Disenchantment and the Enchanters: Witch Hunts, the Enlightenment, and How Paradigms Fail

One thing the history of magic demonstrates is that we clearly do not live in the same intellectual universe that existed during the Renaissance. Where it was perfectly acceptable for natural philosophers to engage in occult pursuits during that time, the idea that a modern scientist would spend his time conversing with spirits or refuse to prepare certain chemicals unless Venus was in the right place in the sky is laughable. The idea of Peter Venkman is as laughable as Venkman himself.

This shift is one of the more momentous in intellectual history. The old scholars were almost by definition Christian, as the church was the primary center of learning. The new scholars take a skeptical attitude not just towards magic, but to anything that might be termed supernatural. Between them lies the period known as the Enlightenment, a time when the imaginative world of the elite underwent a process of disenchantment. Some science-minded people are apt to say the happened because we suddenly got smart, or were rationally convinced of a more naturalistic cosmos. Michael Bailey suggests that this development did not occur in so straight a line.

“Yet as I have argued throughout this chapter, while magical beliefs and practices altered and adapted to Renaissance, Reformation, and scientific thought, many magical traditions remained vibrant and provided serious competition to mechanical philosophy until the very end of the seventeenth century. The intellectual respectability of magic did not fade because new “scientific” systems provided categorically superior explanatory models that precluded the need for or proscribed the possibility of magical operations. Instead, European intellectuals seem largely to have abandoned their belief in magic first and then set about developing other models of understanding the universe that fully excluded magical forces.”[1]

This is striking. Something gave intellectuals a reason to abandon a view of the cosmos that included magic before they even had a system to replace it. Though this may not be how we are used to thinking of shifts from one view of the world to another, perhaps conceiving of something more like conversion from once complete system to another, it’s not entirely unthinkable. Just because your current beliefs have proved wrong in some way does not mean you have something waiting in the wings to replace them. Demolition often comes long before rebuilding.

With regards to scientific revolutions, the shift from one paradigm to another, there is one scholar well known for studying this phenomenon, and Bailey is quick to cite him:

“Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, rejected the notion that scientific progress invariably proceeds through steady, incremental advances. Small advances can be made as new knowledge and information about a given subject gradually accumulates, he argues, but this information is always interpreted within some overarching paradigm that governs basic understandings about the field in which the advancement is being made. These paradigms do not alter gradually under the weight of accumulated eveidence; indeed, they cannot, since all evidence is interpreted within their structure. Paradigms themselves change only through relatively sudden, dramatic ruptures.”[2]

So when it comes to the shift from a scientific paradigm that accommodates the supernatural to one that manifestly does not, we should look for two things. First, we should be able to identify a time where a “sudden, dramatic rupture” separates the old view from the new. This would be the eighteenth century Enlightenment. But we should also look for something else. Every “sudden, dramatic rupture” is built on gaps in the previous system, things that cannot be accounted for under the current paradigm:

“Every dominant paradigm has certain problems, certain information that it cannot easily accommodate. Normally these are either explained in some not wholly satisfying fashion or else they are simply ignored. The Ptolemaic, earth-centered conception of the universe, for example, could only accommodate planetary retrograde motion by the introduction of complex epicycles. Occasionally, however, radical suggestions of alternate paradigms emerge, and sometimes, as with Copernican heliocentrism, the come to supplant the earlier paradigm, producing a major revolution. Kuhn maintains, however, that new paradigms do not triumph because they objectively provide a better interpretive system than the old paradigm, at least not immediately. For example, while Copernicus’s heliocentric theory did explain some of the observed properties of astral bodies in simpler and more elegant ways than did the old Ptolemaic system, the better part of a century was to pass before the details of a heliocentric model that was objectively superior to the Ptolemaic system were worked out. During this transition, experts did throw their support behind heliocentrism because of the weight of accumulated evidence, but, Kuhn suggests, more out of aesthetic impulse and intuition than anything else.”[3]

We should therefore expect to see some problems that the old paradigm had difficulty dealing with. This would give intellectuals a reason from abandoning a worldview that allows for magic, and throwing their weight behind one that rejects the supernatural. This is where things get interesting:

“Here too we have encountered the issue of confidence in a system, namely in the area of witchcraft and particularly with witch hunting. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many authorities lost confidence, not initially in the basic system of thought that supported the idea of witchcraft, but in the ability of legal institutions to identify and prosecute witches fairly and effectively. The previous chapter suggested that this judicial dilemma eventually led to a broader skepticism about the reality of witchcraft in general.”[4]

The previous chapter is indeed a fascinating one. It uproots many of the preconceived notions held by both proponents of modern science and modern claimants to the magical tradition. Rather than being driven by the Church or by the major authorities of Early Modern Europe, the witch trials were miscarriages of justice within local communities, whether intentional manipulations of the law for personal gain, or something like mass hysteria. It was in regions where the Church and centralized government held the least authority that the witch trials flourished. Where higher authority held tighter control over witch trials, the accused was acquitted far more often, and when convicted, was rarely executed. This is a fascinating chapter, and I hope to visit it in detail when this study returns to that period.

What is significant at the moment, however, is the way this fits with Kuhn’s paradigm:

“To rephrase this process in Kuhnian terms: the inability of courts to prosecute witches effectively was, if not an inherently incompatible anomaly, certainly a problem in an intellectual and moral paradigm that held witchcraft to be a real and terribly threatening crime. The solution of simply curtailing witch trials resolved the immediate problem but would have been intellectually unappealing and inelegant because it meant that there were horribly dangerous and destructive malefactors in the world against whom legal authorities could provide no protection. The rise of skepticism about the very existence of witches provided a more comprehensive solution. Yet because the idea of witchcraft was only one facet of European conceptions about magic, and more basically about demonic and divine power operating in the world, denial of the reality of witchcraft entailed a major shift in prevailing systems of thought and required that something like a new paradigm be accepted.”[5]

This suggestion is stunning. We often treat the period of Early Modern witch hunts as something totally unrelated to the “enlightened,” “disenchanted” era that followed, but according to Bailey, they “may have been a key factor contributing to the ultimate eighteenth century disenchantment of Europe.”[6]

An important aspect of this revelation is the fact that the problem witchcraft presented was not essentially a scientific or philosophical one, but a moral one. It made the old paradigm seem implausible not because it didn’t fit with known facts about the natural world, but because it upset the moral and political world in which Early Modern Europeans lived. Intellectual shifts, even in the natural sciences, are sometimes driven by moral and political concerns.

This is an important idea for Christians today to grasp. Many of us would like to reverse the trend of secularization in our society. We may even feel that it is necessary for our own safety and the safety of the broader Church. But if we are going to convince people that a Christ-centered way of looking at the world is worthy of consideration, and more worthy than the alternatives, we need answers to all sorts of problems—certainly to scientific ones, but also to moral and political ones.

Christian morality and politics is often not much more than red-state conservatism, or red-state libertarianism, with a few out-of-context proof verses slapped on for good measure. Our beliefs, and many of the arguments we use to defend them, are not very different from those of our secular neighbors. And not to leave anybody out, the same is true for blue-state and centrist Christianity. All of us draw on political traditions that are skin deep, no more recent than the 1960’s. Is it any wonder our secular neighbors look at our lifestyles and opinions and wonder why faith in Christ is necessary?

But Christianity has a long history of moral, political, and philosophical discussion. We have a wide range of views represented in the Church Fathers, in medieval scholastics, in Reformation and Counter-Reformation intellectuals, and in more recent Christian tradition. Behind that stands the very Word of God, not in some hodgepodge collection of discrete verses, but as a library of wisdom poetry, royal chronicles, legal documents and case studies, philosophical meditations, and examinations of the connections between the kingship of Christ and our daily lives in a world that does not recognize Him. We have resources.

Looking at the impact the Early Modern witch hunts had on European intellectual thought should shame us and spur us to action. Christianity had been firmly established in Europe for long centuries before the witch craze set in. During that time, the conception of witches as the sort of threat they appeared to be in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was nearly nonexistent. Church and secular authorities certainly saw no reason to prosecute or punish them in the way it was done in that era. Could we not have found a better solution?

