Dr. Craig Keener is unarguably one of the world’s top scholars on the topic of miracles, and he recently delivered a lecture series on the subject that is well worth hearing if you want to get a fraction of his argument from his massive Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. This will be of interest to cessationists, materialists, and those who are neither.
In an old essay from City Journal, philosopher Roger Scruton meditates upon the nature and ubiquity of kitsch. He contends “In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it.” This also, helpfully, gives Scruton’s understanding of the essence of kitsch. He elaborates more fully a little later:
Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel.
Kitsch therefore relies on codes and clichés that convert the higher emotions into a pre-digested and trouble-free form—the form that can be most easily pretended. Like processed food, kitsch avoids everything in the organism that asks for moral energy and so passes from junk to crap without an intervening spell of nourishment.
Scruton contends that a major part of the origin of kitsch in the modern world is the decline of religion, but he also notes that this was precisely the sphere in which we first find it, and that it has persisted there to this day:
This work of the imagination is not possible for everyone; and in an age of mass communication, people learn to dispense with it. And that is how kitsch arises—when people who are avoiding the cost of the higher life are nevertheless pressured by the surrounding culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.
Hence the earliest manifestations of kitsch are in religion: the plaster saints and doe-eyed madonnas that sprang up during the nineteenth century in every Italian church, the cult of Christmas and the baby Jesus that replaced the noble tragedy of Easter and the narrative of our hard-won redemption. Kitsch now has its pantheon of deities—deities of make-believe like Santa Claus—and its book of saints and martyrs, saints of sentiment like Linda McCartney and martyrs to self-advertisement like Princess Diana. …
Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline. (Think of the Disneyland versions of monarchical and state occasions that are rapidly replacing the old stately forms.) It is impossible to flee from kitsch by taking refuge in religion, when religion itself is kitsch. The “modernization” of the Roman Catholic Mass and the Anglican prayer book were really a “kitschification”: and attempts at liturgical art are now poxed all over with the same disease. The day-to-day services of the Christian churches are embarrassing reminders of the fact that religion is losing its sublime godwardness and turning instead toward the world of fake sentiment.
Is there anywhere we can turn to escape kitsch? Scruton is pessimistic:
Can we escape from kitsch? In real life, it surrounds us on every side. Pop music, cartoons, Christmas cards—these are familiar enough. But the escape routes are also kitsched. Those who flee from the consumer society into the sanctuary of New Age religion, say, find that the walls are decorated with the familiar sticky clichés and that the background music comes from Ketelbey via Vangelis and Ravi Shankar. The art museums are overflowing with abstract kitsch, and the concert halls have been colonized by a tonal minimalism that suffers from the same disease. Nor is the world of politics immune. The glimpses that we see of life in Baghdad show a return to the high kitsch of Nazi Germany, with portraits of the Leader in heroic postures and architectural extravanganzas that outdo the most camp of Mussolini’s stage sets. But look at our own political world and we encounter kitsch of another and more comical kind. The kitsch-fly has laid its eggs in every office of state, and gradually the organism is softening. What is Monica Lewinsky if not kitsch, object and subject of the most expensive fake emotion since Caligula? The epic of which she was a part is in the style of Walt Disney, and the object of her affections was not a president but a “president.”
He does offer a glimmer of hope, or at least a project to be undertaken, at the end of his essay, but I will leave the reader to pursue it at its source.
This year he lectured on the same subject, and added some further thoughts, including a useful reflection on the case of people of sincere faith who value kitsch. See here:
There are very few people outside of Mars Hill leadership who can still be considered Mark Driscoll “apologists” but there are still a fair number of people in the world of conservative evangelicalism who would be very prepared, even eager, to welcome back a restored Mark Driscoll who can convincingly claim that he has learned to not be a mean-spirited or abusive leader. This post nicely sums up where a lot of people in the evangelical-reformed camp are with Mark Driscoll: he’s screwed up, pretty badly even, but at least he’s not like Rob Bell. John Piper’s contrasting tweets about Bell (farewell) and Driscoll (paraphrased: please come back soon, everyone should be rooting for you) have been pointed out by at least a few people. Geiger’s post draws the contrast that I think many have implicitly drawn: sure Driscoll has messed up in his leadership style, but at least his doctrine is solid.
