Are we living through another "Reformation Era"?

If you've studied (as I have) Church history, you know that the era of the Reformation, which spanned the 16th Century, was not exactly a peaceful or happy time, though it did bring with it many opportunities.

Historian Niall Ferguson shows that the disruption of the public square caused by the advent of the internet has a close analogue in the disruption that was caused by the printing press, and we are now living with similar consequences.

Of course, one of the consequences of that disruption in the 16th Century was long, massive, and continent-wide warfare.  Let us learn the lessons of history and work and pray for peace.

Labels: , , ,


Psalm Study video #11: Psalm 119

Some thoughts and comments on Meditating on God's word as described in Psalm 119, the "granddaddy of them all."

Labels: ,


Jonathan Haidt explains why everything is crazy now...

Ok, not exactly, but kind of.

Haidt is a Social Psychologist and he is discussing some of the same trends that have alarmed conservative commentators, though Haidt himself comes from the Left.

I've featured him in another recent post, and he is the co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are setting up a Generation for Failure.

While I certainly have some political and philosophical disagreements with Dr. Haidt, I've added him to my list of "YouTube Intellectuals" that I'm following, and I think the over-arching point that he makes in this video is critically important.


Labels: , , ,

Last Sunday's Message on the Mustard Seed

Forgot to post this at the beginning of the week, but here is the whole service from this past Sunday.  Bible readings are Matthew 13 and Romans 8.

Labels: , ,


Psalms Study Video #10

A look at Prayers for Help in the Book of Psalms.

Read ahead:
Psalm 61, Psalm 70, and Psalm 86

Labels: , ,


A Christian Response to "Cancel Culture"

One thing that has been nice about YouTube is that I've found Christian voices from all over the Church - Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Wesleyan, Evangelical, Reformed/Presbyterian - that have some really good things to say about living our faith in these times.  The primary voice from the Lutheran Tradition that I've been listening to is Dr. Jordan Cooper, a confessional Lutheran with an interest in Systematic and Scholastic theology.

Cooper is always thoughtful and articulate so I've both enjoyed an profited from his videos.  Here is is video in response to the "cancelling of J.K. Rowling" and "cancel culture" in general.

For those who are unfamiliar with this controversy, Rowling has drawn the ire of Progressives, and been labeled a bigot for asserting that a man is not a woman and that freedom of speech is a good idea; some authors have even refused to work with the Publishing company that handles her works. 

Labels: , , , ,


Sunday's Message: Creation is Groaning

My message from this past Sunday on Romans 8 and Matthew 13.  God bless you!

Labels: , ,


Psalms Study Video #9

Nature & Creation spirituality in the Psalms.

Labels: , , ,


Promoting Viewpoint Diversity at the University

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business.  He is another "YouTube intellectual" I've been following a bit lately.

He has been a prominent voice (and one from the political left, I might add) calling for reform at our universities that are increasingly homogeneous in terms of political perspective or ideology.  He is (rightly) concerned that efforts to stifle free expression of ideas and shield students from any and all viewpoints that might be upsetting leads inevitably to a loss of intellectual rigor, both among faculty and students.

If controversial (often simply another word for "conservative") speakers are banned or shouted down when they attempt to share their perspectives on campus, this means that students and faculty never "do business" with their ideas, never examine the claims, never evaluate the evidence. 
Far from protecting the students, this intellectual sheltering can only leave them less prepared to evaluate the many new or challenging ideas that they will encounter for the rest of their lives upon leaving the university.

He also shares about the work he and colleagues are doing at https://heterodoxacademy.org/ to bring about reform and also rank schools according to their openness to free inquiry and the free debate of ideas. 

Labels: , , , ,


Psalms Study Video #8

The next video shows how the Gospel of Salvation is shown forth in the Psalms, using John Wesley's "Way of Salvation" to explain how it works:

Labels: , , , ,


Sunday's Message: Got Fruit?


N.T. Wright on Undermining Racism

Christianity has a unique contribution to make in combating racist attitudes; indeed it is not for no reason that the very concept of combating racism itself emerged in Western cultures that have historically dominated by Christianity.

Here is a video from theologian and retired Anglican bishop N.T. Wright addressing this issue:

Labels: , , ,


Psalms Study Video #7

Here is the next video studying the Book of Psalms.  In this video: Songs of Thanksgiving.

Labels: , , ,


Message for Independence Day Weekend

Here is my Sermon for Independence Day Weekend, July 5, 2020.  I'm continuing to follow (albeit somewhat loosely) the Lectionary through The Gospel according to Matthew and The Letter to the Romans.

Labels: ,


One Nation under God...?

"One Nation, Under God..."
Why is that phrase in our pledge of allegiance so important?  Why do some want to remove it?

There are many reasons, but one is this: "Under God" stands as a constant reminder that human beings and human government are not the highest authority.  The power of the State cannot demand our very highest allegiance, because there is a higher power still.

In a world where the State has often made itself into an idol - from Ancient Rome to Modern Communist states - the claim that there is a higher Power that is the Ultimate source of Justice serves as a continual check against the tendency of the state or those in power to grasp more than is right.

Go back and read the Declaration of Independence.  The very logic of it runs like this: God is the highest Power and the Highest source of Justice.  Insofar as the King and Parliament of Great Britain have acted contrary to God's design, by trampling our God-given rights, then the King and Parliament really are in the Wrong.  That is what makes our Declaration of Independence from them a legitimate and justified act.

We were appealing to the Justice of God over against the injustice of our human rulers.  That is of course why the Colonists had flags that said things like "An Appeal to Heaven" on them.
That is also why governments and people in authority - especially those who have turned their own power into an idol - will often try to either hijack the Church (as the Nazis did, putting swastikas on the altars in German churches) or they will try to destroy the Church altogether (as the Communists have attempted to do for over a century now wherever they've come to power) - because the Church's confession that "Jesus is Lord" will always bring with it the corollary "and therefore the State is not..."

Below is a remarkable video from Bishop Barron discussing just this topic:

Labels: , , ,


Psalms Study Video #6

Here is the next video in the Study on the Book of Psalms.  This covers the Psalms of Lament (and Cursing Psalms):

Labels: , , ,


Sunday's Message: Dying to Live


Jordan Peterson on the power of Ideology to bring Hell on Earth

Like millions others around the world, I've engaging with the thought of Jordan Peterson in recent years and profited from doing so.

While we do have some philosophical differences, I think Peterson's critique of Ideology-based censorship (sometimes colloquially referred to as "political correctness") and his critique of Intersectional Ideology (also known as Critical Theory, Cultural Marxism, Intersectional Feminism, Grievance Studies, Liberation Theology, Politics of Emancipation, Social Justice Ideology and so on) is extremely timely, important, and perhaps even Prophetic in this particular cultural moment.

I also respect his unswerving commitment to remain civil with his debate opponents, who are not always so civil with him.

So here is a video that describes how radical ideologies, when they become all-consuming (or, as we Christians would say, when they become "idols") also become murderous and deeply de-humanizing.  We need only pay attention to history (so difficult to do in our distracted age) to see that this is in fact the case: 

Labels: , , , ,


Psalms Study Video #5

Here is the Bible Study video discussing the Penitential Psalms (Psalms of Confession).

Labels: , , ,


Fathers' Day Message: A Tale of Two Fathers


Why the Liturgy is not a matter of personal preference

One "YouTube intellectual" that I've been watching for the last couple of years is a Roman Catholic layman named Brian Holdsworth.

He seeks to explain and defend basic Christian beliefs and practices, and is particularly geared toward "the internet generation."

Much of his content has to do with specifically Roman Catholic questions, but many of his points and arguments could just as easily be echoed by orthodox and Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and other Protestants as well.

This excellent video covers some of the same ground as a blog post I wrote years ago called "The Liturgy questions us: What is 'relevant' anyways?"

The Liturgy means "the work of the people" or "the public service" and is used to describe what Christians classically have done when we gather together for worship.

The liturgy typically includes things like reading Scripture and celebrating Holy Communion with the Great Thanksgiving Prayer.  It typically includes things like the Creeds, the Doxology, the Lord's Prayer, and the closing blessing or Benediction.

Yet in recent years there has been a tendency in many historic denominations to downplay the importance of, or jettison altogether, some of these historic liturgical practices in order to produce a worship experience that is more "seeker-sensitive" and which feels more "relevant."

What this often results in is a truncated liturgy that consists of singing a few songs modeled on contemporary pop music, and then a very practical, sometimes "self-help" oriented" message, based upon a few sentences of Scripture, rather than a sustained reading of one or more longer passages.

