Search Results for: calvinism

Pod people: Presby-speak again

The meaningless drivel that passes for public language these days was the major theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 24 May 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?”, posted at GetReligion and talked about all that double-talk.

I led off my GetReligion post with the observation:

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

What lay behind my observation was the news the General Assembly had adopted a new policy on gay clergy.  Same-sex relations continue to be placed in the sin column for the Church of Scotland — but individual congregations can opt out of this view and hire non-celibate gay clergy. The gay clergy bill must be backed by majority of the presbyteries and at this point only 35% are in favor. The issue becomes further confused as the Guardian announced this was a victory for supporters of gay clergy, running the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers.”

Two years earlier the Guardian ran a story about the 2011 General Assembly with the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers”, reporting the news the church of Scotland had voted to allow gay clergy. Problem with the headlines was that they reported what the Guardian wanted to have happened, not what did happen.

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Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

Let’s compare headlines and ledes from the Guardian, the Press Association and the Associated Press to see what they think happened.

The Guardian saw Monday’s vote as a victory for the liberal faction in the church that is seeking to change church teaching on homosexuality. Under the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers” it reported: (seems I’ve heard that before — but don’t let me distract you.)

The Church of Scotland, the country’s largest Protestant church, has narrowly voted to admit gay and lesbian ministers after traditionalists agreed to compromise after four years of division.  The church’s ruling general assembly voted to allow congregations to admit gay ministers but only if they specifically elect to do so, in a radical departure from more than 450 years of orthodoxy set in train by the protestant reformer John Knox.

The Press Association was less sanguine. It took a “two steps forward one step back” approach to the story. The headline used by the Huffington Post with the PA story gave the liberals the win —  “Church of Scotland votes for openly gay ministers” – but the lede did not back it up:

The Church of Scotland has voted in favour of allowing openly gay men and women to become ministers – whilst maintaining a traditionalist standpoint. The General Assembly backed a motion affirming the Church’s “current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality”, but permitting liberal congregations to depart from that approach if they wish to do so.

The Associated Press report was even more cautious than the PA and filed a “yes, but” story implying the decision was a draw. The headline that topped the AP story as printed on the FOXNews website stated: “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers, but only if congregations choose to do so”.

Senior members of the Church of Scotland have voted to let some congregations have openly gay ministers, a compromise first step that could lead to the church allowing gay clergy. The church’s General Assembly backed a motion affirming a traditional conservative view on homosexuality, but permitted liberal congregations to “opt out” if they wish to ordain gay men or women. The assembly vote would require the approval of next year’s General Assembly as well as votes by the church’s regional presbyteries to become law. The process is expected to take at least two years.

You can see this diversity of interpretation in the British press as well as and blogs that follow church issues. So what did happen on Monday?

The always excellent Law & Religion UK blog summarized the day as follows:

Yesterday the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted in principle to allow men and women in civil partnerships to be ordained to the ministry and/or inducted as parish ministers. There were various options before the Assembly:

  • the Revisionist option, which would allow ministers in civil partnerships to be appointed to churches and gay couples in civil partnerships to be allowed to have their partnerships blessed – but would allow individual kirk sessions to opt out of the arrangement;
  • the Traditionalist option, under which no new minister in a civil partnership could be ordained or inducted; and
  • a countermotion to section 2 of the proposed Deliverance by the immediate past Moderator of the Assembly, The Very Revd Albert Bogle, which reaffirmed the Kirk’s traditional view  on the issue but would allow an individual Kirk Session to choose to call a minister in a civil partnership if it so wished.

In short, the Kirk voted for the compromise resolution which affirmed the church’s traditional theological stance against  gay clergy, but nevertheless allowed  individual congregations to opt out and engage gay clergy — an outcome the British delight in calling a “fudge”.

Each of the newspapers reported that there will be no immediate change as the bill must now go to a legal committee to be submitted to the 2014 General Assembly.  If adopted, it  will be sent to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act 1697 because the issue touches upon “doctrine or worship or discipline”. Only if a majority of presbyteries approved the bill and the General Assembly confirms it in 2015, will it become law.

