On the basis of Andrew’s recommendation I’ve been reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. I flew out to the States last Friday, and finished it on the plane, in between London Has Fallen (dire, but some nice shots of the capital), snoozing, and The Revenant (couldn’t suspend my imagination sufficiently to get past DiCapprio’s ‘please give me an Oscar for pulling this face’ face).
It took me a while to get through The Righteous Mind, not least because I kept getting diverted by the online psychological tests Haidt references. The Implicit Association Test was fairly brutal – turns out I’m more biased towards certain groups of people than I would want to be. I was happier with the results at YourMorals though – it seems I care more than liberals do about the things liberals care about, as well as more about the things conservatives do than do conservatives. Who knew.
It’s a rich book; a bit of a game-changer: and not so complicated as Andrew’s review made it sound (!). It is also four years old, so written before Obama’s second term of office, and way before the Clinton/Trump circus rolled into town. But the insights it offers are extremely helpful in the current context.
Towards the end of The Righteous Mind Haidt offers some analysis as to why American politics is so partisan, interestingly tracing it to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – an Act that saw the American South switch from Democrat to Republican.
Before this realignment there had been liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams who could work together on legislative projects. But after the realignment, there was no longer any overlap…Nowadays the most liberal Republican is typically more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.
American politics may be partisan, but Clinton and Trump are the parts no-one much wants. I’ve seen a few banners in support of Clinton since being here, and a few more for Trump, but very few overall. When I ask my friends who they intend to vote for the normal response is one of hands-over-the-face horror; and while queuing up for Texas barbeque I couldn’t elicit more thorough feedback from the stranger next in line. A combination of disbelief and embarrassment seems to be the majority view here.
I’m in North Carolina for a conference – a conference that kicked off with a talk reminding us of the sovereignty of God. That’s always a good topic to come back to, but especially at times when earthly rulers are at their most disappointing. It’s good to be reminded that God really is in control, and working out his plan. Kingdoms rise and fall, but the kingdom remains forever.
My hope for American politics would be a wholesale realignment of the Republican and Democrat parties: a realignment that diminishes some of the current partisanship and creates the space for more talented and moral presidential candidates to emerge. God knows, there are talented people of character aplenty in America – it’s just that either they can’t get to the top of the greasy poll, or (more likely?) don’t want to with things constituted as they currently are. Hoping for such a realignment may well be a forlorn hope. But I pray to a sovereign God.
A couple of weeks ago I read two fascinating articles within the space of twelve hours. Both were on the subject of sex difference and complementarity, and both made the case that despite our best efforts to blur the distinctions between males and females, and to catechise our society accordingly, genuine differences kept poking through the cracks. One was written by a woman (Christina Hoff Sommers) and one by a man (Alastair Roberts); one was in a mainstream news outlet (The Federalist) and one in a relatively niche Christian website (The Calvinist International); one was not explicitly Christian and the other one was; but they both told a strikingly similar story. You might even say they were complementary.
Arguably the key section of Alastair’s article is the link-flooded section in the middle, where he draws out many of these distinctions:
Men are typically considerably more aggressive, competitive, and inclined to risk-taking or violent behaviours than women. Men, for instance, constitute the overwhelming majority of those within prisons in nations around the world and commit practically every crime at a higher rate than women. Across human societies, men are directly responsible for almost all serious violence and war. Men are consistently found to be much more promiscuous than women. Testosterone is correlated with higher levels of confidence, status assertion, and a higher sex drive. Men are also much more likely to take risks (both physical and intellectual), to be fearless, and to be treated as expendable by society.
Important differences in sociality exist too. Differences between the sexes emerge very early on, even before children have any conceptual appreciation of gender (e.g. 40 of 43 serious shootings by toddlers in 2015 were by boys!). Male groups are much more agonistic (not just physically, but also verbally and conversationally) and prone to direct violence; female groups can be much more prone to indirect and dissembled forms of social conflict. Women tend to prefer smaller groups; men tend to prefer larger ones. Male groups are more hierarchical in tendency; women’s are more likely to be egalitarian in their group norms. Women tend to be more people and social-emotional oriented than men; men tend to be more thing, task, and agency oriented than women. Women are more likely to have a verbal tilt in their ability; men are more likely to have a mathematical tilt. Worked out across societies and over time, these weighted tendencies have fairly consistently produced predictable patterns and far-reaching differences in male and female representation in various endeavours and roles. Indeed, these differences in gendered tendencies are often most pronounced in Western individualistic egalitarian societies, where people are freer to follow natural inclinations.
