Thanks to The Wesleyan Church’s “Voices” blog for posting a piece I wrote on new form of legalism within some segments of the church.
Read it (here) and hear about my former life in skinny jeans and my current plight of male pattern baldness 😉
the breathless chase for “relevance” and “excellence” can sometimes lead us to places we ought not go. For one, it is hard to imagine the apostle Paul (much less James!) laying down such rigid standards of beauty and trendiness.
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On September 10th of 1939, just as Great Britain was declaring war on Hitler’s Germany, C.S. Lewis got into an argument with his local vicar. The polite disagreement centered on an extra petition that had been added to the church’s morning prayer.
“Prosper, O Lord, our righteous cause.”
As Lewis put it in a letter to his brother, Warnie:
“I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous—a point on which He may have His own view.”
In place of the line about “our righteous cause,” Lewis suggested a petition composed by Thomas Cranmer while England was at war with Scotland in 1548. This prayer asked for the ability “not to hate our enemies” and for “a speedy wearisomeness of war … that we and [they] may … praise thy most holy name.”
To many, Lewis’s objection may seem strange.
After all, his small island nation was literally on the verge of being overrun by Nazis! So how could stopping Hitler not be “just”!?
Some rather obvious motivations for the’ complaint can be ruled out immediately. Lewis was no pacifist; he had been a badly wounded war hero from WW1; and he would later affirm his support for the Allied war against the Nazis.
But in explaining to his brother why he had taken exception to the vicar’s prayer, he added this:
I see no hope for the Church of England if it allows itself to become just an echo of the press.
JUST AN ECHO OF THE PRESS
Eighty years later, Lewis never could have imagined the advent of Cable News, social media, Russian troll farms, fake news, and Twitter bots. Or perhaps he could have; read volume three of his Space Trilogy (That Hideous Strength).
He could not have fathomed the extent to which different factions of the church, either liberal or conservative, Right or Left, would become mere ciphers for the different factions of “the press” and the political Machine. Or perhaps he could have; read The Abolition of Man.
For Lewis, the takeaway was this: Even the most “just” of national causes can pose a threat to Christian faithfulness and mission because it causes us to give unqualified allegiance to something or someone other than Christ.
And by all accounts, the sin of nationalism—and it is always a sin—is rising around the world.
We must not allow our prayers and posts and sermons to be outsourced to siloed and self-serving merchants wearing “press” badges. For when we flip the media “credentials” over, the epigraph is almost always the same:
“Prosper, O church, our righteous cause.”
I see no future for the “church” of England that becomes just an echo of the press.
In the increasingly heated debates over abortion, the following meme has been making its way around the inter-webs.
“Men shouldn’t be making laws about women’s bodies.”
In so many cases, I agree.
I have no desire to tell anyone (not least women) what to do with their bodies—so long as their bodily-choice does not involve depriving other “bodies” of their basic human rights.
THE TROUBLE WITH MEMES
But, of course, even this most basic of caveats cannot survive what I will now dub: “The meme-ing of the American mind” (i.e., the reduction of all ethical and political issues to a snappy bumper sticker that carries emotional freight but almost zero argumentative rigor [on another example, see here]).
To be clear, I would love to see the percentage of women increase in all branches of government, including courts and legislatures. And I have written forcefully about what I take to be the misogyny and sexism of certain evangelical “darlings.” The problem is real.
But the idea that laws are only valid if passed by someone who shares your “body-type” is just absurd. By that logic, only roosters could outlaw cock-fighting; only pit bulls could decide the fate of Michael Vick; and only female fetuses could have legal opinions on abortion.
ALL LAWS REGULATE A “BODY”
A second faulty assumption in the meme is the implication that one can do whatever one wants with their own flesh and blood.
This too is nonsense.
Speed limits constrain what you can do with your body while driving an automobile.
Rape prohibitions regulate what you can do with your body when it comes to sexual consent.
And libel rulings say what you can legally publish with your body if it turns out to be knowingly false, defamatory, and damaging to others.
To repeat, every law in existence is designed to tell humans what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. Every. Single. One.
And that includes the ruling known as “Roe v. Wade”—a judicial fiat handed down by an all-male court. By the logic of the meme, “Roe v. Wade” would also be invalid, since it involved a bunch of old men issuing a decree that involved the “bodies” of both born and unborn women!
How many fetuses served on that judicial bench?
Should we then amend the viral claim as follows: “Non-fetuses shouldn’t be making laws about fetuses”?
The primary concern for any law is simple: Is it just for all parties?
And the bar of justice ought to mean that my bodily right to swing my fist ends where my neighbor’s nose begins. Hence the crucial question on abortion is precisely that once asked of Christ: “Who is my neighbor?”
Does that human category include those not yet born?
Whatever one decides on that final question (see my view here), it would better if both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice advocates chose to have this debate in a way that acknowledges (1) the real issues at stake, and (2) the real value of both the unborn and the pregnant women placed in difficult situations.
We can do both.
That will mean support for pregnant moms, improved adoption processes, a willingness to listen, and grace for those who have already had abortions (a group often overlooked).
All that is possible, but it will require something more than memes and blog posts* to accomplish it.
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I’ve always loved this line from Steinbeck (East of Eden) on the raucous brand of revivalistic Christianity that sought to “save” the American West.
Somehow it manages to be both an insult and a compliment.
They fought the devil, no holds barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable.
The churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time…
The sectarian churches came in swinging, cocky, and loud and confident. … The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. … And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.
they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt (East of Eden, ch. 19:1).
It is far easier to (1) see only the church’s stains, or to (2) excuse those blemishes without recognizing their full seriousness.
Steinbeck does neither.
In his view, even this prancing, fighting, farting form of frontier Christianity had value; because while the “players” were often misguided, there was enough truth and beauty to make the anthem recognizable.
Like many people, I was shocked and saddened to learn late last week of the sudden death of the popular Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans.
She was only thirty-seven, and she left behind a husband and two young children.
I didn’t know Rachel personally. Still, it was obvious that she was an incredibly gifted writer who gave voice to the nagging questions and concerns of many (former) evangelicals.
She was both kind and controversial—and that rare combination brought forth an unsettling tendency in the outpouring of condolences and sadness.
Let us call it the “qualified condolence.”
As I began to comment on several posts that mourned Rachel’s passing, I noticed a certain worry creep into my head that expressed itself in sentences that began something like this:
“I didn’t always agree with Rachel, but…”
“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, still…”
“Despite our differences, …”
In some cases, the “qualified condolence” may be benign. It may merely flag the possibility of having real affection for someone with whom you disagree.
But at least in my own heart, I sensed that these sorts of statements were a sign of something sad, and scared, and broken in me: a need to “signal” to my tribe that my grief did NOT equal a full endorsement of all Rachel’s views.
And that is to my shame.
We should not need to qualify our mourning at the loss of such a vibrant voice.
We need not mingle our condolences with fearful “smoke-signals” to the tribal border police as a way of reassuring others that we are still quite aware of “just how wrong she was” on this or that issue. To do so can betray the tragic reality that, in such polarized times, the only thing more sacred than life itself is our tribal affiliations.
An expression of solidarity and sadness should be enough.