“Celebrity Church” As An Artifact Of A Narrowing Culture

Over the past year or so I’ve followed a number of pieces on the growth of celebrity-driven church. This is the sort of language that a number of writers would apply to those handful of (mostly) men at the top of American evangelical culture. You know the ones I mean: Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, Al Mohler, Mark Dever and so on. There has been some concern about the power that these people wield, especially as it derives more from popularity than theological rigour or innovation or scholarship. What if this is nothing more than a symptom of a wider cultural phenomenon, that is of our unlimited access to media actually narrowing – not broadening – our culture? If you can’t get onto Google’s first page of search results, forget about it. How many people have an internet experience that is now dominated by a mere handful of sites? Culture makers know this, so they know to do the things that get the big hits. Why would someone setting up church conference think any different than a record producer or a web-savvy advertiser. Driscoll et al are just the cat videos of the Christian subculture.

Books At A Glance

I am happy to announce the launch of a new website that I am involved with called Books At A Glance. The purpose of the site is to relieve the frustration that all of us bibliophiles feel: There’s not enough time to read all of the books we want! Books At A Glance is designed to help streamline some of our reading habits by providing summaries, reviews, and author interviews of the latest books in the various theological disciplines.

If you are in the business world you are likely familiar with the concept of “executive reviews.” These are more than a book review, but a proper summary—roughly 7-10 pages—of a book to help readers get a sense of its content, flow, and argument. Books At A Glance capitalizes on this kind of summary. As our promo material says, these summaries enable you to “keep informed and up to date and widen your learning in minutes, without infringing on your schedule.” It also helps you figure out what books you want to purchase in order to dig deeper.

Books At A Glance is run by pastor-theologian Fred Zaspel, author of a number of important works on B. B. Warfield. Its Board of Reference includes Thabiti Anyabwile, Matthew Barrett, D. A. Carson, James Hamilton, Steve Nichols, Tom Schreiner, Carl Trueman, and others. I am privileged to be part of the editorial staff overseeing apologetics.

This is not a totally free website but requires membership for access to some key aspects of what is offered. I really do think that this is a worthwhile resource that will continue to grow and develop as the months go by. It is ideal for busy pastors who don’t have time to read all of the latest from good publishers, it is also useful for scholars who want to keep abreast of the most recent work.

Question: What About John Tombes?

For my paedobaptist friends who would argue that a Baptist cannot be “Reformed” based on our view of baptism, I am interested to know your thoughts on John Tombes (c. 1603-1676), whom Michael Renihan called an “Anglican Antipaedobaptist.” Should we think of Tombes as part of the Reformed tradition? He was an Anglican, yet he did not practice infant baptism. I’m not trying to be cheeky. I know how I would answer the question. I genuinely want to know how you would.

For Tombes’ writings against paedobaptism, see the collection at PRDL.

Charles M. Johnston

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The Canadian Baptist Historical Society held its annual meeting for 2014 this past Saturday at McMaster Divinity College. As this year marks the centenary of the Great War, the papers for this meeting were dedicated to commemorating it in relation to Canadian Baptists. Gord Heath of McMaster presented on the Boer War as a precursor to World War 1, looking at Canadian and New Zealand Baptist responses to it. I presented the chapter that I co-wrote with Michael Haykin on Canadian Baptist responses to the War, which was a real privilege for me. But by far the highlight lecture was given by McMaster’s official historian.

Charles M. Johnston penned the authorized history of McMaster University, a two-volume work published in the 1970s. Although it is out of print, it remains a major source for any researcher looking into the period we were exploring on Saturday. As I wrote my chapter last year, Johnston’s first volume was always ready to hand. So, when I heard Dr. Johnston was presenting, I was thrilled. And I must say, he far exceeded my expectations.

Dr. Johnston is now 88 years old, and is legally blind (though he can see if he holds an object close to his eyes). I didn’t realize this when he ascended the lectern. All I kept thinking was, “He looks like Jack Palance.” I did notice, however, that he did not have any notes with him. I was sitting next to Dr. Haykin, who leaned over to me to whisper Johnston’s age, with a sense of marvel in his tone. Finding out that the reason he had no notes was due to his blindness amazed us even further.

I must say, even if Dr. Johnston had his notes, I would have been thrilled with his lecture. It was wonderfully crafted, beginning with a biographical sketch of Bernard Trotter, whom he likened to being Canada’s version of Siegfried Sassoon, and then winding to another sketch of the great Canadian intellectual Harold Innis. He also discussed the role that women played in Canadian physics during the war, and the great cost to McMaster as a result of her sending men overseas. He was gregarious, hilarious, and incredibly informative. It was a lecture I could only give in my dreams.

And to think, he delivered this wonderfully crafted lecture—that went for over an hour—without recourse to notes!

I wanted to give him a standing ovation at the end of it.

When I spoke with him and his lovely wife after the meeting, and thanked him deeply for such a wonderful talk, I was delighted to find out that she was a major reason why this lecture was so excellent. After he typed it, using a computer at 26 point font, she read and reread it over and over to him to help him commit it to memory. I thought that was deeply touching. Every once in a while, during his talk, I would glance at her, and she sat totally riveted to her husband, smiling at certain points. What a wonderful team!