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Confucian ethics and modern China

The terrible story out of China of a toddler run over by a van as she wandered alone through a market has seen extensive news coverage. As two-year old Yue Yue lay in the street badly injured, a security camera recorded 18 people passing by before a woman stopped to help. There has been an outpouring of outrage on blogs and social media, some of it prompted by the passers-by making excuses for their behavior.

The incident has sparked a debate on China’s cultural and legal strictures and the state of Chinese society.  There have been some solid pieces about China’s moral malaise as well as examinations of high profile cases involving similar issues. A few thoughtful stories have also discussed the “by-stander effect”: a phenomena best known from the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, whose murder in a crowded stretch of Kew Gardens became known as a metaphor for moral decay after no came to her aid.

The blog The Useless Tree offers one explanation:

The problem is, at base, the rampant materialism of contemporary Chinese society that has led some people, elderly included, to extort “good Samaritans.” Here is an infamous case:

This phenomenon essentially began Nov. 20, 2006, when Xu Shuolan, a 65-year-old woman, fell and broke her hip while attempting to board a bus in Nanjing. Peng Yu, a 26-year-old, was the first to help her. He gave her 200 reminbi and escorted her to the hospital, staying with her until her family arrived. In thanks, Xu sued Peng for 136,419  reminbi, or $18,000, claiming that he was the one who knocked her down.

In one of the best-known, most important Chinese judicial rulings of the last decade, a court decided that Peng owed Xu  45,000 reminbi, or $6,076. The court didn’t have any evidence that Peng committed the crime of which he was accused by Xu. But the court, controversially, used the “daily life experience to analyze things” standard and claimed that the aid Peng gave to Xu was sufficient evidence of guilt. It wasn’t, as many outraged Chinese at the time felt, a simple act of decency.

That court case has proved to be morally corrosive, creating an incentive for fraud.  The judge’s presumption, essentially, is that only a guilty person would “help” someone in trouble; aid is an indication of guilt.  Thus, if a fraudster can induce a person to come to his or her aid, there is a chance for a payoff.  Perverse, to say the least.

Yet in all of these discussions of ethics and morals, questions about the reluctance of the Chinese to play the Good Samaritan for Yue Yue, there has been no serious examination of the religious or philosophical issues at play (that I have seen).

BBC Radio 4′s Thought for the Day did raise the issue of faith in the Yue Yue story. The Rev. Lucy Winket argued that “some blame communism” or “Confucian philosophy” for China’s moral void. However, the Church of England cleric was otherwise agnostic about the faith issues. She did observe though that “indifference and callousness is part of the human condition” — could this be an an incipient Calvinism rearing its head? Alas no. I think it is more cliche than belief in the total depravity of mankind.

A commentator for Britain’s SkyNews thought her explanation a “cop-out.”

Some responsible voices point out there is a problem in China and it does truth no service by pretending otherwise. This is not to trade in crude racial stereotypes, they say, but to deal with the reality of China’s recent history.

For decades conscience was contracted out to the Communist state — it removed the ability of people to think and act for themselves.

I cannot prove it, but I think there would be less likelihood of such a dehumanising tragedy unfolding in a country where popular morality had been shaped by a monotheistic religion like Christianity, Islam or Judaism — where charity is embedded in the theology and, ultimately, the culture. Jesus equipped his followers with the Golden Rule — do as you would be done by. Mohammed encouraged alms giving — zakat — to the poor.

In China, in the gallop towards affluence and material plenty, there does not always seem much time for the poor. However, it is encouraging to see the scale of the response to the scandal of [Yue Yue]‘s suffering — from the Chinese themselves. It is a terrible wake-up call.

The bottom line: The vast majority of stories about Yue Yue assume a Christian worldview — one where being a Good Samaritan is a moral good.

However, China experts note that this does not give a true picture. This 2009 article states that Confucian culture does not value the Good Samaritan. It is a foreign concept. The China Hope Live blog cites My Country and My People by Lín Yutáng to explain the faith issues at play for a non-Chinese audience.

Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger, and great and catastrophic was the omission. Samaritan virtue was unknown and practically discouraged. Theoretically, it was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity” … But this relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships, and not so clearly defined. … In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot.