Likewise, we are today confronted with a wide range of political and moral conundrums that beg for an answer. How does Christian just war theory apply to ISIS and to Syria, to the use of drones or of “enhanced interrogation” techniques? Does a historically Christian perspective on the common good call for open borders and an untrammeled free market, or are our rulers called to nurture specific communities? Does the Bible and the conversation of Christians across time call for a more nuanced alternative to that question? How are Christians to behave in nation that is hostile to their beliefs? How are we to behave if we gain power over a nation consisting of many unbelievers? Both of these questions were asked and answered over the course of centuries in the Roman Empire. We are not without resources.

The study of magic is a fascinating one. It opens up new imaginative vistas, and it sheds light on the past from new and interesting angles. While wisdom for its own sake is clearly an end worth pursuing, we should also be open to the lessons history teaches us. I took, and I hope you take, this particular lesson as a wake-up call.

[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 210-211.

[2] Bailey, 211.

[3] Bailey, 211.

[4] Bailey, 212.

[5] Bailey, 212.

[6] Bailey, 213.

Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

My parents started attending church when I was very young. I don’t really remember the transition, but I really took to it. I had a very high view of the world, both the natural side of it and the artificial. It made sense to say there was a hand that knit the stars into the black heavens, that raised up the pines like swaying giants over the forest, that mixed the white sand and red clay, and scattered old river rocks among them. I was also invested in the struggle of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, love and hate, life and death. A Creator and a heroic Redeemer made sense.

I readily enough bought into the idea of my own sin, though in my immaturity I often only acknowledged the less significant ones. But as a general concept, I knew that good and evil was in all of us, that good was natural and evil unnatural, and that unless we were rescued, evil would win.

That idea certainly applied to individuals, but it also made sense writ large. The world was a story, starting at a perfect creation, then falling at a moment when man chose sin. In the centuries that followed after, those who remained faithful to God and those who turned from him would struggle over the earth. And, as in any good story, the good guys were fighting a losing battle for most of history. Until, of course, the Hero arrived. He swept in and made the ultimate sacrifice, accepting the consequences for our own ingratitude towards our Creator, our betrayal of the one who loved us. Now, in following him, we partook in his death and his resurrection, and in the long run were promised a redeemed world in which to live. All would be right again.

It’s hard to point to any one place where I learned this narrative. We attended a Bible church at the time, which had an AWANA program. As a family, we often listened to the Christian teaching and talk radio station in our area, and continued to do so long after we switched churches. Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson, Adventures in Odyssey, Unshackled, and a wide array of preachers from the Bible Belt and the evangelical community more generally all had an indelible influence on my heart, mind, and imagination. I also got ahold of Christian fiction books as a kid, including a lot of Frank Peretti and the Left Behind series. I enjoyed them both, but especially the latter. I was a big end times nut in my preteen years, falling in love with the drama of the apocalyptic narrative.

At some point, my family switched churches. I was not aware of much of the drama surrounding that decision, and was surprised to find myself quite suddenly in a little wooden church in the boonies where people said scripted phrases back and forth to each other, there was a confession of sin, and we drank alcohol at every communion. It was very disconcerting, and I found myself having to account for the change. This was the first time I moved beyond the bare Bible story into the world of theological controversy.

The whole thing was disconcerting to me, in particular the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. I could hardly side with the Arminians, as their position seemed to deny God’s power and treat man as if he could save himself, as if original sin had not caused a fundamental character flaw. Calvinism, on the other hand, seemed to deny the agency of people. We were not characters in God’s story, not in any real sense. God also seemed to be a much more dour sort of person, a frowning lawgiver who smashed people for offending him in ways they could not have imagined were offensive, and arbitrarily sparing a trembling few who could not know if they were really safe from God’s wrath, or just self-deceived like the rest.

That was a long, hard struggle that very nearly tore me apart. Eventually I conceded the truth of the essentials of the Calvinist position. God did guide the destiny of men and nations, and we could not choose to follow him unless he had first freed us from the power of sin. Granting that, I still felt uneasy about the way some Calvinists I had read talked about God and man and the whole Gospel story. But I put that unease aside. There was far more going on in the world.

I also did an about-face on the end times business. I read a very lucid little tract explaining how the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 fulfilled the prophecies of John in Revelation in the most minute details. Recognizing my own tendency towards flights of fancy—I was a big believer in UFOs at the time—I conceded that the language of Revelation was, for the most part, far from literal, and that my vision of vanishing churches, planet-wide dictatorships, centaur-locusts, and apocalyptic battles was more indulgent than accurate.

I also adopted covenant theology, which I saw as more connected with Presbyterian government than it necessarily had to be. The concept of the covenant, or solemn agreement of some kind, appealed to me, and it also explained far more of the Bible to a far greater degree than anything I had seen before. Of course, I had never given much concrete thought to the nature of God’s promises or the relationship between the testaments, so that was hardly surprising. Unlike Calvinism and the end times, this transition felt largely superficial and easy, though, as with corporate confession and high liturgy, the paedobaptism that went with it struck me as a bit Roman Catholic.

All these issues and more were profoundly disorienting, and at about the same time as we switched churches, there were a number of other upsetting events going on in my life. I dove into all this theology to give myself an anchor, and found it didn’t quite do so. Furthermore, my longtime love of fantasy, mythology, and fairytale creatures was starting to sit uncomfortably with my newfound sense of obligation to live a purified life before sovereign God. If things had gone on that way, I am not sure where they would have ended, but it was all very depressing and very confusing.

Then along came C. S. Lewis. I had read some of his stuff in the past, and categorized him with the rest of the Christian fiction authors I was familiar with. One person in my life encouraged me to read more of him, saying that I would surely love his stuff. I was reluctant, especially when she recommended Surprised by Joy, which I assumed to be the story of his falling in love with his wife, Joy. (How I knew he had a wife named Joy, I have no idea.) Eventually, though, I caved. I am more glad of that than of almost any other event in my life.

Surprised by Joy narrates Lewis’s early life, and his spiritual growth up until his belief in God. For me, it was earth-shattering. Here was a man who loved the Norse myths, who loved stories like I do, and the glimpses of beauty in the old paganism. Here also was a man who was intensely rational, as I was learning to be, and had no particular dog in any theological fight. Long years of reasoning and argument eventually led him to belief in God, but it was how he reconciled that belief in God with love of the old myths that captured my attention. He did not find that contradictory. Instead, he believed that the beauty he saw in the myths pointed towards Christ, towards the fulfillment of his spiritual longings.

For some time, theology had begun to choke the life out of my imagination. I was turning into one of those people that believes all truths are hard truths, and that if an idea makes you uncomfortable, it is more likely to be an accurate description of reality. Lewis undid that. I dove into both his fiction and his nonfiction, and they gave me both a clear, rational explanation of a broad faith very like what I had been raised with, and the ability to carry on loving the myths and fantasy that appealed to me, without them conflicting with that faith.

At some point I had decided I wanted to be a writer, and Lewis gave me a stronger drive to move in that direction. Life is more than what we read, however. It is our habits and seasonal rhythms, it is who we spend our time with, and it is the sheer necessity of making it to the next day that make us who we are.

My parents had decided long ago that we would be raised with a Christian education. By my secondary years, I had fallen in love with the little classical Christian school they had helped found. It was good for me in so many ways, and one of the best experiences of my life. On the other hand, it was very closely tied to the little church we had begun attending, and the pervasive influence of the Reformed subculture to which it belonged gave me reason to dwell more and more on the rational and theological sides of my personality, to the detriment of my ambitions as a mere fiction writer.