May God help me to have that kind of marriage, and that kind of ability as an historian when I’m 88! Dr. Johnston was a real model for us, and put us all to shame.

The Unlikely Evangelist

Centurion's servant Paolo Veronese

Unearthed in a longish Andrew Sullivan thread about atheists relating to religious culture:

Recently a young fellow who openly identified as atheist began attending the same church I do, and by attending I mean fully participating: small group meetings, community service projects, Sunday School – the whole nine yards. It turns out, he is there for much the same reason I am, because he needs friends and community and a church can be a good place to find it.  He is welcomed with open arms and loved by everyone.

Fast forward to a recent Sunday meal with a young couple who also turned up at our church.  When the question was asked how they found out about our church, the answer was through our young atheist friend.  ”We thought if you accepted him, then we’d have a place too.” As it turns out, our atheist has been the best recruiter our little church has ever had.  I count at least eight regular attendees he brought with him. Some of them were already people of faith, some were searching, and others were just lonely.

I love that kid and the way he has opened up space in our midst. The church should be a place of refuge for everyone and when it truly is people just might start coming.

This is remarkable for a variety of reasons – perhaps most that the church has been so embracing of this young man and that he has reciprocated by inviting so many people to this church. On another note there is something about this story that is quite satisfying to me but that I fear some would find dissatisfying: we have almost no way to identify this church or its denomination or its theology. It reads as broadly Protestant to me, but who knows, maybe the writer is a Protestant convert to Catholicism who still uses Protestant language. I suspect this is in the American South where church still has something of a central role in allowing people to find social connection in the broader community. But I have no idea. Is this church mainline? Is it Reformed? Is it Pentecostal? We don’t know. So no one gets to boast about how missional their tribe is and conversely no one gets to criticize another tribe for being so apostate as to having an atheist act as their chief evangelist.

Richard Hooker on Music

Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 5.38.1 and 3 (with some extra paragraph spacing to make it more readable), on music:

Touching musical harmony whether by instrument or by voice, it being but of high and low in sounds a due proportionable disposition, such notwithstanding is the force thereof, and so pleasing effects it hath in that very part of man which is most divine, that some have been thereby induced to think that the soul itself by nature is or hath in it harmony. A thing which delighteth all ages and beseemeth all states; a thing as seasonable in grief as in joy; as decent being added unto actions of greatest weight and solemnity, as being used when men most sequester themselves from action.

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other. In harmony the very image and character even of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves.

For which cause there is nothing more contagious and pestilent than some kinds of harmony; than some nothing more strong and potent unto good. And that there is such a difference of one kind from another we need no proof but our own experience, inasmuch as we are at the hearing of some more inclined unto sorrow and heaviness; of some, more mollified and softened in mind; one kind apter to stay and settle us, another to move and stir our affections; there is that draweth to a marvellous grave and sober mediocrity, there is also that carrieth as it were into ecstasies, filling the mind with an heavenly joy and for the time in a manner severing it from the body.

So that although we lay altogether aside the consideration of ditty or matter, the very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort and carried from the ear to the spiritual faculties of our souls, is by a native puissance and efficacy greatly available to bring to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled, apt as well to quicken the spirits as to allay that which is too eager, sovereign against melancholy and despair, forcible to draw forth tears of devotion if the mind be such as can yield them, able both to move and to moderate all affections.

…In church music curiosity and ostentation of art, wanton or light or unsuitable harmony, such as only pleaseth the ear, and doth not naturally serve to the very kind and degree of those impressions, which the matter that goeth with it leaveth or is apt to leave in men’s minds, doth rather blemish and disgrace that we do than add either beauty or furtherance unto it. On the other side, these faults prevented, the force and efficacy of the thing itself, when it drowneth not utterly but fitly suiteth with matter altogether sounding to the praise of God, is in truth most admirable, and doth much edify if not the understanding because it teacheth not, yet surely the affection, because therein it worketh much. They must have hearts very dry and tough, from whom the melody of psalms doth not sometime draw that wherein a mind religiously affected delighteth.

Be it as Rabanus Maurus observeth, that at the first the Church in this exercise was more simple and plain than we are, that their singing was little more than only a melodious kind of pronunciation, that the custom which we now use was not instituted so much for their cause which are spiritual, as to the end that into grosser and heavier minds, whom bare words do not easily move, the sweetness of melody might make some entrance for good things. St. Basil himself acknowledging as much, did not think that from such inventions the least jot of estimation and credit thereby should be derogated: “For” (saith he) “whereas the Holy Spirit saw that mankind is unto virtue hardly drawn, and that righteousness is the less accounted of by reason of the proneness of our affections to that which delighteth; it pleased the wisdom of the same Spirit to borrow from melody that pleasure, which mingled with heavenly mysteries, causeth the smoothness and softness of that which toucheth the ear, to convey as it were by stealth the treasure of good things into man’s mind. To this purpose were those harmonious tunes of psalms devised for us, that they which are either in years but young, or touching perfection of virtue as yet not grown to ripeness, might when they think they sing, learn. O the wise conceit of that heavenly Teacher, which hath by his skill, found out a way, that doing those things wherein we delight, we may also learn that whereby we profit!”

