Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Caliphate of Illinois

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College is named after the first President and houses both that office and the Political Science Department.  It has always been rumored that the basement was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

There’s nothing like controversy over Islam to commemorate Christmas.

I have tried to avoid commenting about the situation involving Professor Larycia Hawkins, Ph.D. up at my alma mater, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.  I have no inside knowledge of whatever communication may be occurring between all the parties involved.  I do not know Dr. Hawkins at all, neither am I acquainted with the College President, Dr. Philip Ryken.  I only know the Provost, Dr. Stan Jones, from hearing him lecture a few times during my years on campus in the early Nineties (Dr. Jones is a psychology professor; I pretty much only hung out in the History Department, with Student Government or over at Arena Theater).  

What I am somewhat more aware of is the long progression of the small Wheaton College Political Science Department from a theory, international studies-oriented unit toward one that is more policy-oriented (this has become so in spite of the official department name).  Much of this change was needed.  For decades, Wheaton Poly Sci was kind of an unwanted step child that reflected the larger missions-oriented, evangelical view of politics generally, which was that it was a dirty business in which the Christian is not called to serve.  For example, the department was forced to share office space with other small humanities divisions.  More opinionated or activist professors found things awkward and tended not to stay long.  But in the past dozen years or so, a younger breed of instructor has been hired and helped shepherd the student body to think more about the practical application of their principles in the public arena.  This trajectory was aided by the rise of Wheaton alumnus, and the campus’ congressman, J. Dennis Hastert to the Speakership of the U.S. House.

Yet like the recent bizarre scandal involving the former Speaker, the unseemly sludge of bad decisions made in the past has erupted from beneath the surface of the Chicago West Suburbs with the Hawkins case.  The spillage has introduced toxins into the evangelical community on a national stage and is right square in the middle of the centuries-long War between the West and Islam, version 2.0.

I’m not going to comment on Dr. Hawkins and her views per se, here.  As I’ve read all the news articles and Facebook posts and considered what’s going on with her, the campus, liberation theology, universal salvation, etc., I’ve just gotten upset and unsettled and wrathful, and I am not going to write out of that place.  I think it’s more important to explain why this has happened.  The school leadership is to blame and is certainly guilty of high hypocrisy, but not for the reasons upon which leftist evangelicals and the secular media want to insist.

Twenty-four years ago in Jenks Hall I completed a political science course to satisfy my liberal arts requirement.  The professor was a gifted communicator who truly understood her field, but she was new both to being a full-time instructor and, by her own admission, the Christian faith.  I will never forget a comment she made one day in class which was telling to me about why she had been hired.  I forget the general discussion, but she made the remark that her hiring committee, which consisted of both board members and faculty, called her a “neophyte” when it came to understanding the traditions and doctrine of conservative evangelical faith.

The professor didn’t seem to take umbrage at this label, and she was quite respectful of her new community of believers.  She listened with fascination to her students when we would explain the political foundations and policy positions upon which we had been reared.  But subsequent to her remark about being considered a neophyte, I found out one of her prominent qualifications was that she brought a feminist perspective to her academic work.  For the Wheaton powers-that-were at the time, she filled the quota; her theological maturity was secondary to academic freedom and gender diversity.

This hire was made toward the end of a very centrist period in Wheaton’s history, during the presidency of J. Richard Chase – the only Wheaton President ever not to have had a Ph.D. in theology or Biblical studies (his was in Speech and Rhetoric).  The fact that two significantly more conservative former pastors have been hiring the faculty since then – Duane Litfin (came from the First Evangelical Church of Memphis) and Ryken (came from Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia) -- reveals just how much the Marxist-centered quest for multicultural diversity has infected American academia, statement of principles or no statement of principles.

The people teaching us after high school have become so conditioned by the multicultural mindset – it is seen throughout corporate America, to say nothing of both political parties (Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina reflect this in the GOP) – that it might be the left’s single greatest achievement today.  Forget untrinitarian monotheism, hijabs, burqas or beheadings; the intellect of our society has now become enslaved to a caliphate of thought.