The Hong Kong based psychologist, Michael Harris Bond, develops this theme further in his book Beyond the Chinese Face:

The only principle that might guide behavior towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society.

In reporting context is key. Omitting the moral, historical and religious context of the Yue Yue story paints a false picture of China. While it could be possible that those who passed Yue Yue in the street were moral monsters, it is more likely they are representative of the religious and cultural flux underway in China.  I would argue that this story needs to be seen against the backdrop of Chinese history.

Since the liberalizations of the early 1980’s one of the key challenges that Chinese individuals have faced is the question, “What is the meaning of life? For what purpose do I live?”  A century of warfare culminating in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) not only undermined traditional Confucian values but shook the rhetoric and ideology of revolutionary Maoism. The new emphasis on individual freedom, prosperity and happiness stands in sharp contrast to the Maoist vision of self-sacrifice, self-discipline and self-restraint. The question for the journalist is how to tell this story in proper context.

Regardless of all the talk of the secularization of the media and culture in Europe and America, we in the West still live in Christendom. By this I mean that a Western journalist can assume that his audience has a shared Judeo-Christian worldview on base moral matters. One of these is the Good Samaritan ethic.

Is such an ethic appropriate? Is it possible for a journalist to stand outside his culture? The Yue Yue story illustrates this dilemma. Were the 18 bystanders moral monsters, or were they acting according to a different faith code? Should the Judeo-Christian worldview be the prism through which this story is told to the world? Is there a single moral good or truth? Is the enlightenment project – is reason — dead?

What say you GetReligion readers?

The Economist discovers Calvinists

I recently attended John Piper’s Desiring God gathering in Minneapolis, and yes, the Reformed crowd there was pretty alive and well, and the crowd seemed particularly young for a conference.

The Economist recently highlighted “The new Calvins,” describing a growing trend of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist denomination. Let’s first consider the deck, which acts as a subtitle: “Tensions inside one of America’s most successful churches.” I’m not sure who’s defining “successful” or when the Southern Baptists became a church instead of a denomination or a convention.

It would be interesting to know what provoked this article since the growth isn’t really new. Christianity Today has covered this development for the past few years (especially Collin Hansen, who wrote a book on the topic).

The Calvinist growth doesn’t necessarily seem limited to Southern Baptists; rather, it seems to be a generational development. But the growth within the Southern Baptist denomination is interesting considering the possible theological tensions. The Economist regularly tries hard to explain the history and context, but this paragraph shifts from laudable to laughable.

Calvinism emphasizes that Jesus died only for the elect; Baptists believe Jesus died for everyone. Baptists, by definition, believe that baptism must be an informed choice by the individual, therefore limited to adults; Calvinists believe infants may be baptized. Calvinists think that God selects certain people for damnation; Baptists are more easy-going.

One of the best responses to this paragraph comes from Thabiti Anyabwile, a Baptist pastor in the Grand Cayman Islands.

I don’t know any Baptists (I’m one) who would describe what it means to be a Baptists in these terms. And judging by the statistics from the SBC, where baptism ages are dropping like boulders off cliffs, adult baptism is no longer the norm in most SBC churches. And at least among Reformed Baptists, there would not be support for infant baptism. To associate the “new Calvinists” with declining baptism ages in Baptist churches is just journalistic foolishness. To equate the denomination with “the church” is to misunderstand even that local spirit and autonomy that Baptists love so fiercely.

By the way, when did Southern Baptists become known for being “more easy-going”? More easy going than who? We’re the “don’t dance, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t hang out with those who do” crowd.

The magazine uses some vague descriptions that create sweeping generalizations. “Mark Driscoll, a flamboyant, controversial pastor who leads Seattle’s largest congregation, the non-denominational Mars Hill church.” Journalists regularly use the expression “show, don’t tell,” but there’s nothing in this sentence that helps the readers understand how Driscoll is “flamboyant” or “controversial.”

It also seems odd that The Economist would label Al Mohler “the denomination’s best-known Calvinist” without quoting him on the trend.

One of our readers asked for more explanation for the theological implications.

Possibly the biggest thing missing in the summary is the division on the definition of the sovereignty of God?