Yet there are theological problems with reconstructing the liturgy based upon the cultural fads of the moment (which is usually what is meant by "relevant").  One of the problems with building the service around our own preferences, (as Holdsworth points out) is that, to the extent that what we do expresses only personal or local preferences (or the preferences of the current cultural moment), then our worship ceases to be something that we hold in common with other Christians; it ceases to be "catholic" in the sense of being something that we share in common with a world-wide community of believers.

I've thought about this in terms of music when doing nursing home services.  Christians in nursing homes, coming from all manner of different denominations, all nevertheless treasure many of the same old hymns.  These hymns represent a worship experience that was held in common across denominational lines.

Since many of our churches now follow a "top 40" style of music, where the songs we sing this year will be displaced by newer songs next year, and those in turn will be displaced by still others the year after that, I do wonder whether my generation will share many "songs of faith" in common when it comes time for us to be in the nursing homes.

All that is not to say that I oppose new music; I actually love new music, and every "old hymn" you can think of was once a brand new song that nobody knew; but I think new music and other worship practices should be integrated into a larger worship tradition that is held in common, and remains constantly recognizable across the generations, even as new elements are added in.

Those are a few thoughts and ideas to introduce this video:

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Psalms Study Video #4

Here is video number 4, covering Psalms 3-5 as daily Morning and Evening Prayers.

Labels: , , ,


Sunday's Message on Compassion in divided times


Dice and the probability that God is real

There are plenty of different kinds of evidence that God is real.
I remember being struck as a child by philosopher's question: "Why is there something, rather than nothing?"

There are philosophical arguments that God is real, there are historical prophecies fulfilled, there are various kinds of personal experiences and encounters, there are moral truths that we humans cannot quite shake, but which point to a transcendent Standard of Right and Justice.  None of these are, in my view, totally "open and shut" cases that no one could doubt.  But when you add them all together they make a strong case.

Another kind of evidence for God's existence has emerged as science has taught us more about the structure of the Universe (yes, science can actually support our faith in God); we now see that our Universe seems to be perfectly fine-tuned to allow for the emergence of life.  It is a new form of the old question: Why is it thus?  What are the odds that the Universe would be just so?


Labels: ,


Psalms Study Video #3

Here is video #3 on the Psalms Bible Study, Psalm 22 for Good Friday.

Labels: , ,


Psalms Study Video #2

Here is Lesson 2 on the Book of Psalms:

Labels: , ,


Ravi Zacharias on John Wesley

Some of you may have heard just a couple weeks ago that the great evangelical Christian teacher Ravi Zacharias passed away.  Zacharias was a world-renowned and brilliant apologist and defender of the Christian faith.  He made it his life's mission to demonstrate to the world that the Christian faith was true.  Here is a video of Zacharias talking about one of my patron saints, John Wesley.

Thanks be to God for the work and ministry of both of these truly great men.

Labels: , , , ,


Psalms Study Video #1

I've got a 12-part video Bible Study series looking at the Book of Psalms now available on YouTube.  I'll also be releasing those videos here.

Labels: ,


Sunday's Message

OK everyone, I have mostly shifted my content to my YouTube Channel, which is just called "Daniel Hixon."
I will be sharing those videos on this blog as well.

Here is the Sunday message from yesterday.  You can see other videos HERE.

Labels: ,


New Video Series: Episode 1

I've been watching a number of pastors, theologians, and thinkers in other fields on YouTube for the last couple of years, and decided to try my hand at short topical videos pondering the 'big ideas' in theology, culture, philosophy, politics, etc.

Here is my first video; the second one is already on YouTube, but I want to try to figure out how to get a better camera resolution before I make a third one...

Labels: , , , ,


What is "Cultural Marxism"?

Many of the "internet intellectuals" I've been paying attention to in recent years - like Bishop Robert Barron or Jordan Peterson or Dave Rubin - have frequently spoken of "Cultural Marxism" as one of the sources of the conflict in our politics and public discourse.

Moves to limit free speech or prevent conservative speakers from sharing their ideas or to create "safe spaces" on college campuses are all related to Cultural Marxism.  So are "diversity quotas" in hiring or university admissions, such as those at Harvard that have recently been challenged by Asian families in a lawsuit.  Even the moves by some schools or children's sports teams to give out "participation trophies" or promote games in which "everyone wins", so that there will be an equality of outcome for all participants is related to Cultural Marxism.

Sometimes people refer to Cultural Marxism, or to its effects, with other related terms you may have heard, such as "Identity Politics," "Intersectional Feminism," or even "Political Correctness."

When I first ran across the term "Cultural Marxism," I was a bit perplexed.  I initially suspected that this was merely a way that conservatives were labeling and dismissing their debate opponents in much the same way that people on the Left routinely call those who disagree with them "fascists."

Yet a little research showed that the term "Cultural Marxism" actually has far more substance than a mere 'ad hominem' or name-calling attack.

Karl Marx saw all of human history as a class struggle between those who owned the means of production and those poor folks who worked for them.  The wealthy were the oppressors and the poor workers were the oppressed.

Marx saw the need for a workers' Revolution that would bring about a new kind of government and society, in which such inequalities were abolished.  Marx's idea unleashed the sad history of Socialism & Communism and has (so far) led to some 100 million violent deaths.
It is simply a matter of historical fact (for those who study history) that in every country that Socialism has been tried there has been not only massive political repression, but also economic devastation as well.

Cultural Marxism takes at least 2 fundamental ideas from Marx, but applies them to areas beyond economic class struggle.
1) First is the idea that history is the story of oppressors (those with "privilege") mistreating oppressed peoples; while Marx saw these dynamics in exclusively economic terms, Cultural Marxism sees this struggle not only in economic terms, but also in terms of race, gender, religious & national distinctions and so on.

2) The other major idea taken from Marx is that a new kind of government or society is needed that will force 'equality of outcome' upon everyone, in order to rectify historic inequalities.

For this reason Cultural Marxists identify "oppressed groups" who need to be "empowered" or "emancipated" through non-discrimination laws, diversity quotas, and so on.  These oppressed groups take on a kind of "favored" status, which leads to that sort of Political Correctness culture that has taken hold in many Universities and which (polls show) large majorities of Americans (even Democrats) actually find odious.

In theological schools and seminaries Cultural Marxism shows up in various forms of Liberation Theology.

The video below does a great job explaining what Cultural Marxism is, and why it matters.  Below that I'll note some of the fundamental issues that I see with Cultural Marxism.

First, I'll note that I think this video makes an interesting point that Marxism, and cultural Marxism as well, could only have developed (and did in fact develop) within a largely Christian-ized society.

It is Christianity that has taught us that we ought to look after the "widow and the orphan", the weak and the marginalized.  This is one of the things that makes Christianity and its vision of Justice morally beautiful.

Yet one big problem with cultural Marxism is that (like Marx himself) it lumps everyone into identity groups based on characteristics such as race or gender or class, without any regard for the individual differences between one person and another: differences in their choices, their character, or their life experiences.

Thus, while Martin Luther King Jr. longed for a day when his children would be judged, "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," Cultural Marxism does the exact reverse: it judges people on the basis of their race or gender.  It is a sad irony that in the name of "justice" and "inclusion" Cultural Marxism actually perpetuates racial and gender stereotyping and even discrimination (or "reverse discrimination").

It therefore runs directly counter to the best traditions of the American Republic, which seeks to treat each individual on the basis of his or her own merits, rather than what family or group he or she came from.

So, while the Cultural Marxist would look at the parable of the Good Samaritan and tell us that the most important thing is that the Samaritan is a marginalized outsider, Jesus' point is almost precisely the reverse: it does not matter that the Samaritan is a Samaritan or that the Jews were Jews, the important thing is that this individual chose to show compassion, while the other individuals chose to ignore the (Jewish) man in distress.  If we (like Jesus' original hearers) had judged the situation only based upon tribal identities we would have expected the story to go quite differently.  That is Jesus' point: their tribal identities are not what matter in this story, but their individual choices.  To echo MLK, the "content of their character" is what counts.

Here is another way that Cultural Marxism also runs counter to the Christian message.  While Cultural Marxism says that our identity and our place in society is determined by our race or gender or class, Christianity explicitly says that all of these divisions are secondary, and all are superseded and re-defined based on our relationship to God through Jesus Christ.  That relationship to Christ is now the defining characteristic of our identity.  This means that among Christian brothers and sisters racial and class and gender distinctions, while they still exist, they can no longer be a source of division between us (see Galatians 3:28).  Yet cultural Marxism divides people into precisely these tribal groups and tells them that they are ipso facto in conflict and competition with one another.