There is a wealth of research on these and related subjects, yet it is unfortunate that I should need to link to any of it. Much of it simply identifies facts that should be clearly apparent to anyone who pays attention to themselves, society, and the world around them, and hasn’t been forgetful of nature.
Christina Hoff Sommers makes a similar point from the perspective of children:
Parents who read too much Judith Butler in college and view gender as fluid and malleable may be startled by the counterevidence their three-year-olds provide. The usually eloquent Julia Turner, editor of Slate, became tongue-tied a few weeks ago when she tried to explain a mysterious development at home: Her little twin sons were obsessed with wheeled objects—particularly cement mixers. Parenthood, she confessed, had “complicated” her worldview. Turner kept affirming her loyalty to the gender-is-a-social-construct school. But then, referring to her sons’ insistent boyishness, she uttered four heretical words: “There’s a there there…”
Indeed there is. And it takes a liberal arts degree not to see it. A 2012 cross-cultural study on sex differences confirmed what most of us see: despite some exceptions, females tend to be more sensitive, esthetic, sentimental, intuitive, and tender-minded, while males tend to be more utilitarian, objective, unsentimental, and tough-minded.
The female penchant for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally and even cross-species. Among our close relatives such as rhesus and vervet monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than do their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars. It seems unlikely the monkeys are acting out a culturally manufactured gender binary. Something else is going on. Most scientists attribute typical male/female differences to some yet-to-be understood combination of biology and culture.
There’s something rather odd about reviewing a Tim Keller book on behalf of the organization he co-founded (The Gospel Coalition, for whom this review was originally written). Praise it and you risk appearing obsequious; criticize it and you risk appearing rude. The measured option, in principle, should be to provide a balanced appraisal that combines credit and critique in roughly similar measure. But as I was reading Keller’s latest book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, I realized I had to bite the bullet, and run the risk of seeming obsequious. Not only is this book classic Keller, it’s also superb, timely, insightful, and much-needed.
Making Sense of God is essentially a book of pre-evangelism, with bits of evangelism peeking through every now and then. Introducing it, Keller explains that for many, his The Reason for God didn’t go back far enough—it assumed Christianity was worth engaging rather than being dismissed as irrelevant, superstitious, superfluous nonsense—and therefore a subsequent work explaining why Christianity should even be considered in the first place was required.
Keller begins by explaining why two standard reasons for ignoring Christianity altogether don’t hold up: Christianity is neither slowly disappearing (ch. 1) nor a faith-based alternative to a reason-based secularism (ch. 2). In the main central section, he offers a vision of the Christian life that, he argues, proves more robust and satisfying than secularism when it comes to things like meaning (ch. 3), happiness (ch. 4), freedom (ch. 5), identity (chs. 6–7), hope (ch. 8), morality (ch. 9) and justice (ch. 10). Finally, in what’s effectively a summary of the second half of The Reason for God, he presents a more rational case for believing in God (ch. 11), and in the Christian God specifically (ch. 12).
If you’ve read Keller’s other books, you’ll already know what to expect. The irenic tone; the generous sprinkling of quotations from Mark Lilla, Peter Berger, Robert Bellah, and Charles Taylor; the footnotes that deserve to be made into a book of their own (seriously, someone should do that, like an album of B-sides); the mixture of pop and high culture references; the careful efforts to represent an argument or position well before responding to it; even the font. For those who’ve encountered this formula before and decided it doesn’t work for them, this book may not be for you. For everyone else, it will serve you magnificently.
Keller excels in identifying exactly why people choose not to engage with Christian belief. You can usually tell whether apologist have learned apologetics from other Christians, or whether they have mainly learned it through lots of interactions with ordinary secular people; Keller is clearly the latter. So, in his chapter, “A Meaning that Suffering Can’t Take from You,” he recognizes that for many, the question of life’s “meaning”—often used as a jumping-off point in Christian evangelism—isn’t even a question. Through a mixture of modernist progress, postmodern critique, irony, pragmatism, and even capitalism, the notion of there being a “meaning” to life in the first place has been subverted. Keller starts there. Instead of assuming Christianity has the answer to a burning secular question, Keller talks to those for whom there’s no burning question. When he then sketches a Christian response, arguing that the difference between religious and secular approaches isn’t between meaning and meaninglessness, but between discovered meaning and created meaning, it’s far more compelling.