My only issue is with the closing remarks, which characterize neo-Calvinism as a “trend.” While it certainly has characteristics like a trend, such as increasing popularity and generation differences, I feel this term is too light. The difference between Reformed and non-Reformed beliefs has a dramatic influence on how believers see God, others and the world.

I appreciate (and subscribe to) The Economist because of its emphasis on historical, cultural, political, and economical context. Perhaps this time around, they could have employed more theological context.

Of jihads, lies and Calvin

In my time as religion editor of The Oklahoman, a pastor of a large Baptist church wrote a book condemning Islam. After I reported on the book, I got a tip that the pastor had plagiarized large sections of the text and faked endorsements from syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and evangelist Franklin Graham. My investigation confirmed that the pastor — who claimed to be a leading expert on Islam — really was not.

I’ll never forget the reaction my stories received. Many members of the church did not even try to hide their anger. They wanted a scalp.

No, not the pastor’s. Mine.

I made the mistake of reporting news that they did not want to believe.

I am reminded of that experience as a potentially major thunderstorm erupts at Liberty University — the institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In a controversy fanned by bloggers and first given non-blogger credence by my friends at Christianity Today, Liberty’s seminary president faces serious questions over his purported background as a youth jihadist who found Jesus. Much of what ex-Muslim Ergun Caner has claimed does not seem to add up. Liberty officials did not act too concerned at first, but launched an investigation after the CT report and other press inquiries.

The story has moved from the blog world to the mainstream media, and The Associated Press reported on it Monday:

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Southern Baptist minister who leads Liberty University’s seminary made a career as a go-to authority on Islam for the evangelical world, selling thousands of books and touring the country as a former Muslim who discovered Jesus Christ.

Now Ergun Caner is being investigated by the Lynchburg, Va., university — founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell — over allegations that he fabricated or embellished his past.

An unlikely coalition of Muslim and Christian bloggers, pastors and apologists has led the charge with video and audio clips they claim show Caner making contradictory statements.

Caner has since changed the biographical information on his website and asked friendly organizations to remove damning clips from their websites, but the questions are not going away.

The Raleigh dateline threw me for a second. I had to consult Mapquest to figure out that Lynchburg is 150 miles north of Raleigh. That’s a nugget that the AP should have included in the story if editors felt a dateline was needed. Otherwise, follow AP style and use no dateline on a bylined story where the writer is not at the scene of the action.

But overall, AP’s 1,000-word report struck me as good old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts reporting. The story puts the facts out there and lets them speak for themselves. When the writer does not know something, he makes that clear. For example, these two paragraphs impressed me:

In an undated interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s website, Caner said: “The only thing I ever learned about Christianity I learned from my imam and the scholars in the mosque. Then when I began to be trained in Madras we heard even more about Christians, that they are our enemies.”

It’s not clear if the transcript should read “madrasas,” a type of religious school for Muslims, or “Madras,” a city in India. Neither makes sense in the context of a 1970s boyhood in central Ohio.

Deep in the heart of Southern Baptist country, The Tennessean played its story on the controversy on Page 1 today. Again, it’s a pretty straightforward, factual accounting of the questions facing Caner. I also liked that Godbeat pro Bob Smietana included this paragraph up high:

Caner did not respond to requests for an interview. Several Southern Baptist leaders who have supported him in the past, including Land and former Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson, declined interview requests.

That paragraph speaks volumes. When Richard Land, who seldom meets a microphone he does not like, refuses to comment, it says something. Kudos to Smietana for recognizing that no-comments often convey as much information as a statement on the record. The Tennessean also quoted sources who remain supportive of Caner, a perspective missing from the AP story.

But the most intriguing report I’ve read on this situation was published Monday by The News & Advance in Lynchburg. Hmmmm, in the Internet age, could it be that there’s still a major role for local newspapers to play?

The Lynchburg story did an excellent job of framing the questions that a Liberty investigative panel could explore:

Where did Caner grow up — in Ohio or in Turkey?

When did he come to the United States — as a teenager as he has said, or at age 4 as his parents’ divorce documents indicate?

