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Reformation Day for a Mere Christian
Saturday, October 31, 2009, 8:19 AM

For most conservative American evangelicals, "Reformation Day" is not a big deal. Many, if asked, might think it to be a special emphasis day for prison ministry.

Most of us know the day as Halloween instead (or something closely approximating it), even if we feel a little guilty about that. I'll be away traveling tonight, unable to indulge the trick-or-treaters, so maybe I'll just nail 95 Reese's to the door.

But as one who grew up in a half-Catholic, half-Baptist extended family, October 31st is an interesting time for me. What would Martin Luther have done on that thundrous road if he'd had a background like mine? Invited Saint Anne into his heart as his personal lightning rod? Pledged to start a "True Nuns Wait" campaign?

What I do know is that, whatever your view of the Reformation, it's obvious to see that some of the things that drove Luther to anger (and to despair) are everywhere present, to this day, often even in the most "Reformation-centric" evangelical churches.

Hardened rebels against God rest easy in a prayer said at Vacation Bible School, or a card signed at confirmation class. And guilty consciences stand paralyzed outside, fearful that Christ can only save those who look or dress or speak a certain way. And, through it all, American Christianity has become a vast conspiracy to sell one another products.

The combination of the damning power of cheap grace with the accusing agony of performance-based righteousness before God exists in every wing of the church. That's because it's not a medieval problem, but a primeval one.

The Devil and David Letterman
Monday, October 5, 2009, 8:58 AM

Over at my "Moore to the Point" blog, I've posted a commentary on the David Letterman sex scandal, "What David Letterman Can Teach Us about the Gospel." You can read it here.

I'm not all that interested in the fact that Letterman has done "terrible things," as he puts it. I'm more interested in the terror he experienced when he was in danger of being found out. I think if we can feel something of that terror, and realize it is common to humanity in this fallen age, we might be able to learn a thing or two about our culture, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Let me know what you think, preferably not in a "Top Ten List."

The John Edwards Scandal and the Fatherhood of God
Monday, September 21, 2009, 10:17 AM

Over at my blog, I've posted an article on what's at stake in the John Edwards "love child" controversy. With an aide to the former senator, vice-presidential nominee, and presidential candidate set to reveal that Edwards is the father of his ex-mistress' baby, news reports indicate that Edwards may be mulling acknowledging the child as his own. I think this sad story is indicative of a larger tearing, not just in our cultural fabric, but in the cosmic fabric. I'd be interested to know what you think.

Reflections on the Kennedy Funeral
Saturday, August 29, 2009, 2:06 PM

There's much to be admired about the funeral of the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy today. An amazing crowd gathered to honor the man's epic life, a crowd that included four presidents, hundreds of Members of Congress, and dignitaries of business, labor, journalism, and religion.

Even so, the funeral homily and the litany offered by family members ought to sadden us, if we hear what was being said.

The homily offered spoke much about the kingdom of God, but the kingdom was defined in an impoverished, politicized way. And the kingdom just happened to line up with Sen. Kennedy's legislative career. The words about the kingdom, frozen as they were in the partisan debates of our little blip of history, didn't communicate the transcendence offered by the Basilica itself.

USA Today said this afternoon that my disappointment (posted on my Twitter account) was "vitriolic" compared to the "hope" offered at the funeral itself. I'm willing to be corrected, but I see neither vitriol nor hope here. Is it "vitriolic" to say that the vision of the kingdom held by the church through the ages (Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant) is more than legislation, more than politics, more than human accomplishment?

It's as though the vision of the kingdom offered at the Basilica were written by Nicodemus, before his night-time conversation with our Lord Jesus. This isn't unique to the Kennedy family. It's the way almost all of us are prone to view the kingdom, the gospel, the Christian faith.

This isn't a Catholic/Protestant divide. I've heard many, many Baptist preachers do the same thing at a celebrity funeral. This is true even when the "celebrity" is just the kind of small-pond "celebrity" of the furniture store owner who happens to be the wealthiest man in a tiny hamlet.

It's not a conservative/liberal divide either. The Religious Right establishment often confuses the kingdom with a set of legislative goals just as surely as does the Left. There are many churches and ministries whose kingdom litanies would sound just like the Kennedy funerals, except on the other side of the legislative docket.

Church leaders had the opportunity to give the Kennedy family, and the rest of the onlookers, the opportunity to hear something we all need to hear: the gospel is bigger than politics, bigger than history, and bigger than one man, even this man's, life.