By the time I graduated, I had not quite given up that dream, though I had certainly dialed back my ambitions to a very great degree. I decided I would go to a college that would buy me time in deciding what path to take. There was a college I knew of that would allow me to dive deeper into classical learning and reformed theology, and the degree they offered was broad enough that I could take it anywhere. At the time, I was probably leaning towards the ministry, but I certainly had other thoughts in addition to that. But on top of the curriculum I respected and the options it left open, they also had a deep love of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Silmarillion was one of the most captivating things I had ever read. If they were obsessed with these distinctly Christian authors, surely I could find a home there. And thus it was decided.

Before I talk about my experience there, let me provide some context. Because the church I had spent my early years in was nondenominational, as was the Christian radio I listened to and the school I attended, my picture of the church was very broad. Generally speaking, I thought the Gospel was fairly simple and straightforward, and that Christ embraced all who accepted him, from feverish backwoods revivalists, to the frozen chosen, to big churches in the city with fancy lights and praise bands, to respectable little Episcopalian chapels, and just about everything in between. My slow immersion into the world of Reformed theology had hardened my views on which interpretations of the Bible were right, and therefore who was doctrinally wrong, but I still believed that most everybody could get along.

My experience at college was something like having a bucket of ice-water dumped on your head.

That college was closely related to a pair of churches in the town, and between those three communities a person could disappear for four years and never see anybody else. This in a university town of more than twenty thousand people, with another just like it down the road. And everywhere I turned, these Reformed people were badmouthing the rest of the Church. Dispensationalists got blamed for all manner of outlandish things (and dispensationalism and premillenialism were not at all distinguished). Baptists, I soon found out, were why the American culture was so messed up, and Left Behind was why American Christians were not involved in politics. (?!?!?) Focus on the Family was also apparently too liberal, and definitely compromised, and the Bible Belt consisted exclusively of Pharisaical hypocrites. Now, I was under no illusions as to the shallowness of the faith of many of my fellow Southerners, but to apply that failing to everyone there (and exclusively to them) and then to add that they were legalistic Pharisees when in fact they often lived too loose a life—that just boggled my mind.

Despite this muddle of often contradictory slanders against the church more broadly, I didn’t think the church there was necessarily in a poor place doctrinally or had any lack of love for Christ. Just a little doom and gloom, I thought. I soon found my niche—a little circle of pseudo-Inklings—tried to focus on my studies, and drove on. For a number of years, that worked.

Before we go any further, it has to be said that the number one character flaw in my book had always been ingratitude. I loved Christ and the Gospel story, and kids who took that lightly got very little respect from me. I had watched my parents work hard and shed sweat and tears trying to get our school off the ground, saw all the drama involved in such a project, especially on such a small and intimate scale, and absolutely despised people who could reap the benefits of that and go on complaining. I loved my small town, partly because of its smallness, and I loved the whole region. People who spoke ill of it, who just wanted to get away—they had an attitude problem. Thanksgiving was the first virtue in my eyes, and thanklessness was the vice most likely to get under my skin. (Not that I was never thankless myself—but that is another story.)

So as the terms wore on and I grew less and less satisfied with the college and the church community, the last thing I wanted to do was complain. I flat out could not leave. I had come to this place, and they had given me their time, they had given me opportunities, they had accepted me, more or less, as one of their own, and I would not turn away from them.

The problem was, I felt I had reason to. That community was constantly harping on the sins of other churches, and would not hear one bad word about their own. They seemed to reject Christ’s church, and in their love of theological controversy, had turned the Gospel into something like a political platform that outlined the minutest details of what was and was not acceptable in their culture. People who struggled in that environment were pushed out, and any troubles in the community were swept under the rug and any memory of them was hushed. “Our party” could not be seen to have any trouble within it. Everything wrong with the world must come from outside.

This cut right against my understanding of sin. Sin was in everyone, including those saved by God’s grace. Their own efforts could never make them perfect, and any community was guaranteed to have problems as a result. Admitting such things was not shameful, but merely part of being human in a fallen world. Furthermore, it was a key part of repentance, which is necessary to the Christian life. How could a community follow Christ and pretend to be faultless at the same time?

On other side of that was the fact that this was God’s world. God had created mankind in his image, and sin could not obliterate that image, nor any other part of creation. No human being could be entirely corrupt, and to pretend that unbelievers embodied every possible evil seemed to cut against God’s sovereignty, and common sense. This was doubly the case when the community attacked the rest of the Church, which had the Gospel and the holy Scriptures, and stood before God as equals with us. These people talked as if they wanted to amputate the better part of the Body of Christ.

I was going through other personal issues at the time, and that made things more complex. But the long and short of it is, I switched churches. There were other places in town, and I went there, despite hardly feeling more comfortable. I had grown used to high church liturgy and certain Reformed habits, so my new church could not feel homely. Furthermore, I was still removed from a lot of cultural things I had been raised with in the Bible Belt and the Deep South. I felt more than a little adrift, knowing what I was looking for, but not knowing where to find it.

Under the circumstances, my ears were open to a lot of complaints about the Church generally. The churches I had just left attacked others for lacking doctrinal rigor and liturgical solemnity while overemphasizing the saving of souls, and the church I found myself in said the Church was both too American and too doctrinally tight. (Oddly enough, I have never felt so surrounded by hip, contemporary, upper-middle-class white Americana as at that church.) Other expats from the community I had spent the past several years in complained that the church was too conservatively evangelical, while I did not recognize that church’s somewhat distorted Gospel and trendy alternative theology as very conservative or as evangelical at all.

At any rate, I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth and made it back to more familiar surroundings. Being displaced on so many levels for so long, I had taken on a much more pessimistic view of life, and was beset by more doubts than I ever remember having. There were teachings I found readily accepted by certain groups up there which I would have called heresy in anyone else, and the sparsity of teaching on redemption itself—hot-button culture war issues were preferred—left me with vague memories of what the Gospel was, and a thirst for grace-filled teaching, but with no idea what it looked like. I was at a loss.

Often I have found that time and space create room for peace. Removed from the constant battles of that town, and granted new rhythms, I gained the ability to process things. I have been living with my family again for about a year now, teaching at the school I grew up in, and attending the Reformed church we switched to when I was young. I listen to Christian radio fairly often, though my favorite preachers come on during school hours or after I’ve started winding down at the end of the day. I made my way slowly through the writings of John, which were some of the most frightening books in the hands of certain people at college. I found them very profitable, and recently got involved in a BSF study on the book of Revelation. I had no idea such a wild apocalyptic vision could be so practical.

Through a tangled series of events, I have also gotten more intentional about my writing than I have ever been. I read much more fiction than I could afford to at college, and my imagination is thriving as a result. I enjoy walking beneath the pines when I can, and recognize more stars than I used to.

Many of the doubts I had have been put to rest, and many questions answered. Many, however, remain. I think that’s healthy. I never want to settled into the complacency that simply accepts an explanation without holding it up to the light of Scripture and God-given common sense to see if it will stand.

I have heard the complaints of burnt out millennials and of culture warriors, of trendy evangelicals and the heirs of fundamentalists. There are so many pundits throwing around ideas for how the church can fix itself, for the platform it can adhere to that will drive up its numbers and restore it to the proper degree of influence in the world. Some of that seems like crass salesmanship to me, but there is also a great deal motivated by a sincere love for something, or else sincere pain that cries out for healing.

In the end, though, I don’t think any of those platforms or strategies or trendy new doctrines have the answer. I think somewhere along the way we forgot that Christianity is a religion. It is not based on a series of beliefs, but on the worship of Christ. Love of a particular party—even if that party is the “we aren’t a party” party—does not create a community, and certainly not a redeemed one. We aren’t here for that We cannot save ourselves as a Church any more than we can as sinful individuals. Only Christ can do that, and that is why we gather to worship him.

That’s a nice sentiment and all, and I think it’s said often enough. It does have real meaning, though, if you can find it. The fact is that platforms, even doctrinal or cultural ones, are not eternal. They are specific to a time and place, and they are born and die. Sometimes very quickly. Lasting communities cannot be built on them.