Did Caner have a nominal Muslim upbringing, or was he raised in Islamic jihad, “trained to do that which was done on 11 September” as he told an audience in Jacksonville, Fla., in November 2001?

Did he formally debate scholars of other faiths, including Islam, as his online biography once claimed?

Is Caner’s middle name Mehmet, as it’s shown on the cover of books he’s written — or is it Michael, as it’s listed on the concealed-weapons permit he got last year in Lynchburg?

Should he include an honorary degree in his curriculum vitae, which typically is the string of earned degrees that appears after the names of faculty members and administrators in university publications?

The other thing that the local story did was raise the possibility — hold on to your socks, GetReligion readers — that a theological dispute played a role in fueling these allegations:

The earliest blog posts came from advocates of Calvinism, a strict view of salvation that Caner openly opposed.

So, did a fight over Calvinism lead to the questions about Caner’s background? That certainly seems to be a possibility. A fascinating one, too, although if Caner truly has fabricated his background, his theological leanings may not make a lot of difference at this point.

In the steps of St. Tikhon

One of concepts that causes my journalism students the most grief is finding the line between making statements of personal opinion and making statements that draw logical conclusions from facts that have been stated on the record or verified in a document. It’s the line between editorial writing and news, when you get right down to it.

As I tell my students, there are times when journalists are allowed to take the publicly stated equation 2+2 and make it add up to 6 — as long as the reporter can show, in the story, where the additional information is coming from. Here is a perfect example of how this works, in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lede written by the Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers — who has enough experience to get away with this kind of thing. Brace yourselves for blunt language:

BEDFORD, Texas – The spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church in America offered to begin talks aimed at full communion with the new Anglican Church in North America, then named a series of obstacles whose removal could tear apart the hard-won unity among the 100,000 theological conservatives who broke from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

“What will it take for a true ecumenical reconciliation? Because that is what I am seeking by being here today,” Metropolitan Jonah said to a standing ovation from 900 people assembled in a tent on the grounds of St. Vincent Cathedral in Bedford, Texas.

Now there’s history behind those words and we’ll get back to them in a minute.

The key to that lede — with its claim that Metropolitan Jonah both praised the new conservative Anglican body in North America and, at the same time, attacked its foundations — is based on simply, clear statements of doctrine. There is no way to write a news story about this long and very complex speech without knowing a thing or two or three (or more) about church history and doctrine. Without that, the Orthodox leader was speaking in an unknown tongue.

Rodgers noted that, with a smile, Metropolitan Jonah openly admitted that he was coming to deliver bad news, as well as good news. This was an offensive speech, but not a hateful one.

The good news was that the Orthodox Church in America was no longer interested in ecumenical talks with the liberal hierarchy of the U.S. Episcopal Church. The bad news — sure to offend many in the room, but not others — was that Orthodoxy believes that it’s impossible to mix Protestantism and ancient forms of Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Them’s fighting words to people who accept the great “Anglican Compromise.”

Thus, we read:

Metropolitan Jonah named several issues that he said the two churches needed to “face head on” and resolve before they can achieve full communion. Among the most volatile on his list were the Calvinist theology taught by many evangelical Anglicans and the ordination of women as priests, which the new church allows each of its dioceses to accept or reject.

“Calvinism is a condemned heresy,” he said, to a smattering of applause from some Anglo-Catholics in the new church.

“For … intercommunion of the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women needs to be resolved,” he said, again to applause from many of the same people.

“I believe women have a critical role to play in the church, but I do not believe it is in the [priesthood or as bishops],” he said. “Forgive me if this offends you.” He called for an effort to “creatively come together to find the right context for women’s ministry in the church.”

Now, I understand that it’s hard to get a handle on who is and who is not applauding during a speech. However, playing “spot the Anglo-Catholics” is not the key element of this story.

Tikhon_1The key is that Rodgers was able to back up that bold lede.

If you reject Calvinism, then you reject almost everyone in the low-church, Morning Prayer, red-and-black vestments wing of the global Anglican Communion. You are saying that the Protestant Reformation was, in large part, a tragic mistake, at least from the perspective of the Christian East. That’s a landmine if there ever was one, in a Communion built on the claim that John Calvin and the likes of St. John Chrysostom can thrive in the same pew (actually, the issue of pews would be problematic for the Orthodox anyway).