In Praise of Great Men

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Our “post-modern” age (if there is such a thing) is sometimes skeptical, and even cynical, about “great men”. And frequently, that cynicism is not entirely unjustified. Great men, in the sense of historically significant men, have often not been good men. That being acknowledged (and it cannot be ignored), I want to make two brief points in reply.

Firstly, while I would not wish the “new” kinds of history to disappear, I don’t think history can be done without significant study of “great men”. This is because history is the search for the causes of contingent events, and when it comes to human history, those causes can and do include the actions of individuals. And “great men” are called that precisely because they produced widespread effects. For this reason alone, a complete understanding of history cannot overlook them.

Secondly, I think there’s something to be said for the value of great men in moral education. Certainly, educating people to be virtuous, to be good, is more important than making them “great”. To some degree, the extent of our effects on the world is a matter beyond our control; our character, however, is something much more directly under our control. So it makes sense to focus more intensely on changing the things we can change. Nevertheless, I don’t see what’s intrinsically wrong with having widespread significance, and so I don’t think it can be intrinsically wrong to desire such a significance. Pride in one’s greatness would of course be wrong, and greatness provides an occasion for pride that is not present otherwise. Yet, excellence in anything, including character, provides such an occasion. So the hazard does not ultimately make such a goal illicit.

Further, while I think utilitarianism is wrong to say that the only standard of right is “what maximizes the good”, still, taking into account that other things are intrinsically wrong, all other things being equal, “maximizing the good” is a noble goal. And I’m not sure how one can have such an aspiration without implicitly desiring to be “great”, at least in the sense of “causing widespread effects”.

Finally, it is true, most people will never be “great”. For this reason, it is unreasonable for an individual to assume they will be great, and it is even more unreasonable to place that expectation on others. Because our “greatness” in a historical sense is contingent upon so many things beyond our control (above all, the will of God), we can never take such a verdict on our life for granted. Yet, with that important qualification in place, I don’t see a reason to absolutely prohibit a desire to have widespread beneficial effects.

So I still think there’s a case to be made for studying “great men”, and studying to be among their company.

Millennials and Civil Society

A recent report by the Pew Research Center on millennials gives some worrying news:

The portrait painted of Millennial Americans by the Pew Research Center in its new report Millennials in Adulthood is not rosy. Sure, compared with earlier generations, Millennials (now aged 18 to 33) are exceptionally tolerant, optimistic about their economic future, and connected to friends, family, and colleagues on the “new platforms of the digital era” — from Facebook to Twitter. But this report makes clear that Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak. …

If today’s events in Europe, not to mention of the last century, tell us anything, it is that a generation of young adults “unmoored” from the institutions of work, family, and civil society, and distrustful of their fellow citizens, can end up succumbing to the siren song of demagogues, especially if the economy dips into a depression.

The Ethical Capitalist

Zizek on the ethical commitments of the true capitalist:

“Look at an ideal capitalist – ideal type I mean. I know some of them, fanatical businessmen. Well all I can tell you is if ever I encounter a non-hedonist, a non-egotist guy it’s a totally dedicated capitalist. My god a proper capitalist is ready – I don’t know – to ruin his family life, practically not to sleep, work night and day just that there is circulation and expansion of capital. Capitalists are not hedonist egotists they are on the contrary extremely dedicated to some perverted quasi-ethical cause – capital has to circulate.”

The question is whether this ethical frame is or can be squared with Christian ethics. The reflexive answer in North America is “yes” but this description of the life of a true capitalist would seem to raise a challenge to that.

Peter Martyr Vermigli on Final Justification

In the past I have discussed the Reformed tradition’s variety regarding the doctrine of final justification by works. There are at least two, or maybe three, different ways that members of that tradition have formulated the relation between initial justification by faith alone, and the final judgment which in some sense will take works into account. Peter Martyr Vermigli is another example of the stream that was comfortable speaking of two justifications:

A different kind of justification follows this upright life of holiness by which we are clearly praised, approved and declared just. For although good works do not bring that first righteousness which is given freely, yet they point to it and show it is present. Hence Abraham is told in the book of Genesis: “Now I know that you fear God, because you have done this thing and have not spared your own son for my sake.” Surely God was not previously unaware of Abraham’s piety; only then does he testify that it will be apparent to all what Abraham’s faith and religion were like. So too David, because of his upright life, is pronounced as a man after God’s own heart, and Job is called holy and just, as are Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Joseph, the man betrothed to the blessed Virgin. And surely we ourselves are also assured and we realize that we are enriched with good works. Peter urges us to make our righteousness sure by this means. And on this same basis we will be justified by Christ in the last judgment by the remembrance of good works, that is, we will be declared just, on the testimony of mercy shown to our neighbors. Since it has been exhibited by us, it will be an indication that the chief and solid righteousness which we dealt with in the first place was not lacking. [p. 147 from The Peter Martyr Reader; excerpted from In Selectissimam D. Pauli Priorem ad Corinthios Epistolam Commentarij (from Vermigli's commentary on 1 Corinthians)]