For example, talking about Left Behind and how to interpret Revelation made sense when it was a bestselling series, but now that the apocalyptic crazes that led up to 2000 and 2012 are past, continuing to talk about seems a bit beside the point. The issues have changed, and so the platforms of all the little parties will too. The same goes for the worship wars and any number of other things. You can plant your flag there, but those hills are made of shifting sand. They won’t be there in a while.

What will be there is Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We have him, we have stories about him, the Scriptures, the Gospel in a number of different tellings. We have the world he created, and we have the people we know—both those who are redeemed and those still in need of redemption. We have our own souls and our own sin, with our own need for salvation and sanctification. Remember these things, and the Church will do well enough.

When I meet a Christian these days, I am far less concerned about whether they agree with me on a series of doctrinal points. I am concerned with whether they seem to be concerned with Jesus Christ and what he thinks. I am concerned with whether they display a humility and a willingness to conform their life to his standards, whatever those turn out to be.

I may disagree with a Roman Catholic on transubstantiation or the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but if I see him pursuing chastity when he doesn’t want to because he loves Christ—he is my brother. If I run into a Pentecostal girl with hair down to her knees who tells me she has a word from the Lord, but who pours over her Bible, making it a guide for her life, and puts others before herself—she is my sister. Maybe the kid with the purple hair and the gauges is more liberal than I’d like, and his worship band makes me uncomfortable, but if he places the words of Jesus over the words of his peers, I respect him We have the same Lord. The same goes for wealthy men in business suits who go to respectable churches, but when times are tough they hold fast to Christ. Nothing that is of Christ is alien to me.

But what about all of the problems in the Church? What about all the things that need to be fixed? I still think those can be pretty significant, but finding some conservative scapegoat, or some liberal boogieman, or some high church spook to blame it on, does no one any good. We are here to worship Christ together, to serve him and learn from him. Our sins are our own, whatever circumstances might make them easier. We have enough trouble repenting of them without paying attention to what the guy across the map is doing. More often than not, that self-righteous crusading serves as a nice distraction from our own problems, a good reason to close ranks and cover up our sins.

The Church I’d like to see is one at peace. Sunday should be a day of rest, not a day of war, and fellowship should encourage brothers and sisters in their walk, not fill them with fear of the world. Christ is sovereign. He has conquered sin and death, and there is nothing you or me or those lunatics in the church across the street can do about it. God is sovereign. That’s the end of it, and our job is just to accept that. We worship him. That’s what makes us Christians.

And that, I suppose, is my testimony. I stand on Christ, however imperfectly, and find anything else more than a little disappointing. It’s that love for an actual God, not platforms vaguely related to his commands, that I want to see blossoming out there in the world. But before I see that, I have to see it in myself. Salt does not give its savor unless it is already salty, and light that’s not lit doesn’t shine. So that’s where I am. I stand with Christ, and want to get better at it.

On Reacting to Culture Warriors

A  number of years ago I was confronted with a strain of conservative Christianity that was very free in its use of insults, ridicule, and slander towards people on the other end of the “culture war” as they understood it. This often included other Bible-believing Christians, from a great range of theological persuasions, and across the social, cultural, and political spectrum. As someone from a fairly broad evangelical background, I found this extremely frustrating. As someone belonging to the very “axis of treacle” these folks spent a great deal of their time targeting, I was very, very angry.

I did not have to run in those circles long before I discovered others frustrated with the sort of rhetoric this crowd used. In the face of the sort of language I am not allowed—and not inclined—to repeat in front of my students, these other frustrated people spoke out. Sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. They defended their brothers in Christ as brothers in Christ, but they also defended those outside the faith as human beings made in the image of God and therefore worthy of some measure of respect. This was good.

Over the years I saw these folks defend liberals. (Are they not rational human beings? Why must we assume the worst of them?) I saw them defend Muslims. (People lie about us, say we’re bloodthirsty theocrats bent on taking over the world. Why must it be any more true of them?) I saw them defend homosexuals. (Sure, it’s a sin, but so is slander, so is hating your brother, so are a thousand other things people on the right are glad to overlook.) I saw them defend illegal immigrants in the face of what certainly seemed to be racism. (Didn’t we come here looking for a better life, too?) The years rolled on, and I saw them stand up and say “Black Lives Matter.” (How can you spend all this time talking about big government and the militarization of police and not question a system that guns down a child holding a toy?) And, in their way, these things were very good.

These people raised their voices against a Christianity that slandered God’s children. They raised their voices against people who dehumanized their opposition, who turned them into orcs in need of slaying rather than the lost in need of saving. They raised their voices against a politics that would not hear opposing views. They raised their voices in the name of fair-mindedness, in the name of love and mercy, in the name of justice in rhetoric.

These people stood against a view of culture war that looked for enemies in every shadow. Christ teaches that if we take up His cross, people will persecute us for it. But these people saw Christians behaving in an un-Christlike manner while claiming the name of Jesus. They saw people picking fights and stirring up trouble, not by preaching Christ, but by a deliberate, belligerent, combative attitude towards anyone that moved. They opposed that, and a siege mentality that likens all opposition to persecution, all trials to martyrdom.

Insofar as these people stood against that form of rhetoric, and that form of culture war, I could stand with them. And if their politics changed over the years, so be it. How could it not? How can you be shown a way of life filled with slander, with bullying, and with an uncritical attitude towards one’s own faults, and not want something better? I might not agree with the politics these folks adopted, but so what? We were still brothers.

To those brothers, and sisters, I say this.

You stood for justice, you stood for mercy, and that is commendable. I have seen that and applauded it, not always loudly, and not always in as unqualified a manner as it may have deserved in context. But I applaud it. Whatever else can be said, you have won my respect.

But now I know your principles. I know where you stand. I know you stand against baseless insult, and against unfounded slander. I know you stand against a siege mentality, against the sort of knee-jerk tribalism that turns everyone who disagrees with you into an enemy that must be battled. I know you are against dehumanizing the opposition, whoever the opposition is. I know where you stand, because I have seen you stand there again and again.

But I have seen you say other things. Not in the privacy of your own home, or in emails, or texts. Not between a few close friends, but openly. On Twitter. On Facebook. On WordPress. On Tumblr.

I have seen you slander, mock, and deride conservatives. I have seen you ascribe to them the worst possible motives, and give them no hearing, no benefit of the doubt. I have seen you call Republicans morons. I have seen you turn a Northwesterner’s slander of all feminists as “small-breasted biddies” into your own slander of “Southern biddies.” I have seen you call all people who own guns toothless, backwards hillbillies, and anyone who votes Republican a racist asshole. I have seen you tear evangelicals a new one time and again, with no distinctions among them, none of the nuance you would afford any other group. I have seen you say horrible things about Bible-believing, honest, and sincere Christians that I would not repeat. You have branded all American Christians (by what grounds do you exclude yourself?) with perverting the Gospel, of being vile, rank hypocrites.

Now, I know where this comes from. I have seen at least some of the sources of your anger, and how they treat you and those you love. And I have seen why, now, in your eyes, all those gun-toting Cruz voters are just nameless, faceless, worthless SOB’s.

But to me, those conservatives do have worth. They are real people. They have names and faces.

They taught me to ride a bike and fold a paper airplane. They taught me to fish, to drive, how to do long division, and how to fix a sandwich. They taught me to respect a man, regardless of his background, and to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. I have seen Bush voters, out of their abundance, give much, taking in orphans whose “parents” I knew, as well as orphans who truly had no parents. I have seen gun-toting rednecks, out of their poverty, give everything they had, give what they did not have, to help widows and single mothers provide for children whose fathers had abandoned them. They have been that single mother, working themselves into the ground for children they love. They have been young families, sacrificing a life they had dreamed of to provide their kids with an education they never had a chance to get themselves. I have seen the love and tenderness of Jesus in the hearts, in the mouths, in the actions of the people you slander.