You can usually tell whether an apologist has learned apologetics from other Christians, or whether they have mainly learned it through lots of interactions with ordinary secular people; Keller is clearly the latter.
As such, Making Sense of God isn’t so much a series of answers for those who think they have questions (like The Reason for God) as it is a series of questions for those who think they have answers. Is your source of satisfaction and joy based on something that will last? Where are you grounding your identity, and how robust is it? What story are you living in, and where is it headed? Is the meaning you’ve created for your life consistent with the way the world is? These questions are implicit, rather than stated—which is wise, since they sound intense to the point of being invasive when laid out that way—but they reflect the sort of challenge Keller wants to make to those who dismiss religion as not worth their time.
As a discussion starter, book group theme, or gift for a friend, Making Sense of God would make an excellent choice, provided the usual caveats about reading level are given (the book is certainly more broadsheet than tabloid). But with a Keller book there’s usually a secondary benefit for the Christian reader: a brief yet encyclopaedic introduction to the most important things you should read on various key topics. This is true here, and probably more so than in any previous book of his I’ve read. We’re introduced to important recent works by Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Delbanco, Terry Eagleton, Luc Ferry, Julian Baggini, Thomas Nagel, and many other skeptics and agnostics. In each case, we’re shown how their insights can and should provoke us to consider Christianity carefully, whatever conclusion we come to. Not many books justify their purchase with the footnotes and bibliography alone, but Making Sense of God nearly does.
If I were to insist on being critical, I would suggest the slightly formulaic format can make a great argument seem a bit pedestrian, and the writing is effective rather than beautiful. The title is also a slightly strange choice, given that the book’s intended audience aren’t trying to “make sense of God” in the first place. But Keller’s thoughtfulness, breadth of reading, clarity of argument, and winsomeness of approach far outweigh these minor limitations. This is a book I would encourage both secular people, and anyone trying to help them think about the gospel, to read—and I imagine many will.
[Authority gets a fairly bad rap these days, which is interesting, because there has probably never been a generation in which it has been exercised less unilaterally and more accountably. Who knows? Perhaps it's one of those areas in which the better off people are, the worse off they think they are. (Like suffering, for instance.) Anyway: Heidelberg's brief exposition of the fifth commandment helps. Honouring fathers and mothers, and indeed all authority figures, involves love and loyalty to the person, submission to their instructions, and patience for their failures. Good thinking.]
Q104. What is God’s will for you
in the fifth commandment?
A104. That I honor, love, and be loyal
to my father and mother
and all those in authority over me;
that I submit myself with proper obedience
to all their good teaching and discipline;
and also that I be patient with their failings—
for through them God chooses to rule us.
Andy Stanley and I are on different pages on a lot of things. We are on different pages when it comes to a number of things he said in his recent, and much-discussed, Sunday message on "The Bible Told Me So." But in the flurry of responses that have been written, some by friends of mine, an important point of his is either being lost, or rejected as untrue. So I want to defend him.
In doing this I’m also defending myself. Two years ago, in my book Unbreakable (which is all about the inspiration and authority of Scripture), I argued, “I don’t trust in Jesus because I trust the Bible; I trust the Bible because I trust in Jesus.” That, in a nutshell, is how I would summarise what Andy is being criticised for saying, although it’s frequently a comment I make in teaching on the doctrine of Scripture or hermeneutics, and when I wrote it, it didn’t seem controversial. The reaction to Andy’s message has made me realise that it is.
The key response which many have made to that summary statement is this: you can’t separate them. You believe in Jesus because of the Bible, and you believe in the Bible because of Jesus. Since the Jesus you believe in is witnessed to in the Bible, you can have both, or neither, but you can’t have one and not the other. Arguing that Jesus is the foundation of our faith rather than the Bible, therefore, is pushing a silly false dichotomy—as if you were to say that you trusted your wife, but didn’t trust her word.
To which I respond: yes and no. Yes, in that as I’ve already said (and written a book about), trust in Jesus does lead us to a very high view of biblical inspiration, authority and truthfulness. Yes, in that framing things this way and then using them as an argument against quoting the Bible in preaching, or affirming it as true, would be bizarre. (I don’t think Andy is doing this, as it happens, but I haven’t heard enough of his sermons to know for sure.) Yes, in that increasing passion for Jesus will lead to increasing passion for the Bible, and vice versa.