And, while it is great at identifying real injustices, this ideology of Cultural Marxism has no narrative of Redemption and holds out little hope of reconciliation.  If you were born into a privileged and oppressive group, that is simply who you will always be.

The more I pay attention, I am increasingly convinced that this ideology is both pervasive and extremely dangerous.  It is dangerous because - just like economic Marxism - it is Utopian.  It holds that with just the right application of coercion, a truly just and equal society can be formed and maintained.
Like all Utopian visions, it fails to account for the reality of Original Sin and Man's fallen nature which are one reason why Marxism has never actually worked in practice, and never can.  

Furthermore, while both Scripture and the US Declaration of Independence affirm that all people are of equal moral worth as God's own creatures, yet clearly not all people are equally skilled, intelligent, diligent, attractive, or lucky, etc. (this is what the Communist party official realizes at the end of the great war movie Enemy at the Gates).  If people are allowed to make free choices and pursue their own goals and live their own lives without interference, then equality of outcome is most certainly not what will occur.  The only way to enforce equality, then, is to take away freedom from some in order to 'level the playing field' for others.  Yet such a regime would clearly be massively repressive and unjust, and would necessarily be Totalitarian.

In a time when many prominent politicians and "movers and shakers" in our culture seem to have embraced some aspects of this ideology, all lovers of freedom must be vigilant indeed and remember the old saying: "The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

Happy Independence Day!

Labels: , , , ,


Does Protestantism contribute to Western Civilization?

St Paul's (Anglican) Cathedral, London

I follow a few Roman Catholic bloggers, thinkers, and video bloggers.  As fellow Christians we have a great many shared interests morally, spiritually, politically, and culturally: we proclaim the same Risen Christ, read the same New Testament, recite the same Creeds, worship on the same Holy Days (and even sing some of the same hymns), advocate for the same moral values.  Despite the fact that we have some different understandings of the church, spiritual authority, and how our relationship to God 'works', we nevertheless share a great deal of common interest and concern.
In fact, I would say that Roman Catholics more than either Evangelical or Historic Protestants are really on the forefront of thinking through how to revitalize and preserve Western Civilization.

This is a good thing because (despite the naysayers in some quarters of our culture), while every civilization has its evils (including the West), nevertheless Western Civilization has done more to promote goodness, freedom, truth, reason and mercy than any other human movement in History, and I'm very proud to be a product and heir of it.

Western Civilization is inescapably bound up with Christianity, so much so that Winston Churchill quite happily called it "Christian Civilization".  Inspired by the Christian message, the artistic and spiritual achievements of Western Civilization are simply staggering.

But what I've noticed is that you'll sometimes hear Roman Catholic thinkers say something along the lines of "When I say Western or Christian civilization, I am essentially talking about Roman Catholic Civilization, because the two are the same thing..."  Indeed, a few would even point to the iconoclastic tendencies of some forms of Protestantism (i.e. Puritanism), to argue that Protestantism as a whole has been a corrosive influence on Western Civilization, rather than really a contributor to it.

But clearly it is a mistake to equate Western Civilization with the Roman Catholic Church or its members' contributions.  For one thing, a major contributor to Western Civilization is without doubt the pre-Christian Grecco-Roman heritage.  The art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and legal traditions of Athens and Rome are absolutely essential to Western Civilization, and yet none of these were originally created by Roman Catholics.  Yet what would Western Civilization be without Homer or Plato or Aristotle or Virgil or Cicero?

Even if we narrow the discussion to Christendom and explicitly Christian achievements, we still find that there are major contributions to Western Civilization coming from non-Roman Catholic sources.  For example, if Greece is part of Western Civilization (and it obviously is), then that means that the cultural achievements born out of Eastern Orthodox Churches need to be considered right along side those of the Roman Catholic Church.  And it is certain that the contributions to Christian Civilization coming from Eastern Orthodox creators such as Rachmaninoff or Dostoevsky are substantial.

There can be absolutely no doubt that Protestants also have also made major positive contributions to Western, Christian Civilization as a whole.  A few examples:

I once heard the (Roman Catholic) Philosopher Peter Kreeft say that one reason he believed in the existence of God was simply the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  I agree.
And Bach was a Protestant; he composed major spiritual works such as the St. Matthew Passion.
Beethoven was Roman Catholic, to be sure...but Handel was Protestant.  Palestrina was Catholic, but Mendelssohn was Protestant.  So were Paul Manz, and Hubert Parry and John Rutter and Henry Purcell.

Sacred Architecture:
Catholics are quite right to celebrate the great medieval and Renaissance churches...but what of the very iconic and significant contributions to sacred architecture made by men such as Sir Christopher Wren or Richard Upjohn?  The Gothic revival itself was born in Protestant England.

Visual Arts:
I'll freely admit that most of the greatest visual artists, especially those working with Biblical and Spiritual themes were Roman Catholics, such as Michelangelo and Raphael.  But surely the contributions of a Protestant like Rembrandt are nothing to sneer at either?

Catholics are quite right to rejoice in the majesty of Dante's Divine Comedy.  But what of Milton's Paradise Lost?  What of Bunyan?  For that matter, what of Shakespeare, whose work is shot through with spiritual themes?  All Protestant.

Many younger Roman Catholics that I know are glad to count Tolkien and Chesterton among their number.  And well they should be, for these are simply outstanding authors.  But let us not forget that C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, T.S. Elliot, and Charles Williams were all Protestants.

Of course, for English-speakers the King James Version of the Bible is itself an extremely important contribution to our literary tradition.

Ideas and Learning:
In terms of the "big ideas" that shaped Western Civilization, the Protestant affirmation of 'the priesthood of all believers' meant that each believer was equal in the community of faith, which led to the birth of modern notions of equality and the belief that every citizen should have a say in government (i.e. 'one-man-one-vote' style democracy).  This is why the Pilgrims on the Mayflower all got together and voted on a written constitution for how their colony would be run, which has had a tremendous impact on the emergence of our American Republic.  The Protestant insistence that everyone should read the Bible for himself led to the development of universal education and widespread literacy.

Institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale and many others besides, which have come to have tremendous cultural influence, were originally created for the stated purpose of spreading Protestant Christianity.  This is barely even to begin to scratch the surface of the influence of Protestantism on Western thought and ideas over the course of these last 500 years.

Certainly, I do not aim to downplay the absolutely essential and glorious contributions of Roman Catholics to our Civilization; they are profound.  Nor am I suggesting that we should be content to enjoy or celebrate the contributions of only our own particular branch of Christianity.  The truth I want to highlight is that members of all three major branches of Christianity - Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant - have made significant contributions to our Christian Civilization, and we should celebrate and share together all of them as gifts to us all from the Lord whom we all profess.

For the reasons noted in my previous post, I have come to believe that it is Secularism (not Protestantism) which is incapable of making significant contributions to our civilization, because it has no great Beauty with a capitol 'B' or Truth with a capitol 'T' that has the power to captivate men's minds and inspire their creativity for centuries on end, as the Lord of the Bible has indeed done for Western Civilization.

Labels: , , , ,


Beauty will Save the World...

I spent years as a child attending mass at my Roman Catholic School.  Each week we entered a church, fragrant with with candles and hints of incense.  Before us were statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and a statue of Christ crucified, as well as a priest wearing colorful robes.  Surrounding us were dazzling stained glass windows depicting numerous Biblical stories and saints and Christian symbols, much of which I did not understand...but it clearly meant something.

Later in my youth I joined a fervently evangelical Baptist Church.  Many evangelical churches - especially those with roots in the Puritan and Anabaptist traditions - have mostly eschewed iconography and art...though it does have a way of sneaking in from time to time anyway.
Indeed, when the church I attended remodeled its sanctuary (about the time I moved away for college), I was pleased to see that they replaced their opaque purple windows with far more colorful and attractive stained glass windows, each with identical images of the Cross.

These two churches point toward the different approaches Christians have taken to sacred art.  Some Christians (those in the Puritan traditions) have looked with suspicion on all sacred art as potential idols that break the Second Commandment, which says: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image [or 'idol']...you shall not bow down to them..." (Exodus 20:4-5).