These are the people who taught me to love Jesus, not as a symbol in the culture war, but as a merciful Savior and Lord. These are the people who taught me to seek his will and keep his word, not to blindly follow slick-haired preachers. I do not know who taught you what marriage looks like, who taught you the roles of men and women. We both agree these things are more complicated than Leave it to Beaver might have us to think, but I began learning it in a hospital in Fort Ord, when they laid me in the arms of a woman with a sharpshooter medal pinned to her BDU’s, and in the arms of the man secure enough to love her. Conservatives? You bet they are. Godly people? Absolutely.

When you slander conservative Christians, these are the faces I see. When I go to work on Monday, and look into the eyes of my students, many of them still young and wild with love of God’s glorious creation, it is their eyes I see as you curse their fathers and mothers. When I spend the weekend marveling with my friend over the glories of the Gospel, the wonderful diversity of cultures God has given us, or the excellence of Mexican food, it is his face I see as you cry “toothless hillbilly.”

I do not judge you by my standards. What goes on in your heart is between you and the Master of us both. But I have seen the vilest hypocrisy, the rankest violation of your own principles, not in secret, away from the world, not in private conversations between us two, but out on social media, out on the internet, loudly and vocally, with the aim to wound, to shame, to denigrate. The sort of behavior you cry out against when it is directed at minorities, at people of leftist political persuasions, at people of other faiths, at homosexuals, at a thousand others, that is the sort of behavior you freely engage in towards God’s children, towards your own brothers, in the public forum.

You say you hate careless slander, but do you slander carelessly? You claim to hate it when people assume the worst of those who disagree with them, but what do you assume? You tell the world you wish people would lay off the siege mentality and consider that people who have other positions might be rational human beings with their own lives to live outside politics. Are those Neanderthals you rail against exempt from that judgment of charity? You say you want to end the culture war, but you have not left it behind. You’ve merely changed the direction your guns are pointing in.

Look at the people who angered you, who did wrong to those you loved and gave you reason to speak out against them. They believe they are doing the right thing when they engage in this behavior. You can hear their justification from their own mouths. But you say you have seen the error in that way of life, you say you have turned against it. So when you engage in that behavior, loudly and in public, are you not twice as bad, because you are condemned not by others’ standards, but by your own? Do you not commit the same sins, but with your eyes open?

Again, it is not my business what goes on in your heart. That is between you and God. But what comes out of your mouth, what you spread freely over the internet, that slander with which you attack those I love, and those you claim deserve dignity and respect, that is my business.

I have tried to be even-handed on Twitter and Facebook. Compare my attitude with where I have come from, and you will see that this is true. And in part, it was you that taught me to think before I speak, to hold my tongue far longer and far more often than I wish. I go far out of my way to avoid being unfair to those on my left, because of your example. Because I agree on those principles.

But those principles actually matter. If you can call out conservatives on it, and do so honestly, then you should be willing to call yourself out on it. If you set up a standard for people to follow, you yourself ought to follow it. Do not lament the lack of love you have seen on the part of some conservatives, and then display that same lack of love yourself. If a particular brand of conservative ought to be taught to accept all manner of other Christians as their brothers, then you also ought to accept conservative Christians as brothers. To do anything less is shameful on your part, and brings disgrace to the Body you claim to love and the principles you claim to hold.

Now, having said all this, let me say two things further. First, while this behavior is widespread among my acquaintances who are critical of this kind of culture war, it is by no means universal. And not all who have participated in it do so with the same bile and the same gusto. To the disillusioned, the angry and excluded, and the pseudo-hipsters whom I love and who have not done this, I do not intend this for you. And even if it does describe you completely, please know that I still love you and count you my brothers and sisters. I speak not because I hate one side of a war and identify with the other. I speak because I identify with the Body of Christ and I am as tired as you are of seeing warfare, backbiting, and unnecessary division tear it apart.

My second postscript is to a certain strain of conservative who might be tempted to see this as a declaration of loyalty to your cultural and political mission. Resist the temptation. I oppose the sort of culture war mentioned above every bit as much in conservative Christians as I do in hipster, leftist, and moderate Christians. I have spoken critically of that before, though perhaps not as vocally as I might have, and I maintain that critical stance now. I stand with Christ and with the Jerusalem that is above, not with conservatism as such, or those who wage war on its behalf.

Finally, let me end on this note. I have been guilty of the sins mentioned above, and I have been guilty of blindness. I have been guilty of using strong words and speaking rashly. And I have been guilty of more than a few things this post is not meant to cover. I am a sinner in need of Christ. Not “I was a sinner in need of Christ.” I am a sinner in need of Christ. If anything I have said here is unjust or beneath his standards, I apologize. If anything I have said distresses you in ways that it should not, I also apologize, and seek your forgiveness. We all need to take a good look in the mirror, and we all need Jesus. I do not exclude myself from that.

In Him,

David H.

Worlds Away

It’s amazing what distance can do. We’ve pushed past railroads and telegraphs to highways, airports, and smartphones, thinking we can shrink the world into a computer the size of our hand, or reduce the map to just a few hours in a noisy flying bus. But the distance remains as great as ever.

My brother picked me up from a little Idaho town just days before Christmas. It’s stunning how small that place feels. It has a state university, a good hospital, multiple shopping centers, and over twenty thousand residents. My own town has just ten thousand people more, but it seems a dozen times larger.

I’ve spent the past four and half years living in that small Idaho town, and my time there is growing short. I look back now on years of regrets, and lessons learned, and friendships formed, and lots of learning, most of it off-campus. In some ways I’m already starting to say my goodbyes. But just as I’m ready to leave this temporary home, I find I’ve been there long enough that I finally seem to be acclimatizing; that I have gained enough distance from my own home that the differences between the two worlds are finally becoming clear and recognizable.

We drove two thousand miles through Idaho mountains, Wyoming blizzards, Denver traffic, and the pancake-flat lands around Amarillo, finally to leave the DFW metroplex, find some real trees, and cross back into East Texas. It was a long ride, fueled by Mitchell’s music, supplemented by a blues playlist I whipped together, and lots of caffeine. Perhaps those three long days, miles of conversation, and hours of listening helped increase the distance. When at last we parked on the street in front of the house, and Mom and Caleb were standing in the driveway, Moscow, Idaho seemed like a half-forgotten dream.

But as the days began to unfold, I felt like half a stranger. Everything about being back felt so natural, but the very naturalness of it was striking. I spent eighteen years being shaped by this town, by this county, by these people, before I ever set foot in Idaho, and half a decade at a faraway college can give you perspective, but it can’t change who you are. I belong here in ways I never could have articulated until I had gone to a place where I did not belong.

I said that Moscow felt small, despite being roughly the same size. But that’s only if you count population. Nacogdoches is seven times the land area of Moscow. Where Muscovites scrunch together in tall houses in neat rows along tight streets which edge up to the city limits and suddenly end, Nacogdochians spread out along wider roads, accumulate land around even trailers and rent houses, and leave unused acres between neighborhoods shrouded in forest or marshy creek bottoms. Around the Christmas table there was some discussion of a man one of my relatives saw hunting in the city limits. That’s illegal in both cities, but it’s possible in Nacogdoches.

But the difference between the two places doesn’t lie just in the setup of the two towns. These things are just pointers for an entirely different mentality, an entirely separate imagination when it comes to man’s relationship to nature. Towns in Moscow’s Palouse region are all tight, densely-populated little areas, and the rare exceptions are usually farm houses that are often miles apart. But in Deep East Texas, the lines between country and city are blurred, with most farm-to-market and county roads sporting several houses in every mile-long stretch, but often with woods on either side, or across the road, and acres of forest or pasture behind, and a thicket in between. Nacogdoches County never seems to depopulate entirely, but you don’t really have to interact with people if you don’t want to. In the Palouse, unless you live on those rare, secluded farmhouses, you are interacting with neighbors, drunk college kids, and traffic all the time. In the Palouse, man is an intrusion into the wilderness, and the wilderness an intrusion into the civilized world. The two are largely separated by the city limits. In Deep East Texas, the relationship is tighter, blurrier, more symbiotic.

