Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture
A small group of young Christians who have spent several years working out what our faith looks like in public.We host thoughtful and gracious conversations about Christianity’s shape in the public square.Classical, conservative discourse on all issues of faith, culture and politics.
On February 24th, in an article titled Workism Is Making Americans Miserable, Derek Thompson made a compelling case that for many college-educated men and women, work has become a religion. Thompson writes,
The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.
Thompson, an astute observer of both America’s religious landscape and workplace culture continues,
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
According to Thompson this devotion to work isn’t necessarily about greed but rather these men and women choose to go to work for the same reason Christians go to church, “its where they feel the most themselves.” By making the case that this is a spiritual matter, Thompson raises the stakes on a bewildering issue. Throughout the article he continues to use religious and spiritual imagery to emphasize his point. “The problem with this gospel—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—,” writes Thompson, “is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion.”
As the title of the article suggests, Thompson sees this decades-long development as troubling, with far-reaching negative consequences. He states, “…a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” He even goes so far as to suggest that this worship of work might offer an explanation to America’s increased depression and anxiety rates.
It was encouraging to see Thompson’s article address this topic seriously and in a way that so clearly paints it as a spiritual issue. At times it felt like reading the transcript of a Timothy Keller sermon more than an article from The Atlantic. The words already mentioned above, “everybody worships something,” deserve a hearty “Amen” and have been echoed in Christian literature and pulpits across the country for years. And Thompson’s conclusion that, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight,” make him sound like a gospel wingman out on the streets getting people ready for a presentation on the four spiritual laws.
On the one hand we can read Thompson’s article and these developments in America’s workplace culture and see them as the logical conclusion of a culture divorcing itself from the rich theology of work and vocation its former faith espoused. This robust evangelical tradition and theology of work of course finds its roots in the reformation when Martin Luther rescued the concept of vocation from over a millennium of misuse. Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,
…the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ on whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.
By encouraging Christians to see their work, all work, as valued by God, Luther essentially redirected the understanding of vocation away from ministry to the everyday. This concept, steeped in theological tradition and meaning, has steered Christian thinking, writing, and preaching about work since the 1500’s. In his 2012 book Every Good Endeavor, Keller describes vocation this way,
“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.”
For Christians then, work is seen as a calling, a chance to honor God in our day to day life. This fits well with 1 Corinthians 10:31 where Paul writes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” And for Luther and Keller, by doing work faithfully as unto the Lord, people could fulfill their life’s purpose of honoring God. Whether that be as a farmer or hangman or in today’s economy a cashier or biophysicist.
Hugh Whelchel, in his book, How Then Shall We Work, outlines another key tenet of Luther’s theology of work. Not only does our work honor God, but, “According to Luther,” Whelchel writes, “we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work.” In this way work allows Christians to fulfill both of the Great Commandments from Matthew 22.
And so a culture that, as Thompson noted in his article, has by and large separated itself from the faith and doctrine that infuses the concept of work with the aforementioned value and purpose, we would expect to see myriad perversions rear their ugly heads in the workplace. This is true for all the “new atheisms” mentioned in Thompson’s article and it is true in the case of workism.
However, simply identifying America’s workism problem isn’t enough, a solution must be offered as well. Unfortunately, Thompson’s prescribed remedy is lacking in comparison to the nature of the disease. Though Thompson skillfully analyzes the problem of workism in America as a form of idolatry, when it comes to offering a solution he abandons the idolatry metaphor and simply suggests a surface level solution. After rattling off a few public policy ideas intended to direct Americans’ worship away from work, a plan he admits won’t actually solve anything for the very people stuck in this cycle of work worship, he comes to the one suggestion with any real substance for this class of workers. “On a deeper level,” Thompson writes, “Americans have forgotten an old-fashioned goal of working: It’s about buying free time.”
He goes on to describe work not as an idol but as a currency with which people can buy more free time. This idea of work as currency is altogether unsatisfying as a solution to the workism question. The most glaring inadequacy with this antidote is that if work is merely a currency with which to buy free time we simply exchange one idol, work, for another, leisure. If followed, this advice would lead to whole generations of people lost to hobby cars, hiking and collecting seashells. Additionally, a very strong working-for-retirement-so-then-I-can-do-what-I-really-want current, a current that is hard to swim against, already exists.
But does the already mentioned Christian ethic of work do any better with the workism quandary? Luther, Keller, and all the others who have written on this issue have usually done so with the aim of helping Christians with secular jobs no longer feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. The theology usually assumes a deep love for God and a complicated relationship with work.
The problem, as Thompson so shrewdly points out, is the opposite, people love their work and have a complicated or nonexistent relationship with God. In that way looking solely at Luther’s theology of work to solve this problem isn’t sufficient. Luther’s theology of work, robust though it may be, does better against Thompson’s error of work as currency, elevating it from a mere transaction to something with a purpose; but leaves us searching for more when it comes to work as idol. For that we need to delve deeper into our hearts.
It was John Calvin who famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” Thompson too, alludes to this fact in his article when he says that everybody worships something. Those who have traded in God now worship beauty, sex, power, money, work, children, etc, and are reaping their rewards, which as Thompson suggests for those who worship work, is misery.
In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Keller elaborates on the idols of the human heart:
Most people know you can make a god out of money. Most know you can make a god out of sex. However, anything in life can serve as an idol, a god-alternative, a counterfeit god…We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.
To be clear it isn’t just atheists who struggle with idols. Christians are just as prone to letting an idol into their hearts as atheists are. The idols may or may not be different for Christians than they are for atheists, but they are still there, they are still a temptation. With that in mind fleshing out how to keep work in its proper place isn’t just something we say to atheists with a told-you-so tone while we wag our fingers. When it comes to work, Christians need to honestly assess if their desks have become their altars too.
However, because as Christians we might be a touch quicker at admitting our insufficiency and need for a savior, we have a few more weapons in our arsenal in the fight against workism. For one it is helpful keep Luther’s theology in mind one, so that we don’t degrade work to the level of currency and two because it reminds us of our purpose in work of serving neighbor and honoring God.
Secondly, we need to take a broader view of what constitutes work, calling, and vocation. Assuming that we are limited to one calling can just as easily make us obsessed with work as idolizing work can. Instead, understanding calling or vocation, as a job and as a role is not only more biblically accurate, it also offers healthy checks on our other callings. We are called to many things.
Fathers and mothers are called to parent their children. Children are called to honor their parents. Neighbors are called to love one another. In the church too, various people, might be called to various stations of ministry, some paid and more structured like a career, others on a volunteer basis. Putting all of these various callings on the same level is one way to keep us from letting our career-calling control us. If we devote too much of ourselves to any one calling we will neglect our other callings and be out of balance. This is no more pleasing to God that idolizing work or only treating work as a currency.
But ultimately workism is an idolatry issue that requires a heart level solution. Again Keller has instructive words for us to keep in mind,
Have you heard God’s blessing in your inmost being? Are the words, “You are my beloved child, in whom I delight” an endless source of joy and strength? Have you sensed, through the Holy Spirit, God speaking to you? That blessing- the blessing through the Spirit that is ours through Christ… is the only remedy against idolatry. Only that blessing makes idols unnecessary.
Thompson wrote a timely and important article and did a excellent job of identifying workism as an idolatry issue. Why he chose to move away from that theme and offer a mere surface level solution is puzzling. Any attempt to encourage America’s post-Christian workists to solve this problem without addressing the underlying idolatry factor is at best a cop out and at worst disingenuous. A proper understanding of the purpose of work is helpful, but only when we find something truly worthwhile to desire will we be able to overcome the idols our hearts are so prone to worship.
John Thomas lives and serves in ministry in Central Asia with his wife and two kids. You can follow him on Twitter @John_Thomas518.
Several decades ago, missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote about our impulse towards pragmatism in the post-Christendom West:
In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to the Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the questions to which the gospel is the answer. And that, I suppose, is why the letters of St. Paul contain so many exhortations to faithfulness but no exhortations to be active in mission.
Newbigin’s call to prioritize fidelity over expediency remains a timely and difficult word for the church today. To be fair to those of us striving to answer the world’s questions, we certainly should aim to love our neighbor by removing avoidable stumbling blocks that cause Christianity to seem weirder than necessary to our neighbors who are indifferent or hostile to the faith.
Nonetheless, pragmatism can exert a kind of Babylonian captivity on our churches, manifest in marketing our churches as religious goods, services, and experiences to a consumeristic society such as online churches and faux-spontaneous baptisms. My concern here is not primarily with these more obvious and dismissible examples, but rather of similar trends that are less readily detectable.
Even among our churches that attempt to take discipleship and instruction somewhat more seriously, such discipleship and instruction can easily be practiced in a nonetheless pragmatic mode. For example, a somewhat frequent refrain in North American churches is the assertion that “everybody is a theologian.” That phrase doesn’t intend to communicate that everyone wears tweed jackets, reads multi-volume books, or writes dry prose about obscure matters.
Rather, it is used to encourage skeptical or otherwise uninterested listeners to value Christian doctrine and recognize that everyone holds fundamental convictions about God, regardless of whether those convictions have been deliberately formed or acquired unawares. To the credit of this slogan, I have used it on several occasions and will probably do so again in the future in order to encourage non-Christians and Christians alike to become lifelong learners as disciples of Jesus Christ. However, it is worth pausing to consider what happens in the popular imagination of the church when everybody – and hence, nobody in particular – is a theologian.
Ultimately, in our efforts to promote theological learning in the church, we must avoid pursuing this commendable aim in a manner that betrays the subject matter in question. Theology, in other words, is not a hobby.
In the 4th century, amidst a conflict with the Eunomians, St. Gregory of Nazianzus lamented his situation in which theology had become a common, trifling matter indistinguishable from sports banter or theater gossip. Notably, in the first of Gregory’s five theological orations on God and Christ, that would prove to be of tremendous historical importance for the doctrine of the Trinity, Gregory writes:
But, in fact, they have undermined every approach to true religion by their complete obsession with setting and solving conundrums. They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense. No feast, no funeral is free from them: their wranglings bring gloom and misery to the feasters, and console the mourners with the example of an affliction graver than death. Even women in the drawing room, that sanctuary of innocence, are assailed, and the flower of modesty is despoiled by their rushing into controversy. Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; “the great mystery” (1 Tim 3:16) of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.
