On This Day…

…if you get what that title means, then you know what this post is about. Today marks one hundred years since the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the event that triggered World War I. Apropos this anniversary I want to direct you to the CBC Ideas episode (also available as a podcast) in which they interview Margaret MacMillan on the matter. The most striking assertion she makes is that World War I was not, as conventional wisdom often puts it, inevitable.

Lessons From The 9/11 Gift Shop

The 9/11 Cheese Plate: Yes, this was a thing.

The 9/11 Cheese Plate: Yes, this was a thing.

There is a tendency to point to this or that stadium or edifice in modern cities around the world and hold it up as a sort of secular church or a temple to some kind of civic religion. There is probably no greater example of this kind of building in North America though than the newly opened 9/11 museum in Lower Manhattan. This is no small part of the reason why there has been such a negative reaction to the 9/11 Museum Gift Shop. This is a place where one can purchase 9/11 mugs, t-shirts, keychains, and, until it was pulled from the shelves, the 9/11 cheese plate pictured above.

Once the tales of the 9/11 cheese plate when viral, all manner of people expressed the level of outrage one might expect for a 9/11 cheese plate. Out of everything written about this, the most cogent observations was this one from psychologist Philip Tetlock:

“[Tetlock] distinguishes between three kinds of exchanges. First are routine trade-offs, in which one swaps one “secular” value or entity for another — by, say, paying money (the most secular good we have) for an iPad or some other commodity. Second are tragic trade-offs, in which “sacred” or irreplaceable entities are weighed against each other — national security or citizen privacy? Sophie’s older child or her younger one? Then you have taboo trade-offs, in which a secular value is paired with a sacred one. People tend to throw prostitution into this category, which is why it incites such fierce debate.”

The 9/11 gift shop, in the eyes of many, is trafficking in taboo trade-offs. It doesn’t matter if the money that the gift shop raises helps to fund the museum (which means that this isn’t technically a taboo trade-off – as the article linked above makes clear), the perception is that this is profiteering from tragedy. The 9/11 museum is an easy target for this outrage as the nature of its mission is one that approaches the sacred. You should probably get the sense that there is a message here that relates to churches, you’re right, elsewhere in the same article:

Organizations that are expected to honor the sacred can get into trouble when they rely on commercial practices. In a recent study, Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Janet Schwartz of Tulane University, and Tetlock found that people were less likely to attend a church that used marketing tactics such as advertising and hiring a celebrity endorser than one that marketed by offering workshops or creating an online forum.”

These are, of course, really obvious examples of commercialization, but I wonder if the same phenomenon might explain why so many people are wary of, say, churches that look like shopping malls or warehouses, or perhaps church music that’s a little too contemporary (says the guy who plays electric bass in worship services), or pastors in Hawaiian shirts. If taboo trade-offs make many of us uncomfortable even to the point of not liking the mere appearance of them, maybe we need to rethink contemporary services in contemporary buildings with casual-Fridays-looking pastors?

Racism and Bullying in Canada

I heard a horrible story on the CBC news this morning about an eleven year old boy named Torrence Collier who is the victim of racist bullying in Westport, Newfoundland. It is so bad that he has to have security protection in his school and has to use a separate washroom, all because he is the only black kid on the island. Torrence has expressed the desire to die. Sadly, I am not surprised that this sickening, racist behaviour can happen in Canadian society. This is the wickedness of sin in the human heart. Torrence’s story has bothered me, so I ended up finding him on Facebook to send him a message. There is no “add friend” option, which must be a means of protecting him. I decided to send him a message, but his security function wouldn’t allow me to. I thought I would post what I wrote here in case he happened to Google himself. I hope it is of some encouragement.

Hi Torrence,

I don’t know if you’re the young man being bullied that I heard about on the CBC this morning. But if so, I am so sorry for what you are going through. Please know that the horrid things that people in your community say about you is not actually about you. Racism is not about the person being picked on, but is about the evil in the hearts of the racists.
God created all people equally in his image, you can read about that in the opening book of the bible called Genesis. You are God’s creation and he values you and loves you more than you will ever know. God hates racism. He always stands with those who are picked on. Jesus was despised and hated by the whole world, and even his friends turned their backs on him. Yet he showed the greatest act of love on the cross by saving us from our sins. You can read about that in the bible in the Gospel of Matthew.
Don’t let these racists get you down, because they will win if you do. Rise above them and show them love and grace. This can make you into a kind and caring person and can help you help others who will face the same sad things you are facing. You’re a young man, and these are difficult things to process, but pray for God’s grace to help you. I will pray for you.

God bless,

His community should be utterly ashamed of themselves. I hope his parents get out of there.