Accordingly, Dr. Hawkins (hired in 2007) shouldn’t be blamed for the current controversy and standoff over her job, any more than the ocean should be impugned for being salty.  Upholding theological truth, as well as just sticking with plain ol’ principles, requires more than just an annual signature.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Elders on the Ridge

 Roger Williams arrives in Massachusetts Bay

NOTE TO READER:  This blog entry has a focus on events at Ridgecrest Baptist Church, where I attend.  If you find internal church politics boring…well…you don’t know what you’re missing.

My church family is scheduled to vote on whether or not to amend our constitution for the purpose of creating the office of elder.  This vote will occur on September 20 during our business meeting.

I joined Ridgecrest six years ago by letter when I moved back to town.  Although I had been active in an independent church with an elder structure before leaving the Metroplex, I joined the Southern Baptist tradition in 2000 by baptism at First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia.  Prior to this, I had always been involved in a church with elders, principally in the Presbyterian tradition.

So, by way of full disclosure, I wholeheartedly endorse the amendment to Ridgecrest’s constitution.  Not only do I believe it will bring our church family into fuller obedience to God’s word – an exposition of which our pastor, Matt Beasley has carefully laid out -- but such a change in structure has many practical benefits that will make our local body of Christ healthier.  True, all elders are human, but any possible negative consequences are outweighed by the positive.  The Ridgecrest amendment, in particular, is a biblical complement to the great Baptist traditions of congregationalism.  This is because the amendment assigns elders specific roles independent of the deacons, term limits them, and still requires the church membership to approve motions.

Having said this, I realize the e-word puts a bad taste in the mouths of many of my brothers and sisters.  There are basically two camps of opposition:  those who are opposed because elders are not historically a part of the Baptist tradition; and those who sympathize with this group.  The basic argument of this last group is itself sympathetic and understandable:  why alienate anyone, especially our truly elderly members who have been faithful for so long, and cut a rift in the unity of the body?  Believe me, I get this.

My purpose in writing is to respectfully ask my brothers and sisters to reconsider their position if in fact they are in one of these camps.  I also want to try and move the rest of us up out of a touch of apathy that seems to surround the topic.

I will attempt to do this, of course, by giving a history lesson.

Why do Baptists not have elders, given the overall unwavering commitment of the tradition to the teachings of Scripture?  Further, why do many of us harbor a quiet disdain toward the very idea of elders?  The answer, as is often the case, lies in the denomination’s founding.

The founder of the Baptist church as we know it in America today was the Puritan preacher Roger Williams (1603-1683).  He is a compelling figure from any part of American history, let alone the Colonial period.  He was exceptionally articulate even in an age of gifted preachers.  He was passionate and persuasive, kind and charismatic.

But he was also contrarian and often obnoxiously self-righteous.  In a time and place when Christian teaching emphasized the attributes of God and how they manifested themselves in the pious life, Williams’ sermons regularly mixed in social, political and anti-royal rhetoric rooted in opposition to most forms of man-made authority.  He believed intensely that God was the only real authority, and human beings accountable only to the Lord through their own consciences.  Williams’ sermons demanded this extreme, direct repentance, action and justice in the face of illegitimate authority.  Although certainly devout and committed to Christ, Williams seemed to elevate the right of an individual to his conscience over pursuing Christ-likeness among brothers (James 5).

A key reason for this was the unique status of the church shortly after the first New England colonies were founded.  Rarely in Christian history has Bible-based church governance been so closely intertwined with a civil structure than it was in Puritan New England.  Ironically, the Puritans had left England, where religious dissent was often met with being burnt at the stake, also with the hopes of finding “the pure church” and establishing their famous “City on a Hill” (Matthew 5:14).

But their priorities were religious freedom over individual conscience.  This religious freedom was upheld by a community of believers while conscience was called upon to be administered in accordance with Paul’s teachings on Christian liberty (Romans 14).  True, the Puritans got a little crazy on a few things, but this basic idea of what a Christian community should be was at the heart of their faith.