It’s strange to me that so many in Driscoll’s tribe think that he’s come through all of this with his doctrine intact, since that same tribe appears to take a very great interest in pastoral epistles. One of the centrepieces of the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement (which is fast becoming the “middle-aged, grumpy and still Reformed” movement, but I digress) has been its emphasis on complementarian theology, which is largely derived from the qualifications for elders that are laid out these same pastoral epistles. It would be beyond bizarre for a group that holds to and carefully justifies male eldership (something that they need to do in an age that is much friendlier to the egalitarian position) for them to not have noticed that in the same books there were all these other qualifications for eldership that Driscoll did not meet. Contra Geiger I must say that Driscoll has guarded neither his life nor his doctrine.
Paul Helm makes an important observation about the need to keep in mind the historical circumstances of the drafting of a creed or confession:
One of the things that the recently-published volumes on the work of the Westminster Assembly has brought home is the adventitious or accidental aspect of the Confession, the way it was composed, what was put in and what left out. (Chad Van Dixhoorn (ed.) The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, (OUP, 2012)). The finished product was influenced by the pressure of time, the opinion of the majority of divines who on a particular day happened to be attending a committee or sub-committee, parliamentary pressure to get a particular job done, interruptions, and no doubt the mood of the meetings. Together with the clashes of personalities, the hobby-horses, and so forth. Cold print cannot convey this. In such circumstances, in the messiness of human life, the articles that resulted, chapters in the Confession, were a series of compromises, clause by clause in some cases, and we must remember that. As the debate on one matter was brought to an end, and a majority were content with some particular wording, a minority or minorities were not content, or not as content. In the nature of things confessions and creeds are forms of compromise draftings that attract a majority on a particular day.
There was a fun little post on Buzzfeed a while ago titled “33 Ways You Know You Were A Youth Group Kid” about the cultural trappings of 1990s and early 2000s church youth groups. Most of what was in this article was stuff that I could immediately identify from my own adolescence as a youth group kid and/or my early 20s as an adult leader of church youth groups. Go read the article all about Teen Study Bibles and dc Talk and lock-ins and you can get a sense of this little parallel universe that suburban church kids like me inhabited. While my first impulse was to look at this and think, oh that’s nice, someone else remembers the stuff I remember, I think this goes a little deeper. I do not know if white evangelical Christianity realizes how much of the contemporary church is driven by the cultural forces that developed in and for all those church basements, gyms and multi-purpose rooms fifteen to twenty years ago. I had forgotten about this for a while, but I was reminded of it by a post pondering why there are so many nearly identical church plants popping up in North American cities. Look at the cues described:
Approximately 15 minutes of praise music, played by a rock band.
A projector, sound system and stage lighting
A separate nursery and children’s program concurrent with “big church”
A 25 to 40 minute sermon delivered by a young, informally dressed man
An offering, plus maybe a sacrament (communion, etc.)
A closing song or two, also led by the rock band.
Service length: between 70 and 90 minutes.
Now go back to that Buzzfeed article describing the lives of teenage youth group kids with their treasured Jars of Clay CDs, think about the length of a typical youth group weeknight program, probably 70-90 minutes. Guess what happened almost every week? A bible study centred on the words of a young, informally dressed man, who probably did most of the talking for, oh, say, 25 to 40 minutes. And yes, all our worship lyrics were projected onto a screen. The church-planting (and re-planting) model that has widely been embraced in the 2000s and 2010s is not something that appeared out of nowhere, I imagine it is simply a continuation of everything that those most passionate youth group kids – the ones who went to bible college and seminary afterwards – enjoyed about their Wednesday or Thursday evenings at “Fuel, The Edge, Fire, Reverb, The Blaze, Kindle, or Echo.“
It’s nothing that Driscoll himself has said, it’s nothing that any of his accusers have said, for me, it’s this:
“But the brashness and the arrogance and the rudeness in personal relationships — which he himself has confessed repeatedly — was obvious to many from the earliest days, and he has definitely now disillusioned quite a lot of people.”
This is a quote that the New York Times collected from none other than Tim Keller. I’m not sure if Keller will expand on this at all, but what he says here is pretty damning for both Mark and for the larger movement of American Calvinism. Arrogance, rudeness – and that it was obvious even from the “earliest days.” I don’t know what Keller means by “earliest days” – I assume that when Mars Hill was nothing but a bible study on the other coast that Keller had no idea about it, but certainly by the mid-2000s, Keller had to have had Driscoll on his radar. Ten years. Given how seriously most in the Reformed community take the pastoral epistles, I want to know how Keller et al squared a brash, arrogant, rude man whose traits were “obvious” with the requirements for church eldership.