Other Christians have pointed out that later in the Book of Exodus itself God instructs his people to build a beautiful tabernacle of Gold and fine cloth and carpentry in which to worship Him, complete with images of plants and angels and golden statues of angels as well.  These Christians (including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and others) have to varying degrees embraced sacred art as an important reminder of the creativity and beauty of God.

I too have come to believe that works of artistic Beauty actually have profound theological significance.  You may note that this is a theme running through my recent posts since the Notre Dame fire.

Not only do I believe works of Beauty have profound theological significance, but also that they will be an important pointer to the reality of God for some who may not be swayed by Reason or logical arguments for God's existence.

I've heard that Dostoyevsky, a Christian author who wrote the profound and theologically significant novel Brothers Karamazov (among others), once said "Beauty will save the world."  I think there is truth in that.

In the beginning, the Bible tells us, God created the Heavens and the earth and all that is in them. "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).  The word for "good" in the Greek version of the Old Testament that was used by many of the early Churches is 'kalos' which means "good, excellent, and beautiful."

But no one who has ever gazed upon the stars, or stood on the rim of a great canyon, or watched the setting sun needs a Greek or Hebrew word study to tell them that God's creation is beautiful and that He is a wondrous creator.  And note: Man was formed in God's image, which accounts for our tendency to create beautiful things as well.  J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Christian whose magnificent work The Lord of the Rings contains a great many Christian themes, quite consciously saw his work in creating a fictional world as a reflection, however small and imperfect, of the world-creating work of the Living God whose image Tolkien was created to bear.

We have a good and beautiful God who creates a good and beautiful world (though it later became distorted by sin), and he populated it with people created to bear his own image who are themselves blessed with great creativity and love to make wondrous art to the glory of God.  This is why Christians across the ages have written amazing works of literature, composed lovely music, crafted intricate statues and gorgeous stained-glass windows, painted icons, built inspiring sanctuaries and cathedrals.

Even among Churches of the more Puritan traditions you will almost invariably find quite handsome pulpits and very nice leather-bound Bibles with gold-gilt page edges, and will hear lovely hymns being sung, which are all types of sacred art.  We humans cannot get away from this because we are embodied creatures who are creative by nature.

Fr. Patrick Smith, an Anglican priest who was a mentor to me in college (in explaining why his own Episcopal Church put such emphasis on beauty and artistic excellence, and was willing to commit resources to them) pointed out that God certainly does not disapprove of the material world or physical beauty - in fact he created it; and in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ he brought the very Life of God into the world of material stuff, transforming it forever.

This is the theological basis for embracing sacred art.

But such an embrace of beauty also strengthens the mission of the Church as well, which brings me back to the quote from Dostoyevsky: 'Beauty will save the world.'

There are many compelling logical arguments to believe in God.  Yet Beauty has a persuasive power that transcends logic and reason; Beauty has the power to resonate with us on a very deep level; beauty stirs our longing for Him who is the fount of all the beautiful things, the source of all songs and wonder.  We glory in all this beautiful sacred art not simply for its own sake, but also because it serves as a pointer to Him whose life is forever a Dance of supremely Beautiful, Sacred, and Divine Love.

It is into that Triune Dance that we are called by the same Christ who is also the true Way for us to get there.

I had an experience a few years ago that powerfully brought this all together for me (again).  I went with a group from the church I was pastoring to Saint Joseph's Abbey in Covington, Louisiana for a quiet retreat.  Our group was invited by the monks to join with them in chanting the Psalms at their prayer offices sprinkled throughout the day.
On our last night of the retreat, a storm rolled in after we had attended Vespers (Evening Prayer) and eaten dinner.  At first there was no rain, only a howling wind, and distant flashes of lightening and sounds of rumbling thunder.  I decided to walk to the glorious Abbey Church rather early before Compline (Late-Night Prayer), in order to beat the rain.  I found the church very dark - lit by a single candle in the sanctuary - with flashes outside occasionally lighting up the whole place.  When the rain started it came down hard and loud.  I sat down to pray and, after a few minutes in the quiet, turned on my MP3 player, and this is what I heard (close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in the vast, dark Abbey, with the storm raging outside):

Actually, the exact recording I heard was this one (which is even better, but has an annoying commercial before it).

I tell you, this experience was like another conversion.  In that moment I felt that even had I been a militant atheist I would have been converted to faith in Christ by the sheer transcendent beauty of the experience.

Indeed the words of the repeating chorus are the traditional Ave Maria ("Hail Mary") - half of which is taken from Luke chapter 1.  The other words of the more plain-chant sounding verses are also taken from the Birth narratives of Christ (such as Luke 1:38 and John 1:14).  The song tells of the embodiment of the Good and Beautiful Creator God in the flesh, through the Virgin Mary, taking up residence in this material world.  The song was not only about the incarnation of God in Christ in the world, but the beauty of the song, and of the Abbey where I sat, were indeed embodied, that is incarnate, witnesses to this same spiritual reality.  It is hard to fully put into words how Beauty and Truth came rushing together upon my soul in those moments of meditating upon the beauty of the Incarnation of Jesus.

By comparison, the worldviews of atheism and secularism and the kind of "generic popular culture" that secularism produces is utterly incapable of producing anything like this kind of sublime experience of deep soul-stirring beauty.  They can entertain, but they cannot inspire anyone with a genuine experience of transcendence; indeed, for these worldviews, there is no actual transcendent Reality beyond our own feelings.  For this reason, they simply haven't the spiritual depth and mystical freight that is necessary to drive men to erect cathedrals or to inspire the writing of Mendelssohn's "Lift Thine Eyes," or to sustain our Civilization into the future.

The fact that such timeless works of art exist at all, points us to the truth that there is indeed a Transcendent reality - a Divine Logos - And that Word, that Logos, says the Christian faith, was became flesh, and dwelt among us, and his name is Jesus.

So let the people of Jesus - in word, deed, character, and work - be people of creative and life-giving beauty.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Why is (much) Modern Art so bad?

As I mentioned in a recent post, I've run across Brian Holdsworth recently, a web designer, graphic artist, and lay Roman Catholic apologist.  I've really been enjoying his thought-provoking videos on various topics, which are his attempt to do his part to help renew Christian Civilization.

Here is one really insightful example:

I must hasten to add, as with all things, there are exceptions to this generalization - there are works and styles of modern art that are quite good (indeed, numerous different styles fall under the heading of 'modern art').  But a great deal of modern art (contemporary abstract art in particular), and a great deal of modern architecture really is...ugly.  And for that reason, is loathed by the masses of common men who have not taken college courses on appreciating modern art.

I believe the intuitive reaction is quite instructive: A 'common man' intuitively understands that a gothic cathedral is beautiful; the same with the ancient Greek Parthenon in Athens, or Leonardo's Mona Lisa, or Michelangelo's Pieta, or the Mayan Pyramids of the Yucatan, or the knot-work carvings of the ancient Scandinavians.  No one needs to take a university class be taught to appreciate these things.
We all see immediately they simply are beautiful; in some small way they share in and communicate the reality of Heavenly Beauty and Harmony.

On the other hand, I have certainly had the experience of visiting a University Art School's exhibition or (worse still) standing in a museum, looking at some crumpled up pieces of metal or some random smears of color across a white canvas, and said "Why is this considered art?  I could have done that when I was 4..."

Maybe you've had that experience as well.  Why is it that so much unintelligible rubbish passes for art among wealthy or well-educated elites?
I suspect part of the issue may indeed be elitism itself: 'We who have taken courses on modern art are insiders, we get the reference, we are in on the joke, while the poor uneducated folks on Main Street just don't get it.'
But despite the ridiculous prices that some of these works can fetch at auction, it seems to me that more people are waking up the fact that the emperor has no clothes.

Cy Twombly's "Untitled" sold for $46,437,500 in 2017.
It was created by putting a brush on the end of a pole. 

I think Holdsworth, in his video above, puts his finger on the core of the issue: there was a shift in our culture from Artist as expressing praise to the glory of God, or even praise to the nation, or even celebrating another human being, to the Artist as practicing self-expression.  In many (obviously, not all) cases, art has gone from looking out at the world and celebrating something 'other than me/bigger than me' to a kind of navel gazing.

But then the question has to be raised, why is this artist's self-expression so exceptionally valuable?  If there is no objective artistic excellence in the work itself, then why should I pay money to go see this work in a museum or to buy it to hang in my home?  After all, I am every bit as much a 'self' as the artist, and I am more than capable of crumbling up my own tin-foil if that is what I feel like doing to express my own angst or whatever...and it is much cheaper than paying for the expression of some other person I'll never meet.