But also no.
No, because becoming a follower of Jesus does not require the prior belief that the Bible is completely true. As a simple matter of conversion chronology, people who come to faith today—including, I imagine, virtually everyone reading this—almost always do so before they accept biblical infallibility, even if reading the Bible is instrumental in their conversion (as it often is). We encountered Jesus, whether it was through directly engaging with Scripture or not, and as we came to love him, we were seized by the same passions he has: for justice, for the kingdom of God, for the saving of sinners, and (among many other things) for the authority and honour of the Scriptures. And this is in a culture where Bibles are widely available and literacy is high. In many parts of the world, even today, people follow Jesus for years without ever having read a Bible, having encountered him in dreams, through visions, through missionary preaching or local communities of believers. None of these things would be possible if what the Bible says about Jesus was untrue, of course; I take that as read. But the individual doesn’t have to see the Bible as true before they see Jesus as Lord. My guess is that they hardly ever do.
No, because it would be possible for Jesus to be risen from the dead and Lord of the world, and yet for there to be details in the Bible that are historically or scientifically incorrect. I’ll say it again: I’ve written a book explaining why I don’t think this is actually the case, so keep hold of that rotten fruit for now. But that position is not incoherent. It is perfectly possible to hold that the basic storyline of the Gospel is accurate, and that the best explanation of the appearances and empty tomb is a risen Christ, but that the stories of the Bible are also full of faulty ancient assumptions, mythical accretions and discrepancies. Many in the Roman Catholic Church take pretty much this view. So do an enormous number of biblical scholars, including a sizeable majority of those I see at the British New Testament Conference. (I must say I was surprised to see Mike Kruger say that the vast majority of scholars rejected the resurrection; the UK may be wildly different to the US on this, but I don’t think it’s true here.) Unless we are going to say that such people are not real Christians, we have to concede, surely, that Jesus, rather than the truthfulness of the whole Bible, is the foundation of our faith. Don’t we?
And no, because Andy Stanley is right about one thing: there are an awful lot of people in the secular West for whom Jesus seems wonderful and the Bible seems terrible. This, presumably, is so obvious as to not need defending. So at the level of contextualisation, the argument “X is (or should be) the case because Jesus” is immeasurably more winsome, and likely to gain a hearing, than “X is (or should be) the case because the Bible.” One more time: this doesn’t mean that we fudge the truthfulness of the Bible at all, or that we avoid difficult texts, or that we fail to engage with the heart issues behind people’s objections. I work hard to do none of these things. But as a starting point for the sceptical, Jesus is better than the Bible. I’ve heard enough of Tim Keller, usually regarded as the master on this, to notice that he does this all the time, even if he wouldn’t frame it the way I have here.
So I think there are experiential, theological and missional reasons for defending my statement—“I don’t trust in Jesus because I trust the Bible; I trust the Bible because I trust in Jesus”—as well as a substantial part of what Andy Stanley was trying to say. As it happens, I actually agree with Kruger and others that Andy said a number of confusing and unhelpful things as well, and I’ve said already that Andy and I would have different views on many things, including our approach to preaching. But as so often, there’s a baby/bathwater thing going on here, so I wanted to defend him, at least as regards the foundation of Christianity. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” You can throw that rotten fruit now.
London, for those of you unfortunate enough not to live here, is basically one enormous building site. The skyline is not so much punctuated by as scribbled over with cranes and scaffolding. New ‘iconic’ buildings are popping up all the time, and one of the latest to be completed is the extension to the Tate Modern.
One of the art gallery’s new features is a viewing platform, offering visitors panoramic views of London. Unfortunately, it also affords a fantastic peek into the £4.5m apartments next door. Residents, some of whose floor-to-ceiling windows are just 20m/65ft away from the viewing platform, have been disconcerted to find themselves the latest exhibits on show.
Nick Serota, Tate’s director, said:
People purchasing those flats were in no doubt that Tate Modern was going to build its new Switch House building and the character and uses of that building were widely known. People purchased with their eyes wide open.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the modern fad for homes entirely made of windows. Daylight is great, and I’m very thankful for the views from my new house, but it has always struck me that the downside of quite so much glass must be that others can see in, just as much as you can see out. Sadly, the buyers of these posh flats didn’t think that through.
The thing is, people are nosy. I’m nosy. I had no desire to visit Tate Modern before I read this story, but now I can’t wait to go.