This disturbs me because Keller, of all the leaders of the conservative, evangelical Reformed church in the US, is the one for whom I have the greatest respect. He has been successful as a church planter and pastor without seeming to get enmeshed in the scandals of spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, or any kind of financial wrongdoing. It disappoints me though that he is now appearing to admit that those around Driscoll who had the most power to rebuke or blunt him kept their mouths shut because they thought that Driscoll was effective as a communicator.
When thinking about Great Awakening preaching we often think of the emotional outbursts that accompanied it. Consider the response to Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, how people openly wailed at Whitefield’s itinerant ministry, or how people fell as if struck under Wesley’s. In light of this, I was interested to read this comment by Hughes Oliphant Old about Samuel Davies, a revival preacher of the same period, who was known as one of America’s greatest orators:
His sermons are theologically sound, but even more importantly, they are theologically perceptive. Davies drew large crowds and was a popular preacher, as were George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent, and yet we never hear of emotional outbursts attending his preaching. He was a consummate orator, yet never a rabble-rouser. He was prophetic and preached about sensitive problems of the day without any trace of the contentiousness we find in some of the New Lights of lesser magnitude. He seemed to be equally at home preaching to black slaves and to Virginia planters. His preaching was both fervent and gentlemanly.
Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 5: Moderatism, Pietism, and Awakening (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 154.
Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) was an influential nonconformist minister and educator who ran the dissenting academy in Northampton. He wrote a number of books, including the now class Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). Though a Calvinist, he was open to other theological perspectives, including Arianism. Though his language was at times confused, he was ultimately orthodox. See the words of Van Den Berg and Nuttall:
But essentially, Doddridge was orthodox. Over against the accusation of Arianism, brought against Doddridge as well as against Watts, Goodricke pointed out that Doddridge maintained the full divinity of Christ. Nor was he a Socinian: in his doctrine of redemption Christ’s sacrifice as an atonement for our sins took a central place. Neither was he a Pelagian: man’s salvation depended from start to finish on God’s saving grace. The accusation of Remonstrantism was also far from the truth, for Doddridge unequivocally maintained the doctrine of predestination. Finally, on many occasions Doddrige had defended the idea of “plenary inspiration,” so that on this important point also the accusation fell flat.
J. Van Den Berg and G. F. Nuttall, Philip Doddridge and the Netherlands: 1702-1751 (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 63.
“In 2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that,according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a “mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy” who attends Mars Hill. “Hisanswer was brilliant,” Driscoll reported. “He said, ‘I break their nose.’ ” When one of the renegade elders refused to repent, the church leadership ordered members to shun him. One member complained on an online message board and instantly found his membership privileges suspended. “They are sinning through questioning,” Driscoll preached.”
Hmm. I wonder how an earlier incarnation of Driscoll, as depicted by the Tall Skinny Kiwi would have seen this? Once there was a Mark Driscoll who was less than impressed by pastors with big egos:
“This one guy, who’s ministry was named after himself, gets up to the stage which had his name plastered on 3 different banners around the stage. Mark Driscoll was next up to speak after this braggart and instead of trying to do one better, he simply bows his head and prays for the entire time a prayer of repentance for our arrogance. Then he walks back to our table and sits down. Sweet! Soooo timely and prophetic. I’ll never forget that one.”
Now I suppose the legion of Driscoll apologists will rush to point out that Driscoll has not ever called anything Mark Driscoll Ministries or something of that sort. Whatever. Arrogance can manifest in all manner of forms. Driscoll used to be the sort of guy who could pick out the sort guy he is now.
Philip Jenkins makes an insightful point about Lutheran two-kingdom theology and the Great War in his book The Great and Holy War:
German Protestants of this generation, though, had remarkably few qualms about presenting violence and warfare as legitimate tactics for a Christian state. Through its Zwei-Reiche-Lehre (two-kingdoms doctrine), Lutheran theology taught that the two kingdoms, earthly and heavenly, each had its own moral codes and ways of being. Although Christians lived in both simultaneously, it was impossible to apply the absolute demands of New Testament ethics to each: the state simply could not be expected to operate according to such standards. A state that turned the other cheek in the face of aggression or invasion would soon cease to exist. Even a nation made up almost entirely of devout Christians could never act politically according to strict Christian moral teachings. Potentially, this approach justified cynical state actions that seemed to violate Christian teachings or commonly accepted moral standards. In 1914, the doctrine overrode objections to the treatment of Belgium.
Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 84-85.