They didn't, and that's sad. When given the chance to preach the kingdom, all we heard was Camelot. That's not enough for hurting people anywhere, not even for the Kennedys.

Newt’s Contract with the Vatican?
Saturday, August 15, 2009, 4:43 PM

When I lived in the New Orleans area, I remember hearing about the pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church (beautiful building, very "progressive" congregation) remarking to the press about his baptizing then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich decades earlier when Gingrich was a student at Tulane University. "If I knew then what I know now," he was alleged to have said. "I'd have held him under longer. Much, much longer."

While socially liberal Baptists may have hated the fact that Gingrich identified himself with their denomination, in time so did more conservative Baptists. Reports of Gingrich's divorces and infidelities were hardly welcome, even if rarely mentioned by his political allies in evangelical Christendom.

This week's Time magazine discusses how Gingrich has traded in his nominal Southern Baptist identity for a new life as a devoted Roman Catholic, joining the church of his third wife. Gingrich's personal story is hardly Cardinal Newman (or even Senator Brownback). He tells Time he's still "not intensely religious," and, with Time's Amy Sullivan tagging along, reads a novel through the prayer time before Mass.

What's more interesting though is Time's assessment of why prominent conservatives (such as Gingrich, Brownback, Robert Novak) and others are finding a home in the Roman church. For Gingrich, Time reports, it's the "depth of an intellectual tradition" that the ex-Speaker finds "comforting."

Time sees the contributions of the recently deceased Richard John Neuhaus and William F. Buckley, Jr., as providing "an intellectual haven for conservatives put off by Evangelicals who rail against experts and elites."

I thinkSullivan oversimplifies both Catholicism and evangelicalism at this point. There are streams of more robustly traditional Protestants, of course, and I would hardly think that most traditional Catholics would see their tradition in such baldly intellectual and utilitarian terms.

 And what Time misses is how evangelicals and Roman Catholics are increasingly conversant with one another, and not just at the level of Washington or Manhattan elites. What would make for a really fascinating story is how this is true among those (of both traditions) who are likely to spontaneously combust than they are to convert.

The City
Friday, July 31, 2009, 1:48 PM

I don’t think I’ve ever (until now) written for a publication before

I’ve ever actually seen a copy. I wrote an article on the death of John

Updike for a new journal The City,

published by friends at Houston Baptist University. The issue just

arrived in the mail, and (apart from my contribution, of course) it is

truly excellent.

The summer 2009 issue

includes articles by Wilfred McClay on the soul in the city, Hunter

Baker on science and secularism, Peter Augustine Lawler on

Solzhenitsyn, and Robert P. George on Obama and abortion. The issue

also features a symposium on “younger evangelicals.”

The symposium includes this quote from Francis Beckwith: “If the

young evangelicals are really serious about ’struggle’ and

‘authenticity,’ they should avoid drama queens like Donald Miller and

look at those who have really lived it.” This is in the midst of

Beckwith’s argument that “authenticity” is being treated by some

evangelicals as one more commodity to be acquired in the whirl of their

“image-hypnotized” lives.

You should subscribe to this journal.

Kudos to Houston Baptist University, and to their president Robert

Sloan for leading this great school to this kind of intellectual


Marriage as Capstone or Foundation?
Friday, May 22, 2009, 1:53 PM

One of the brightest lights in America these days on issues of the

family is University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox. His latest article in the Wall Steet Journal addresses the "real pregnancy crisis" in America, and why the ongoing chatterings about Bristol Palin miss the point.

Wilcox shows there are other factors at work in out-of-wedlock births in this country, including a changing of the meaning of marriage. He writes:

"As sociologist Andrew Cherlin has noted, marriage used to be the

'foundation' for adulthood, sex, intimacy and childbearing. Now,

marriage is viewed by many Americans as a 'capstone' that signals that

a couple has arrived — financially, professionally and emotionally."

I think this is exactly right, and not just in "the culture" (which

is often Christian-speak for "not us"), but in even the most

conservative Christian congregations. A move toward Christian family

structures must start with this question, and that will take more

courage than we've seen in our pulpits and pews in a long, long time.

Taxing Porn?
Tuesday, May 5, 2009, 9:27 AM

The liberal magazine The American Prospect has uncovered a nasty little conspiracy going on in the some of these United States. In the May 2009 issue, Dana Goldstein points to legislative initiatives in California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington state through measures ranging from a "25-percent sales tax on X-rated movies to a $5 'pole tax' on visits to strip clubs."