On the other hand, the more public nature of the classic understanding of what art is all about (not only my own expression, but also celebrating real objective beauty) necessarily puts an emphasis on excellence, which gives such art wider appeal.  The result is that Michelangelo has produced something that I most emphatically could not have done myself - there is a wonder to the fact that another human being created this kind of excellence.

I've heard glad rumors of a renewed interest in representational painting in European schools in recent years, and I expect time and the changing of generations will sift out the more bizarre forms of modernist self-expression.  I also expect quite a few cities will in decades to come begin to wonder how they might be able to remove the huge pillars of polished twisting metal from in front of their otherwise beautiful courthouses.  But people will still travel across the world to crowd shoulder to shoulder in the Sistine Chapel and behold timeless art, and that is a hopeful sign.

Labels: , ,


Bishop Barron on Jordan Peterson Interview

Two of the "internet intellectuals" whom I've been attending to of late are Jordan Peterson the (agnostic? secular Christian?) Canadian Psychologist and professor and also Bishop Robert Barron, who seems to me one of the most winsome, intellectually compelling, and interesting Christian (and specifically Roman Catholic) voices in the Public Square today.

So, thanks to YouTube algorithms, I ran across this video.  Catholic podcaster Brandon Vogt is interviewing Bishop Barron and asking him to reflect upon the (much longer) conversation that Bishop Barron recently had with Jordan Peterson.  This interview is fabulous and well worth your time.

I love Bishop Barron's observation, when reflecting upon Jungian archetypes and the "hero's journey" that plays so prominently in world literature, that in the Bible people are called on an adventure, a hero's journey with God - Abraham is called to leave his home and follow God; Jesus calls us to leave all and take up the cross and follow him.  Yet in an even deeper sense, Bishop Barron points out, the Bible is the story about God making the hero's journey in order to find us. Also, I now need to go back and re-watch True Grit...

Labels: , , , , , , ,


It turns out, The United Methodist Church is basically Traditionalist/Evangelical

The United Methodist Church, though often described as progressive, or Mainline Protestant, is actually an evangelical and traditionalist denomination on the whole.*
That is the inescapable conclusion that we can now draw, not only from the recent General Conference's decision to endorse the "Traditional Plan" as the way forward through disagreements on sexuality, but also from a Nationwide survey conducted earlier this year by United Methodist Communications.

This survey is quite significant, and you can read the entire article that I'll be referring to on the UMC's official website HERE.

First we must note that The United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination and this survey was a survey only of American Methodists.
Any attentive observer of trends in the UMC is aware that overseas Conferences are overwhelmingly conservative, traditionalist, and orthodox (and, in some cases, charismatic as well).
Furthermore the Church is now almost evenly divided between American Methodists and International Methodists.  This would mean that if even a small minority of American Methodists were traditionalists or conservatives, that would still mean that the world-wide church was mostly traditionalist.

But, as it turns out, however, the new study of American Methodists reveals that there are far more self-identified Traditionalists/Conservatives than there are Progressives/Liberals in the American Church.

Here is how it breaks down according to the article linked above:
Of those contacted, 
44 percent identified themselves as conservative/traditionalist in religious beliefs
28 percent as moderate/centrist
20 percent as progressive/liberal

Many will immediately be wondering what are the "political" ramifications (which is itself a sad commentary on how much fighting we've been doing).

Conservatives and Traditionalists are, far and away, the largest group.  This runs counter to the common narrative (often repeated in the run-up to the recent General Conference) that Centrists form the large majority of the UMC in America.  Rather it is likely that, when it comes to any particular moral or theological question or dispute, a majority of United Methodists in America would tend to line up behind the more traditional understanding.
Even supposing that you took the 28 percent that self-identify as Moderate and split them 50/50 between aligning with Traditionalists and aligning with Liberals on any particular issue, a significant majority of the American church (to say nothing of the Central Conferences overseas) would lean conservative/traditionalist.

Now, you might say, "Well, we should add all the Moderates together with all the Liberals, to see where the majority of the American church really is."  However, what the study actually found is that those who self-identified as Moderates tended to be closer to Traditionalists than they were to Progressives:
"The self-identified moderates generally ended between conservatives and liberals in the results for specific questions.  But often they were closer to the conservative position." 

This also raises the question about representation at General Conference.  I saw many progressives on social media saying that upwards 60% of American delegates to the recent General Conference voted for the One Church Plan, rather than the Traditional plan.  I think it is very possible that a few Conservatives actually did so as well, choosing institutional unity over their preferred theological understanding.
Nevertheless, if it is really the case that almost 2/3 of American GC delegates were Liberals/Progressives, then this would suggest that American Traditionalists are greatly under-represented at the General Conference level.

What about are the ramifications for the theological character of the Church?  On the whole, for those of us who are concerned with upholding and proclaiming the classic Biblical faith - the faith of the 'one holy catholic and apostolic church' - in United Methodism, the survey findings are very encouraging.

"The survey dug into United Methodists' views on various theology-related subjects, including the Bible, Jesus, salvation, the Resurrection, and the afterlife...
On some matters there was broad agreement.  For example, large majorities of all three self-identifying groups believe in Jesus' birth from a virgin,  his crucifixion in order to reconcile humans to God, and his resurrection in bodily form.  By big margins, conservatives, moderates, and liberals understand God as creator of heaven and earth and believe God's grace is available to all..."

So on the matters of basic theological orthodoxy, as articulated in the Apostles' Creed (for example), the vast majority of American Methodists are basically orthodox.  This is great news for the future health of the Church!

On the other hand, there was significant disagreement over the doctrine of Hell:
"But only 50 percent of liberals believe in a literal Hell, compared to 82 percent of conservatives and 70 percent of moderates..."

I do wonder if the phrase 'literal Hell' might have been a hindrance to some, and if a different phrase (like "an actual hell" or "eternal separation from God") would have yielded slightly higher numbers.
Nevertheless, we are pretty firm on our belief that Jesus really is the only Savior, and the only way to the Father:
"An overwhelming majority of conservatives, 86 percent, said a relationship with Jesus is the only way to salvation.  64 percent of moderates agreed with that and 54 percent of liberals did."

Again I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the numbers are this high (even among liberals) for this decisive orthodox and evangelical doctrine.

Finally, "The survey showed that women are more likely than men to hold liberal/progressive views and that church attendance is strongest by conservatives." 

Many have bemoaned the lack of involvement in the church by men, which has been a long-standing problem (even Karl Marx noted this almost 200 years ago).  But this survey would suggest that moving the church further in a liberal direction, if it did anything, would actually exacerbate the problem.

Because of the way Traditionalists interpret the Bible and understand its authority (including the 10 Commandments), I'm not surprised to find that conservatives are strongest in church attendance; I would also not be surprised to find that (because of their more traditional interpretations of the Bible) they are also more likely to give 10% of their income to the church, but apparently that question was not included.
It would indeed be interesting to see another survey that follows up by asking about the spiritual disciplines and practices of all these people, and seeing how that may (or may not) correspond to their self-described religious beliefs.

United Methodism is a big and diverse denomination, and I think (and hope) it always will be a place where everyone is welcomed and embraced (as is certainly appropriate for a world-wide Church); but we clearly do have a theological identity and the evidence shows that, on the whole, the UMC is a theologically traditional and orthodox denomination as well being diverse - both in the USA and, even more so, across the world.


*I always feel the need to note that by Traditionalist and Evangelical, we do not mean Fundamentalist in the usual sense that word is now used.  The average Evangelical United Methodist will be open to things like Ecumenism or the Ordination of Women etc. things which are generally rejected out of hand by Fundamentalists.

Labels: , , ,


Dear Lord, save Notre Dame from modern architects

I think there was a collective groan heard round the world - and perhaps in France especially - when French President Macron announced that there would be an "international design competition" to build a new spire for Notre Dame Cathedral after the recent fire.

For one thing, why not get a Frenchman to design it?  This isn't really a big deal to me, but it seems like it ought to be a big deal to the French people: Notre Dame is after all the national church of France.  The old spire, and indeed the whole church were achievements of the French.  Are they no longer capable of such feats?

But my bigger concern is that some kind of "cool", Post-modern steel and glass spire will be shoe-horned onto this gorgeous Medieval gothic cathedral.  And it will look cool...at first...state-of-the art...for a while, until trends change.