In a handful of separate colonies across Massachusetts, the Puritans had moved away from the bishop-vestry style of their own Anglican tradition and used the New Testament Elder-Deacon model to govern both church and village.  Religious authority and civil government were one and the same in 17th Century Massachusetts under the Puritan elders.  You could be punished if your neighbor overheard you speaking abusively toward your spouse within the confines of your own home.  You could be put in stocks for leaving the church service early…and they lasted three hours on a narrow wooden bench!  One Puritan man was even brought before the church to be disciplined for “not fulfilling his husbandly duty.”  His wife brought the charge.

Relative to the Puritan leadership in Massachusetts, Williams would have been considered religiously “libertarian,” or even liberal by today’s standards.  Williams’ contrarian nature and his never-satisfied pursuit of what he called “the pure church” put him at odds almost immediately upon arriving in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631.  A group of men governing not just doctrine but also the religious correctness and everyday affairs of a community offended Williams’ radical views on the Lordship of Christ.  He was the first American to introduce and wrestle with the idea of separating church and state and what that looks like.

Making things worse for the Puritan elders was how Williams chose to approach the Indians of New England.  He did so with an open mind, unlike most of the pastors of the region.  Williams, along with more enlightened missionaries like John Eliot and the Mayhew family, felt that the more effective means of evangelization of Native Americans was to understand them culturally.  Today, modern missionaries would refer to these missionaries’ efforts as early forms of contextualization.

At the time, the prevailing view of most Christians was that the only sincere faith was one that at once rejected an individual’s pagan ways and immediately embraced not just the Lord Jesus as Savior but also European culture.  This view was upheld, often in courts or court-like settings, by the Puritan elders.

Understandably, Williams and others became indignant when many elders began to put up roadblocks to church membership against the very Indians they had converted.  And it’s true that the things these Puritan elders did were petty and reproachful to some of Scripture’s most basic teachings, such as the doctrine of equality in Christ found in Galatians 3:28.  In the case of some of John Eliot’s converts, the Indian men went all the way in wearing English clothing and cutting their hair, only to be told by the elders that they could not worship in the same building as the white people.

Moreover, when many of these Indians began to have land disputes with the ever-migrating colonists, things wouldn’t go their way in the church/colonial courts.  Often their lands got appropriated without clear title or just compensation.  Williams began to speak out against the elders in these cases, and he began to lump the Bible’s teaching about elders in with ideas about the establishment and corruption.

Williams’ agitation resulted in his expulsion from the colony by the Massachusetts leaders.  Unlike people like Eliot, Williams chose to antagonize those in authority instead of work with them.  He struggled with New Testament passages like Romans 13 and 2 Peter 2.  By the time Williams found safe haven among the Narragansett Indians in what would become Rhode Island, the minister and his followers had decided that anything resembling a church hierarchy was detrimental to God’s people.

Williams and others in the region, notably Anne Hutchison in Connecticut (who had also been banned for crossing the elders) hence promoted congregationalism as the purer model of church governance.  And because they also rejected the infant baptism practiced by the Anglicans (Church of England) – they thought it was too much like Roman Catholicism, which they truly HATED – the more open, loosely structured tradition of the Baptist faith rooted in believer’s baptism was born.

Over time, the self-governing sensibilities and capabilities of Americans generally seemed to bless the Baptist church structure.  To this very day, many Baptists seem to struggle in separating Pauls’ teaching on church governance from our own sacrosanct views about democracy and self-governance.

All of this is to say that we might resist the idea of elders in a Baptist church for some very understandable cultural reasons.  But Roger Williams should have been careful not to throw the baby out…well…with the holy water.

I hope my dear brothers and sisters at Ridgecrest who I love with all my heart will consider my opinion as to what might be animating any opposition to our upcoming amendment.  I have a dream that this blog post will set off a vigorous and loving debate prior to the vote.  In a time when God’s people are under withering attacks corporately, when ministries within a church can become personal carve-outs and when often the most basic tenets of God’s truth go unfollowed, I believe an amendment like ours is that much more important to strengthen us against the wolves.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 17, 2015

When Faith Reaches Its Limit

Over the years, I have heard the difference between God and humans described repeatedly as a “gap” or “chasm.”  The two best illustrations of this concept which come to mind are from David Gregory’s Dinner with a Perfect Stranger and C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress.