But what about the “good news” in this speech? You see, there is history at work there, as well, history in which the roots of Orthodox in North American were — briefly — intertwined with those of Anglo-Catholics. There was a moment in time when Orthodoxy came very close to recognizing the validity of Anglican orders, in a manner similar to state that currently exists between Rome and the East. These ancient churches recognize each other’s orders, even while living in a tragic state of broken Communion. That’s a complicated matter and Metropolitan Jonah’s speech provided a short sketch of the history.

Journalism being what it is, Rodgers has to hit at all of this terrain in even fewer words. The St. Tikhon she mentions was Bishop Tikhon, who came to America to start a multi-ethnic Orthodox body on this continent. However, he was called home to Moscow to become Russia’s patriarch — leading to clashes with the rising tide of Marxism and, eventually, his martyrdom. But that’s another story.

(Metropolitan Jonah) spoke of St. Tikhon, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox missionary to the United States who initiated a close relationship with the Episcopal Church that later cooled.

“We need to pick up where they left off,” he said. “I occupy the throne St. Tikhon held as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America. Our arms are wide open.”

The Anglican Church in North America hopes to be recognized as a new province of the 80 million-member global Anglican Communion, of which the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. province. The new church believes the Episcopal Church failed to uphold biblical authority and classic doctrines about matters ranging from the divinity of Jesus to biblical morality, a criticism that the Orthodox share.

The Orthodox Church in America is a self-governing daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Jonah, who was elected last year in Pittsburgh, is a convert who was raised as an Episcopalian. He spoke with humor about both traditions, warning, “I’m afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody.”

Like I said, it’s hard to write about complex historical issues in public newspapers. This is an example of how you go about doing that. Amen.

Calvin: he’s hot, hot, hot

453px-Calvin-coolidgeNo, not THAT Calvin — although maybe he has a birthday coming up, too.

The rock star of the moment is John Calvin, the stereotypically dour theological chaperone of Geneva (his 500th birthday is July 10). A balanced, nicely-done story by Religion News Service writer Daniel Burke maps the lawyer’s influence on American evangelicals, particularly Southern Baptists. But why is Calvin becoming so, er, trendy? Well, it isn’t because of his clothes, his beard, or even the way he wanted to govern Geneva. It is, as Burke astutely notes in his lede, Calvin’s doctrine that is undergoing, excuse the expression, a renaissance among conservative Christians:

Like most 24-year-old men, Stephen Jones is keenly interested in sin. But while many of his peers enjoy their youthful indiscretions, Jones takes a more, shall we say, Puritanical stand.

Last weekend (June 12-15), Jones and 4,000 other young Christians packed into a convention center in Palm Springs, Calif., to hear preachers tell them that they are totally depraved, incapable of doing the right thing without a mighty hand from God, and — most importantly — have absolutely no control over their eternal fate…

“His theology is the hottest, most explosive thing being discussed right now,” said Justin Taylor, 32, a self-described Calvinist, and an editorial director at Crossway, a Christian publisher in the evangelical heartland of Wheaton, Ill. “What he taught is extraordinarily influential right now.”

Absolute depravity? Double predestination? Full-scale refutation of the doctrine of free will? Who knew these would make such a comeback? Not only do Neo-Calvinist churches like Mars Hill, Seattle and Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City have large populations of young worshippers, but they are pastored by clergy, like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller, who have become authors and media figures in their own rights.

Burke notes that this surge in influence has been expressed in some innovative ways, like Facebook fan clubs and Twitter feeds. But, as he also does a good job of clearly articulating why and how this shower of Calvin-related worship, books, and church plants has brought controversy with it — even among conservative Christians.

…former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines said Calvinism inhibits evangelism and missionary work, which is the lifeblood of the SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. If Jesus died only for the elect, then what’s the point of trying to reach others, said Vines, who co-organized a conference dedicated to debunking Calvinism last year.

“I do believe it is possible to be a five-point Calvinist and be evangelistic and missionary-minded,” Vines said. “But their evangelism and missionary work is in spite of their Calvinism, and not because of it. That’s going to make some of them mad, but I do believe it.”

