I’ll admit I’ve been sucked in by the Albert Mohler podcast The Briefing; I think he does surprisingly well in picking topics and doing analysis, and frankly for most current events stories five minutes is about all I can digest/stand. So I’d like to point interested listeners (not readers: Mohler doesn’t currently offer transcripts) to the May 16 edition [link].
First of all there are a couple of great related stories about demographic trends: first about how dogs outnumber people in the Bay Area, second about how Japanese consumers now buy more adult diapers than baby diapers. Mohler is right in saying that over the long haul low birth rates make for strange societies. He draws the right conclusion for a Southern Baptist audience: any group facing a demographic collapse has to change or die.
But in the closing story, about the Yahoo/Scott Thompson resume flap, Mohler reverts to a standard preacher’s trope of contextualizing a story from the broader world in a narrative that makes sense inside the church but doesn’t in its original context. Thompson, as everyone knows, was removed as CEO of Yahoo after it came to light that his public resume included a degree in Computer Science he didn’t actually have. Mohler’s analysis here is that public lying is immoral, and Thompson was removed because everybody understands that immorality is bad for companies, or some such.
Perhaps it is my imagination, but I think what Mohler is attempting to do is to draw a straight line between an imaginary depopulation taking place in the Bay Area because homosexual couples have so few children, and a claim that companies have some sort of moral center that abhors lying (and should abhor homosexuality, etc.). This kind of missing premise argument drives me nuts when I hear it in church, so maybe I’m being a little sensitive here.
The facts as we know them go like this: Yahoo used to be an industry leader, but it has fallen behind competitors like Google, and so has come under pressure from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb. A Loeb associate found the discrepancies in Thompson’s resume while looking for leverage over the Yahoo board, and Loeb parlayed a small advantage into a seat on the Yahoo board. See e.g. [link], where James B. Stewart of the New York Times connects the dots by way of the peculiarities of Silicon Valley corporate culture; Stewart says it’s not because he was lying, but because he wasn’t a computer scientist.
Either way I think it’s fair to say that if Yahoo were making lots of money and its share price were climbing and Loeb was getting a great return on his investment he wouldn’t care if Thompson had a degree in computer science or not, and Mohler is inserting a moral element into the story that I just don’t see in the facts.
It’s not often that something I’ve dealt with in a casual conversation shows up in the New York Times, but an article on single but unemployed pastors by Erik Eckholm [link] did just that. This is not a great article; it’s sort of a by-the-numbers churches-vs-modernity human interest story suggesting that while churches are exempt from federal anti-discrimination law when hiring for religious purposes they shouldn’t be. It’s thin on numbers, saying that in conservative churches 5% of pastors are single but not giving enough context to make sense even of that number.
There’s an appearance by Al Mohler, who gives good copy:
“Both the logic of Scripture and the centrality of marriage in society,” he said, justify “the strong inclination of congregations to hire a man who is not only married but faithfully married.”
Mr. Mohler said he tells the students at his seminary that “if they remain single, they need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor.”
But Mohler as quoted doesn’t deal with the Pauline background here (e.g. Paul’s instructions to Titus and Timothy that an elder should be the “husband of one wife”) and as a result ends up in a vague modern narrative about “society” and job opportunities. As a result we’re left with an article that is mostly about the tension between perceptions of discrimination and the needs of a church:
Mr. Almlie, 37, has been shocked, he says, at what he calls unfair discrimination, based mainly on irrational fears: that a single pastor cannot counsel a mostly married flock, that he might sow turmoil by flirting with a church member, or that he might be gay. If the job search is hard for single men, it is doubly so for single women who train for the ministry, in part because many evangelical denominations explicitly require a man to lead the congregation.
The objections cited are pretty good ones; I don’t think a man is ready to lead a church until he’s raised a child. And it’s often problematic to have a single man in a leadership position in a church, not just because he might find women in the church desirable, but also because they might find him desirable. And of course there are more of them than there are of him.
I’m in the very conservative camp here: I tend to take “husband of one wife” to mean that an elder has to be male, and married, exactly once. As a modern person I’m always looking for counterexamples; I am still looking for a great preacher who doesn’t meet these three criteria.
In the Sixties and Seventies there were at least two movements that involved the founding of Christian private elementary schools. One was a reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, and the schools founded as a result were mostly “segregation academies” [link]: schools that may have had the word “Christian” in their name but really meant “White low-church Protestant.” If you’ve read the Michael Lewis book The Blind Side, you may be familiar with Briarcrest Christian School [link]. It is a matter of public record that Briarcrest was originally founded as a segregation academy. I would argue that there was a second movement that had more to do with the secularization of culture in the United States, including schoolbook fights, values clarification, etc. and where there were no real racial overtones in the founding of the schools, even if the schools themselves were founded at the same time as the judicial aftermath of Brown. I will admit that in some states it’s sometimes hard to tell which schools are which, especially now, forty years later.