In our own context, “the great mystery” of the Christian faith continues to be in danger of similar ailments, and not merely because of an indifferent or hostile secularism in the West. Arguably, as in Gregory’s day, this problem can be due to an ethos that we can unintentionally cultivate within the church, and that is why we can learn from Gregory’s extraordinarily scandalous claim:
And you must not be astonished if I speak a language which is strange to you and contrary to your custom, who profess to know everything and to teach everything in a too impetuous and generous manner… not to pain you by saying ignorant and rash.
Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone – it is no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit. Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience; neither are all its aspects open to inquiry. It must be reserved for certain occasions, for certain audiences, and certain limits must be observed. It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.
What is the right time? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling, or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually “to be still” in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, “to judge uprightly” in theology. Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements.
These tendencies — activism and indifference to general public opinion — are not always bad. Indeed, at times they have served the evangelical movement well, by keeping it on mission. But an unconditional emphasis on activism can easily become anti-intellectual, which can restrain people from thinking about matters they really need to think about. After all, effective activism will be informed activism.
Similarly, if you don’t care what anyone else thinks about you, you can easily find yourself locked in an echo-chamber. It can become what C. S. Lewis called an “Inner Ring,” a self-congratulating, self-justifying circle of people who are “in the right.” So overall, I think conservative evangelicals have paid a hefty price for being unreflective and self-enclosed — too hefty a price.
To be completely clear, I’m not here criticizing churches for hosting conversations for theological education with inquirers in a coffeehouse or pub – let alone doing theology in prisons, nurseries, nursing homes, slums, favelas, hospices, office break rooms, soccer fields, trailer homes, refugee camps, and illegal meetings held in secret. By no means!
But what is deserving of the full force of Gregory’s criticism is where theology is regarded as a quaint, sentimental pastime for polite society, or an intuitive, populist recreation akin to podcasting that requires no rigorous training, and in both becomes nothing more than an avenue for self-promotion.
First, the content of our theology and the future viability of formal theological education is affected when theology is widely regarded in the church as a self-evident enterprise. For instance, one might ask: “with all the pressing needs our community and church are facing, why do we need to focus our limited resources on institutions devoted to theological education, or equip individuals to study ancient languages and texts for the purpose of theological inquiry, when ‘theology’ is something that everyone already does, and I can do relatively straightforwardly with my Bible, Wikipedia.com, sermon audio, and a few popular books?”
Although not everyone is called to formal, academic study, we need to avoid intentionally or unintentionally creating the impression that such training is a superfluous luxury with minimal bearing on the church’s health or life. Inevitably, the discussions occurring in academic theology today affect the church’s confession and preparedness for ethical reasoning tomorrow, either for better or worse. Serious theological inquiry necessitates rigorous training in biblical and other historical languages, careful study of primary biblical and historical texts, and wide reading in the church’s tradition, let alone some grasp of our contemporary situation into which the church will testify to Jesus as Lord.
On the other hand, the pressure for every academic to continually justify their existence under the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ prevents many from being able to devote serious time and energy to cross-disciplinary reading and reflection while juggling teaching, grading, and an abundance of meetings. Understandably, there are few grants willing to fund undirected thought and reading. Nonetheless, the most helpful, creative, and generative theological work often emerges from periods of deep reflection upon a sustained curiosity, whose real value and contribution might not be fully perceptible or marketable at its inception.
Hence, although the venerable practice of catechesis is sadly not at an all time high in the contemporary Western church, we need to encourage every Christian to become oriented towards pursuing knowledge of God (e.g. John 17:3), without simultaneously undermining the value of either rigorous theological training or the formation of trained theologians who will create the books, articles, hymns, and agendas of the church in decades come.
Second, existentially, we will do ourselves and our churches a disservice — and quite possibly great harm to ourselves and others — where theology is practiced without any accountability and without reverent contemplation of the high and holy God who has made himself lowly in Christ, before and in whom we speak by the Holy Spirit. St. Athanasius of Alexandria concluded his masterpiece On the Incarnation, one of the more beautiful and doctrinally significant treatises in Christian history, with the following admonition:
But in addition to the study and true knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about God the Word. Without a pure mind and a life modeled on the saints, no one can comprehend the words of the saints.
For just as if, if someone would wish to see the light of the sun, he would certainly wipe and clear his eyes, purifying himself to be almost like that which he desires, so that as the eye thus becomes light it may see the light of the sun; or just as if someone would wish to see a city or a country, he would certainly go to that place for the sight; in the same way, one wishing to comprehend the mind of the theologians must first wash and cleanse his soul by his manner of life, and approach the saints themselves by imitation of their works, so that being with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also the things revealed to them, and thenceforth, as joined to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire on the day of judgment, but may receive what has been laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, “which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have they entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor 2.9), whatsoever things have been prepared for those who live a virtuous life and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom and with whom, to the Father with the Son himself in the Holy Spirit, be honor and power and glory to the ages of ages. Amen.
When non-Christian scholars perform academic inquiry into Christian theology it is a demanding intellectual challenge akin to other academic disciplines. But when a woman or man in Christ strives to participate in the work of faith seeking understanding, the entirety of one’s self is summoned before the holy, searing presence of God, whose manifold wisdom is now being made known to the rulers and authorities through the frailty of the church’s testimony (Eph 3:9–10). In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, and has entrusted the reconciled community with a word that confronts both us and the world to not only be reconciled to God but to accordingly share in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:15–21).
Because opportunism is an ever-present temptation in the work of theology, both in the content of our theologizing and in the character of our lives, the accountability of creeds, confessions, and an ecclesial community can be of tremendous generative value. We must be watchful, as the Apostle Paul put it, “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27); “we are not – like so many – peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor 4:17).
Finally, politically, if our Christian confession is never impractical or an offense to the powers of our world, it is likely the case that we have ceased to testify faithfully to an identifiably Christian faith. While Christian disciples will sacrificially love their neighbors and enemies, seek the common good, and participate in civil society (Rom 12–13), the testimony that “Our World Belongs to God” and shall be inherited by “the meek” (Matt 5:5) will always unsettle or provoke those who believe otherwise. What Michael Gorman calls “uncivil worship and witness: following the lamb into the New Creation” is heresy to the cult of civil religion and an offense that must be eliminated to the beastly powers.
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
Although the North American context today differs in many ways from then, Christian witness that is faithful to Jesus Christ today will nonetheless be a disruptive word, as Alan Noble describes it, in the distractions of everyday light in the malaise of Late Modern life. Moreover, the word of life and forgiveness that is Jesus Christ himself will not only be ‘impractical’ to, but a cutting word of judgment against, the demonstrably rising trends in violence associated with Christian white supremacy.
To return to Newbigin’s concern quoted above, it is true that we are not called to make our faith relevant, but demonstrate the relevance of our faith in our encounter with individuals and the systems of the varying situations in which the church finds itself. Wherever possible, it is good to attempt to answer the world’s questions. But hopefully, in calling the world to die to itself, take up the cross, and follow a crucified and risen Messiah from Nazareth, we are encouraging non-Christians and Christians alike to learn what kinds of questions to ask. Because we are created in the image of God but live under the cosmic powers of Sin and Death, we will find varying aspects that need to be affirmed and challenged in every culture.
As those who have already seen the preview of God’s coming victory and liberation of heaven and earth in Jesus’ resurrection, our testimony invites the world to share in Jesus’ future reign in the present by taking up the cross and following him. While it can be frustrating — not only initially, but across our lifetimes — to have our questions left unanswered, it can be liberating to admit that we don’t even know what questions are worth asking. The world’s questions are by no means insignificant; in fact, sometimes disinterested or hostile non-Christians are more attuned to recognizing the radical nature of our theology than our Christ-haunted subcultures that can become inoculated to or just bored with Christianity. But admitting that we are finite, mortal, constantly prone to selfishness, and in need of God and others to teach us how to learn about God can be an honest form of freedom, rather than presuming that I, right now, know what is of ultimate significance.
Thus, it is worth pausing to reflect on why so many of us reflexively, almost automatically, frame our popular theological teaching as ‘practical.’ Again, if a group of people whether young or old assume that theology is a total waste of time, we certainly should argue otherwise. However, when we feed the impulse to press every doctrine, from the Trinity to justification to the sacraments, into the service of being relevant or practical, trouble can quickly creep in. We can tacitly affirm all our current dispositions, desires, and arbitrary agendas uncritically, whereby theology becomes nothing more than a means for satisfying the ends of my unchallenged preferences and whims. Alternatively, we can end up doing very strange things with the actual content of theology itself, as evidenced in recent debates on the Trinity in evangelicalism over the last few years.
As Matthew Levering observed over a decade ago, “when practical relevance replaces contemplation as the primary goal of Trinitarian theology, the technical precisions of metaphysics come to be seen as meaningless, rather than as ways of deepening our contemplative union with the living God revealed in Scripture.” In other words, according to Levering, the shape of our theology can be drastically affected by the goal we are pursuing. Is our aim God, and all things in relation to God, or chiefly ourselves, and God along with all things in relation to that?
Christian theology is indeed eminently practical; but it is such only as a result of contemplating God’s immanent perfections, as John Webster captured:
Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold object. The object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and second and by derivation, all other things relative to him. Christian divinity is characterized both by the scope of its matter – it aims at a comprehensive treatment of God and creatures – and by the material order of that treatment, in which theology proper precedes and governs economy. All things have their origin in a single transcendent animating source; a system of theology is so to be arranged that the source, the process of derivation and the derivatives may in due order become objects of contemplative and practical attention.
Joshua Heavin is a Phd Candidate at Trinity College Bristol, University of Aberdeen, where he is writing a dissertation on the Apostle Paul and Participation in Christ.
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Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, ,1989), 119. ↑
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonious, trans. by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham, Popular Patristics Series 23 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 2002), Oration 27.2, p. 25–26. ↑
Gregory Nazianzus, On God and Christ, Oration 27.3, p. 26–27. ↑
Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series 44b (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 2011) §57, p. 110. ↑
Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2004), 2. ↑
John Webster, “OMNI… PERTRACTANTUR IN SACRA DOCTRINA SUB RATIONE DEI. On the Matter of Christian Theology,” God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology: Volume I, God and the Works of God (New York, NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 3. ↑
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
The Rock, 1934
The central line is the line we hear quoted. It’s a line of critique, a line that diagnoses what many of us recognize as the relentlessly empty heart of liberalism, and the idea in that line was central to the critique of liberalism which Patrick Deneen laid out in his recent Why Liberalism Failed.
The two lines that follow are almost never quoted. They are not lines of critique. They are the solution.