When travelling around London, particularly in the evenings, I love to ride on the top deck of the bus. Why? So I can get a glimpse into the infinitely varied homes and lives of people along my route.
On holiday or at the weekends I enjoy visiting historic homes. They don’t have to be of anyone famous, though of course many of them are, I just want to see how total strangers lived.
As a species, we are fascinated with ourselves, sometimes literally: be honest, when you first used Google earth, you looked for your own house, didn’t you?
I haven’t studied other species extensively, but I don’t think any of them spend their leisure time watching each other. Sure, they observe to learn skills and information (like bees watching each other’s dances to learn where the good pollen is), but they don’t just watch for the sake of watching.
We, on the other hand, have made it an art form. We are under scrutiny all day long, and children growing up in the age of Facebook often find their every milestone – from the 20-week scan before they were born – shared online for all the world to see. I read last week that an Austrian teenager is suing her parents for “for infringing her right to privacy” because they refuse to take down the 500+ photos they have posted of her since her birth.
And here we find one of the great paradoxes of human life: we desire both to know and be known, and to keep our privacy. We build and buy homes clad entirely in glass, then complain – often vehemently – when others look through that glass. We scrutinise our friends, neighbours, colleagues and celebrities, but are deeply hurt if we find that we have been the subject of gossip.
What’s going on here?
I think we were designed to know one another as we are fully known – think of Adam and Eve in the Garden, naked and unashamed. Think of Jesus, who knew the fears and motivations of every person who came to him. He knew the full life story of the woman at the well, yet instead of feeling exposed and vulnerable, she felt deeply known and profoundly loved.
I think our desire to conceal our true selves is a direct result of the fall, and I think our desire to pry into the privacy of others is a warped version of what we should be.
As CS Lewis famously said,
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Mere Christianity)
If we long to know one another, is that a hint that one day we will? Will we know without judging and be known but not judged? It seems likely.
In the mean time, those who live in glass houses should invest in curtains.
Image credit: Steinar La Engeland (cc)
Just as it was in the days of Noah—or was it?—so it will be exactly the opposite in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and marrying and being given in marriage (except they weren't, because we all know that story is an ancient myth, but leave that for now), until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all (as if!); the Son of Man, on the other hand, wouldn't hurt a fly.
Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all (except, you know, ancient narrative)—so it will be the exact opposite of that when the Son of Man is revealed. If you want an analogy, it will be less like Sodom and more like Woodstock, with less weed.
On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in his house, chill out, and likewise let the one who is in the field turn back if he’s forgotten something. And whatever you do, don’t remember Lot’s wife. People don’t turn into pillars of salt, and the God revealed in Jesus certainly doesn’t do things like that for simply facing the wrong direction.
Whoever seeks to preserve his life will preserve it, and whoever loses his life will lose it. We should put that on a mug or something.
All [true] prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise. Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin, no matter how angry and fearful the experiences it traverses, ends in up praise. It does not always get there quickly or easily—the trip can take a lifetime—but the end is always praise ... There are intimations of this throughout the Psalms. Not infrequently, even in the middle of a terrible lament, defying logic and without transition, praise erupts ...
Psalm 150 does not stand alone; four more hallelujah psalms are inserted in front of it so that it becomes the fifth of five psalms that conclude the Psalter. These five hallelujah psalms are extraordinarily robust ... [This means] no matter how much we suffer, no matter our doubts, no matter how angry we get, no matter how many times we have asked in desperation “How long?”, prayer develops finally into praise. Everything finds its way to the doorstep of praise. This is not to say that other prayers are inferior to praise, only that all prayer pursued far enough, becomes praise ... Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs, at Psalms 146-150. Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact, most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer is always reaching toward praise and will finally arrive there.
So ... our lives fill out in goodness. Earth and heaven meet in an extraordinary conjunction. Clashing cymbals announce the glory. Blessing. Amen. Hallelujah.
—Eugene Peterson, Answering God, quoted in Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
[I've often remarked that many Christians, including many in my church, live as if nine of the Ten Commandments apply to believers today, and one doesn't: the fourth one. How on earth does it apply? Sunday trading? Or doesn't it?
Heidelberg's answer is outstanding, and was probably the single most informative answer I encountered when I first read it. Mainly, the Lord's Day is for the gospel, rest, the church, the Bible, the sacraments, prayer and the poor (which, by the by, would make an excellent basis for a liturgy). But there is also an eschatological dimension to the Sabbath, in that by resting from sin and allowing God to work in our lives, we enter the eternal rest that we have coming. Beautiful.]