This carries over into a dozen different fields. Because Nacogdoches and the surrounding environment is so spread out, cars are not merely optional, they are necessary. It would take me half an hour to walk from the center of town to the city limits in Moscow. I know because I do it on a weekly basis. It takes almost as long for me to walk from our house in Nac to the closest grocery store. I know because I tried it. Once. In such a world, even the most resource-conscious, ecologically-minded individual can’t honestly suggest we abandon cars. The idea is ludicrous. Our world depends on them. But in Moscow, some of the local hippies think it’s a brilliant idea. After all, the co-op is only a block and a half away.

Speaking of resources, this is also a different world when it comes to that. The agriculture of the Palouse is all crop farming, but Deep East Texas is almost entirely invested in livestock. Well, if you chickens as livestock. But this means that there are thousands, even millions of acres of heavily forested land that do little besides stand as privacy fences between our houses, and shelter wild animals. So what do we do with them? Well, we farm the trees. On a lot of the bigger properties in the area, some of the forest is clear-cut and replanted on a regular basis. But elsewhere, the woods are kept wild for hunters. And in a place where the population is so spread out, and the wilderness is always so close to civilization, there are a lot of hunters.

This does interesting things to conservation in our part of the world. All those hunters want to make sure there will be plenty of game next year, so a solid chunk of the movement to protect Texas wildlife, regulate hunting, and stop poaching, is actually driven by hunters. In addition, all those wealthy businessman who own all the land, including the ones whose lands contain oil and natural gas, are also the ones constantly replanting trees. The hippies might keep the wilderness wild on the Palouse, but in Deep East Texas, where wilderness runs right up to the roadside, and people actually live in the sticks, a lot of the movement to protect mother earth is actually driven by folks on the right.

I could go on about the difference between the lands we live in and how we inhabit them, and how that effects our culture. For example, there are no mountains in East Texas, but there are also very few flat places. Where Idaho seems to have tall mountains, flat plains, or else the regular little bumps, like the Palouse hills, we have a constant ripple of big, irregular hills, ridges, creek bottoms, and gentle slopes. And all the high spots are covered in trees. So the Palouse has plenty of high vantage points from which you can look out on wide-open spaces, consider the wilderness before you, or the little urban grid of civilization. But East Texas is just a maze of trees, earth, water, and the occasional house or strip of businesses.

But the differences go beyond the land. Demographics are also telling. As of 2010, Moscow was 90% white. Nacogdoches is barely 50%. Spanish is a curiosity on the Palouse, but in Nacogdoches there are signs in Spanish, businesses dominated by Spanish-speakers, and every ad has to end in “se habla español,” or you simply wont get enough customers. But this is also the Deep South, and the black population is sizable. And this year, that meant quite a lot.

On the Palouse, race issues are something for socially-conscious, cosmopolitan individuals who have traveled the seven-hours-minimum it takes to get to the nearest large city. In Nacogdoches, our grandparents remember Jim Crow, and some of the millennials have biracial kids. If you plan on going to the grocery store, the mall, or a restaurant, or if your kids are going to the public library, playing soccer, or attend any school, how you treat people of different races matters. A lot. “Multiculturalism” is not a pretty word for “look at all these varieties of Northern European and that one Asian guy, aren’t we diverse?” It means you better be fairly progressive, or you may end up offending just about every other person you run into around town.

This year was interesting in that department. Through Facebook, I heard that the Texas KKK was going to hold its rally in Nacogdoches. This provoked a lot of uproar. Some were angry that such “ignorance” (a really interesting term, by the way) still existed. Some were angry that these racists had chosen our town to defile with their hate speech. Some people thought it was just whites showing their true colors. Others were afraid it would ruin Nac’s reputation. And there were a sizable number of people who were not worried about either reputations or scoring political points, but quite simply loved our town and did not want to see parts of it abused, or any of it divided against itself. Within a couple of days, a counter-rally was organized. The day came, the rallies were held, nothing really happened, and life moved on.

Then Ferguson happened. It was astounding watching my white liberal Northwestern friends flip out over this. It was like watching someone get worked up over a disaster in a faraway country. It was all about awareness and how the comfortable rich white people in America really should do something, because don’t we know we’re letting very bad men oppress victims in a place we’re clearly too privileged and secure to care about?

But what if black people are people? And so are cops? Not just skin tones or occupations? Not just victims or oppressors? And what if this isn’t a story you heard on the news, but an issue you actually have to deal with in your town, with your family, with your neighbors? I don’t know that I really believed anything different about the issues involved, but everyone in that discussion got painted with a broad brush by many of my Northwestern friends, and tones got shrill, and somewhere amid the tweeting and instagramming and the Facebook posting, I stopped recognizing any world I knew, where actual racial diversity is an issue, and just saw another stick for the right and the left to beat one another up with.

And if I was disconcerted by that discussion while living in the Palouse, going home was truly strange. Here were people who remembered Jim Crow because they lived it. Here were people who remembered MLK because he was marching in this direction at one time. It wasn’t just mythology learned from TV. They actually had to respond to these guys, to talk to them face to face. Here there are people whose parents grew up in segregation, but who went to school themselves after integration. Affirmative action became cool by the time I was growing up, and we actually have a college in town with multiple races of people applying. The people here saw the evolution from institutional racism into a world where inequalities exist, but no laws can be pointed to, where we are all at least nominally progressive and integrated, but we now have to figure out how to live in a world shaped by two or three centuries of bad blood.

How do you do that? How do you do that when people have names, not just skin colors? How do you do that when confronted with the reality that every “race” has both good, honorable people, and “thugs,” and every type of person in between? Muscovite liberals stand at a distance, and what they see no doubt actually exists. But Nacogdochians live there, and the issues are not so simple, and are far, far more human.

I’m a Christian, and when individual or societal sins become an issue, it’s preachers, rather than pundits, I run to. And that marks another world of difference between Moscow and Nacogdoches. We are two and half hours from Houston, three and half from Dallas, and about two from Shreveport. This area is heavily populated, and it is deep in the Bible Belt. There are radio stations with preaching and teaching from morning until night, and even the famous preachers don’t live that far away. Another station will give you continuous praise and worship music, and those bands tour here. Drive north or south and you will run into a town with a Christian college or university, usually a Baptist one.

The Palouse is different. Idaho is on the fringe of the nation’s “Unchurched Belt.” Moscow has a Catholic church, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, one or two Baptists, a Church of Christ, a Lutheran, a Nazarene, and a handful of campus-oriented non-denominational churches. There is also a small complex of churches in my denomination that is very tight-knit, draws a lot of people from out of state, and totals upwards of a thousand people. They are by far the loudest presence. But add all those up, and it really isn’t much. The college is larger than the sum of all the churches, and many of those churches are fairly middle of the road or left-leaning. They are not exactly the up-in-arms, culture-warring religious right I grew up with. There is no radio station where you can listen to them constantly, and various atheist and humanist alliances are frequently more vocal, and the local Muslim community is just as visible as any of them.

It’s a world apart. Christianity dominates here, despite a major state university being smack dab in the middle of town. Every “ethnic group” seems dominated by church-goers. There are black churches, Spanish-language churches, white-dominated churches, and mixed-race community or campus churches. Big churches are counterbalanced by small churches, and for every mainstream Baptist church there is a tiny cult out in the woods. When we switched denominations, I didn’t even know that “Presbyterianism” existed, but the Nacogdoches area has quite a few Presbyterian and Reformed churches, from PCUSA to Cumberland Presbyterian to my own denomination. There are two Catholic churches in Moscow–one on campus and one off–but there are four in Nacogdoches. And that’s deceptive, because the entirety of Idaho is in the Diocese of Boise, but the diocese that encompasses Nacogoches could fit easily in one of the Diocese of Boise’s six deaneries.