Abp. St. Oscar Romero, Fr. Augustus Tolton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Vladimir the Great, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Philippe Le Roy, and Hans Scholl
Two weeks ago, in an auditorium at the Catholic University of America, a couple of hundred yards from the Basilica of the National Shrine, Deneen delivered a much-anticipated talk: the annual First Things D.C. lecture. Titled “Aristopopulism: A Political Proposal for America,” it was a vision for the common good founded on solidarity between the elites and the people, a vision which called for the elites to embrace their status but get a whole lot better at it, to accept responsibility and become true aristoi; and for the populace to itself become virtuous.
So far, so Thomist. I mean, yes, shocking, if one is inclined to be shocked: it accepts the continued existence of the populus and the aristoi, the greater and lesser. It was not levelling, although crucially, it advocated at least some mobility, a healthy mixing of the two, and an enlarged and empowered middling sort.
That mixing, that rejection of a morlocks-and-eloi vision of society, is not incidental, not some kind of sop to democratic sensibilities. It is central. Deneen’s project is, and has consistently been, to remind us of the prescription of the political tradition: the danger occurs when the populus and aristoi are too far apart, when they are camps; this “coming apart” inevitably accompanies a loss of virtue, civic and otherwise, by both camps, but especially perhaps by those who can least afford its loss, because they have nothing else: nothing to fall back on but the family and communal ties that we used to think were the automatic inheritance of the American populus, the “salt of the earth,” who unlike the decadent coastal elites upheld older standards of chastity and filial piety.
But that’s all over now. That loss, the utter chaos of the American populus and their abandonment by the American aristoi, is what First Things editor R.R. Reno has been primarily concerned with for the last several years; it’s a concern Deneen shares. Lose virtue, and the center cannot hold: the poor become meth addicts who hate the “elites” and watch YouTube videos about chemtrails; the rich become Davos men and savor their contempt for the masses, with that very contempt becoming a mark of their own status, while also (in our case, at least; this is what makes our case uniquely pathological) identifying them with “the oppressors.”
This deserves further discussion. Ultimately our present day elites believe themselves to have inherited the task of 1789– or, better, the mantle of the Friends of the ABC, the progressive revolutionary leaders of the tres jours glorieuses of 1830; they believe their enemies, the “deplorables,” to somehow be the heirs to the aristocrats, or at least the bourgeois, because like (really?) the Bourbons and the bourgeois functionaries of the Bourbon regime, the white underclass are religious and social conservatives. Or something.
Put this way it is a very, very, very stupid vision, and Deneen filleted it. I’ll tell you, it was a hell of a talk.
AFP, Gilets Jaunes, 2019
The controversy came in his prescription: that the elites, the Davos men, must be disciplined by the political action of a resurgent populace, perhaps our own Gilets Jaunes; that this action must be willing to at least threaten something more than passive resistance; that only a decision to do this will make a difference. No invisible hand will guide the process, if by that one means a mechanistic, non-providential natural process. The hand that will direct it will be visible, and it may well, said Deneen in the Q&A, be “the back of the hand.”
Everything, it seemed, was on the table.
A friend wrote to me afterwards. What, precisely, has our friend called for? How can revolutionary violence lead to good? Can such violence be guided, channeled; can the anger of populist revolt be righteous anger? If it is unrighteous, can righteousness come from it, if perhaps it is guided, a primal force channeled to the good?
2. Tankies and Tocquevillians
I know the gutter, and I know the stink of the street
Kicked like a dog, I have spat out the bile of defeat
All you beauties who towered above me
You who gave you the smack of your rod
Now I give you the gutter
I give you the judgement of God
“Madame Guillotine”, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1997
Music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Nan Knighton
A show-stopper, yes, but is it a legitimate political program for an auditorium full of CUA professors, Austro-Hungarian Empire restorationists who are ready to rise to the occasion the moment that Eduard Habsburg calls for it in that one glorious long-awaited tweet, Burke-and-Kirk university press publishers, GOP Hill staffers who would have voted for Bernie if he had been pro-life, ex-libertarian oppo-research urchins, restorationists still in mourning for the Vendée, Weird Catholic Twitter notorieties, and merely Christian magazine editors?
It was a spicy shot to swallow. Those who have, in the past, thought that they could steer such rage towards virtue-republican ends, their reins on the neck of that spirited horse, have been consistently wrong, their own necks forfeit.
Perhaps not impossible, especially if the anger is anger at what is truly wrong. But it would be quite the trick.
Or was what he meant simply that good men and women– of the people and of the elite– must guide “the people,” in their power as the majority, to politically threaten the Davos men enough that they take a long hard look at themselves, and get it together? Can things like Brexit and Trumpism, and their non-Anglo equivalents, get this job done, such that each nation ends up in solidarity with itself again, once more in a real polity?
I think that is, mostly, what he meant. Deneen’s end game is good: a polity constituted around a true political common good, justice as giving to each his due and a shared love of the polity, of “us,” of this project of civic friendship and living together. This project of community is underscored by a universal regard for each person as inherently valuable, and owed love, with fundamental solidarity between all people.
He would not pretend that there ever had been a moment of this perfect solidarity in American history– during, say, the 1830s, it existed on the backs of slaves. But there seems to be a possible vision for this American good, this American polity, shed of slavery but without falling into the pockets of capital, and without the rejection of sexual virtue inherent in today’s progressivism.
The County Election, George Caleb Binghamton, 1852
It’s not the sacramental kingdom of Louis IX. Deneen is an American, and the country that we find ourselves in is not a Catholic country, and so the “we” whom we love includes and must include Jews, Protestants, Muslims, agnostics, atheists. But it is a natural-law republic, perhaps even esoterically Christian, built far better than Thomas Jefferson knew, with something like the Stoic or Platonic Good as an OK-ish disguise for Christ. In that sense, his vision of the American political common good is something like basic 1990’s Catholic-Straussian First Things, and there are worse things. Many, many worse things. Many.
It rejects some current expressions of liberalism, where the only given, the only thing that is central, is the democratic process and peace, with peace considered primarily as not punching someone in the face because he is an Arian. (One might call this anti-Santa liberalism.) (Constantine as avatar of liberalism because he put St. Nicholas in jail is my worst take of this piece; don’t worry, it gets better from here.)
Deneen is at his core a virtue-Tocquevillian, a civic republican of the first water, who for that reason is uneasy with centralized power. Centralized power is what men turn to when they feel shut out of real politics, when they are isolated. The solution is to refuse to be privatized, and instead to focus on smaller, more local versions of the public sphere: the little platoons which allow real political participation and which overcome isolation. He also radically prefers (and should not you, too, prefer it, reader?) persuasion to force.
3. The Critic’s Critics
Madison is grappling with the fact that not every issue can be settled by committee.
The eighteenth century civic republican temperament wants every issue to be resolved by coffeehouse conversation; the Thomistic civic republican temperament wants every issue to be settled by the coffeehouse conversation of us dependent rational animals, with the help of the Holy Spirit. I get this temperament; it is partly (though only partly) my own. And that is one root of politics: civic friendship, with the common good, the just and orderly regime of our common lives, as the magnet that draws us together. That friendship, and the development of virtues in the little platoons, in the families and churches, in the Grange societies and PTA meetings across a variety of American communities, was Deneen’s political prescription at the end of Why Liberalism Failed.
But Deneen got a lot of grief for that, from a number of directions. I’ll look at two of these directions. The first direction was the pure distilled 80-proof integralists, like Pater Edmund Waldstein at The Josias, who point out to him several things:
First, he is not actually willing to say that the government should say that Christ is King, and that to deny this is inherently to base a nation on injustice, because giving Christ his due is a matter of justice, as justice is giving to each man his due.
All kings of the earth will one day bow to Christ as king, the integralists point out, and every day they put this off is a day too long, and that to pretend that it is somehow OK, or a workable real peace, for your ruler to not publicly acknowledge that Christ is his ruler, is silly. There is no peace without justice, and there is no peace without a common love of the Prince of Peace. There is at best detente.
This is of course a matter of the supernatural common good, not the natural, but for a Christian, for a society that is built on Christianity in some sense, one can’t really pretend that one can have a natural political common good in a sort of innocent-pagan way which neglects the Kingship of Christ.
Second, he is not willing to say that it is appropriate for the government to publicly acknowledge and favor in its laws the Catholic Church as the Church which Christ founded, to be the channel of his life to the world. Again, it is worse for us than it was for the Greeks if we do not do so, by their reckoning. Every baptized Christian is the just subject of the Pope, and even for those who are not baptized, they’re shipmates in a society which rides on on the waters of baptism which flowed from Rome. You can’t undo the baptism of Europe.
Third, in proposing, as a solution to disagreements over the nature of the good, a sort of national American Kuyperianism, with different communities embodying different “thicker” conceptions of the good, he’s basically reinvented liberalism.
And finally, not every virtue can be developed in a PTA meeting. In particular, the virtue of magnanimity can only be developed in the City: Minas Tirith, Istan Polis, Caput Mundi.1
Carl Schmitt is to Dr. Vermeule what Tocqueville is to Dr. Deneen: that thinker who persists in and through each man’s Christianity, even each man’s essential Thomism; a persistent interlocutor.
Vermeule is not quite a normal integralist. He is not, let us say, your father’s integralist. And it was his criticism rather than Pater Edmund’s to which Deneen responded most specifically on Thursday.
Carl Schmitt wants to remind us that the peace of civic friendship and of mutual recognition and of philosophical contemplation and of busy exchange, and especially of the operation of legal norms– the peace of the coffeehouse conversation, of hierarchically ordered families, of courts of justice; the peace of the City– has, in reality, come at a price, and it may need once again to be bought at a price, and that that price is the establishment of rule by violence. And that that violence– that moment of exception, that moment when someone is willing to bring order, is the moment in which we see the face of sovereignty.
Carl Schmitt, c. 1920
That is real, say the Schmittians. Without sovereignty, there is no order in which we can contemplate what law ought to be, in which we can count on the functioning of the courts, in which we can persuade each other. And to bring this order, one must be willing to kill. And to pretend that this moment never comes– never has come, and never will come– is the (in their view) not-quite-political existence of the Tocquevillians, of those who retreat to smaller incomplete communities, who (the accusation goes) can speak prophetically to power but who are never willing to take it.