In Gregory’s punchy, one-sitting book, the guest who is eating at an Italian restaurant with the business-suit clad Lord Jesus has the gap between him and his host described as “a tear in the universe” similar to one discovered by the USS Enterprise in a Star Trek episode.

In Lewis’ allegory, the first-person hero makes a journey through various theological concepts, all of which slake a thirst for truth but which ultimately fall short, literally, when he arrives at a massive, bottomless canyon that separates him from his desired goal.  Nevertheless, he tries to make his way down the canyon walls, only to falter and become hopelessly stuck.  At just the right moment, a character he refers to as “A Man” comes and lifts him up, not only from his perilous grip along the canyon wall, but also out and across the chasm.

I think for all people just coming to faith, these pictures of their separation from God make perfect sense.  But to the sojourning Christian, weary with one trial, test, hardship or even sin catastrophe after another, discovering yet another ravine ultimately makes no sense.  Hitting that chasm, or seeming to circle around to the same gap, again and again make the faith of the journey seem absurd.  Doubt sets in.  Doubt takes hold.

But the plain fact is that faith cannot get across the gap any more than the human will.  Faith is, truly, a human act.  It is something humans do.  At most, God may give specific types of faith (including what the Reformers called miraculous “Saving Faith”), but it is incumbent on the human to yield to its saving power.  Scripture likens faith to a soldier’s shield, which of course is designed for the specific purpose of combat and the will required for fighting.

So what are we to think of the Christian soldier who arrives at a chasm in life only to realize he is woefully ill-equipped to cross it?  What is she to do when it dawns on her that her faith has reached its limit, and the bitter thought of “why have I been lugging this useless thing around” is spoken into the mind?

Massive fault lines may rip across one’s path, shaking one’s faith into a crumbling theory that it might be good for something, but it sure doesn’t look like it right now.  Crying out to God for help is reduced to a feeble technique rejected in a state of exhaustion.  The heart one once had to trust has become a burnt out cinder of tension and pain that literally shrivels the shoulders forward, fearful of the next blow.

Sometimes faith may seem as empty as the gap you’re staring into.

Is there anything to meet the limit of faith?  I have concluded there is truly nothing within a human heart when it finds itself staring into the canyon.  But there is something outside it, yet it may surprise us when we realize what it is.

Ironically, what meets us when faith hits its limit is the faith of others.  This is the essence of any spiritual group.  The faith of others that things will change or improve is what has been given to an individual whose faith may have become empty.

It is the faith – not the sympathetic ear – of the friend who sits at Whataburger, fighting an illness himself, who asks how your kid is doing because he knows God will help the child.  It is the faith of the aunt who has applied her faith in prayer for you, and is then simply happy to see you trudging into the worship center.  It is the faith of the mother who can block out the temper tantrum of a 40-year-old and verbalize what God can do.  A person’s connectedness to these resources of faith is a dependence that produces hope even if the pain makes things too cloudy to see God.

Remember the pronoun that the gospel writer used in describing how Jesus healed the paralytic lowered through the roof:  “And upon seeing their faith…” (Mk. 2:5).  Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man and ultimately healed him because of the faith of others.  The man was paralyzed more than just in his limbs; he was also flat on his back in his heart.

Faith, working through his friends, put him in front of a gospel that made him walk again.

British author George MacDonald notes that in all of Jesus’ miracles, there is a moment where the recipient must act or respond to Jesus’ words in order for the healing to actually occur.  In the case of the paralytic, he had to “get up, take up [his] pallet, and go home” (Mk. 2:11).  And the man did so, to everyone’s astonishment.

A deeper thought about overcoming this limit of faith is whether or not the commands of the Lord Jesus could even be disobeyed.  Would the paralyzed man have been able to remain in his horizontal mire, his faith weakened that much or his will broken in hostile resistance?  If God is God, can his commands even be disobeyed?  I think the answer is no.

