If [God] wants you to do something, he’ll make it possible for you to do it, but the grace he provides comes only with the task and cannot be stockpiled beforehand. We are dependent on him from hour to hour, and the greater our awareness of this fact, the less likely we are to faint or fail in a crisis. Louis Cassels (1922-1974)
Thomas Kidd reviews Robert McKenzie’s “The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.” Christianity Today published it today, Thanksgiving 2014.
I read the review. Nothing startling. It joins the long line of books which make sure that we radically question our cultural metanarratives and look with greater suspicion on our Evangelical hagiography. Okay, I get it.
Maybe I am just being sentimental, but I wish Christianity Today had held off a day or two. I mean, how many punches are we supposed to take during our festive seasons? Feels like heaping on a bit. I don’t question the scholarship as much as I become suspicious of the motive.
D James Kennedy tacked the Evangelical ship toward hagiography. I quite enjoyed his sermons on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He seemed to love the noble in the man and let that stand by itself for something. I begin to wonder who can be allowed to stand above the crowd, or whether or not that is allowable at all.
So thanks, Christianity Today. I already had the scoop on the realities of the Pilgrim fathers on Thanksgiving Day. I have read the books and get the point. There are plenty of people ahead of you on this one. However, there aren’t many in the line ennobling some pretty impressive people. Just because David Barton’s scholarship and motives are suspect doesn’t mean you have to stand in the echo chamber of skepticism.
Here is a sample of the continuing response to Ferguson. I have immense respect for Thabiti Anyabwile. I read his stuff and respect his courage. He is one of the few blacks who speak for High Calvinism, which doesn’t exactly make him first runner in a popularity contests with the black community. He has to speak to social issues as a minority in the theological community he has identified with. He regularly has to call out others for lazy rhetoric that threatens the Gospel’s inclusivenenss. His posting is “WHY I BELIEVE THE GRAND JURY GOT IT WRONG AND INJUSTICE TRIUMPHED.” He writes that he speaks as a “recovering social psychologist whose research interest included procedural justice. That’s the study of procedures (usually legal) and how the perceived fairness of those procedures affect satisfaction with the outcomes.” He has serious questions about the legal process of the Grand Jury investigation and how it slanted toward Officer Wilson. An interesting take. He is a man I take seriously.
Here is another take on Ferguson. Believe me, this kind of posting will get a lot of play behind the scenes. It starts out, “Ferguson, MO has erupted in barbaric violence that should cause all law-abiding citizens to demand the restoration of the rule-of-law, but the Evangelical world is preaching kum-ba-ya sermons about race-relations.” He calls out three in particular – Matthew Hall, a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore and Eric Mason. These are all Southern Baptists and for Randy White makes them a target since they are in his denominational family. He writes, “His [Matthew Hall] article is posted on “Cannon and Culture,” a project of the ERLC. The ERLC seems to be full-court press, all using the same talking points. You can read Russell Moore’s “Ferguson and the Path to Peace,” and Eric Mason’s “The Gospel, Race, and our Experiences” for more of the same. Each article basically says, “we don’t understand how blacks feel, so we should be slow in our judgment” and “the Kingdom brings us all together in one big, happy family, so let’s act like Kingdom people in a big, happy family.” Ed Stetzer, also a Southern Baptist, also joined the chorus, singing in harmony with the talking points. – See more of White’s article here.
Randy White’s article will not find its way into the Evangelical press. I came across it at Zite. But make no mistake about it. White speaks for a very large, and virtually silent, white Christian community. Number one, he questions whether or not Evangelicals are conflating social justice (and White asks, in effect, whatever that is) with the Gospel. It is true that the trajectory of Evangelicals is to conflate any number of social goods with the Gospel. It is happening on a regular basis, given credibility by much of NT Wright’s work. In the words of NT Wright, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” Wright makes the point, and I affirm it, that Christians are part of the eschaton when heaven fully comes to earth renewing all things. The good that they do now is a participation in that final work of Christ. This gives dignity to our work in ruling over creation per Genesis 1 and 2. However, and there is always a however, it is easy to slip over from what the Gospel is to what the Gospel does. This is one of John Piper’s criticisms of Wright.
Number two, White emphasizes personal responsibility as the ground zero of any crime. As he puts it, “to blame society for a crime committed by an individual is soundly insane.”
Number three, he accuses Evangelicals of buying into the “liberal church-as-kingdom theology.” Liberation theology as historically made the church a subset of the world rather than a contrast to the world. The church is, according to this interpretation, a community that joins with the world in its struggle to liberate the poor and oppressed from the powerful and the wealthy. Jesus, in this view, is a political/economic/social revolutionary. No doubt, Roman Catholicism had to struggle mightily with its own clergy in Latin America who bought into this paradigm of the church. This led to some house cleaning under John Paul II.
