Saturday, May 17, 2008

Teaching a Calvinist to Dance

Some folks might be interested in my recent article in Christianity Today, "Teaching a Calvinist to Dance," which has just been made available online. (I absolute love Polly Becker's art for the piece, which features a dancing Kuyper!) The gist of this short, non-scholarly little piece is to simply explore how being Reformed and being "pentecostal" are not as antithetical as one might think. In fact, I have always sensed that they can actually fuel one another.

I've already received a number of encouraging emails from folks who've been eager to share that I'm not alone in sensing this confluence. Good to know the tribe is larger than I might have thought!

Criticisms so far have tended to either fault the article for not providing a full dissertation on either the Reformed tradition or Pentecostalism (um...there's only so much you can do in 1500 words, folks), or they have assumed that I'm saying Reformed worship, by being "pentecostalized," should therefore be non-liturgical. Let me just clarify a couple of things:

1. In the space of the CT article, I simply use "Pentecostal" and "charismatic" synonymously since the focus was on the sort of embodied, spontaneous worship that characterizes them. This is not to say that these are simply the same theologically; indeed, I prefer to use the small-p "pentecostal" to describe what is shared by both, and save capital-P "Pentecostalism" for the theological distinctions of classical Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God. I work out this distinction in my "Thinking in Tongues" article in the April issue of First Things, but couldn't get that detailed in the CT piece.

2. Critics seem to work with a binary imagination which assumes that worship must be either rigid liturgical forms or ecstatic emotionalist chaos--and they then assume that I'm some sort of apologist for a worship free-for-all (an assumption hard to maintain for anyone who has read my last couple of books). So I politely refuse the dichotomy. For me, the kingdom of God looks like charismatic Catholic worship, where the Eucharist issues in protestation and ecstatic praise, where historic liturgy makes space for the surprising voice of prophecy, and where This is because I think pentecostal worship is, in its essence, sacramental. And I have long been suggesting that on just this point, the Reformed tradition would do well to remember it is Catholic. (For a high-powered argument along the same lines, see Todd Billings' important book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift.)

3. Finally, I now realize that what we mean by "Reformed" at Calvin College is quite different than what is meant by the term when it's emphasized by alot of the "young, restless Reformed"-types of which Colin Hansen writes, who seem to me to have a very modernist fixation on doctrine, scholastic debates about TULIP, and a creeping pride about being "intellectuals." (And I gather that many of them are former charismatics who disdain the anti-intellecutalism of their former selves, which they see as inherent to the charismatic tradition. A false assumption.) The funny thing is that I think both the holism of the continental Reformed tradition (Kuyper, Dooyeweerd) and the holism of pentecostal/charismatic experience counter the false intellectualISM of such scholastic versions of being Reformed. But being anti-intellectualIST is not the same as being anti-intellectual.

These matters and more will be more fully developed in the book I'll complete this summer, Thinking in Tongues: Elements of a Pentecostal Worldview, which will appear next year from Eerdmans.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Remember Burma

If you are looking for a way to give to cyclone relief in Burma(Myanmar), I would encourage you to consider giving through the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, which has excellent local contacts in the country and neighboring Thailand. Monies are channeled to trusted local sources who then feed that money into local economies in order to purchase supplies. A trusted place to give. Just FYI.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Neoconservatives, New Conservatives, and Old Tories

David Brooks notes that last week's elections here in England--which included Tory Boris Johnson being elected as Mayor of London--signals a shift in global conservatism. Britain, he suggests, is home to a new breed of conservative which has left Thatcherite econo-centrism behind, while American neoconservatism keeps looking for another Reagan. As he puts it:

That means, first, moving beyond the Thatcherite tendency to put economics first. As Oliver Letwin, one of the leading Tory strategists put it: “Politics, once econo-centric, must now become socio-centric.” David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, makes it clear that his primary focus is sociological. Last year he declared: “The great challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival.” In another speech, he argued: “We used to stand for the individual. We still do. But individual freedoms count for little if society is disintegrating. Now we stand for the family, for the neighborhood — in a word, for society.”

It's true that British Tories are "social" conservatives, without that spiralling into the narrow, single-issue politics it does in the States, fixated on abortion or gay marriage. But embedded here is an interesting point--which gets to the heart of what I think is wrong even with "new" conservatism, or at least what I think signals a fundamental tension for any Christian who would entertain conservativism. Listen to how Brooks continues:

This has led to a lot of talk about community, relationships, civic engagement and social responsibility. Danny Kruger, a special adviser to Cameron, wrote a much-discussed pamphlet, “On Fraternity.” These conservatives are not trying to improve the souls of citizens. They’re trying to use government to foster dense social bonds. (emphasis added)

These conservatives "are not trying to improve the souls of citizens." Why that proviso? Behind that qualification is the assumption that it would be problematic if they were trying to "improve souls." In other words, it sounds like not even these "new" conservatives will entertain a program of character formation. That would be anathema. Why? Because if you scratch even these new conservatives deep enough, you find a classical liberal underneath--an heir of Locke who thinks each of us is the master of our own fate, captain of our own souls, autonomous lords of our own realm of freedom--so anybody else better keep their hands off.

Or, to put it otherwise, neither neoconservatives nor Cameron's "new" conservatives are willing to be "Old Tories" of the sort Ruskin extolled, who were precisely concerned with the formation of character, the improvement of souls. Indeed, it's precisely what he decried in the industrialized wastelands of his own time, easily transposed to the commercialized wastelands of our own:

Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished,--sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is—we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,--that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages ("The Nature of the Gothic," in Stones of Venice).