And Deneen was responding to precisely this critique. One can read Schmitt to say exactly that one may use Machiavellian means for Aristotelian ends: unjust means, even, or… better… means before justice. The moment before any order is established is an inherently agonistic moment. You might, in that moment, use the populace as a weapon; you might use the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to pave the way for that decade of factory jobs and social solidarity and the youth of the Boomers. So say at least some Schmittians, though not all; and this is not the only thing that one may take from him.
One might say that Schmitt just hitched his wagon to the wrong Machiavellians. And of course everyone does, with no caviling, say this.
I do not think that picking better Machiavellians is the way to go.
4. The Ways of Judgment
High where the valley’s edge gave a line to the
Old road that bore Rome’s rulers and warriors
Along the wild hill-spine, and steered them
Down to the plains and the ways of judgment
There flows a stream now…
From “Buckle Street,” 2003
Is there a way to conceive of the exercise of power that grapples with the reality of the political, which does not count on debate societies as the origins of all order, but which rejects a Machiavellian account of politics?
Of those men whose work is the work of retrieval, of memory, and the application of what they find to the moment of decision, Oliver O’Donovan is, I think, the one who most directly addresses the question raised by Deneen’s critics.
He’s not really saying anything new. He, like so many others, is reminding us of what the tradition taught. One may– and if one is a ruler, one must– use the sword. Not every issue can be settled by committee. There will be men who are wolves to men, and if one is a ruler, it is neglectful to fail to protect. And more than protect: to be a picture– imperfect, and subordinate, but real– of God’s own political rule.
In The Ways of Judgment, his 2003 book edited from that year’s Bampton Lectures, O’Donovan warns of several deadly “horizons of de-politicization, on which political authority simply disappears.” One of these, he writes, “lies where the claim of injured right is systematically ignored by those holding power… they ignore the tasks of right.” Think of corrupt authorities, bribed judges, police who look the other way when a police officer is the one beating his wife; or the systematic legally encouraged or un-punished ill-treatment of scapegoat groups within a society.
Such a society may be ordered, with order established by one who rose to the occasion of the moment of decision; the courts may – technically, procedurally – function. But there is no sovereignty without justice, but only a parody of it: God’s own sovereignty is not voluntarist, but flows from His justice, His goodness. Indeed, in him these qualities are literally..
For the second time in 18 months Republicans have needed to make use of the distinction between ephebophilia and pedophilia while defending one of their own.
The fact that we are here may well say all that needs saying about our political moment.
But on the chance that it does not, let’s venture another word.
To whatever extent we are having a debate right now over whether or not Tucker Carlson should face stern public condemnation from his fellow conservatives and should issue a public apology for his remarks before making a permanent retreat from public life it is because we have come to believe that the worst thing that can happen to a person is that they would lose power.
Power, by which we mean the ability to shape and influence reality, is the all-consuming good currently pursued with reckless abandon by virtually everyone in our republic. And, of course, as Andy Crouch reminded his readers sometime ago, power can be a great good.
The difficulty, of course, is that power without a telos, without a good it hopes to actualize, is a monkey with a bazooka. And so it is with us today.
Carlson, when confronted over his horrifying words—and we should be clear: he joked about his daughter’s underage classmates sexually experimenting with one another, said a humiliated beauty pageant contest was vulnerable to sexual advances and was like “a wounded gazelle separated from its herd,” and referred to Iraqis as monkeys—refused to apologize. And we should note his reasons for not apologizing:
“There’s really not that much you can do to respond. It’s pointless to try to explain how the words were spoken in jest, or taken out of context, or in any case bear no resemblance to what you actually think, or would want for the country. None of that matters. Nobody cares. You know the role you’re required to play: You are a sinner, begging the forgiveness of Twitter.
Carlson refuses to apologize because to apologize is to make oneself weak. It is to cede power to one’s rival. Whether or not one has need to apologize is, in this account, wholly irrelevant. The jockeying for power is all that matters and morality is simply a game we take up when doing so is useful to ourselves.
Certainly, it is true that public apologies have been weaponized. So it must be in a world increasingly captive to the norms of online shaming. Because of this, people involved in public life must understand the rhetorical significance of apologizing and make wise decisions about how to respond when called to give an account of themselves.
Those observations, however, are hardly relevant to the issue at hand. The issue at hand is that Carlson joked about his daughter’s friends sexually experimenting with each other.
It may well be the case that public apologies are weaponized in the culture wars. But that has no bearing on the fact that a man who made such awful remarks ought to apologize for making them. To suggest otherwise is merely to engage in a slightly more clever form of rationalizing sin.
But, of course, the bigger story here isn’t just about Tucker Carlson; the story is about power and specifically about things greater and higher than power.
Literature is filled with people like Carlson, people who think the only question in life is who has the power to exert their will over others. Tolkien works with this vice, a mixture of greed and cynicism, in various ways with both Saruman and Sauron. Saruman rejects being “the white” because white, as a color, can be broken. (“In which case it is no longer white,” Gandalf astutely replied.)
More recently, Voldemort, the villain in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is similar—he breaks his soul seven times, doing irreparable damage to it in the process because he cannot imagine anything worse than physical death, which is the loss of power. And, of course, Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is completely obsessed with this question: Do people actually have beliefs that run deeper than the desire for self-preservation… or is human morality just a bad joke to be set aside the moment the self is threatened?
In From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun says that the decadent culture is the one that no longer knows why it exists. Though, “it is a very active time, full of deep concerns,” it is also “peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance.” Barzun continues, “the loss it faces is that of Possibility (sic). The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through.” In such a regime, all that is left is, as Schaeffer said decades ago, personal peace and affluence. And we struggle to imagine pains greater than the loss of those things.
This is why our stories of moral failure never terminate on the question of apologizing for the wrongs done and making restitution with those affected. They always escalate up to power and, specifically, to whose quest for personal peace and affluence will be aided by this failure and whose will be hurt. Our imaginations have become constrained. We do not see any broader horizons.
And so a man speculates about his daughter’s friends sexually experimenting with one another and, when called to account, his concern is not with his daughters’ friends, how his daughter feels about his words, the evil things he said, or with what state his soul must be in to willingly give voice to such things publicly. Rather, his concern is with protecting his status, avoiding any sign of weakness.
But, of course, there is another possibility. There are, it turns out, things greater and higher and nobler than mere power. And such is the greatness of these things that one can, when one has sinned, acknowledge that sin and ask forgiveness. It is better to be on your knees in a cathedral than proudly on one’s feet in a Fox News studio.
These greater beauties not only free us to apologize. They also open us to the radical idea that moral ends cannot be advanced by immoral means, that it is better to die a martyr than live as a villain. An openness to martyrdom expands the imagination. It gives back to the lost, decadent soul the possibility of something better.
How do we find ‘the good’ in a world of bad hot takes? Here to help the crew pan for gold is Hannah Anderson. She joins Andrew, Alastair, and Derek to discuss her new book, All That’s Good: Recovering The Lost Art of Discernment, and shares how, through discernment, we can not only survive the world but enjoy it.
Intro: [0:00 – 2:40]
Why write a book on discernment? [2:40 – 4:40]
Why “discernment” is often used in a negative sense [4:40 – 10:00]
How to assess the online context, and engage/comment on issues virtuously [10:00 – 15:20]
How to exercise wisdom in choosing one good thing, or opportunity, and another [15:20 – 23:45]
Where/when discernment is the most difficult to use [23:45 – 27:40]
Which voices we should listen to in a world where everyone is telling us to follow them [27:40 – 33:55]
How to limit the online voices/figures on our newsfeed [33:55 – 40:13]
Though there is no shortage of disagreement over the sources of our current malaise, that we live in a decadent society is, perhaps, one of the few ideas that actually can unite many conservative and progressive Americans. What’s more, in the eyes of many Americans, Christianity is not positioned to help us navigate through decadence, but is rather an agent in its creation.
The way toward purpose, toward an existentially satisfying life that both provides direction in the midst of confusion and an anchor in the midst of pain is to move away from Christianity. Or, in other cases, it is not away from Christianity but at least away from evangelical Christianity—many seek deeper roots as a way to anchor them in a time of uncertainty and find themselves agreeing with Cardinal Newman.
In one sense, the idea that the reformed faith isn’t emotionally satisfying can be swatted aside without much trouble: simply introduce the person to the Heidelberg Catechism. But the objection often runs deeper. It’s not that the reformed tradition lacks poetic language—certainly anyone familiar with Heidelberg or the writings of John Calvin or the hymns of John Newton knows there is imaginative depth to be found in reformed soil.
Rather, the objection is that the theology itself is somehow lacking what I guess you could call climbing holds—sturdy places to hang on when you’re scaling a mountain (not an inaccurate picture of the life of faith) and are simply trying to keep from falling. One friend of mine, who converted to Catholicism not long after our conversation, spoke of the lack of practical resources that Protestantism offered to her as she was struggling to keep faith.
I thought of this struggle when I recently went back over a few sections of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Often filled with precise, scholastic language, the Confession is not the place one would think to go for warmth and humane piety. Even many reformed Christians will acknowledge the point, choosing instead to direct people to the Heidelberg Catechism. I have done this myself on more than one occasion. But the Confession will surprise you.
Consider this excerpt from chapter nine:
When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.
Another way of expressing that idea is simply that the process of conversion is precisely that: a process. What is said here parallels more widely used terminology to describe the moral life—the acquisition of virtue, the cultivation of habits, even Eugene Peterson’s idea of “a long obedience in the same direction.” (Peterson was, after all, a Presbyterian minister.)
Because the curse of sin still remains with us, even after we encounter God, we will still groan under its weight. We will fail others and be failed by others. This is the reality we all face. It is accurately describing a struggle that virtually every person has experienced. Speaking of this internal struggle, the Dutch Reformed divine Herman Bavinck said that, “these experiences do not merely exist but have a right to exist; they are inseparable from godliness.”
The Confession is naming this ordinary human experience in a way that also acknowledges our capacity to truly will the good with the aid of God. Thus none of this need lead us to despair, for it is, in one sense, normal. We aspire to love God and love neighbor perfectly and yet often we fail and then we must repent and carry on with the Christian life. This basic moral insight, though often forgotten in our day of public shaming, is sitting right there in plain sight in one of the most famous reformed confessions.
Similarly, when we turn to chapter 25 and headings four and five we again find this striking balance, this familiarity with ambiguity:
This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to his will.