White’s version of things is the undercurrent in many a church community. They simply want to treat Ferguson as a crime story, end of story. And so does a vast swath of Americans. Evangelicals would be wise to include parts of this narrative in their response even as they reject the ad hominem attacks and faulty logic. Evangelicals could soon be out of a job, even as the mainline liberal denominations are, if they lose touch with the common sense morality of grassroots America.
“The determining factor of my existence is no longer my past. It is Christ’s past.” Sinclair Ferguson
I have rather seriously tracked Evangelical responses to Ferguson. This is my tribe, and I take fairly seriously what happens among them/us. Here are some of my responses.
1. Evangelicals are more seriously engaged with racial justice issues than in the years I was in college in the 60s. Evangelicals were then newly disengaging with the Fundamentalism of the first half of the 20th century and some of the more turbulent reaction to the integration movements of the 1960s. They did not have the developed skill sets to do that well. Times have changed.
2. Evangelicals have not allowed the left to monopolize the language of love and dialogue. There was a time when Evangelicalism seemed to be simply the counterpoint to the left’s point. Evangelicals have learned that the contribution of the church is redemption and forgiveness as what it primarily brings to the table. The church is not the state and not the court system.
3. Evangelicals are not even flirting with Fundamentalism. The Evangelical right wing is hardly showing up in the cultural dialogue though it does make theological waves on such issues as inerrancy, theological debate and NeoCalvinism.
4. Evangelical blogs, articles and Facebook postings hardly even mention law and order as a cultural good. Some of this is ministry positioning, for sure. But I think some of it can be laid to Evangelical mantras and shibboleths making the rounds as of late. They have turned everything into Gospel. This is increasingly being offered as a critique, even among concerned Evangelicals. The message of free forgiveness through God’s grace in the act of justification has increasingly edged out the place of sanctification as a cooperative work between the redeemed and the Redeemer and has questioned the use of the Law in guiding spiritual growth. Witness the critiques of Tullian Tchividjian of Coral Ridge Presbyterian and his Liberate conferences. Many have asserted that he has turned sanctification into a remembrance and meditation upon justification. In my mind this is a weakness of High Calvinism in general. The spectre of Antinomianism is raising its head, and this is a very serious concern to me.
5. Evangelicals do not know how to engage hot button issues for fear of being accused of being Bible thumpers or feeling like Bible thumpers. We have learned that just quoting Bible verses at a culture has little impact. But what else to do? Evangelicals need a new engagement with Natural Law Theory (NLT). In Natural Law Theory transcendent morality is an absolute good that can be reached and determined by reason. We are not limited to Bible verses. We can utilize the tool of the common grace of reason that allows people to argue and agree to some common definition of moral absolutes. Natural Law Theory continues to be used in our courts. Not every case can be decided by an appeal to some legal code or regulation. Rules cannot cover everything. So what happens when a case comes before the court where there is a gap in the legal code or where the legal code does not address the issue of two competing goods? They utilize Natural Law Theory. NLT is rooted in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics and shaped by Thomas Aquinas of the 1200s.
Evangelicals are stuttering when it comes to defining cultural goods if they cannot quote John 3:16. And they do not know what to do if they can’t quote it. What are their options? To engage human reason. People can be intellectually persuaded. It’s hard work, slow work, patient work. And it takes people who are willing to go beyond mantras and banners. But over time it can win the day. Note the arguments of the Founding Fathers in the Federalist Papers and other pamphlets. Eventually carefully constructed arguments with an appeal to rationality won the day. It is true that large numbers of people either do not care to be reasonable nor trust reason as a tool, particularly in this time of postmodernism where all institutions and literature are seen as an exercise in power rather than objective discourse. I wonder if the subjectivity that characterizes much of Evangelicalism actually buys into the postmodern paradigm. Still, our choice is between the rational and the irrational. The rational must win hands down.
We must train our leaders in the use of reason and the skill of intellectual engagement in order to establish cultural goods. They must be smart and prepared. Christians are not only concerned about the Gospel as deposit of truth. We are also concerned about cultural supports that both reduce human suffering and give the Gospel more credibility.
For an example of NLT, read and view Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. His defense of the heterosexual definition of marriage is an excellent example of NLT in practice. See here and here.
6. Evangelicals will face a loss of credibility with the masses if they cannot speak the language of law and order as necessary goods, even primary goods, for cultural flourishing and the means to reduce human suffering. There is no doubt in my mind that many American, most Americans, are angry at the mayhem on display at Ferguson, both on the streets and at podiums where the non-sensical is obvious and flagrant. Order and law, the necessaries for cultural dialogue and understanding, appear to have no value. People intuitively know that true religion must value these goods, and where they are absent “street guy” will be distrustful. As I check blogs and articles this is hardly showing up in the Evangelical response. This is alarming. And it will work against the church as a pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)
‘Oh Christians, if you would avoid self-deceit, see that you mind not only your actions but your motives.’ Joseph Alleine
You can’t cry guilt away. You need to give it away. Helen Thorne