But then my discomfort is not with formation per se--that is, it's not that I have some liberal worry about others imposing on my autonomy. Rather, I admit that I'm not certain I want to trust the task of formation to the state. And thus, once again, the uneasy relationship of conservativism and Christianity.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

An Evangelical Manifesto?

[I'm here just mirroring my original post at Generous Orthodoxy.]

So what do folks make of the recently unveiled "Evangelical Manifesto" (download the pdf)? On the one hand, I think it is in the spirit of a "generous" orthodoxy of the sort that motivated this blog from its inception. In general, I think it rightly criticizes trends on both left and right, and problems both internal to evangelicalism as well as external challenges (e.g., the public policy impact if the "new atheism" gained a foothold). Most of the time, I thought it sounds like David Wells or Don Carson--that is, sort of a grumpy Reformed take on evangelical "therapies" of various persuasions--but this certainly isn't the only voice.

On the other hand, I find it a strange document. Now, some of the steering committee and charter signatories include some of my friends, whom I respect a great deal. So I'm not registering any radical dissent. But I found myself struck by several things while reading it:

1. Well, there's that whole problem of knowing just what "evangelical" means (or, as they insist in the only footnote, Evangelical--as if evangelicalism has the weight of Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Orthodoxy). I have to confess that I find the term less and less helpful. And while this document demands that it be defined "theologically" (and not "sociologically"), I find the defintions offered here (e.g., believing in Jesus) a bit fuzzy. In short, I'm not sure why the authors are so convinced that "the term is important" (p. 2). For who? For what?

2. Related to (1), I always get a bit nervous when folks begin emphasizing evangelical "identity" (and this document explicitly takes up such identity politics, despite the "grave danger" [p. 4]). Why does the concern to assert "evangelical" (sorry, Evangelical) identity always feel like an exercise in boundary-drawing with an ominous sense that Catholic-bashing is just around the corner? Now, I'm not saying that this document does this--and many of these signatories are, in fact, involved in Catholic-evangelical dialogues. But you can see that this issue is always lurking around such projects when they assert, "Our purpose is not to attack or to exclude" (p. 5). Hmmm...methinks thou doth protest too much? I guess my question is: what does the term "Evangelical" get you that the term "Catholic" doesn't? When folks give me answers to that question, I find they either offer me something I don't want, or proffer some caricatured understanding of the Catholic tradition. Or, to put it otherwise, when they list the "distinctives" of evangelicalism (pp. 5-6), is there anything on there that Catholics wouldn't endorse? If someone says "sola Scriptura," then we've got other problems (see [3] below).

3. I guess what I was most surprised to see--given the theological heavyweights behind this--is what I can only describe as a rather naive hermeneutic. Take two examples: First, after affirming that "Evangelicals adhere fully to the Christian faith expressed in the historic creeds of the great ecumenical councils" (though--dirty little secret--vast swaths of evangelicals are rabidly anti-creedal), the Manifesto then asserts: "We have no supreme leader [why does this sound like some B-grade martian movie?], and neither creeds nor tradition are ultimately decisive for us. Jesus Christ and his written word, the Holy Scriptures, are our supreme authority" (p. 7). Seriously? Are we really entertaining a notion that Evangelicals are those Christians who have some sort of pristine, tradition-free access to "what Jesus really said"? I thought F.F. Bruce had debunked this sort of naive Scripture/tradition distinction for evangelicals years ago. As if there isn't a massive and complex evangelical tradition of reading Scripture (for more on this, see chapter 5 of my Fall of Interpretation). Second, in the same vein, the Manifesto claims that "Evangelicalism goes back directly to Jesus and the Scriptures." Really? C'mon.

4. I think the Manifesto is at its best when its critical finger points backwards at evangelicalism itself (pp. 11ff), for instance when it chides evangelicals who have "become cheerleaders for those in power and the naive sycophants of the powerful and the rich" (p. 13). So, too, when it points beyond single-platform politics of abortion or marriage and raises the issue of "conflict" (why not just say "war?"), racism, corruption, poverty," and more (p. 14). It is interesting to note what's not named in here though: e.g., militarism? capitalism? nationalism?

5. The document sort of goes "Greg Boyd" in a final section where it laments the error of "politicizing" faith, either on the right or the left. This, of course, sounds clear enough, until you start to ask just what "politicize" means--indeed, what does "politics" and "the political" refer to here? Just the machinations of the state? When they say that "Evangelicals see it as our duty to engage with politics" (p. 15--really, by the way? A duty? Of what sort? On what basis?), it seems to me that they mean evangelicals have a duty to participate in the machinations of the given state. Maybe. But I would just register that it's not quite that easy; that's not the only way to "be political." I always find evangelical discussions on these matters are quite content to let "politics" function as a black box. It seems to me that they might mean a "party-izing" of the faith. But I'm worried that lurking in there is actually some sense that "politics" is "outside" faith, and then we have to figure out how to get "faith" into connection with politics. And that would seem to assume that the faith is not "political" in itself, which I think would be another naive assumption.

6. Finally, when I got to the end, I kept hoping that I would figure out just why this Manifesto was released. Why now? What's the hook? On this point, I remain a bit befuddled.

Do we need an "Evangelical" Manifesto? Is it "important" to "keep the term?" I remain unconvinced, particularly if keeping the "distinctives" of "Evangelical" means buying into some rather simplistic hermeneutical moves. And at the end of the day, I would rather be part of a Manifesto that can be affirmed by "mere" Nicene Christians rather than "Evangelicals" alone.

Your turn.