Again we can see this simple assumption that failure is normal in the Christian life and in the life of the church. It need not crush us. What’s more, the chapter ends on a strikingly hopeful note: because of God’s work to preserve his people, there will always be a church on earth to worship God. “Always,” is an uncomfortable word to use during a day in which so little seems to endure—”all that is solid melts into air,” right? But in the sturdy faith of the Confession and the God it describes, we find grounds for using that hopeful word.
Certainly, we do not always live up to our confession. We attempt to manufacture a pure church via unpleasant, protracted debates over non-essential matters where even our own tradition is more ambiguous than many care to admit. We bear down on individual people and crush them rather than understanding their weakness. We struggle to realize the goodness of restoration with a person that has sinned against us.
But, of course, these are our own forms of the very thing the Confession anticipates. No church is wholly pure and, indeed, the inordinate lusting after purity is itself indicative of this fact because it represents an attempt to lay hold of a good that we ourselves cannot lay hold of but must instead trust to God. In other words, it is a form of unbelief, a refusal to trust God to care for his sheep. Similarly, no person is free of sin in this life, the overbearing person who heaps judgment on the person Scripture describes as “a bruised reed,” not least of all.
Though few think of the reformed faith as being emotionally satisfying, a closer reading of its historical documents suggests that it just might be—and if that is the case it suggests a very different path out of late modern decadence.
There is deep significance in how a society treats its dead. If history is to be considered, state funerals have played a significant role in public life. Western history and thought has found some of its most profound rhetoric in memorializing the dead. From Thucydides’ recounting of Pericles’ funeral oration, to Ronald Reagan’s eulogy for the Challenger astronauts, extracting meaning from the death of individuals in service to the state plays an essential role in reminding the body politic of its telos – its character and the good it seeks to pursue.
In the American context, what happens in a state funeral is unique, profound, and deserving of our participation. For a moment, public and private spheres overlap; church and state reach across the wall of separation; and the individual mourns with the nation in the most fundamental affirmation of human equality: we all die, and we all desire to be comforted when alive and remembered when dead.
For the Christian citizen, this may raise a troubling tension akin to being asked to burn incense to Caesar. Why give rosy-lensed praise to those who represent the far from perfect institutions of government? However, in the space provided by state funerals, the Christian citizen has a unique window in which the compassion of Christ may be displayed as we mourn with those who mourn. But, we cannot do so without entering as fully as we may into the City of Man and the care of its dead. How might we do that?
What I Found in a House of Morning
Ecclesiastes 7:2: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”
The Preacher’s encouragement to prioritize a gathering around the death of an individual over a gathering around a meal is instructive when thinking about the civic role of funerals, particularly state funerals. A recent example, the state funeral of George H.W. Bush, provides a current and relevant illustration of the wisdom to be gained from our presence in such a house of mourning.
I watched the entire funeral service with a classroom full of undergraduate students. One of the things that stood out, and was commented on, was the silence that seeped out of the National Cathedral and into my classroom as the attendees awaited the arrival of the hearse bearing Bush’s body. A few of my students noted the awkwardness of such silence. Perhaps that is the one of the first things we lose when we do not attend the house of mourning – the ability to sit in silence and comprehend the end of all things. Our own ends. Perhaps we fear silence in our distracted age because it symbolizes that end.
Beyond insight into our societal relationship to death, what I was surprised to discover in my watching of the funeral was my own emotion as I moved from being a passive observer to that of engaged participant despite the fact that this was no man that I had any personal contact with. Bush 41’s presidency began and ended before I was 9 and, like many, I viewed the event from afar. Yet, I still found tears in my eyes as this great man and citizen was remembered. Why? Partly, it was the all too real reminder that a unique generation is passing from this earth. For many, the Greatest Generation (those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War 2) is the epitome of civic duty and citizenship. They understood self-sacrifice and national service. Theirs is a hard won wisdom we seem to be desperately in need of in our highly atomized and polarized culture.
I keely felt that sense of personal and civic loss when my own grandparents passed away, but I was surprised to find myself feeling a similar sense of dual loss as the funeral service progressed. I saw that loss painfully visible on the faces and in the nonverbals of the gathered friends and family, and it was verbalized in the moving eulogies. State funerals can instruct us in the act of mourning and remembrance. In reflecting on such a loss, we find a challenge to not just value the elder generations still living among us, but to also actively seek out their collected wisdom.
Additionally, in a time when it seems little is shared, the poignancy of current and former presidents and party leaders sitting shoulder to shoulder staring at the evidence of their own mortality was a powerful image of the shared experience of life and death inherent in human community. In that, I felt a dawning sense of shared loss between myself, the late president’s family and friends, and the country as a whole, which helped me to consider the role I am called to play as a Christian in ministering to others in the midst of loss.
Entering the House of Mourning
Thus, in the state funeral of George H.W. Bush we are given a vivid reminder of the most basic common cause a community of human beings can share: the celebration of life in its flourishing and finishing.
For Christian citizens of a country, the state funeral of a national leader offers an invitation to “go to the house of mourning” and “lay… to heart” what wisdom is to be gained there in reflecting on the end of man, even a great man. However, I wonder how many heed that invitation, and may even consider such a state funeral to be something to wave off, or even criticized?
Citizens should attend to these national funerals, but Christian citizens should especially do so. In such places we can enter into the house of mourning and gain wisdom from reflecting on the brevity of life, the need for meaning, the connectedness of our human experience, and from that shared experience, the shared need for a shared solution, a gospel of grace. More soberly, too, we are presented with a stark contrast of the hope of resurrection for the redeemed, and the fear of destruction for the damned. But how can we minister in such contexts if we are discomfited and unfamiliar with them?
If you have yet to watch the funeral of George H.W. Bush, I’d invite you to do so. Lay aside any ideological lens or preconceived notions and sit like so many political adversaries did, in common company. Consider what wisdom is to be found in the house of mourning and how you too might “lay it to heart.”
Tim Milosch is a PhD student in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University. His research interests are in the areas of international relations, political philosophy, cross-cultural communication, conflict resolution, and citizenship.
For this is quite the final goal of art: to recover this world by giving it to be seen as it is.
–John-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature?
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
-J. R. R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia
Dragons. Magic. Characters eating stew. Throw in a young, country boy as the chosen one from an ancient prophecy and you have an Epic Fantasy novel. Rather, this is the image conjured in most people’s mind when I tell them I love reading Epic Fantasy.
But Epic Fantasy can be something much more transcendent and true, as first revealed by J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy. Fantasy culture is still obsessed with him in many ways, evidenced by the recent release of the teaser trailer for FOX Searchlight’s upcoming film, Tolkien, and the anticipation for Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) prequel series set to begin filming this year. In other ways, however, fantasy culture has moved on from Tolkien. Consider the scope of the modern genre: movies, video games, tabletop games, LARPing, comics, books, music, even podcasts. George R. R. Martin himself heralds the last twenty years as the golden age of fantasy.
Where is the current appetite for fantasy coming from? Tolkien may have some answers for us. Tolkien’s brief apologetic in defense of the fantasy genre “On Fairy-Stories” contains some of the best theological arguments for storytelling, art, and imagination (Tolkien casually accomplishing this as a byproduct of addressing his main topic). Replace ‘Fantasy’ with ‘Art’ in the following quote, and you have the classic imago dei defense of Christian art:
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
Even the footnotes contain gems. Consider this reflection on Tolkien’s childhood impulse towards the fantastical:
I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature’, and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it.
Given the modern popularity of Fantasy, Tolkien is not the only one “wholly unsatisfied” with capital-s Science. Humans existing as nothing but cosmic stardust might be beautiful to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel Stardust contains more beauty in its opening chapter.
“On Fairy-Stories” is an interpretive key to fantasy itself, especially the role of fantasy in an age that has censored that “part of man which is not ‘Nature.’” To begin, Tolkien explains his dislike of the term ‘suspension of disbelief,’ thinking that if the reader must willfully suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy a story, then the storyteller has already failed. He prefers thinking in terms of “Primary Belief” and “Secondary Belief.” Primary Belief is belief in the truth of the Primary World, that is, the real world. It takes little effort to believe the sky is blue, because the Primary World is constantly revealing that fact to us.
Secondary Belief is also belief in truth, but the truth of a Secondary World, that is, a created world—a faë world where the sky is perpetually bathed in twilight. Here Tolkien introduces the idea of sub-creation and humans as sub-creators. According to Tolkien, truly immersive secondary worlds where the truth of the world feels obvious and right within the context of the world are only created by serious sub-creators, who are following in the footsteps of the divine Creator. God is Creator ex nihilo, humans are sub-creators.
Of course, Tolkien went on to demonstrate the beauty and potential of sub-creation through Middle Earth. The painstakingly constructed maps, the detailed and varied cultures and races, and the near-to-functional languages of Middle Earth all work in concert to reinforce the truth of the sub-created world. When Bilbo slips on the ring of power and disappears at his own birthday party, no reader is jolted out of the narrative thinking, “How contrived!” Instead, it feels as natural as the Shire itself. This is due to Middle Earth being a proper Secondary World, where it is not necessary to ‘suspend’ disbelief – the narrative welcomes you in as a friend and you find yourself believing the truth of Rivendell, Moria, and Isengard without hesitation.
Humorously, Tolkien disliked Lewis’ Narnia because of poor sub-creation. To Tolkien, Narnia seemed too hastily constructed, containing random figures such as Father Christmas. Lewis was a gardener, but Tolkien was an architect. These two distinct writing styles are still much discussed today, and modern fantasy authors love to identify which style they prefer.
Gardeners nurture their stories little by little, following their characters wherever it feels natural for them to go. Architects meticulously outline their plots, making sure every twist and turn is perfect, before they start writing in earnest. The reality is much less black and white, however. Very few successful fantasy authors are one hundred percent gardener or vice versa, although most do tend to lean one way or the other. Personally, I think Lewis wrote in a healthy combination of both styles, although it does seem that his early work in Narnia involved more gardening than architecture.
Tolkien seemed to save his keenest insight until the end of his essay, where he explains the concept of the much beloved Eucatastrophe, “the good (eu) catastrophe,” which Tolkien describes as:
… the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ … is not ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.
Throughout his essay, Tolkien concerns himself with the everlasting question “Is it true?” Tolkien answers in two parts, the first we have already seen: “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world … But” Tolkien continues “in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater – it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”
Tolkien knows the best fantasy always points to a deeper truth, a fairy-tale that quite fantastically took place in the primary world. Tolkien acknowledged the Gospels are filled with “many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving.” But the chief marvel in the Gospels is the Great Eucatastrophe, the sudden, joyous turn that shocked the foundations of the world and turned history upon its head. “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”
Christians know intimately the joy of discovering that this wondrous fairy-tale is primary truth, the King revealing the truth of his birth, death and resurrection to humanity as the sky reveals itself to be blue. Tolkien notes, “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find is true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.” This is because the Gospels have the ring of primary truth about them – they are Creation, not sub-creation.