***UPDATE*** Bob Robinson kindly took the time to interact with my blogpost in the comments which you can read here. I respond to it here where I concede that I was wrong in my first criticism, but believe that the others stand. ***UPDATE***

There are a number of problems with Bob Robinson’s article, “So What is Wrong with Neo-Calvinism?” In it Mr. Robinson argues that it is better to call the Young, Restless, Reformed movement “Neo-Puritan” instead of Neo-Calvinist. I will highlight some of the historical problems with this very briefly here:

1) Mr. Robinson lends credence to the criticism of some “Old Calvinists” that due to the preponderance of Baptists in the YRR movement, it should not be called “Reformed,” hence why Mr. Robinson prefers the term “Puritan.” The problem with this assertion is that the Puritans were part of the period scholars call Reformed orthodoxy. I am not sure how “Neo-Puritan” helps protect the integrity of “Reformed” from us Baptists. Likewise, calling YRR “Puritan” does not mitigate the problem of covenant or baptism—representative Puritans were covenant theologians and paedobaptists. The early Particular Baptists were also strongly covenantal.

2) Mr. Robinson fails to provide an adequate definition of the term Puritan. Contrary to his use of the term, Puritanism was not a monolithic movement and included non-Calvinists such as the important John Goodwin who was an Arminian. Likewise, what about the General Baptists? They were Puritans and also Arminian. If you follow the work of the late Geoffrey Nuttall, a Puritan expert, then other more fringe groups like the Quakers were also Puritans. Patrick Collinson famously defined a Puritan as a Protestant of the “hotter sort.” You can see my article “Hot Protestants: A Taxonomy of English Puritanism” for reasons why this is a better way to understand the movement.

3) In a chart seeking to provide the historical provenance of the Puritan movement, Mr. Robinson looks to Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) as the first or quintessential Puritan. The problem is that historians of evangelicalism like David Bebbington categorize Edwards as an evangelical not a Puritan. This points to the related problem of determining when the Puritan movement came to a close. Some scholars argue that Puritanism ended with the Act of Uniformity and the Great Ejection of 1662. For myself, I have argued in the essay linked above that the Puritan movement largely ended at the death of the last representative Puritan John Howe (1630-1705). While some romantically like to call Edwards, Spurgeon, and even Lloyd-Jones the “last great Puritan,” it remains the case that none of these were Puritans rightly so-called. Puritanism was largely a seventeenth-century phenomenon.

4) Related to point 3, Mr. Robinson fails to see the variegated nature of his own example of “Puritans,” lumping Owen, Baxter (not a Calvinist strictly speaking), and Edwards together as though they all shared the same theological perspective. Edwards is very, very different in terms of his theological emphases than Owen. And Owen and Baxter were engaged in a lengthy theological debate. None of these men should be conflated as Mr. Robinson does.

Although there are others, these historical problems undermine Mr. Robinson’s thesis. For a more detailed analysis on how to define Puritanism see Randall J. Pederson’s Unity in Diversity.

Against Sexual Abuse

I found this podcast really significant for a number of reasons:

  • The Mortification of Spin hosts have very strong Reformed bona fides so none of the SGM lackeys (or other sex predator apologists) can say that this podcast was somehow theologically motivated and an attack on conservative, complementarian, Reformed, evangelical Christianity. A strong stance against abusers is congruent with Reformed theology, and an attempt to make this about some kind of spat with the Tchividjian boys is merely a red herring.
  • Their guest, Diane Langberg, made the important point that stories of domestic abuse are almost never fabricated – there is no hiding in the fog of, “oh well, it’s he-said vs she-said, how can we know” on this matter.
  • The hosts made it clear that an abuser of children who has truly repented will want nothing to do with children and will happily accept a church that would rather bring the service to him than have any children put at risk. Anyone hiding behind some BS like, “isn’t the church all about forgiveness?” as a means to gain access to children and escape oversight is not truly repenting.
  • The only part I felt they missed on was perhaps spending more time on the importance of going to civil authorities. It grieves me that there are still churches who can believe that these matters can be handled in house. Thought experiment: what if the abuser was a serial car thief instead – can anyone not imagine a pastor urging that man to turn himself into the civil authorities?

Make no mistake, these wolves are stalking your churches, their victims are in your pews.

What Questions Are We Asking?

While discussing the place of Christians in contemporary academic and intellectual life, Charles Taylor writes in his concluding reflections to A Catholic Modernity? about how an atmosphere of unbelief has shaped not just the answers given in those places, but even the questions that are asked:

Add to this that beginning students are rarely too clear about what remarks they want to make anyway; we have more in the nature of confused intuitions at that stage (indeed, we have a lot of those at this stage, too), and we can easily understand how a student slides into a pattern of conformity, which may then become a lifelong habit.

A striking example of this preshaped agenda is the aspect of moral theory which I talked about in Sources [of the Self] and again in my lecture here. I argued in the lecture that a key issue for our times is that of moral sources, whether, for instance, we can maintain the high level of philanthropy and solidarity we now demand of ourselves, without these degenerating into their opposites: contempt, the need to control. The issue here is the quality of our moral motivation–in more old-fashioned terms, the quality of our will and the nature of the vision that sustains it.

Plato or Aristotle would have understood what I was talking about, although, of course, not the Christian or modern reference points of my discussion. But modern moral philosophy, particularly in the analytic world, has undergone a drastic foreshortening. These issues just fall off the agenda. For those thinking in the wake of the utilitarians and Kant, for instance, the principal moral question is, What ought we to do? (as against What is good to be? or What should we love?), and the principal task of moral philosophy is to find the principle or principles from which we can derive what we ought to do (the greatest happiness, or universalization, of whatever).