The Prospect argues that, because of the First Amendment, such "measures are usually defeated by little more than gales of laughter," but that, even so, the threat to access to pornography is real. An extra five dollars to rent a pornographic DVD, the Prospect says, will cause the consumer to decline to make the transaction.

The same thing is the case, the Prospect continues, with proposed California regulations about condom usage in pornographic films. "If the Golden State ever did require condoms in skin flicks, the porn industry would likely pack up and leave town," the article contends. "And since the adult industry accounts for about 50,000 jobs in California, only 10 percent of which are acting in the films, the economic crisis probably precludes the state from such moral posturing."

So, high taxes hurt the producers of goods, making it less likely that they will produce these goods for the public and intense regulation will cause businesses to pick up and move elsewhere, thereby hurting the lower-income workers dependent on these businesses?

It seems Arthur Laffer and Jack Kemp are still alive and well, and on the left wing. At least, that is, as it applies to this one "industry."

Earth Is Not G-Rated
Thursday, April 30, 2009, 6:15 AM

This past Monday night I took my young sons to see a movie seething with implicit sex and violence. No explicit sex scenes were shown, and blood and gore was absent, but the subtext of raw violence and animal sexuality was everywhere. And the film was rated G.

We were, of course, in the theater watching Disney's release of Earth, a nature documentary with spectacular visuals and a kind of forced narrative about polar bears, elephants, whales, caribou, cranes, and an all-star cast of creatures. Some of the creatures die.

Last week's Newsweek magazine warned parents that, despite its G rating, Earth could be disturbing to children. There's no splattered blood, but a baby elephant wanders away from his mother, a pride of lions take down an elephant, and so on. The film shows a slow motion cheetah-caribou chase with the motion slowing further as the predator catches his prey and places his paws around its face. It was reminiscent of the staircase scene in Gone with the Wind, we don't need to see what happens next to get what happens next.

The Earth producers told Newsweek they tried to defang the most disturbing parts of the film, but, well, that's the way nature is, red in tooth and claw.

That's why I, as a Christian, am thrilled to see both sides of the dilemma for Disney. It is human to acknowledge both the beauty and the horror of the reigning natural order. It is is human to cringe in the face of its cruelty and to sit in openmouthed awe at its glory.

The Scriptures tell us both. The creation is frustrated since the primeval insurrection. Human rule has been overturned, supplanted with a rule by the craftiest of the beasts (Gen. 3:1). Since the dragon is himself a predator (indeed a murderer) he has no interest in exercising benevolent dominion over the beasts. Fallen humanity, reflecting its snake-god, has become animal-like, captive to instinct and appetites. We acknowledge the beasts but only to emulate them and to worship them (Rom. 1).

The Creator, therefore, subjects the creation to a "futility" under which the creation groans "the revealing of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:19). But even this is subjected "in hope" (Rom. 8:20). God gives humanity, after the flood, the flesh of the beasts for food, but he does so by simultaneously putting the "fear of you and the dread of you" (Gen. 9:2) within the instinctual center of the animals. This is to show that animals are not mere fodder for humans, to be harvested simply like grain. The fear of man in animals is to signify that the image-bearer is now, in some sense, a twisted interloper in this order. It also gives the animals, as my fellow Mississippian Jerry Clower might put it, "a sporting chance" in the arena of hunter and hunted.

The sense of sadness at the starvation of an elephant or the mutilation of an antelope is not simply the sentimentality of post-Bambi American culture, although, to be sure, some of it is. We're supposed to feel a certain kinship with the animals. That's why the bloody sacrifice of birds and bulls and lambs among our ancestors could correspond with what was to happen at the Place of the Skull.

Being reminded of the wildness of the wild kingdom can be a helpful reminder to followers of Jesus. This universe is not the way its intended to be. It is bloody, violent, and often chaotic. We do not, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, yet see all things under the feet of humanity. But, "we see him who was for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death" (Heb. 2:9).

Earth is G-rated. Earth is not.

John Updike, RIP
Tuesday, January 27, 2009, 7:37 PM

Novelist, essayist, and poet John Updike is dead. The New York Times retrospective of his life picks up on the neo-orthodox Protestant theology at the root of Updike's writings. My thoughts on the writer, and the fear of death that permeated his novels, can be found here.

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