Most of the books I’ve found that talk about Christian schools from an outsider’s perspective are like Albert Menendez’s 1993 Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach [link], which takes the view one might expect from a Prometheus Press publication: it is meant to be part straight reporting, part expose, but the author is writing for an audience that shares his outrage at the very idea that someone would be a Christian, not to mention wanting their children to be Christians, etc. The result is just barely readable and may leave a reader wondering who exactly is more bad crazy: the author or his enemies. For the record I get the same feeling reading stuff by people like “Brigitte Gabriel” [link].
So against that backdrop it’s nice to find a book like Christine Rosen’s 2005 memoir My Fundamentalist Education [link, link]. It tells the story of Rosen’s time at Keswick Christian School, St Petersburg, FL in the 1980s. I would humbly suggest that it isn’t nostalgic and it isn’t for the most part judgmental: she just says “this is what we believed; this is what school was like as a result.” This is in a lot of ways the book I wish more people who lived through some number of grades in a small poor Christian school would write.
The story starts with her parent’s divorce and her father’s remarriage; Rosen makes it clear early on that her mother is not coping, and later reveals that her mother is mentally ill. She, her younger sister, and even younger half-sister end up at Keswick, a school that was founded with a commitment to the notion that the Bible is their textbook. Much of the book is devoted to working out what this meant day to day: Scripture memorization, “Sword drills,” memorizing canned evangelistic pitches, and of course particular views on history, science, politics, etc. There are also some stock characters that may be unfamiliar to people who grew up outside the subculture: the violent ex-missionary with the strange sense of justice; the spooky, oddly perky traveling singing team; the preacher who mixes eschatology and politics. Okay, maybe that last one is familiar to people outside the subculture.
This is mostly a very nice memoir: even-handed, frank, and sympathetic. Unfortunately toward the end Rosen falls into a common ex-fundamentalist trap: she suggests that Christianity is something that was okay when she was a child, but now she’s a mature modern and outgrew faith the way she outgrew say knee socks. She comes across kind of condescending and I think that’s a shame. I don’t know how anybody can go from where she was then to where she is now. Public policy has one set of narratives about what the world’s problems are and how they should be solved; fundamentalist Christianity has another, and the two have not much in common.
Still, Rosen doesn’t show any signs in the book of actually despising Keswick or being bitter about her time there, and that puts her memoir ahead of most of the former fundamentalist stories I’ve found. For this reason (and the fact that used copies can be had cheaply from Amazon) I highly recommend this book.
My opinion regarding Mark Driscoll had mostly been formed by his surprisingly frequent appearances in my reading and by his continual hovering online presence; I don’t know how to measure his impact online versus other contemporary Reformed lights like John Piper or John MacArthur, but he certainly seems to be taken pretty seriously by a segment that might or might not correspond to the Young Restless Reformed set. I really don’t know.
Anyway, Driscoll had surfaced in my reading in three different books, unusual for someone I don’t actually seek out:
- Back when he was still associated with various Emerging Church figures through Leadership Network he appeared as the pastor of Donald Miller’s church in Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Miller since the follow-up Searching for God Knows What sort of left me dry, but in Blue Like Jazz Miller portrays Mars Hill Church as a healthy spiritual community and Driscoll as its conservative center. Of course Driscoll has since parted ways with the Emerging Church folks; I have no idea what the relationship between Driscoll and Miller is today.
- Andrew Beaujon spends a chapter or two of his Christian-rock travelogue Body Piercing Saved My Life [link] at Mars Hill and is somewhat amazed that people who sport tattoos and listen to indie rock attend a church where the preaching is culturally so conservative; Beaujon is the first author I read to pick through everything he heard and focus primarily on Complementarianism, the theological view that men and women are equal in some sense but fundamentally different and complementary; like most secular writers he sees this as retrograde as compared to the view that men and women are equal in every sense, or something like that. Like most people who take on Complementarianism from a liberal point of view he doesn’t explicitly state his own view. Beaujon’s book is available used for Amazon for a penny plus shipping ($4 total); I recommend it at that price.