My attitudes toward "improving" upon classic architectural idioms by "supplementing" them with modern forms were firmly set during my time at LSU.  If you go to the main quad in the center of campus, all around the Quad are stucco-covered, Italian-esque buildings, with matching red tiled roofs, fountains, and rows of beautiful arches all around the quad.  Except on one end.  There is Middleton Library.  An orange and green cube, that apparently fell from outer space and landed in the center of the quad.

At the time it was built, Middleton library was the latest and greatest, the cutting edge in architectural trends.  But now, while the rest of the quad continues to look timeless, the Library just looks dated.  And ugly.

The same phenomenon is clearly visible a short walk away.  The old LSU Law School is a Classical building, very much resembling the US Supreme Court, modeled after Greek and Roman architecture.  Attached to the back of it is the new Law School, a modern hulk of concrete and glass that makes no attempt whatever to blend with the old building.  While many people still admire the beauty of the old Law School, again, the new school looks strikingly '60s or '70s.  It looks dated.

Why?  Why do the various classic idioms remain timeless while Modern architecture - while initially admired - ultimately looks dated, even ugly, within a few decades?

This video explains why quite well, and I hope and pray that if any new spire is added to Notre Dame, it will be in the gothic style, and fit seemlessly with the rest of the structure so that - in a few generations - rather than looking like a strange (and very "2020's looking") addition, it will instead be taken for something (like the 19th Century spire) that could have been a part of the original construction all along.

Labels: , , ,


Hope among the Ruins (Easter Sunday Sermon)

This video remains one of the most powerful and heart-rending things I've ever seen:

Luke 24:1-12

Church fires have been in the news lately. We’ve had the 3 historically Black Baptist churches deliberately burned, not far from here, in Opelousas. Monday morning I got a text message that the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. Now, a few years back a prominent cathedral, St John the Divine in New York City, had a fire that didn’t amount to much; so I didn’t think much of it. Later in the day I got online and started watching the news. Then I watched in total shock as Notre Dame burned; the great spire – holding up the sign of the cross high over the city – fell down, breaking, collapsing into a roar of smoke and cinders. I saw videos of French Christians gathering to pray and sing in the streets as the fire roared through the night, and heard how the church bells all across the city of Paris began to ring and ring, as a call to prayer, or perhaps a sign of grief. As I watched, I thought, ‘We may lose the whole church. It has stood for nearly 900 years – survived the French Revolution and two World Wars – and this will be the generation that lost Notre Dame.’

Watching the great church burn stirred up so many mixed feelings in me. One was just that sense of futility. Maybe you’ve seen something like this in your life, your health, your relationships or your work. You work so hard to build something up, to preserve it, maybe even pass it on from one generation to another, for a thousand years even…and then in a single afternoon it can literally go up in smoke. What once was full of light and life is now a pale, gray ruin. Frailty and decay seem to have the last word.

Notre Dame, like the Twin Towers, is far more than just a building or unique work of architecture. It is a symbol. Perhaps as much as any building anywhere in the world Notre Dame is the Symbol of our Western, CHRISTIAN, Civilization. It is a symbol of Christian faith, the faith-motivated cultural and technical achievements of our ancestors, and of the yearning of human hearts for a transcendent beauty and harmony that can ultimately be found in God alone.

I’ve heard stories of people with no particular faith in God who visit some of these great Cathedrals as tourists, only to leave the place haunted by the sense of beauty and glory they’ve encountered, asking questions they’ve never asked before that send them searching, until they finally come to find that their longings are satisfied in the embrace of Jesus Christ. A gothic cathedral is not just an auditorium where one goes to hear a teacher…the building itself is a teacher of the depths and riches of our faith. Everything about it, from the cross-shaped floor plan, to the Bible stories depicted in stain glass windows, even the number of windows, the mathematical proportions of the building, everything about it is designed to express the truth and beauty our Christian faith.

It also struck me as very…interesting…that Notre Dame burned during Holy Week, during Passion Week: This week when we remember Jesus’ betrayal…his arrest…we remember how Peter denied Christ…we remember his suffering…his pain…his crucifixion…and finally his death upon the cross to take away our sins.

And during THIS week, one of the World’s most significant symbols of Christian faith, Christian civilization suffers a devastating fire.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it means. Many countries with a strong Christian heritage – and France especially - have increasingly embraced an aggressive secularism that has no time for God, that denies Christ, and has no confidence in any unchangeable Truth. We don’t generally spend 200 years building gothic cathedrals anymore; we build shopping malls and sports arenas surrounded by acre upon acre of gray asphalt (temples to consumerism and entertainment).

I watched the glorious cathedral – built during the ‘Age of Faith’ – burn in the midst of a fiercely secular city, and I wondered, ‘Could it be a sign, even a warning?’ What good is it, asked our Lord, to gain the whole world and yet forfeit your SOUL? (Mt. 16:26; Lk. 9:25). I believe many people in our secular societies are desperately hungry for something that you cannot buy on Amazon or win in the playoffs, you cannot find it in a political cause or even in a romance; we are looking for truth, for justice, for beauty, for a Spiritual Harmony, for a Meaning and a Mission which we can without reservation or regret give ourselves to completely. We are hungering for God, the Living God (Ps. 42).

Could this somehow be a sign for our times of the spiritual desolation and emptiness that comes when faith is lost? Or could this event, in the midst of Passion Week, somehow spark a re-awakening?

In college I went with some friends to London and Paris one year for Spring Break. On EasterSunday, 2004 (15 years ago today) we went to worship in Notre Dame Cathedral. There we heard the old story again. You’ve heard the story: What once was full of light and life was a pale and gray ruin. The body of Jesus sealed in a cold tomb. He taught the way of holiness and love in a way that captivated the crowds; his words amazed humble fishermen and learned philosophers alike; he healed the broken, and touched the untouchable. His life was good and true and beautiful, and called for our total allegiance in a way that challenged everything in this sinful, broken world.

And so we killed him.

But today we hear the announcement of the angel. The women came to the tomb in grief, thinking at best to find a cold and dead body to anoint with burial spices. Instead they found an empty tomb. Instead they saw the glorious angels, and heard their words: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!” (v.5)

Our injustice, our foolishness, our short-sightedness has simply been overwhelmed by God’s power, God’s love, God’s Truth.
This is Easter; this is Resurrection Day – there is Hope springing up in the ruins; there is Life bursting forth from the grave, and His Name is Jesus, and He is Lord. This is the Last Word!

Then the Angels said to the women, “Remember!” Remember Jesus! Remember his words! Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. (v.7).

‘Then,’ says verse 8, ‘they remembered his words!’ They remembered!

I pray that people all across this globe will remember Jesus, remember his words, will rediscover the faith that inspired our forefathers to build Notre Dame; will remember that there is a Solid Truth that has given hope to millions across the Centuries, even in the face of death and loss. There is a divine order to things, a solid rock you can build your life upon. There is a Heavenly Love, a glorious vision of God – this Lord who loves you enough to come and die to win your heart and save your soul – that vision has the power to transform and sustain your life, and even the life of a whole civilization. He Lives! And He offers his own Risen Life to you as a gift!

Do you remember? Was there ever a time when His Truth set your heart ablaze? When you gave your heart to Christ? And does that faith burn in you, or has it grown cold? Now is the time to remember, to consider, to ponder this old story, to believe and to find Life anew in Him!

Whether you’ve been a committed follower of Christ for decades, or are just here today as a seeker asking questions, we have Good News. Today we remember His promises of forgiveness and new life; we remember his Goodness and Love, and today remember his power to bring Hope even among the Ruins!

You can contribute to the rebuilding of Notre Dame HERE.
You can contribute to the rebuilding of the 3 Louisiana churches burned by arson HERE.  

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Toxic vs Redeemed Masculinity (Once more unto the breach!)

I want to revisit a topic I took up a few months ago, when I shared my concern that many seemed to be trying to address the (very real) problem of toxic masculinity by trying to toss aside or radically redefine 'masculinity' itself, rather than addressing what turns it toxic.  I also, in that same post shared the great CS Lewis Doodle video about Chivalry.

As I noted in the previous post, the personal redemption of any particular man begins with surrendering our lives to Jesus Christ, accepting the gracious forgiveness of sins that he alone can provide, receiving the promises of Holy Baptism, and beginning to live a new life, walking by faith in the Son of God.
But what about redeeming masculinity, the ideal of masculinity, itself in our culture?
Is there even a coherent ideal of masculinity in our culture anymore?