Q103. What is God’s will for you
in the fourth commandment?
that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained,
and that, especially on the festive day of rest,
I diligently attend the assembly of God’s people
to learn what God’s Word teaches,
to participate in the sacraments,
to pray to God publicly,
and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.
that every day of my life
I rest from my evil ways,
let the Lord work in me through his Spirit,
and so begin in this life
the eternal Sabbath.
In January 2013, in his second inaugural address as President of the United States, Barack Obama said this:
For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and business to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.
The excluded middle at work in that paragraph is precisely the problem with contemporary political discourse, argues Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic. There are only two options: doing things alone, or doing things as an entire nation. What about mediating institutions, like unions, societies, churches, mosques, charities, companies, clubs, military units and families? Levin writes:
In Obama’s view, and that of many other liberals, there seem to be no meaningful middle layers of society. Our only modes of action appear to be as a “single person”, or “one nation and one people.” It is a view that flattens the complex, evolved topography of social life and leaves us no way out of the corrosive feedback loop of individualism and centralisation.
I find it interesting that the British Left is far less inclined to think this way than the American Left, with a far greater belief in (and commitment to) mediating institutions like unions, societies and the like, and far less squeamishness about praising the family. So I don’t think this is an endemic problem of leftism, especially since the UK is well to the left of the US by most meaningful standards anyway. But nevertheless: an interesting point.
Before The Daughter went off on her travels we got round to doing some of the things we kept meaning to get round to but hadn’t got round to. One of these was a visit to the local dog track.
We’re a dog family, possessing two of the beasts, and one of those is a whippet, which is a running dog. Not as big or powerful as a greyhound, but still quick, and few things give me as much pleasure as watching him going at full tilt. So you might think that the greyhound track would be familiar ground to me. But it’s not.
Racing is a very socially stratified activity. Horse racing has been described as a pastime for the toffs and the toughs and used as model for explaining why the upper classes and working classes often find it easier to get along than either do with the middle classes. Greyhound racing isn’t in the same league as the equine version, but a similar social division applies – it’s just not the kind of activity that nice middle class people go to.
Also, while there would be no greyhound racing without greyhounds, the reality is that the focus is more on gambling than on the dogs. The dogs are a means to an end: most people are not at the track so much because they love to watch the dogs run, as because the dogs provide exciting betting. And nice evangelicals don’t gamble.
So the dog track, just twenty minutes walk from my house, had not previously featured on the list of places in Poole that I hang out.
We had a great time though. Greyhounds are extraordinary athletes, and it is worth a night at the track simply to marvel at how fast an animal can travel. But it was also a very interesting exercise in contextualisation. Walking into an alien environment like the greyhound track helped me think again about how it must feel for someone unused to church to cross the threshold into a Sunday service: Where to stand, or sit? Are there no-go areas that only the regulars can populate? What are we supposed to do so it looks like we fit in? And then there was the mystery of the racecard, with its baffling details about each dog.
It was obvious that most people there belonged there, but as a visitor enough cues were given so I could navigate my way around. In the front of the racecard was a guide for how to read all those arcane pieces of information, and the announcer introducing races gave further information, ‘For those here for the first time’. In that sense it felt a lot like what we try to do at church – primarily for those who are usually there, but with effort put in to make new people feel at ease rather than embarrassed.
And then there was the betting. At the track this felt somewhat akin to when we come to take the bread and wine at church – the central reason and explanation for why we have gathered together, but to the uninitiated deeply mysterious and puzzling. At the age of 46 I had never placed a bet in my life, and was unsure what to do. Who did I approach? Would I make a fool of myself? What should I say? Again, the racecard came to my rescue, providing an idiots guide to ‘How to Bet’, and I duly lined up to put a pound to win on my carefully selected dog.
It went to a photo finish.
By a whisker.
I’m not sure I’ll be going to the track that often, and I’m certainly not going to make a habit of betting, but as a lesson in how it must feel for new people to come to church it was well worth the price of entry, a plate of chips and that one-pound bet.
I’ve since given my eldership team the challenge of going somewhere they wouldn’t normally go, and feel somewhat uncomfortable about visiting, so that their contextualisation eyes are opened too. I’d recommend it: unless that is you want your church to remain welcoming only to people like you.