Fantasy deserves a place among the great artistic endeavors of men, next to high tragedy, poetry, and drama, because of its connection to the climax of human history. This is also the reason why Fantasy has not only endured but grown into the massive genre it is today. Our culture finds joy in Fantasy, unknowingly yearning after the Great Eucatastrophe by enjoying smaller eucatastrophes in games, books, and movies.
This all may be familiar to readers of Mere Orthodoxy, particularly Catholic and Reformed Christians well-acquainted with the witness and legacy of Tolkien and his eucatastrophe. Weaving a Lord of the Rings illustration into a sermon is a rite-of-passage in modern Christendom.
But it seems to me that a question remains unanswered: in light of both the modern popularity of fantasy and the fact that eucatastrophe is fantasy’s highest function as Tolkien argues, does the fantasy genre as it exists today still fulfill its highest function in eucatastrophe?
Curiously, the answer is yes and no and none of the above. In order to unpack the question briefly, let’s examine three of the most prominent and best-selling authors writing in the genre today: George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss, all three of which routinely hit the New York Times Bestseller list. Each is doing something representative of a larger trend within the genre that we need to pay attention to.
George R. R. Martin, it could easily be argued, is the face of the modern genre. In addition to his series having the most mainstream influence of any other epic fantasy, due to HBO’s TV adaption, Martin is also one of the only fantasy authors who regularly appears on Late-Night talk shows. When Stephen Colbert is fine with booking a 70-year-old, grizzled, bearded fantasy author, it’s safe to assume that Martin has some cultural weight to throw around.
Clearly, Martin has touched something within the zeitgeist that resonates with people. One cannot deny the skill with which he has crafted The Song of Ice and Fire. His expert worldbuilding (the modern term for sub-creation) is on full display throughout the novels, with their intricate cultures, religions, and political factions. In fact, Martin’s worldbuilding is one area where I believe Tolkien would be impressed – although the story and themes would likely leave Tolkien nonplussed. It is obviously conjecture to guess at what Tolkien would think of any modern piece of fiction, however we can think in terms of whether or not Martin is fulfilling fantasy’s highest function according to Tolkien.
Martin’s Game of Thrones (GoT) is famously morally ambiguous. The bad guys sometimes do good things, and the good guys often do bad things – which is assuming that the characters in GoT can be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Many of Martin’s characters shun those labels, which is the point. Martin took inspiration from the historical middle ages, wanting to create a fictional world that mirrored real life, which contains random and chaotic violence and death. Characters who hold to some kind of moral code are quickly trampled, and the characters who are devilishly Machiavellian make progress towards their goals. Add to all this a generous dose of unpredictable fate, no character is safe from taking a crossbow bolt through the gut at any moment.
Even though fans of the series are eagerly awaiting the final installments of the series, not many of them are anticipating a “sudden, joyous turn.” Instead, fans look forward with grim fascination to seeing who will be left alive at the end. This is not to say that GoT holds no merits. Like I previously stated, the worldbuilding is superb and the story is obviously well crafted. However, we can conclude that GoT fails to fulfill fantasy’s highest function. It reflects a secular version of the world, not the Creator’s primary world. Its popularity is partly due to the fact that modern audiences readily accept a worldview that is devoid of hope, identifying with it even as they are disturbed by it. Its unpredictability is a parlor trick that is cool because it is shocking, not because it is reflecting any deeper truth. And shocking things are boring in the end. I lived in Paris for a year, and after one visit to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” I had seen it. But I must have visited Monet’s “Water Lilies” more than a dozen times throughout the year. There are plenty of folks rereading The Lord of the Rings every few years. It would be interesting to see if Game of Thrones passes Lewis and Tolkien’s infamous “rereading” test.
Against the backdrop of Martin is Brandon Sanderson, who wrote thirteen complete novels before one was picked up by a publisher. He started writing his first novel during his two-year mission with the Mormon church, a faith he still claims. Interestingly, after being rejected multiple times, his feedback was to try and be more like George R. R. Martin. Publishers saw the success of GoT and concluded that the public’s fantasy literature appetite had turned to the gritty, MA fare of Martin. Sanderson tried to follow their advice, and wrote the two worst novels he had ever written – grim-dark was not a natural fit for him. So Sanderson stuck to his strengths: putting a genuinely good person in a terrible situation and letting that character struggle their way out of it. Unsurprisingly, there was a market for Sanderson, who has published twenty-seven novels since 2006 (depending on how you count them) and consistently ranks in the top forty most popular authors on Amazon.
Sanderson takes worldbuilding to another level—worlds within worlds. His life’s project is a series of interconnected fantasy series all taking place within the same shared universe called the “Cosmere.” Some of his novels take place in traditional medieval-type fantasy worlds, others take place on planets that have little in common with earth at all. His true genius lies in his magic-systems, creating complex yet wildly entertaining magics for his characters to play with. His Mistborn trilogy is a prominent example of his style, containing expert sub-creation, a wonderfully complex magic system, and, at the climax of the trilogy, one of purest eucatastrophe’s in fantasy literature.
Sanderson stands as a foil to Martin—a role he acknowledges himself: “I feel that I’m an intentional and specific contrast to other writers in the genre—I consider it my duty to prove that (like many of the classic movies) you can write something that is for adults, and has depth, without delving into grittiness.” Sanderson’s fantasy is fundamentally eucatastrophic. Neither are his stories cheap or contrived. They do not rely on a deus ex machina, instead he sub-creates his worlds so that the truth in them is believable and compelling. Sanderson is a clear example of someone writing in the tradition of Tolkien today.
Is there a third option? Enter Patrick Rothfuss, writer of the bestselling novel The Name of the Wind, and named by George R. R. Martin himself as the best fantasy writer from the last decade—stunning when you think about the names he could have mentioned: Gaiman, Rowling, King, etc.
Rothfuss grew up immersed in fantasy, with Lewis and Tolkien as early influences. But when it came time for Rothfuss to write his own novel, he had something more ambitious in mind: writing a high tragedy fantasy novel.
Rothfuss, like Sanderson and Martin, excels at worldbuilding. He has stated that worldbuilding is a hobby for him, something he enjoys doing as much as writing (he even runs a charity called Worldbuilders). What sets Rothfuss apart is that he uses his secondary world to tell a tragic tale, with a tragic hero as protagonist. Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, awaiting its third and final installment, will not have a happy ending.
Fantasy and Tragedy together are by no means an original idea, Hamlet’s ghost and Macbeth’s witches would have something to say on the matter first. Rothfuss’ genius is that he dives deeper, writing a story that is a meta-commentary on stories themselves. Rothfuss searches for deeper truths throughout his novel, exploring questions like: What is the place of stories within culture? How do stories shape us and what we believe? What is the role of the storyteller? Alongside Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories,” Rothfuss’ protagonist asks:
“Is it true? The story,” I made an inarticulate gesture. “The part you told today?”
“All stories are true,” Skarpi said. “But this one really happened, if that’s what you mean.”
Rothfuss is breaking the mold of “eucatastrophe vs. non-eucatastrophe,” and he deserves the recognition and praise he has received for his innovation. Even though he is not fulfilling Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe in the way Tolkien envisioned it, Rothfuss is still a servant of deeper truth. Tragedy is as much a part of the Gospel narrative as Fairy-Tale, and the modern genre of Epic Fantasy is rich enough and varied enough to tell those stories.
Rothfuss fulfills Tolkien’s vision for fantasy in a different way, however. Tolkien envisioned a broader culture that accepts fantasy literature as a legitimate vehicle for artistic expression, every bit as valid as classic literature. And while Rothfuss is still not mentioned in the same breath as DFW and Cormac McCarthy, he is getting closer to that realm than anyone else in the genre. Rothfuss is the golden boy of the golden age of fantasy, sailing into waters unknown and charting a course for other authors to follow in his wake.
As a fan of Epic Fantasy, I am thoroughly enjoying living in its golden age, and every new book, TV show, and movie with a dragon in it goes on my list. But sometimes I forget: there is a dragon in the bible. “A great fiery red dragon” (Rev. 12:3), a fire-breathing beast from the depths of the sea whose “snorting throws out flashes of light” (Job 41:18).
The fantasy lover in me adores this. The Holy Spirit, in his infinite and perfect wisdom, chose a dragon to communicate the evil and influence of Satan throughout history and in the last days. God wrote a dragon into his inspired word. There does not exist a more perfect mascot for the fantasy genre than a dragon, and there he is in Revelation 12, chasing a woman and fighting the Archangel Michael.
Reading fantasy literature helps me to take the dragon in Revelation seriously, because a dragon is never something to be trifled with. Reading fantasy dampens my modern impulse to demythologize an already unsatisfying world. Reading fantasy reminds me of the Great Eucatastrophe, as Tolkien eloquently puts it:
The Christian joy, the Gloria is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
As she puts her objection to the current rhetorical environment, “stories like [hers] are being perverted for political gain” by the President and by Senator Sasse. To counteract such (ostensibly) politically-motivated distortions, Gunter recounts her own experience in some detail. Her heartbreaking story is especially acute given that Gunter is herself an obstretician and gynecologist. (Or was, rather—she gave up obstretics because of the trauma she suffered.)
There’s no easy way to criticize such an intimate essay—but critical reflection is, I think, necessary. Gunter is right that the dispute over infanticide politicizes stories like her own, and she is right that the depiction of parents and doctors as ‘executioners’ distorts what is happening in such cases. (Whether we can escape such a possibility in arguing about euthanasia is a crucial question.)
Yet the irony is that in attempting to resist this politicization, Gunter reinforces it: her narrative has a point, and that point extends beyond exonerating doctors and parents in situations like hers from being charged with “executing children at birth.” Her own situation, she forcefully asserts, is not one the government “should insert itself into.” She wants to preserve as much latitude for parents and doctors—but latitude for what? Certainly Gunter’s own situation. But if her case escapes being an instance of ‘neonatal euthanasia,’ it’s possible to imagine almost identical cases that would count.