- Lauren Sandler delves a bit deeper into the Complementarian narrative in the chapter she devotes to Mars Hill in Righteous [link]. She finds a couple of good narrators, including a woman who has a background in academic second-wave feminism (or at least whose bookcase functions as a kind of educated feminist bona fide) but who has married and moved into the Mars Hill orbit and can’t find her way out. She also finds someone who utters the deathless phrase “when I see someone covered in tattoos I assume they’re a born-again Christian.” I don’t know what Sandler meant by including this second person; I took it to mean that Mars Hill is a sufficiently complete subculture that the person in question no longer deals with anyone outside it. Sandler’s book is a tougher read; I am tempted to think she went looking for things in evangelicalism that appalled her so she found them, and she tends to overstate their significance. But more about that later.
But it’s the Molly Worthen piece from the New York Times [link] that really fills in a lot of the color on Driscoll, not least because it’s primarily about Driscoll, rather than trying to fit him into some other broader narrative. Worthen manages to place Driscoll in the evangelical part of the megachurch landscape with her Stetzer-Hybels-Osteen references and she focuses on the “muscular Christianity” aspect of the Driscoll media persona (she refers to his “hypermasculinity” and attempts to connect the worst of John Calvin’s Geneva to Driscoll’s Seattle) and portrays him as essentially authoritarian.
And as far as I can recall that’s the sum total of how Driscoll has been portrayed in my reading. I haven’t read any of his books and don’t plan to; from what I’ve seen of them they remind me of Skip Heitzig’s books: cleaned-up versions of sermon notes, in slim volumes, with well-chosen titles and cover art, probably best understood as an extension of the Sunday morning experience.
In the next post I want to get back to Albuquerque; remember Albuquerque? This is a series about a church in Albuquerque.
James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers and Flyboys, has written a third book titled The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. While his two earlier books are about various aspects of World War II, Bradley describes the new book as an exploration of the root causes of the war. In particular, he’s trying to explain where Japanese Imperialism got its start.
It’s a decidedly uneven book: part of it is about a boat trip by William Howard Taft, Alice Roosevelt, and others, to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, etc. (that would be the titular cruise); part of it is about Teddy Roosevelt personally; part of it is about Roosevelt’s foreign policy, especially his role as broker and king-maker (er, emperor-maker) in Asia. There is also an element that casts turn-of-the-century racial attitudes as a basis for American foreign policy. And finally, to my ears Bradley treats the entire story as some sort of parable about the recently-concluded Bush Administration.
Brady tells a rather lean story, a simple-tending-toward-simplistic story, portraying Roosevelt as over-privileged and under-informed, the product of an elitist racist subculture, placing him in an environment that saw itself in the context of a broad sweep of Aryan history, moving westward (“following the sun” in Bradley’s phrase), killing and supplanting native populations, etc. He also blames Roosevelt for the rise of Japan as a regional power, and repeatedly states directly that Roosevelt was to blame for World War II.
Of course I’m no historian and can’t say whether when Bradley connects dots with straight lines whether the circumstances warrant such simplicity, but Bradley’s telling to my ears was burdened by of causal holes and lacked context. I’m not the only one: Janet Maslin at the New York Times does a better job of relating Bradley’s story and pointing out some of the problems [link].
I’m more troubled by the American Christianity Bradley portrays. It’s a pre-Prohibition, pre-Scopes American Christianity, and sadly mixed with racial and imperial values that sound jarring today. And it’s worth noting that some of the Christians in question were pre-Modernist-Crisis respectable society types, roughly contemporaries of Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey, and Dwight L. Moody, making their attitudes sound doubly strange today. Here’s the signature quote, from page 236, from Robert MacArthur, long-time pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, New York City, in a sermon titled “Japan’s Victory — Christianity’s Opportunity,” an apparent commentary on a battle in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War:
The Great Master said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Apply that standard, and you will find that the nominally heathen Japan is more Christian than “Holy Russia.”
The victory of the Japanese is a distinct triumph for Christianity. The new civilization of Japan is largely the result of Christian teaching. A very great proportion of Japan’s leading men to-day, especially those who fight her battles on land and sea, with such skill and valor, profess the Christian faith.
I realize it’s always dangerous to judge one era’s attitudes by those of one’s own, and it’s worthwhile to remember that if “the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there” [link] by the same token our values and attitudes will in some unanticipated way seem strange in the future, but I tend to take MacArthur’s attitude here as a cautionary tale and a warning to be careful when casting the affairs of modern nations (especially one’s own) in religious terms. A Christian should always beware mixing his identity as a Christian with his identity as anything else, or indeed mixing Christianity itself with any other issue, no matter how seemingly sensible. As C. S. Lewis warns, up to and including “spelling reform” [link].