I've been thinking a good deal more about this in recent months.  I agree that there is a crisis of masculinity, and a crisis that leaves boys not really being sure what it means to 'be a man,' and without the rites of passage needed to know that they have become men, and that this confusion may (I suspect) contribute to everything from the sexually libertine hook-up culture, to domestic violence, to gender-identity confusion.  I've said before this may be why so many young people (including young ladies) are more comfortable calling the men in their life "guys" rather than "Men."  That little verbal habit may speak more volumes than we know.

It seems even more clear to me now that a solution to "Toxic Masculinity" is to be found by drawing on the Biblical message and the Christian traditions.  That Solution to "Toxic Masculinity" is not "Less Masculinity" (or, Heaven help us, "No masculinity").  Rather, the Solution to Toxic Masculinity is Redeemed Masculinity...better known to our Western culture as 'Chivalry.'

Chivalry presents the ideal of a man who fights for the Right and is fierce in battle, but gentle and courteous at the banquet table; he is meek and reverent (and regular) in worship, and also assertive and dedicated in doing his duties and actively pursuing noble goals; Chivalry presents us with the ideal of a man who is a saintly soldier.
Their dedication to this ideal (at least in principle) is why knights - and the monastic knights such as the Templars and Hospitallers in particular - were so highly esteemed in Medieval Christendom.

As the literature of the Medieval Romance reminds us, the Chivalrous gentleman - or knight - was supposed to always speak the truth, always keep his word, always uphold justice, always respect the honor of women, and always defend those who were weak.  Do you begin to see why chivalry is the proper antidote to the sort of Toxic Masculinity that has been in the news?

Yet some strands of feminism have objected to the very concept of Chivalry, because (they say) it assumes (and therefore perpetuates) a power dynamic in which men are more powerful than women.

Of course, on the purely physical level this is generally true (and always has been and always will be): Men tend to be taller and stronger, with more muscle mass and greater bone density than women.  Men have a hormone called testosterone which can cause us to be more physically (and sexually) aggressive than women.  If you took a man and a woman with very similar genes, similar physical activity, nutrition, and so on, the man will usually be more physically threatening to the woman than the other way around.  This is simply a fact, and it is a fact that Chivalry has attempted to account for and deal with in a constructive way, while merely pretending that 'all people are always equal in every way' does not really help us deal with this fact in any useful way at all.

But I think this particular feminist critique misses the point of Chivalry on a much deeper level.  I'll illustrate this with a story.
When I was living in Dallas I went bowling with a group of young adults from my church.  On the way into the bowling alley, I held open the door for a young woman from the group.  She told me that she did not need a man to hold the door open for her, and that she was perfectly capable of doing so herself.  She might have even used the words "liberated" and "modern woman" in the little chastising that she gave me, I don't recall.
This was quite a shock for this Louisiana boy.

But as I've reflected on her response I've come to ask this question: What makes her think that my holding the door was primarily intended to benefit her?  What if it was primarily intended to benefit ME?

Could it be that those powerful men out in Hollywood, those powerful men in TV stations and movie studios whose abuse of women has come to light in recent years, could it be that they might have benefited by having MORE, rather than less, of these little Chivalrous habits in their lives?  Could it be that such habits help form the affections and the character of the men who engage in them in small yet cumulative ways, so that we more fully internalize the ideals of how a chivalrous gentleman "ought to behave toward a lady"?  Could those small little bits of training in habits of Chivalry have helped steel these men to choose the better way whenever the vile temptation presented itself?

Someone once said that "He who is faithful with a little, will be faithful with much."   (hint: It was our Lord)

The classical education movement reminds us of what the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Biblical writers and the Medieval Christians all knew: a man or woman has to be trained to love what is lovely and desire what is good.  This does not always come naturally for us, it has to be taught and it has to be ingrained through habitual behavior, such as the courtesies of Chivalry.

So, what does the world need if we want to counter "Toxic Masculinity"?  Not less Masculinity (that is not possible even if it was desirable); no, what we need is more Chivalry!
It does no good to wish that men were not powerful creatures; we must channel that power in a way that is Good and Beautiful and Just.

Where can today's young man raised in some a-cultural cosmopolitan urban landscape that is largely secular, individualistic, and suspicious of anything 'old fashioned' or 'formal' turn to learn more of the virtues of chivalry?

First, you can turn to the Bible to learn from the triumphs (and failures) of such figures as King David in the Books of Samuel (and the Psalms); you might turn to look again with fresh eyes at the Great Requirement in Micah 6:8, or the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, or the exhortations of Paul to Timothy to be a 'good soldier for Christ,' or the call in Philippians 2:4 to put the needs of others above our own, or the command of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount to "Let our 'Yes' be 'Yes'," or turn to Peter's rule on how men ought to treat the women in their lives in 1 Peter 3:7, or the Heavenly command expressed in Psalm 82:4 to 'rescue the weak and the needy...from the hand of the wicked', and so on.

Indeed, the Code of Chivalry that a knight was expected to live by, is fundamentally based upon the Bible and, as an ideal, is one of the great moral achievements of Western Christendom.

To learn more of the spirit of Christian Chivalry you could look at other primary texts such as The Song of Roland, or Morte D'Arthur, or Shakespeare's Henry V.  Even the history of St. Joan of Arc may be instructive: if she really is a saint and really did hear the voices of Heaven in her visions, then she must have a great deal indeed to teach us (men and women) about the ideal of a genuine 'saintly soldier'.

There are a great many websites (and indeed upstart 'knightly orders' that you can join) dedicated to rekindling the flame of Christian Chivalry in Western cultures.  One interesting website working toward the recovery of the "gentleman" is The Art of Manliness.

There are plenty of modern books about learning to practice the virtues of Chivalry, such as Knights of Christ: Living today with the Virtues of Ancient Knighthood, and books about how fathers can raise their sons up in these virtues, such as Raising a Modern Day Knight (which gives great attention to intentional character-formation and the importance of rites of passage).

I'm just discovering a lot of this myself, and I'd love to hear other resources you may have stumbled upon as well.

The way to address 'toxic masculinity' is not trying to somehow get rid of masculinity; the way to address it is to finally reach back into the treasure house of Western Civilization and recover Chivalry: the ideal of a Redeemed Masculinity.  As Tennyson has it in Idylls of the King: "Follow the Christ...Live Pure, Speak True, Right Wrong, Follow the King!"

I'll end with the ultimate goal of all Christian Chivalry (and the motto of the Templar knights):
"Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory!" - Ps. 115

Labels: , ,


Interesting-looking blog...

I just wanted to briefly post to share a link to a blog from a like-minded Methodist thinker working to recover and promote Methodism's rich liturgical and sacramental heritage: High Church Wesleyan: Rumination by Dr. Ryan N. Danker.

Also, though his blog, I've discovered The Charles Wesley Society, which just had its annual meeting in Washington DC (missed it!).  I think religious orders and religious societies are wonderful tools that God has used to strengthen and defend and renew the Church and her faith over the centuries, so I'm always excited to discover more of them.

Not sure how much blogging I'll do in the future, though I do have at least a couple more posts-in-formation.  Having a busy pastorate, a family, a ridiculously long reading list, and even a few other hobbies has certain forced me to cut back on blogging, but life is full with blessings and I'm content.  Thanks be to God.

Labels: , , ,


United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 7: The Other Plans

At long last here is my final post commenting on The United Methodist Church's upcoming (in just 3 weeks!) General Conference and the options before it.  In previous posts I've summarized the current situation in the world-wide United Methodist Church as well as several possible paths for a "way forward."  I've shared material from both supporters and opponents of the "One Church Plan" ("local option" for sexual morality and the definition of marriage), and explained in detail my own concerns about this plan, which are serious indeed.

As I've been discussing this issue with laity in my local congregation, I've come to realize that, should any of the 3 options that have been sent to General Conference pass, a decision would have to be made at the local level.

Under the One Church plan, for example, local churches would have to decide whether or not to host same-gender wedding ceremonies in their church-houses.

Now I want to look at bit more at the other two plans that were crafted by the Commission on a Way Forward for the General Conference to consider.

1) The Traditional Plan.

The Traditional Plan is by far the simplest to execute because it makes no changes to church teaching, nor requires any constitutional amendments.  This alone is a huge selling point.  Beyond that, I believe that it is also the most likely to preserve the largest degree of institutional unity within the denomination simply because it maintains the current teaching.  If people found our teachings on sexual morality absolutely intolerable, then presumably they would not have joined our churches or received ordination to join the ranks of our clergy.  While a great many conservatives, evangelicals, and traditionalists have signaled that they would leave the denomination if the teachings are changed in a more liberal direction, it seems likely that most of our progressives and liberals will remain within the denomination if the current teaching is retained, since (for the most part) they have already been able to live with that teaching for years.