We are quite simply more churched. Which is not to say we are godlier, or more holy. Where there are more people who profess, there is, after all, more opportunity for hypocrisy. But Christianity does pervade the culture in a way it simply does not on the Palouse. So when someone from the Palouse talks about fundamentalists or the religious right, they are talking about something small, and on the fringe, and in dialogue with many other points of view, including an almost-dominant secular world. But when a Nacogdochian talks about it, were are talking about what is almost the majority. The moderates of Moscow would be the left of Nacogdoches, or so it seems. And the humanists that sometimes dominate the U of I campus seem like the crazy fringe here in Nac.

There are other differences, too. Nac has a large population of wealthy people and large population of poor and working class people with almost no true “middle class.” The vast majority of Muscovites fall into that middle class, with their “poor” mostly being lower-middle and their “rich” being mostly upper-middle. So socio-economic distinctions seem to matter less there. Then again, a lot of Moscow’s middle class seems less down-to-earth than some wealthier Nacogdochians I have known.

Recreation is also different. Deep East Texas is filled with lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, and watering holes. Swimming, boating, and fishing is a way of life. We are also just a day’s drive from the Gulf Coast. Moscow is dominated by hills, the creeks are few, far between, and frequently small. The largest lake in the area is not much bigger than some cow ponds I have seen. The ocean is at least seven hours away, across mountains and desert. So hiking seems to replace swimming, and fishing or boating means going quite a ways out of town. Also, they have a winter with actual skiing. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Cuisine is different, too. The Palouse seems to be big on soups, and breads, and pastas. A lot of fairly bland, but servicable stuff. Spicy food is a curiosity. East Texas takes Mexican, homestyle cooking, soul food, Cajun, BBQ, and whatever else we can get our hands on and tosses it all together. I’ve seen a lot more picky eaters on the Palouse, but the pickings here are generally more diverse, frequently far spicier, and meat takes up a far larger portion of the plate. Seafood is also more common. And we have crawfish. Some Muscovites I’ve known had never heard of such a thing.

There are also different attitudes when it comes to occupations. Nac is friendlier to people in the oilfield, hosts a lot more truck drivers, and logging is still a thriving business. There are still a fair amount of farmers, academics, and people in service professions, just like Moscow, but Nac does seem to have a more traditional blue-collar tone. Which may add to the difference in the way Nacogdoches and Moscow seem to experience socio-economic distinctions.

All this came home in a big way during church last Sunday. Back among people who spoke with a drawl, ate Mexican food, and had all survived Houston traffic at some point in their lives, everything took on a different tone. Large chunks of Scripture spilled across a congregation where being Christian was commonplace, but believing and living these words meant everything. We partook in a Lord’s Supper that included wine in a place where many Christians were teetotalers. Afterwards, we had a fellowship meal, heavy on meat, including venison. When we left, we all drove, many of us out of town.

But more than anything, what I carried away that day was the realization that these people believed in a sovereign God who was a God of love. That love included every person, black or white, whether they spoke English, or Spanish–or something else–and regardless of whether they were rich or poor, regardless of whether or not their sins were the respectable kind that can be easily hidden or passed over in polite society. These people believed in a God who was coming to rescue every corner of Creation, from the deepest wilderness to the heart of Houston. They believed in a Christmas that meant salvation.

This is not to say that people on the Palouse did not believe in such things. But it was striking to me how much I could see it in the world and the faces that were familiar to me. It was striking that I found it so much easier to believe myself. In this part of the world, a part I had explored, and defined, and was familiar with, it just made sense, because it all fit together in a certain way.

When I was younger, I learned about “worldviews.” These were systems of belief or thought that separated Christian from secular humanist from Muslim. They were coherent, and shaped largely but what you were taught, and what you worshiped, if you worshiped. But one thing being so far from home taught me is that worldviews are far more complicated than a set of propositions you are taught to believe. They can’t be summed up easily in doctrinal statements or in party platforms. People are not so simple.

A worldview is messy. It can be shaped by how close together your houses are, how many people live out of town, and whether you can stand on top of a hill and see the world laid out before you. It can depend on whether “farmer” means “wheat and legumes” or “chickens and cattle.” “A hearty meal” means different things to different people, and “the fringe” is determined by the “mainstream.” How you spend a fine summer day may depend on how much water is in your region, and how far it is to the nearest city. Wealth and poverty are relative, and just as the rich and poor are defined differently in different towns, so they act differently in each unique circumstance. And national politics means different things to different parts of the nation.

At the end of the day, this doesn’t change what is absolutely true. People are people. They eat, drink, sleep, breathe, play, laugh, cry, marry, kill, forgive, hold grudges, age, and die.Good and evil are universal, right and wrong are universal, truth and falsehood are universal, beauty and ugliness are not simply social constructs, and the LORD alone is God. But it does mean that the world is far bigger than we can understand. We cannot pretend to take God’s perspective and stand outside our own definition of normal and our own understanding of how the world works. You and I can both subscribe to the Westminster Confession, and both vote along the same party lines, but as long as you live in your city, and I in mine, our worldviews may be nothing alike. We live in different contexts, and have a different story.

That is why generalizations can only take us so far. In the world of connectivity, easy travel, and easier communication, we can pretend the world is easily definable, but it’s not. A choice is never as simple as the politicians want to make it, a mystery is never so easy the academics can wrap their heads around it, and people are not so homogeneous that the philosophers and the psychologists can divide them up into categories and explain them away. We are made in God’s image, so we are creative, but we are creatures, so we are limited in strange and interesting ways.

At the end of the day, we can be humble and accept that, or we can try and force the entire world inside our heads, sit in the throne of God, and claim total objectivity–which is to say, total omniscience. We can pretend that the world is simple, that we understand it, and that the guy who disagrees with us is just pigheaded. But if we do, we will soon find ourselves either restricted to a very narrow corner of the world where we can remain sane, or adrift in an ocean that we do not understand, and that seems to have no place for us. The world is big, people are diverse, and universal truth has to touch down in places where limited people live, work, worship, mourn, and celebrate.

The details matter. Praise God for the details.

The Future of Protestantism: A Personal Church History

Kicking Up Dust

A few months back, Dr. Peter Leithart kicked up some dust with his article titled “The End of Protestantism,” suggesting that although the Reformers were right to protest, the ground had shifted since the sixteenth century, and now was the time for their heirs to abandon tribal rhetoric and be at one with the church at large.

Though his call for church unity was admirable, the tack he took sparked a stir in the Protestant blogosphere, culminating in a talk at Biola. This mini-conference, “The Future of Protestantism,” featured Dr. Leithart, Dr. Carl Trueman, and Dr. Fred Sanders, with Peter Escalante moderating. Sectarianism was discussed as it effected intra-Protestant relations, confessional standards were referred to, and everyone gave their opinion on how to approach Catholics. Speculation ensued as to just what the future held for Protestantism, and how we ought to act in light of our place in that story.

During the Q&A period, one questioner asked whether perhaps the crisis was being exaggerated. Was institutional disunity really a problem? Doesn’t most of the country lump all Bible-believing Christians into one group? If that is how unbelievers see us, are denominational divisions really some sort of visible rift in the body of Christ?

This question resonated with me. I don’t believe the church has to be very monolithic in terms of doctrine, liturgy, or governance in order to live together in brotherly love, worship the same Savior, and preach the same Gospel. If the past saw Protestant sectarianism and division, everyone queuing up into their own little tribes, the future need not see us all join the same tribe in order to be part of the same body. Because I believe in justification by faith, I believe Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and any other brand of Christian are all part of the same body, regardless of whether they all send delegates to the same general assembly or subscribe to the same confession or statement of faith, or are ministered to by the same priesthood.

I say this as an individual with a history, a testimony of how my life in the Church has demonstrated the unity of Christ’s Body. My experience is not universal, but it does point to a way some people in some places have lived together in Christian brotherhood. I hope it can add something to the discussion.

Life of a Wandering Evangelical

My parents came to Christ and began attending church when I was very young, early enough that I’m not sure I remember a time when we didn’t follow the Lord. At first we attended a small Bible church on the campus of our local university. It was nondenominational, encompassing people of various broadly Evangelical, low-church bents.