Here are the central details of Gunter’s account: She was pregnant with triplets. Her water broke at twenty-two weeks and three days, she went to the hospital. After consulting with a neonatologist, she learned that the “survival rate for male triplets at 22 weeks and three days was less than 1 percent.” She waited to give her boys names, boys “who seemed destined to die at birth.” Twenty-four hours later, she spontaneously gave birth to one of the boys while in the bathroom. Aidan was cared for by a nurse, while she was sedated in hopes that she would not lose her other two boys. As she puts it in a caveat, “ultimately, my other two sons survived.” Gunter and her partner had “decided that invasive procedures, like intraveneous lines and a breathing tube in a one-pound body would be pointless medical care.” And then she writes: “And so, as we planned, Aidan died.” She had only a day or so prepare for his death.
There are, though, some interesting gaps in the narrative that may bear on the nature of the choice that Gunter and her partner made to decline further medical treatment. As she puts it in a fascinating caveat, her other two sons “ultimately” survived. Presumably, they continued to gestate. She does not say, however, how long they lived inside of the womb before they were delivered—and whether they, too, needed the kind of medical care that Aiden was given. I raise this only because whether they were born immediately after Aiden—and I presume it was a matter of a week or weeks—would raise questions about what kind of probability of ‘success’ for nourishment, hydration, and the like Gunter thinks must be in place for treatment to not be ‘futile.’ If a less than 1% chance means care is futile (though one might reasonably challenge this in a neonatal context, as I would), is a 5% chance? A 25% chance? How long her other sons continued to gestate would significantly affect that probability.
That worry aside, it is easy to see how situations like Gunter’s are likely to increase as more couples pursue in vitro fertilization. The moral hazards that arise from premature birth in those cases—which may have been Gunter’s, or not—are considerable. Rates of twinning from IVF are considerably higher than in ordinary conception. If that happens, or if more than one embryo are transferred and implant, the dangers of pregnancy go up considerably as well.
That means, however, that people who only originally intended to conceive only one child will sometimes discover that they have multiple children. They may feel an aversion to selective abortion, because they don’t want to choose between individuals. But if premature labor occurs, these same individuals will be responsible for making decisions about whether hydration, nutrition, and the like are ‘futile’ or not. In such a context, the temptation to rationalize declining care will be considerable, especially if we think it licit to terminate a life (and not just a pregnancy) because it risks imposing ‘undue burdens’ upon a women’s psychological or emotional health.
It is especially pertinent and troubling, I think, that Gunter blurs the distinction between her own narrative of the tragic death of her premature son and third-trimester abortions: “Pregnancy terminations,” she writes, “at or after 24 weeks of gestation, the time largely accepted as viability, are typically performed because of severe fetal abnormalities combined with maternal health problems.” Pregnancy terminations, note—which in the context of such bills includes the termination of the individual being gestated, which is not at all Gunter’s case.
In fact, there’s nothing in Gunter’s account to suggest that any of the criteria she raises had any role to play in her own decision to decline treatment. If Gunter’s decision was licit—and it is probably impossible to conclude one way or the other on the basis of an op-ed—it was so only because of her reasons. Others who might decline treatment in related contexts might well do so for reasons that would, in effect, render the act euthanasia—an unjustified termination of an individual’s life.
It is just because of this ambiguity, and the likelihood of such situations increasing, that the government must be involved in delimiting policies that put pressures upon doctors to extend medical care to every infant who is born, regardless of whether they were conceived unintentionally or survived an intentional effort to terminate their life. Senator Sasse’s bill only enjoins medical care: it does not specify what that care must be, nor could it. It presumably allows for situations where a blanket and comfort is all that is offered, if the infant is in fact dying.
But it would allow these situations only by resetting the moral context in which those decisions are made; it would heighten the level of self-scrutiny for all involved and ensure that the attitudes and pressures at the heart of our throwaway culture do not allow us to effectively reduce those who are not dying to those who are, which permits us to effectively deny them care that they are owed. Gunter’s op-ed demonstrates, if anything, that the need for such protections on infant life is more urgent than ever.
In the latest edition of his newsletter “The Masculinist,” Aaron Renn dismissed complementarianism as a baby boomer phenomenon that will inevitably die with that generation. Much of the analysis is both interesting and correct, but it also misses a few key points that would help round out the argument and make the conclusion more satisfying.
Two Types of Complementarian
The first confusion in Renn’s piece is that it’s almost certainly mistaken to speak of a single complementarianism. Practically speaking, there are at least two different takes on the complementarian position, one that I see more regularly in Southern Baptist circles, which might be called a “maximalist” complementarianism, while the other, Renn’s “minimalist complementarianism,” is more common in PCA circles. Both have certain problems, but they are problems that run in very different directions.
Maximal complementarianism seeks to speak comprehensively about the roles of men and women in the world, working from both Scripture and nature to develop broad arguments about the ordering of the sexes in society.
To the extent that it actually succeeds in that work, it does well. But, of course, humans are not always very good at separating what is “natural” from what is merely “cultural,” and there are few places where that is more apparent than in the early maximalist complementarians. Indeed, their work has often been defined by a functional baptizing of post-war cultural norms as they related to gender.
In her essay in the seminal book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Dorothy Patterson writes, “keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife—even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors. In Titus 2:3-5, Paul admonishes the older women to teach the younger women, among other things, ‘to love their husbands and children… to be busy at home.”
Certainly the Scriptures describe women as keepers of the household. Patterson is correct there. But note the unjustified movement in her argument. Patterson automatically imports a distinctly modern, post-war understanding of what “workers at home” means into the text and rules out alternative readings without justification. After all, the text she cites from Paul never says anything that would require the wife to be the one who does the particular tasks that Patterson lists in the middle of that sandwich between her first observation and the citation from Titus.
Indeed, when the Bible does get more specific about what a woman’s work looks like, as it does in Proverbs 31, the result is domestic and that could include Patterson’s tasks, but it also sounds quite entrepreneurial and involves making major purchasing decisions, such as purchasing a piece of land.
Thinking historically, we could consider any number of examples—Abigail Adams, for example, clearly was not a modern careerist woman but neither was she the quiet housewife detached from worldly affairs that Patterson describes. She helped manage the family’s finances, amongst other things, and sold a number of things she made in the home to provide extra income. Similarly, we might consider the example of the remarkably learned Puritan woman Anne Bradstreet, who was doubtlessly devoted to her husband and family and their household and yet also fulfilled an obvious vocation she had to the written word, becoming the first published poet in North America in the process. Work in the world and work in the home are not so easily separated, it turns out.
Patterson’s selective use of texts continues later in the essay. Citing Genesis 2:15, she argues that it is the husband’s responsibility to provide for the family. Again, the text doesuse those words, but Patterson never bothers to prove that the text must be fulfilled in the fairly specific and ahistorical way she describes in the essay. There is an odd textual positivism that characterizes a great deal of this maximalist complementarianism in which it is assumed that arguments are proven by mere scriptural citation without ever bothering to move toward interpretation.
In the case of both the Genesis text and the Titus text, it is far from apparent that either text has in view the rigid separation of responsibilities that Patterson simply assumes throughout the essay with the man’s work taking place entirely outside the home in the employ of a business or corporation in order to bring in an income and the woman’s entirely within it and focused exclusively around the life of the home. There’s no reason whatever to think that the biblical texts anticipate the hard line between income-earning work and home life that has followed from the industrial revolution.
In pre-industrial contexts the lines between “work” more generally and “home” would have been far blurrier, such that both husband and wife are building up the household through shared labor. While you could often discern different roles within that shared work, even that is not the same thing as what Patterson envisions, which seems to be a wage-earning husband working outside the home and a wife doing unpaid work in the home managing the household while the husband is away.
Households of this sort, of course, have far more to do with the post-war social order in which Patterson grew up—as a baby boomer, it is worth noting—then it does any kind of clear scriptural endorsement. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that by divorcing a husband’s productive work from his life at home this social order and economy actually undermined a husband’s ability to provide for his family in the other ways that text no doubt has in view—through presence, through relational leadership, and so on. This, then, is the recurring problem with the maximalist wing of the complementarian movement—a persistent tendency to conflate the social order that these baby boomers knew as children with the natural order as defined in Scripture.
We should also note, before moving on, that this normalization of the post-war order often included the tacit normalization of the infidelity and misogyny that often marked post-war family life. Reports have come out in the past year showing serious abuse scandals in both fundamentalist baptist and SBC congregations as well as in Sovereign Grace Churches, all of which played off the cultural ideas about gender held in many of these churches.
Indeed, Dorothy Patterson’s husband Paige has been at the center of controversy due to his misogynistic public speech and credible accusations that he covered up sexual abuse allegations at seminaries where he worked as an administrator. While abuse can happen anywhere and can find any number of rationalizations—the covers given to the abuse by Harvey Weinstein or Theodore McCarrick are obviously wildly different—it would be a mistake to therefore conclude that there is no possible connection between the vision of gender held by these early complementarians, which often amounted to a silencing of women outside of designated social spheres, and the silencing of female victims of abuse.
In contrast to this, the second sort of complementarianism is closer to what Renn describes as biblical minimalism. The representative statement for this group is, as Renn noted, that “women can do anything in the church that non-ordained men can do.”
Generally speaking, this minimalism tends to be far more common in PCA circles, though I would not be surprised if we begin to see it more often in certain SBC circles as well as the rising generation moves into leadership roles. It is not hard to imagine the Gen X generation of SBC leaders, such as David Platt, Russell Moore, and J. D. Greear, all embracing this approach to gender roles and embracing it for reasons very similar to what we have already seen in the PCA.
Yet for all the reasonable concerns with biblical minimalism, on which more in a moment, Renn’s treatment of it is oddly one-sided. In his criticism of the minimalists, Renn never fully reckons with the various factors motivating the minimalism. Some of what drives this trend is, no doubt, the bad reasons he cites in his essay—a fearfulness about offending egalitarian sensibilities, an inner conflict about wanting to be progressive but feeling like Scripture won’t totally let you go there, and so on. Minimalism is a means by which people who can’t get past the Pauline texts can, nonetheless, maintain a certain degree of credibility in the world—or at least that is the idea.1 The result of such minimalism will likely be as Renn describes—a mass migration toward egalitarianism in future generations led by leaders who are not actually egalitarian themselves. Yet this is not the entire story of the minimalist move in reformed evangelicalism.
It is disappointing that Renn doesn’t attempt a more sympathetic account of minimalism, given that he explicitly cites Kathy Keller explaining the rationale for minimalism. Often these minimalists have evangelistic motivations informing their approach to these issues. In many cases, after all, the objections that the unchurched raise to Christian faith have far less to do with what is actually in the Bible and more to do with the practices and claims of Christians that those outside the church have overheard or been taught without any reference to scripture.