"This book is essentially an argument that post-Protestant WASP culture is failing," writes R. R. Reno as he concludes his new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, "that it promises freedom, but delivers tyranny. It may work well for the top end of society, but it's hell on the weak and vulnerable. It makes a fuss about diversity but can't deliver solidarity. Its false view of freedom undermines the authority of the two institutions that can limit government: marriage and the church ... At some point, people will notice what the post-Protestant WASPs have done. They have built a culture that suits college graduates like themselves while disorienting everyone else. In fact, given the sincere moral purpose that animates most post-Protestant WASPs, they will start to have their own misgivings, at which point the Christian leaven will go to work on the lump." Quite the peroratio.
But the teeth of Reno’s provocative and challenging book lie in his comments about rules—which is also where we find some interesting overlap with J. D. Vance’s celebrated (and, at the time of writing, #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) Hillbilly Elegy. A few weeks ago Matt quoted Vance’s discussion with Rod Dreher, in which Vance gave a fascinating example of being told by an authority figure how he should live his life (emphasis added):
The other thing the Marine Corps did is hold our hands and prevent us from making stupid decisions. It didn’t work on everyone, of course, but I remember telling my senior noncommissioned officer that I was going to buy a car, probably a BMW. “Stop being an idiot and go get a Honda.” Then I told him that I had been approved for a new Honda, at the dealer’s low interest rate of 21.9 percent. “Stop being an idiot and go to the credit union.” He then ordered another Marine to take me to the credit union, open an account, and apply for a loan (the interest rate, despite my awful credit, was around 8 percent). A lot of elites rely on parents or other networks the first time they made these decisions, but I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. The Marine Corps ensured that I learned.
This, in one anecdote, is pretty much the argument of Reno’s book. Our elites insist on nonjudgmentalism, and decry the formal social rules of previous generations (get a job, get married, remain married, have children, put on a tie, sit down at dinner with your family, avoid swearing in public, buy a Honda instead of a BMW, borrow as cheaply as possible, and so on)—but then proceed to get jobs, get married, remain married, sit down at dinner with their families, avoid swearing in public, buy Hondas instead of BMWs, and borrow cheaply:
Members of our upper class may talk the talk of the sixties, but they walk the walk of the fifties. David Brooks, with his usual wit, calls them “bobos”, bohemian in attitude and self-image, but bourgeois in behaviour.
Meanwhile, their insistence on nonjudgmentalism and overthrow of formal rules, especially when it comes to sex, marriage and family life, gradually permeate the culture through mass media, and gradually destabilise the life patterns of the weaker and more vulnerable members of society. Rich people can afford to dismiss social rules and traditional norms, because their support networks and education will make them successful in spite of the mistakes they will make. Poor people, on the other hand, will suffer more when social rules, norms and authority figures—parents, pastors, Marine sergeants, or whomever—are removed from the picture. Channeling Mary Douglas, Charles Murray and Robert Putnam, Reno explains:
What earlier generations took for granted, we must decide. To have sex or not to have sex—and with whom, when, and how? To have children or not to have children? What am I supposed to do when I become a father? To marry or not to marry? Do I need a husband to raise my children? Do I need a woman to have children? Should I freeze my embryos? In a post-conventional society such as ours, there is no end to open questions.
Well-educated people are often prepared to deal with these open questions. People who are good at talking tend to succeed in social systems that encourage talking things through ... Meanwhile, Fishtown goes to hell. This isn’t surprising. In pursuit of post-conventional freedoms we have destroyed the old systems of positional control, leaving adrift the poorly educated and those who lack the skills to navigate the post-conventional seas. Deprived of normative sex roles, poor people today don’t negotiate and renegotiate male and female relations the way upper-class people do. They flounder. Marriage declines. Illegitimacy increases. Male-female relations turn sour.
“We can’t have a society that serves the weak if we don’t end our war on the very possibility of clear rules,” Reno concludes. “A Christian society judges nonjudgmentalism unjust.” I suspect he’s right.
Of the many fascinating things about Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, one of the most striking is the transferability of much of it to the political situation of contemporary Britain. For instance:
Liberals look back to the postwar golden age of midcentury America [or the Attlee government], which tehy believe embodied the formula for cultural liberalisation amid economic security and progress until some market fanatics threw it all away. Conservatives look fondly to the late-century boom of the Reagan era [or Thatcherism], which they say rescued the country from economic malaise while recapturing some of the magic of the confident, united America of that earlier midcentury golden age, but was abandoned by misguided statists.