What will the traditional plan change?

The main thrust of the Traditional plan is to increase accountability for those clergy and bishops who refuse to live in accordance with Church law, despite their own freely-accepted ordination vows to uphold the same.  This failure to, as our Lord says, "let our yes be yes" has caused a crisis of trust in the leadership and is a major reason we have come to the very brink of schism.  The Traditional plan aims to put in place serious consequences for clergy and bishops who break their vows.

I fully support the increased accountability in this area.  My concern (shared with many liberals, I would expect) is that we become too overzealous and heavy-handed in a rigid enforcement of doctrine.  That outcome seems relatively unlikely in a denomination that prides itself on a "theology of grace," but I have heard one or two of our more conservative colleagues make comments about "running the liberals out" and I think that is an attitude contrary to the spirit of Christ's teachings (remember the parable of the wheat and the tares?).  Rather our aim should be, in my view, to simply and clearly hold everyone accountable to the same standards that they originally signed up for.  There can be no "purifying" of the church (church history is full of disastrous attempts in that direction), nor any peering into men's souls to hold them accountable for their feelings (which are prone to change over time in any of us) but simply a commitment to uphold the rules and apply a consistent standard for all who freely choose to become clergy.

I've heard some people saying that the Traditional plan would require clergy and bishops to certify, in writing, that they believe in the church's teachings.  This seems to be based upon misinformation.  I have spoken with one of the drafters of the plan, and he assures me that it does not focus on inward beliefs but simply on outward adherence to the standards set forth in the Book of Discipline, which should be no great problem, since we have already agreed to that in our ordination vows.

My other main concern about the Traditional plan is that only about half of it has been declared to be "constitutional" under the UMC's constitution by the Judicial Council.  Some aspects of the plan were declared unconstitutional and had to be dropped or reworked, so that what is really coming before General Conference is a modified Traditionalist plan.  It could be that the changes that have been made by the crafters of the plan still fail to pass constitutional muster, in which case General Conference will have passed only a 'partial Traditional plan' or 'Traditional plan lite' which may prove ineffectual in addressing our problems.

What would the local church have to decide under this plan?

One aspect of the Traditional plan that intrigues me is the "gracious exit clause" which would allow congregations who are willing to agree to certain stipulations to leave the denomination and keep their property.  Currently if congregations cut ties with the denomination the property reverts to the Annual Conference.

So, if the Traditional plan passes congregations would need to decide whether to stay within the UMC or to leave (though presumably, unlike the other plans, it is safe to say that there would be a firm "default" position, namely, staying in the UMC).  The gracious exit clause is fiercely opposed by the bishops who (rightly) see that larger churches (including many of our evangelical churches) are both greater contributors to and also less dependent upon the denominational institutions than smaller churches.  These larger churches could more easily leave and become self-sufficient but what would become of the churches that remained?  Would they find the weight of the denomination's institutions far too heavy to maintain?

Yet the argument for a gracious exit clause is simple: congregations can leave anyways, and churches that feel betrayed, rejected, or embarrassed by their denomination, churches that no longer have a heart to support the institutions should not be 'held hostage' in a denomination for which they no longer have any love.  What good is having that sort of 'unity' anyway?  Just to squeeze money out of people?  Another argument is one of simple fairness and justice: if the local congregation members paid for the property and maintained it, is it really fair that the fruits of their own labor be taken from them if they dis-associate from a denomination that (they believe) no longer represents them?

My view is that even a Traditional plan Lite would still be a good option.

2) Connectional Conference Plan

The final plan being recommended for the consideration of the General Conference is the Connectional Conference plan.  This plan is the most cumbersome to enact and, for that reason, has been dismissed by many people I've spoken with as a non-starter.  Though in more recent weeks I have seen some delegates pledging to support it.  There are several things about this plan that interest me.

Strictly on a political and institutional level, the Connectional Conference Plan is the truest "compromise" between Traditionalists and Liberals.  If the Connectional Conference Plan passes then nobody "wins," and I can see a certain appeal about that, perhaps as a way to try to "bear with one another in Christ."

Because the Connectional Conference plan actually segregates conservative clergy and bishops in one conference away from liberal clergy and bishops in another (and centrists or "unsure" in a third), it actually eliminates the problem (or perceived problem) of clergy being 'punished' for their convictions by bishops or cabinets who hold an opposing view, which I do not believe that the One Church plan can really guard against, despite its best efforts.

I also suspect that the Connectional Conference plan is actually a plan that most of our committed liberals and perhaps even most of our committed conservatives could "live with" if enacted, though I expect neither would be enthusiastic about it.  I am quite confident that it could at least keep more people within the "big tent" of the denomination than the One Church plan.

At least in the short term.

One main question about the Connectional Conference plan is whether it would in fact be a stepping stone along the path to full schism.  Would the (now segregated) liberal and conservative "conferences" have less and less to do with each other, functioning as 'de facto' separate denominations until, at some point in the future, they cut what few tenuous ties remain?  That seems quite plausible to me.

Now there are plenty of people who say that a full split is inevitable (or indeed, has already, in fact, begun), so perhaps enacting the Connectional Conference plan would be a way to manage that split in a careful and gracious way.

There are some other concerns about this plan:
One is that it would be expensive because it would duplicate some offices and institutions 3 times over (where currently there is one, there might be three), which means fewer United Methodists contributing to support each church institution, thus raising the cost.  This seems a realistic possibility, though I'm not sure exactly which offices or institutions would supposedly be duplicated.

Another real concern is how the Connectional Conference Plan would work "on the ground."  I heard a colleague joke a few years ago that if a conservative jurisdiction and a liberal jurisdiction were created, and clergy and churches given the choice which to join, most all of our ordained clergy would join the liberal jurisdiction and most all of our churches would join the conservative one.  While certainly an exaggeration, his joke has some truth to it, and raises in general the question of uneven distribution of clergy who need jobs versus churches who need pastors.  Would pastors and congregations decide which jurisdiction to join in coordination with one another?  This surely will raise new challenges that would need to be addressed.

Again the local church is forced to make a decision:

Like under the One Church plan the Connectional Conference plan would ultimately force each congregation to "choose a side" which could potentially devastate the unity of the local congregations.  Unlike under the One Church Plan, however, once the choice had been made there is very little possibility that a new pastor with the opposite view would be appointed who wanted to revisit the decision.  This is a major improvement, in my view, from the One Church Plan.

Yet the Connectional Conference Plan also has the same theological problems as the One Church plan: The United Methodist Church would claim to be one church (sort of) with one message, yet teachings regarding the definition of marriage, which behaviors are sinful, and what God's will is for your sexuality would be officially contradictory from one United Methodist Church to another.
That problem would, I think, "feel" more distant, however because all Methodists (conservative and liberal alike) could say to themselves, "At least in my Conference everyone teaches the truth (as I understand it)."

But it would be a compromise, and one wonders if a compromise is tenable in the long run for people (both traditional and progressive) who understand themselves as trying to follow a Lord who chose to be crucified rather than compromise with falsehood.

This plan may be a bit of a 'shot in the dark' to preserve institutional unity, but (for all its serious flaws) I think I would personally be willing to at least give it a try, that way at least we will not have run hastily into schism, and will have actually been willing to make sacrifices (on both sides) to preserve unity.

I realize that I have left out a great deal and glossed over many details in this discussion: Time constraints have prevented me from going into more detail about either of these plans.  I am happy to have finished, and 7 posts seems a nice number.

What will happen?  God only knows.  Maybe some of you have some insight.  I'm praying.

I invite you to pray for United Methodists.  Pray for the delegates to the upcoming General Conference.  Pray that whatever decision is made that we will treat one another with Christian love, even if (as will likely happen) many feel that they can no longer be a part of the denomination depending upon the decision that is reached.
I am praying for spiritual unity, for fidelity to the Bible and the classic Christian faith, and a spirit of charity under the Lordship of Jesus.
And, quite frankly, I'm praying that there will be a way forward for me in my vocation and for my family that does not involve the loss of my employment, my pension, and the roof over our heads.  It is a stressful time for United Methodist clergy and we could use prayers too.

But I believe that in the long run 'the Lord does provide' (Gen. 22:14) and can even use this particular season of uncertainty to sharpen within us the spirit of holiness and conform us more fully to the image of his beloved Son, our Lord and our Savior (Rom. 8:29).

Labels: ,