I was struck in some of the comments on Sources by how many people couldn’t seem to grasp what question I was addressing. They took “moral sources” to be another name for the highest principles. They literally couldn’t think outside the contemporary agenda.

But, one wants to protest, don’t you see that it also matters whether people can actually bring themselves to do the right thing? But then your interlocutor looks at you blankly and says: of course, but that’s not moral philosophy; how people actually get motivated, that’s in the domain of psychology, or sociology, or whatever.

In other words, these two issues, what we should do and how we come to do it, which were unproblematically seen as part of the same inquiry by Plato, Augustine, and just about everybody else until the last three centuries, have been neatly sundered and placed in noncommunicating intellectual universes. (119-120)

Calvin and Niccolo

…or, more accurately, the Calvinists against the Machiavellians. The pseudonymously-authored and famous Huguenot treatise Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos has been a subject of fascination for me for many years, but upon reading the recently published edition (1999) I learned something new about it. That is, while it certainly had Catholic-Protestant conflict in its background, in fact it explicitly aims not at refuting Catholicism, but rather Machiavellianism. George Garnett, the editor of the new edition, writes:

It has been argued that the preface’s promise of an anti-Machievellian treatise is not fulfilled in the book which follows. … But… this misses the point of the preface. Cono Superantius argued that an effective response could be mounted against ‘the Machiavellians and their books’ only by referring the ‘rule of princes and the right of peoples … to their legitimate and certain first principles’. Brutus had later sent him ‘a book of these investigations, which comprises these principles, and proves and expounds them’ … . Gentillet recognised that there was little point in trying to engage with Machiavelli’s arguments on their own terms: Machiavelli and the Machiavellians could only be answered effectively by pinning down the moral descriptions which they had made so slippery. And this could only be done by grounding the moral order, and therefore the governmental order, in the order of nature, created by God. This is precisely what the author of the Vindiciae attempts to do… . (xxi-xxii)

Garnett also notes that there may be some truth to the then common insinuation that the French royal government of the time really was inspired by Machiavelli:

The author of Le Tocsain, published in the year to which the preface is dated, claimed that Catherine de Medici had used Il principe as a text book for her children, and that ‘it might be described as her Bible’. If Boucher is to be believed, Henri III had learned his lessons well at his mother’s knee: he kept a copy always in his pocket, for ready reference, when he needed guidance on how to be most effectively evil. A defamatory slur this may be, but the king’s letters sometimes seem to echo the precepts and even the phrasing of Il principe. (xxi)

And to the degree Machievellianism is alive and well in the minds of the powerful today, Vindiciae may continue to have some relevance.

Words that Produce Worship

John Piper released a book today on what might be categorized as rhetoric and its relation to piety: Seeing Beauty and Saying BeautifullyOne observation he made based on his own experience struck a chord with me. I can recall similar moments in my own life, where, as he puts it, “The effort to put a glimpse of glory into striking or moving words made the glimpse grow.”

This put into words what I have found to be true for decades. The effort to put the truth of God, and all his ways and works, into fresh language—something that may have never been spoken before—is a way of coming near to God, because of seeing and feeling more suitably. “While I use [that is while I make poetic effort], I am with Thee.”

Herbert confirmed for me in his experience what has been an indispensable part of my preaching and writing. I don’t mean just the writing of poems but also the writing of sermons and books and letters and most anything else that matters. Every sermon was an opportunity not just to say but to see and savor. Every effort to speak the wonders of the Word of God became a fresh seeing and a fresh savoring. The pressure to prepare a fresh word from God week by week was one of the greatest gifts of my life. The effort to say beautifully was a way of seeing beauty. The effort to put a glimpse of glory into striking or moving words made the glimpse grow. The effort to find worthy words for Christ opened to me more fully the worth of Christ. (39)

Carl Trueman Was on David Letterman?

Say what? Yes, that’s right. You heard correctly. The inestimable Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary recently sang his heart out on David Letterman. Reviews have called his performance both “manly” and “refreshing.” But, you be the judge. Behold …..

By the way, he really gets going at 3:00.

Patriotism and History

Speaking about the biases that can influence the way an historian writes history, Charles Francis Adams Jr. says,

For in the study of history there should be but one law for all. Patriotism, piety and filial duty have nothing to do with it;–they are, indeed, mere snares and sources of delusion. The rules and canons of criticism applied in one case and to one character, must be sternly and scrupulously applied in all other similar cases and to all other characters; and, while surrounding circumstances should, and, indeed, must be taken into careful consideration, no matter who is concerned. Patriotism in the study of history is but another name for provincialism. To see history truly and correctly, it must be viewed as a whole.

Charles Francis Adams, Massachusetts: Its Historians and Its History, An Object Lesson (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893), 12.

Though his primary concern is patriotism when it comes to writing on colonial history, this can apply just as readily to Christian historians who obscure the past to serve pious ends.