying, “This is all mine, but I will deign to give some to you,” we should learn to say, “This is yours, for you have need of it.”  That much, I would agree with Jones, seems clear from the Biblical testimony; and yet this is a subject sorely fraught with confusions and tensions.  Immediately, in our post-Cold War world, our thoughts go to that perennial bogeyman, “Communism,” and its shadowy sidekick, “Socialism.”  Does “sharing” mean giving up private property altogether, and holding all things in common? we worry.  And what, after all, is it that we’re being condemned for—is it sheer abundance of material things, wealth as such?  Or is it some people having more than other people—is inequality as such a problem?  Or is it just some people having too much while others suffer in need—inequality in the face of indigence?  Usually people mean the last of these three, but sound like (or are heard as if) they mean the first or the second. Read More


Faith Working by Love: A Critical Assessment of Dismissing Jesus, Pt. 5

PrintAfter spending two chapters, “The Way of Weakness” and “The Way of Renunciation” tearing down our idols of power, prestige, and possessions, Doug Jones turns in the next two chapters of Dismissing Jesus—“The Way of Deliverance” (ch. 4) and “The Way of Sharing” (ch. 5)—to provide their positive complement, attempting to give some sense of our mission as Christians.  This mission is a glorious one, in which we, like Christ, “preach the good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind,” and in which we do this in real-world here-and-now terms, rather than spiritualizing all this into mere soul-winning.  It is a mission in which we are called to call none of our possessions our own, but to share sacrificially with all those in need.  Although I will press for greater clarity and specificity at certain points, I would agree that this is a central part of what it means to live as a Christian. But the important question is why? How should we understand what it is we are doing when we do this and why we are doing it?  I’m worried that the way Jones answers these questions will actually undermine the practical vision in profound ways.

Let me put this provocatively: I’m not at all sure that the themes of these chapters ought to be described under the heading of “the way of the cross.”  The cross is central to Scripture, yes, but it’s not all there is. It’s not even all there is to Christ’s work.  The cross is God’s “No” to sin, it signifies all of the brokenness and pain that sin involves and the great cost necessary to cast away that sin and bring healing and restoration; the cross is God’s wrenching rejection of everything that has distorted his good creation.  When we take up our cross and follow Christ, this is our sharing in this dying to sin, this is our painful renunciation of everything that stands between us and how we were meant to live.  While no Christian ethic, designed for sinful human beings, can afford to neglect this central moment in redemptive history, without which lives of Christian discipleship would be impossible, it should be clear at the same time that this moment cannot be in itself the ground of a Christian ethic.  To live as a Christian ultimately means to live as a true human, to live as God created us to live, following in the footsteps of our Head, the Second Adam.  Read More


Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 4—The Way of Renunciation

Print In chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation,” Jones introduces us to the heart of the opposition he aims to unpack in Dismissing Jesus: God vs. Mammon.  “Renunciation” here is about renouncing the “whole social system” that is Mammon: “the spirit of unsacrificial wealth, self-interest, and greed, a longing for greatness and prestige, a grasping for power, the power of domination and violence” (36). 

Renunciation is a complete act of repentance, a turning away from the ways of the flesh and the world and a turning toward the way of the cross.  In many ways, then, this chapter offers something of a meta-statement of many of the chapters that follow.  It remains fairly general, but, as far as it goes, is mostly quite helpful.  Readers may particularly profit from Jones’s extended exposition of the meaning of the three temptations of Christ,  in which he shows how Christ’s rejection of Satan’s three temptations encapsulates his rejection of all that the world holds dear: material possessions, public spectacle and prestige, and power.

Jones clearly thinks that he shines new light on these vices of greed and pride by treating all their manifestations as part of a larger overarching whole, which he names Mammon. But I’m not so sure that this new nomenclature really helps us, on the whole.  To be sure, it sheds light on how many vices that we often imagine to be separate are in fact deeply interconnected, and grow out of one another.  On the other hand, it substitutes vagueness for precision.  Moral theology has made a considerable investment over the millennia in classifying vices, and by collapsing them all into one indiscriminate heap, I worry, Jones makes it more difficult to offer concrete diagnoses of particularly evils or concrete prescriptions for resisting them.  Of course, as I have said, later chapters fill in some of the details of the big picture given here, so this worry may be exaggerated.  Still, I think it’s important to resist, at the level of terminology, a flattening out of the moral life that causes us to forget the radical pluriformity of the sins and
temptations we face. Read More