Sunday nights all of us kids would participate in AWANAs, a non-denominational program used in churches across America. We memorized Bible verses, played games, learned lessons, and raced these awesome little wooden cars we made during the AWANA grand prix. There was also a Super Bowl Sunday thing, but that might have been just our church. But most of all, we learned the basics of the Gospel, and that Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.

During this time, my family began to listen to the local Christian radio station. There were actually two—one for teaching and talk, and one for contemporary Christian music. We did not spend a lot of time on the latter. This radio station connected us to the broader church in East Texas, the Bible Belt, and all over the USA. It was nondenominational, representing Evangelicals from widely scattered backgrounds. I heard more sermons during the years I listened to that station than the rest of my Sundays put together.

Eventually, I got into a groove. At six thirty in the morning—or was it seven?—I would listen to Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson. If I missed any of it, I could catch the rest in the evening at six. At six thirty was Adventures in Odyssey, also brought to you by Focus on the Family. By this time my family had usually gone their various ways, but I loved the seven o’clock show, Unshackled, which dramatized the conversion stories of countless people who had been wandering through life without Christ. And if I was having trouble sleeping, and midnight arrived, I could listen to Into the Night Live, with Dave Kirby and Dawson Macalister.

Sprinkled throughout the week, during the summers, and whenever my schedule was off, I could catch other preachers and speakers. I could hear Charles Stanley, Dr. Tony Evans, Chuck Colson, Adrian Rogers, or Alistair Begg. One of my favorite jokes—which I have so much trouble remembering—comes from a talk given by Ravi Zacharias. Nancy Leigh Demoss, Joni Eareckson Tada, David Jeremiah, and Ed Young all made significant dents in my soul. I’m sure my politics still carries the baggage of Kerby Anderson’s Point of View and Janet Parshall’s America.

Talk about a wave of nostalgia right there.

At the time I had no idea what denomination most of these guys were, nor did I care. The point was, they loved Jesus, and so did I. They wanted to see the world turned towards him, and so did I. The Bible was their book, and it was mine, and we were all in this together. Looking back, I realize that these folks included a slew of Baptists, what some have called a “Neo-Puritan,” a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and several people associated with nondenominational, broadly evangelical ministries. But as they came over the airwaves, those affiliations didn’t matter.

Eventually we switched to a Reformed Church, where both the family as a whole and myself in particular developed a more robust theology. We became acquainted with the history of the Protestant Reformation, familiar with several creeds and systematic theologians, and became conversant on issues which divided church from church, denomination from denomination. Confronted with this challenge, I began to identify myself as Reformed.

But during this time, not only did I continue to listen to the Christian radio station, I began attending a nondenominational Christian school. Though much of the board and many of the teachers were either from my church, or would later join it, I began rubbing shoulders with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Baptist, and Bible Church people. On a daily basis I was confronted with serious Christians not from my denomination—people I loved, whose opinions I respected. Over the next seven or eight years of my life, I was thoroughly inundated in a broad, evangelical Christianity.

This is not to say that there were never any rough times as bumped into one another. There were, though I doubt many of them really had much to do with liturgy or doctrine so much as personality. But for eighteen years I lived in a world where Christians of differing backgrounds working together was simply the norm. Perhaps we did not worship at the same church, and our congregations were not linked by the same conference, classis, or episcopacy, but so what? One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The Way Forward

I am not am academic theologian, a church historian, or a pastor. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but my experience does suggest that certain things are true.

First, Christians can work together despite denominational differences. It is achievable. In addition, it’s not a wild dream, a far off and unfulfilled item on a wish list. It has been done, is being done, and can continue to be done.

Second, we are already one Body. For those who recite the Apostle’s Creed, this is a part of our statement of faith we proclaim every Sunday. Not a goal, a statement of faith. We were all baptized into the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Not a Baptist Jesus, a Presbyterian Jesus, or a Pentecostal Jesus. One Lord. If we all worship him, we all confess him, all our hearts are changed by him, then it follows that in some respects we will never really be divided. That is the foundation of our unity.

But what about the things these three intelligent men suggested?

Does the Protestant church need to return to its confessional roots? Will this give us a robust theology, freeing us from having to define ourselves as not-the-other-guy? Or will it deepen divides by driving us back into various denominational ideals?

Will we find common ground in liturgical reform? Will common priorities in worship enable us to recognize our brothers washed with the same baptism and partaking in the same Supper? Or will our insistence that our brothers adopt a better sacramentology and theology of worship simply become another tribal marker?

Is dialogue the way forward? Should we meet our differences head-on, joining in discussion to find the truth together? Or does that open the way for concession and compromise and the slippery slope to a contentless faith?

I don’t know. These are all potentially fruitful areas of discussion. But as we pursue these lines of questioning, we ought to keep in mind that sometimes church unity is really not that far away. We find it in common schools or radio stations, shared ministries, and faith in the same Savior. Out of many members, there is one body. Denominational divisions need not be perceived as some crisis of disunity. Division may be a cause of discord, but it is also a prerequisite for harmony.

Just something to keep in mind.

Have a blessed evening.

Duck

Recently, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson got interviewed at GQ. Mr. Robertson is a Bible-thumping evangelical, a former partier, tail-chaser, and law-breaker that came to Christ and experienced a major course-correction back onto the straight and narrow. You can find his testimony, and more, at I Am Second. Lately, he’s been starring in an A&E TV show, along with his family. I’ve heard good things about the show, and about the godly way these north Louisiana rednecks conduct themselves on it. I wish I could give you a firsthand account, but I don’t have cable up here in the great white north.

Now Duck Dynasty has an appeal to a certain kind of person. A hunting and fishing sort of person. A unashamedly born-again Evangelical sort of person. The kind of person who’s fine with being considered a Bible-Belt hick. It’s a very specific sort of person that is not half as common in my circles, or in America at large, as it used to be.

The Christian Church is divided up along a lot of lines. Fundamentalists believe the Bible and couldn’t care less what anybody thinks. Hipsters are embarrassed by the fundamentalists, and try their darnedest to disown them. Theology wonks sit above the simplicity of the modern fray. Those committed to the causes of the Christian right are frustrated with both their more chill evangelical brethren, and the Christian left. And the libertarians are frustrated with everybody.

These are all folks I find in my own circles, before we even touch on actual denominational differences, or on racial divides. It’s shameful. Everybody thinks they know what the Church needs, and they’re willing to beat their brethren over the head until they see it too. There’s nothing wrong with being right, of course, but some wise men I know have a habit of saying “there’s a deeper right than being right.” Love the brethren.

So when Phil Robertson got on GQ and listed homosexuality with a half-dozen other perversions, and quoted the Apostle Paul saying such people would not inherit the kingdom of God, the reaction of the Church at large was nothing short of shocking to me.

At first, it was just Duck Dynasty fans posting articles on Facebook about the event. Of course they would, these were their kind of Bible-thumpers. But then the more trendy moderates joined in. Then the political pundits began to sound off, both the libertarians and more traditional conservatives. Even the theology wonks got into it. People I’d watched taking pot-shots at one another for years were lining up together behind Phil Robertson and St. Paul, all of them shouting a hearty “Amen!”

My friends are not exclusively conservative on issues of gay rights. There’s a lot of sympathy and moderate leanings, some libertarian-style neutrality, and people who couldn’t care less what the gays are doing while babies are still legally butchered. But everyone agreed on this: Phil had the right to say what he did, what he said was Scripture, and shame on A&E for suspending him over it.

When I woke up yesterday, the Church was a squabbling mess, a crowded mass of people who all needed Jesus very badly. When I woke up this morning, they were united. They were united behind the Bible, they were united behind an unpopular opinion, and they were united behind a redneck from the backwoods of north Louisiana.

Are all our problems solved? No. Do we still have a long ways to go before the Bride of Christ stands pure and unblemished? Yes. But when the Church stands together, however briefly, the Spirit is doing something. And when the Spirit moves, I have only one piece of advice for the world.

Duck.