This concern provides the context for Keller’s comment: “I do know that in New York City (or any educated and highly secular environment), any practice that we cannot defend biblically is not an option. So the corollary of not ordaining women is to make sure that every role legitimately open to unordained men and women is filled with women as well as men.”
It’s worth taking the time to unpack that line a bit more. Let’s begin with the obvious: Why is Keller saying that? Well, the starting point is that “most of Christianity looks insane to your typical New Yorker.” This raises an obvious missiological problem: How do you make Christianity seem like a live option for New Yorkers, something they could embrace without committing intellectual or existential suicide? In short, how do you think like a missionary in a place like New York?
That question is itself no different than the question any missionary has to ask themselves when arriving in a new missions field. The way that many Christians in New York have answered it as it concerns their work in the city is to begin by defusing some of the false ideas about Christianity and by establishing that the Bible can be a valid source of knowledge and moral teaching. Having done that, you now possess a foundation for constructing moral arguments that would, apart from that foundation, get laughed out of the room.
A second factor in the rise of this minimalism is the need to correct for abuse that often took place in maximalist churches as already mentioned. The minimalists quite reasonably want to correct the excesses that led to the abuse while still upholding the clear teachings of Scripture with regard to gender and church leadership.
The first time I ever heard someone say “a woman can do anything in the church a non-ordained man can,” was while I was in RUF when the campus pastor used that line in discussing gender issues with a discussion group he hosted on Sunday nights. Why did he say that? Because a woman in RUF who had grown up in a deeply abusive church that treated women deplorably was asking the question. This young woman was a gifted musician keen to develop a gift that she believed God had given her and she had grown up in a church that often discouraged women from attending college and simply counseled them to exist in a holding pattern until they got married and started having babies.
These women were not simply being told they could not do things Scripture does rule out for them—serving as pastors, for example—but were being warned against pursuing any kind of non-domestic work or vocation or, often, even cultivating basic competencies in fields that interest them. For many women this creates a painful internal conflict between a longing for good work and a desire to follow Christ. If no one can demonstrate to them that this choice is a false one, then they will choose one of the two options, either of which is likely to end disastrously.
The False Choice: Maximalism and Minimalism
The difficulty we’re left with, then, is a gap between the maximalism of those who would attempt to baptize every imaginable gender-based restriction common in recent western culture via appeals to nature or dubious interpretations of Scripture and the minimalism of some complementarians which can lead to the problems Renn described.
Complementarian maximalism assumes a particular type of world in which the nature of reality calls forth particular responses that are gendered in mostly predictable ways. The problem is that these complementarians often conflated what Dutch Reformed theologian Al Wolters referred to as “structure” and “direction.” The natural order and what humans make as they live in the world are not the same thing, though the latter can be a faithful flowering out of the former.
But, of course, to determine if our direction is in agreement with the structure of the world we have to actually ask that question and think carefully about it rather than contenting ourselves with uncritical assumptions and lazy proof texting. The old maximalists assumed a world in which husbands can reliably find jobs that allow their families to live on a single salary, a world in which women have thick local community, enjoyable domestic work to do, and the competence to do it, such that they can stay home and keep house without being crushed by feelings of isolation and feeling badly overwhelmed by all the work they are expected to do with fairly limited resources. It also presupposes an array of social norms and practices and institutions that implicitly facilitate such a way of life for families by providing a family wage for workers and valuing the home as a cultural institution and place of life and beauty.
This order is basically gone from contemporary America. Indeed, even in the years after World War II the extent to which this order existed is up for debate. And yet absent such a regime, men will often “fail” to provide for their families through no fault of their own and women will often be isolated and asked to attempt the difficult work of managing a house and raising children largely on their own. It is no surprise that such maximalism has failed to gain an audience with younger Christians, to say nothing of those outside the church.
Complementarian minimalism, meanwhile, assumes a different sort of world. The maximalists are mostly operating out of a 1950s paradigm; the minimalists, on the other hand, are working out of a post-sexual revolution capitalist paradigm, which is to say they are working in a cultural context that seeks to erase gendered norms and to make gender and sexual identity into a purely volitional choice, all of which facilitates a high-degree of individual freedom most often expressed through actions that take place in markets.
Minimalism reduces (or at least can reduce) the biblical teachings on gender to a set of positive laws that exist within an otherwise formless space that will be shaped by the free action of those individual people living in the space. It defines the biblical teachings in much the same way that a young business might define its employee code of conduct—mostly there is freedom to do what makes sense save in a narrowly defined range of gestures and behaviors which are addressed by positively stated laws. Put another way, it makes Christian teachings about gender into an employee manual for individual people that is intended to preserve a certain openness in which there is freedom to act largely according to individual preference while still maintaining some structure and form in our identity as men and women.
As it pertains to missiology, this is the trade-off being made: Christian faith is adopting the familiar garb of early 21st century liberal democracy, with a few carveouts, in order to appear more plausible to early 21st century liberal democrats.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, indeed, a very normal movement in the history of Christian missions. As far back as William Carey and Hudson Taylor Christian missionaries have selectively adopted aspects of the culture they seek to reach in order to build trust and establish relationship. That is all the minimalist move is designed to do. What’s more, the minimalists have faced the challenge of dealing with a generation of burnouts who have seen, sometimes on a regular basis, the abuses and excesses that routinely followed from maximalist forms of complementarianism.
Given these conditions, we should, if anything, be grateful that they have managed to effectively evangelize a rising generation without caving on biblical teachings. The minimalists, after all, did not ask to be tasked with evangelizing a group of people catechized in expressive individualism and deeply suspicious of Christian teachings on gender due to real abuses in evangelical churches that they had witnessed themselves or heard about from trusted friends.
Even so, the dangers of minimalism are real and Renn is not wrong to flag them. But the challenge is to identify a way of speaking about gender that is bolder than the minimalist paradigm and actually speaks to people in the totality of their existence rather than in an artificially narrow church-and-family context outside of which biblical texts regarding gender seem to have no purchase. This task actually takes us closer to the spirit of what Paul says in the New Testament where he is consistently linking norms about gender to nature rather than simply appealing to them as some form of divine positive law.
Hannah Anderson on Nature
In his work on theological ethics The Divine Imperative the German reformed theologian Emil Brunner speaks of how the Sermon on the Mount transforms our understanding of the law. Christ’s words about murder and lust show that the law is not simply a list of positive rules that each exist as discrete entities meant to target very specific behaviors. Rather,
(The sermon on the mount) is meant to show us that even the individual commandment is not something finite, limited, but something infinite, unlimited, that each commandment contains the whole, one, indivisible will of God, the one indivisible commandment of love. This exposition of the commandments also destroys the atomistic view of morality by demonstrating the inner infinity which resides in each ‘atom,’ each individual commandment. It means this: that each commandment requires us to give ourselves wholly to God and wholly to our neighbor.
These moral norms defined in Scripture shouldn’t be understood as impersonal laws or rules; they are, rather, descriptions of reality and, by extension, descriptions of the will of the God who formed reality and breathed life into man.
The moral law, you might say, is a context, it’s a space indwelt by the people of God who give themselves to the way of life described in Scripture. And evil, a rejection of God’s law, is similarly not a positively defined set of behaviors, but is rather the negation of being, of goodness. It is, ultimately, nothing. Thus there is a relationality in creation. Man does not simply exist in a void and adhere to specific rules. He enters into the life of God by faith and participates in the natural life of the world as God made it.
This means that both the maximalists and minimalists err. The maximalist error is to assume a radical separation of a man’s work and a woman’s work, such that the man’s work is chiefly oriented toward providing money and is done outside the house while the woman’s is ordered toward the making of a home and is done inside the house. It assumes, in other words, the essentially compartmentalized world of late modernity in which home is sundered from work and love and vocation are, similarly, kept apart.
In this understanding, marriage is virtually the only place where the worlds of men and women intersect and even in marriage they only really intersect in the marital embrace itself—even the bearing and raising of children is, functionally speaking, largely in the woman’s hands for the simple reason that she is the one who actually births the children and is at home with them.
Yet the minimalists err by failing to sufficiently reckon with the way that nature itself assumes certain things as normal and good such that the scriptural teachings cannot be boiled down to some sort of minimal essence constrained to ordained office in the church and some vague, undefined sense in which wives submit to their husbands as described by Paul. In both cases, the complementarians fail to reckon with what Wendell Berry calls “the great coherence,” the natural order which obliges both men and women to shared though distinct action that contributes to the preservation of that order and realization of the goods implicit in its design.
The challenge before us is how we articulate this reality, how we exist within this “inner infinity,” as it pertains to sex and gender. It is this point that explains why the work of Hannah Anderson is so particularly helpful.
Anderson’s latest book, All That’s Good could well be treated as the capstone of a trilogy of works dealing with the question of how humans can live happy, contented lives that honor God in the world as God has made it. The first book, Made for More, begins the series by raising questions about gender roles that broadly overlap with the issues raised above. Anderson argues that we have been too quick to ask about the specific responsibilities of men and women and have thus glossed over the more basic question of what responsibilities all people have as bearers of the divine image living in God’s world. This expanding of common Christian questions in ways that attend more closely to nature and invite creative answers defined by a theological imagination are trademarks of Anderson’s work.
The second book, Humble Roots, which is one of the best books on humility I’ve ever read, exalts in the simple pleasures and virtues of small places, weaving together themes of natural life in rural Virginia with the virtues of Christian piety. This latest work now turns to the question of discernment which is another way of saying it turns to the question of how we can know the good from the bad, how we can evaluate competing claims in the world and select what is good.
Discernment, Anderson says, “simply means developing a taste for what’s good. It’s developing an instinct for quality, a refined sensibility, an eye for value—to know the difference between what’s good and what’s not in order to partake of the good…. In this sense, cultivating the art of discernment is as much about cultivating the individual as anything else.” This work of discernment is vital because, as she notes later, “our life on earth, all the things we experience, all the work we do, all the good things we enjoy, aren’t simply a hurdle to the next life. They are designed by God to lead us to the next life.”
This is the moral context in which Scripture speaks. The moral universe of the divine law is not a set of stand-alone commands which we ought to follow if we wish to enter the Good Place after we die. The world described in the moral law, rather, is reality itself and when we indwell that universe, however falteringly,..