I’m willing to take that on faith.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

REVIEW of REBEL YELL: Stonewall Rebuilt

General T.J. "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, 1862

I finally got to read S.C. Gwynne’s long-awaited, much heralded Rebel Yell:  The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  Gwynne is a former news magazine editor and fellow Texan who first came to prominence in the popular history genre with his bestselling tome about Quanah Parker, Empire of the Summer Moon.

Rebel Yell is an easy read, and I highly recommend it for anyone who doesn’t know a thing about Stonewall, or for anyone with an interest in the WBTS (War Between the States for us Southerners) who has perhaps struggled to understand the sequence of battles during the early war (pre-Gettysburg).  Gwynne does the best job of any WBTS author I’ve read of laying out 1861-1863, and he does so in a way that is concurrent and complementary to the biographical thrust about Stonewall.

If you’re a nerd about all the battle maneuvers and martial decisions, however, you may want to stick with some of Stonewall’s older chroniclers.  Only once does Gwynne try in earnest to explore Stonewall’s military mind, and that in relation to his seemingly recalcitrant behavior during the Peninsula Campaign of the summer of 1862 when the general may have been afflicted with a virus of some kind.  But to his credit, Gwynne sticks to his journalistic training by simply describing the General’s actions, as opposed to discovering the root of his military genius.  This keeps the person of Stonewall compelling.  And therein is what is probably the lasting significance of Rebel Yell; Gwynne restores Stonewall to his rightful place opposite Abraham Lincoln as the War’s two most important figures.

The WBTS–Civil War is in its own category of popular history, like the Roman Empire, the Titanic or the Kennedy Assassination.  Likewise, its actors are in their own peer group.  Stonewall, Lincoln, Caesar, Hannibal, the great ship and Molly Brown, John Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, rank among historical figures the same way Hank Williams towers over some honky tonk cover band.

In the case of the WBTS, just who the lead players should be have been in a crisis of sorts for at least 25 years, owing in no small measure to Ken Burns’ famous documentary.  For most of the nation’s history, the protagonist/antagonist, or viceversa, have pretty much always bee Lincoln vs. Lee.  There was a Grant vs. Lee period that occurred for a while, mainly during WWII, but the whole understanding got thrown into chaos as a result of the Burns miniseries when writer Shelby Foote declared the two most important Civil War figures were Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

But the truth is that Stonewall was all that Forrest was (backwoods rags to riches, highly intelligent and intuitively bellicose) and more:  he had a mystical union with God that very much reflected the fabric of the nation at the time (Forrest, by contrast was infamously profane during the war years).  Gwynne devotes key pages to the collective impact of Stonewall’s death on the nation, both north and south, and how it was in many ways a reflection of grief for all Americans and their antebellum Americanism (Gwynne’s word).

The principal reason Stonewall fell off his historiographical pedestal, starting in about the 1930s, was because he bore the prejudicial brunt of an increasingly secular age.  He was viewed by many historians and the textbooks they wrote as a one-dimensional God freak who foolishly expressed the wrath of an Old Testament Yahweh.  Then the Civil Rights era relegated Jackson to the sidelines in favor of Lee’s “gentler” Christianity.  Gwynne corrects this myopia about Stonewall by giving perspective to his faith and by allowing the devout general some complexity, even if his love for Christ seems, in modern eyes, to contradict his ruthlessness and the slavery it defended.

At the same time that he puts Stonewall’s faith in the right place, Gwynne also humanizes Jackson and gives the reader the best feel yet for the eccentric man’s true personality.  The thing I appreciate most about the book is that Gwynne seems to have written in with the central question in his mind of “What was Jackson really like to be around?”  This was an important duty for the author, as most of us WBTS nerds have been struggling with what we’ve all read about Stonewall versus Stephen Lang’s awkward portrayal of Jackson in Ron Maxwell’s 2003 Gods and Generals.  Although Lang is a great actor, he just did not get Stonewall at all, and I’ve spent almost 12 years disabusing myself of some of those hokey scenes.

So, download a copy of Rebel Yell if you like.  I of course will continue on the march behind Stonewall Jackson’s Way.