This nostalgia, Levin argues, is misguided, for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who has observed the rise of either Ukip or Corbynism:
Each side wants desperately to recover its lost ideal, believes the bulk of the country does, too, and is endlessly frustrated by the political resistance that holds it back. The broader public, meanwhile, finds in the resulting political debates little evidence of real engagement with contemporary problems and few attractive solutions. In the absence of relief from their own resulting frustration, a growing number of voters opt for leaders who simply embody or articulate that frustration [or simply vote for Scottish independence, or Brexit].
This book begins from that widespread frustration, which I take to be a function in large part of a failure of diagnosis, and so a failure of self-understanding. American life in the decades since the end of World War II has not been, on the whole, a story of finding the right course and then falling away from it. We have actually held fairly steadily to something like a single complex but coherent trajectory, which has turned out to bring us progress at a cost.
Progress at a cost, you say? Like what?
In our cultural, economic, political and social life, this has been a trajectory of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalisation. And it has come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.
That is a remarkably accurate two-sentence summary of the UK today, let alone the US. Here is another:
We have grown less conformist but more fragmented; more diverse but less unified; more dynamic but less secure. Both progressives and conservatives are conflicted about this combination of gains and losses.
So what is to be done? Well, that’s what the rest of the book (which I haven’t yet read) is about. But I’m guessing it’s what Levin calls an “ethic of subsidiarity”, which is essentially an expanded version of this (emphasis added):
Our society is thus like a set of concentric rings, beginning with the most concrete and personal of human connections [i.e. the family] and concluding in the most abstract and philosophical of human commitments [i.e. the state] ... This understanding of society, this picture of our social compact, is itself what is most threatened by the fracture and fragmentation of our era. But it is at the same time what holds the key to balancing diversity with cohesion, and dynamism with moral order. The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralisation. Our political life need not consist of a recurring choice between having the federal government invade and occupy the middle layers of society or having isolated individuals break down the institutions that compose those layers. It can and should be an arena for attempting different ways of empowering those middle institutions to help our society confront its problems.
The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face. Sounds a lot like the church to me.
[Are any parts of the New Testament more baffling to Christians today than the insistence that we shouldn't swear oaths? The Sermon on the Mount is often waved away as impractical and even impossible to follow--some sections of Western Christianity are almost defined by swearing oaths of allegiance and fighting wars, rather than by opposing them--but we also have that surprising punchline in James 5:12: "but above all, my brothers, do not swear." How many of us would conclude a section of ethical teaching with that?
At the same time, as Heidelberg points out, not only Old Testament prophets but also New Testament apostles use oaths (Rom 1:9; 9:1), and so does God himself (Heb 6:16), so it must be possible to take them reverently. Reflecting on what the difference may be, the Catechism adds an explanatory Lord's Day of discussion, before turning to the fourth commandment next week.]
Q101. But may we swear an oath in God’s name
if we do it reverently?
A101. Yes, when the government demands it,
or when necessity requires it,
in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness
for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.
Such oaths are grounded in God’s Word
and were rightly used by the people of God
in the Old and New Testaments.
Q102. May we also swear by saints or other creatures?
A legitimate oath means calling upon God
as the only one who knows my heart
to witness to my truthfulness
and to punish me if I swear falsely.
No creature is worthy of such honour.
Here is offense. For anyone to claim that God is on one side of a conflict appears to late modernity as a despicable error; God, supposing he exists at all, must stand above the fray. But we must hope that this is not so. For the fray is not going to stop short of an end of what we now know as history, and if God does not fight the forces of evil, they must triumph incrementally.
Surely, after the twentieth century’s oceans of shed blood and the beginning of the twenty-first century’s even more threatening prospects, we can no longer entertain modernity’s great illusion, that our creaturely good intentions are a match for sin’s energy and cunning. Moreover, in the conflicts of actual history, there is never a moral equivalency, however flawed and infected both sides may be; and we must pray that God fights for the better side. For if at this time of writing he does not, then the most hopeful scenario for “what must happen after this” is a long dark age. As to which side of a particular conflict God is in fact on, we must not presume to know that, since we will inevitably think he is on our side—the very error that according to our passage led to the destruction of Judah.
- Robert Jenson, Ezekiel, on Ezekiel 7:10-27 (emphasis added)