Vine’s question is a very good one, and there are plenty of other ones that journalists could be asking the Neo-Calvinists. What the connection between the neo’s and the so-called “emerging churches?” What about Calvin’s strong anti-Catholic bias? Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Orthodox Church in America Metropolitan Jonah today as saying that Calvinism among some Anglican evangelicals was a “condemned heresy” posing a problem that needed to be resolved before full communion between the new Anglican Church in North America and OCA was possible.

Yes, indeed, he’s very hot at the moment.

As the media begins to dig deeper (hopefully), the controversy over what Calvin really believed and how these new Calvinists are expressing it needs to get more attention. Burke’s article is a great beginning. If you want a more secular perspective, with some interesting history thrown in, read the Associated Press story by Hanns Neurbourg here. In a story about one of the towering figures of the Reformation, there’s remarkably little analysis of Calvin’s theology. But there is a lot of data on his influence on the arts, democracy, and economics — much of it in revolt against the sage of Geneva, an apparently humble man who would probably not have guessed that 500 years after his birth, he would be making square so hip.

The picture of President Coolidge is from Wikimedia Commons

Tragically hip New Calvinists

MD_Pulpit1.jpgThe New York Times Magazine has wandered into the testosterone-heavy world of Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church and emerged with a feature story that mostly does justice to both Driscoll and his critics. The coverage is by Molly Worthen, who has also written a previous New York Times Magazine story on classical Christian education and a feature about L’Abri Fellowship for Christianity Today. She is no stranger to the subcultures of evangelical Protestantism.

I have only a few criticisms of Worthen’s report, most of them involving overstatements of Driscoll’s importance and — in one case — an overly simple description of most evangelicals’ theology:

Mark Driscoll is American evangelicalism’s bête noire. … Conservatives call Driscoll “the cussing pastor” and wish that he’d trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements.

… With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture.

… Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer’s free decision to accept God’s grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.

I think it’s safe to say that modern evangelicalism is Driscoll’s bête noire, especially judging by his remarks in this report. Considering evangelicals’ many concerns about politics and culture wars, however, it’s difficult to imagine evangelicals choosing Driscoll as their bête noire — or wasting time on hoping that he will “trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements.”

If one can be on the cutting edge of pop culture through baseball caps, Facebook and iTunes, that cutting edge sounds more like a 16-lane highway, gridlocked in both directions by packed SUVs.

Further, it’s hard to think that even Joel Osteen (much less most evangelicals) reduces Jesus to one’s personal friend. Even the overused “personal Lord and Savior” says more than that. These sorts of generalizations add to the sense, expressed here before by Mollie, that too much mass-media coverage of evangelicals reads like a “typical anthropological study of a bizarre species.”

That said, I admire Worthen’s moments of elegant writing and insight. These paragraphs were my favorites:

Calvinism is a theology predicated on paradox: God has predestined every human being’s actions, yet we are still to blame for our sins; we are totally depraved, yet held to the impossible standard of divine law. These teachings do not jibe with Enlightenment ideas about human capacity, yet they have appealed to a wide range of modern intellectuals, especially those who stressed the dangers of human hubris in the wake of World War I.

… Mars Hill counts four of the city’s top tattoo artists among its members (and many of their clientele — that afternoon, [Damon] Conklin was expecting a fellow church member who wanted a portrait of Christ enthroned across his back). While other churches left people like Conklin feeling alienated, Mars Hill has made them its missionaries. “Some people say, ‘You’re pretty cool and you’re a Christian, so I guess I can’t hate all of them anymore,’” he says. “I understand where they’re coming from.”

… Critics on the left and right alike predict that this delicate balance of opposites cannot last. Some are skeptical of a church so bent on staying perpetually “hip”: members have only recently begun to marry and have children, but surely those children will grow up, grow too cool for their cool church and rebel. Others say that Driscoll’s ego and taste for controversy will be Mars Hill’s Achilles’ heel. Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language, and he insists that he has delegated much authority, but the heart of his message has not changed. Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill’s seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view.

Photo of Mark Driscoll is from the Press Room section of Mars Hill’s website.


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