Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Neo-Calvinism, young men, and the appeal of the permitted taboo

Over at the Boar's Head Tavern there's been a discussion going about adults who leave the faith and then later come back. This topic is interesting but not quite what I'm going to discuss, though what I mean to discuss connects to that. I'm considering a pyschological explanation of apostates that proposes that people who lave the Christian faith do so not because of the intellectual integrity of arguments against the Christian faith but because they want to justify sins they are already willing to commit or have committed themselves to. As Fearsome Tycoon put it, more young people leave Christianity because they want to drink, smoke, and get laid than are persuaded by philosophical arguments.


I am willing to agree with that but I would also say that this is a stock explanation on the part of many evangelicals that may not be entirely accurate. Yeah, I have known guys who bailed on the Christian faith because they wanted to get laid but they also found evolution to be a more compelling explanation for their biology and behavior than what they were told at church. But that's not where I plan on going, merely a turn taken along the on-ramp to the highway. I grant both that there are intellectual as well as sociological reasons a person may cling to or reject an expression of Christian faith.


I want to take Fearsome's axiom on its face and consider how it may apply to the "resurgence" of Reformed thought and New Calvinism. Let's say that Fearsome is right and particularly right with respect to young guys. Young guys want to drink, smoke, and get laid because those are cool things to do and a way to define manhood and social status.


All right then. The book Drinking with Luther and Calvin, anyone? Federal Husband? Mark Driscoll's Song of Songs sermons? Firepit discussions with beer and cigars about theology? Now maybe the New Calvinists have actually bought their own hype regarding doctrinal purity but I doubt that's what the appeal of the New Calvinist movement has been in the last decade. A lot of us migrated to neo-Calvinism from Arminian theological backgrounds where the Wesleyan Holiness tradition dominates. Don't drink, don't smoke, and don't go out with girls who do.


For a young men who finds the prospect of drinking, smoking, and getting laid compelling the neo-Calvinist movement is not appealing because that guy actually cares about the fine distinctions between infralapsarianism (J. I. Packer) and supralapsarianism (R. C. Sproul). The guy also probably doesn't care about postmillenialism and if he DOES care about postmillenialism it is probably purely in reaction to the premillenial dispensationalism he got in his Wesleyan American evangelical background and because cool kid bad boys of neo-Calvinism pumped postmillenialism. He probably only knows anything about N. T. Wright because John Piper thinks there's some dangers with Wright's theology and that's if he knows who John Piper is (which means he'd be a neophyte to the neo-Reformed team). Above all there is virtually no way this young buck Calvinist slogged through John Murray's The Imputation of Adam's Sin.


No, the real appeal of the neo-Calvinist movement may simply be that it holds forth the promise that a guy can drink, smoke, and get laid all while still officially being some kind of Christian. Postmillenialism looks like the opposite of a premillenial dispensationalist theology that frets that, since Jesus is coming back in two weeks because Jack van Impe says so, there is no point in ever getting married, building a professional career, having kids, or having any kind of productive life. Well, the young Calvinist persuades himself, that's all good that dispensationalism is not the only way to interpret the Bible because he plans on getting married as soon as possible and he's got most all his ducks in a row. Caring about doctrinal purity in this kind of church cultural context makes a guy more eligible because if he can talk about why Rob Bell's book is bad and resembles a pastor he's more likely to be eligible on the dating scene, particularly if he's gained the social clout of having some kind of leadership role.

But here's the thing, guys I've seen who bought into that ten years ago with gusto, so much gusto they actively ripped on men who didn't buy into all of the social customs associated with that paradigm, have come out of the other side of all that a decade later bitter and resentful that they didn't get what they thought the deal promised. These may well be guys who were going to leave the faith at some point anyway, but were sidelined temporarily by a false promise imputed to the neo-Reformed movement.

Wendy over at Practical Theology for Women "might" describe this as one of the many secret prosperity gospels of conservative Christianity. If you get a real job, get your ducks in a row, and be the best Christian man you can be then, well, women will be stumbling over themselves to get ahold of you. But after a decade of labors some guys jumped through all the hoops like courtship and getting a dad's permission and finding the right kind of work and being a doctrine hound and despite all that still didn't get any sanctified tail. Or, worse, they almost got there but things didn't work out and relationships went south and that marriage thing didn't happen. Women who complained that nobody was asking them out would categorically shoot these guys down, who mistakenly thought they had a shot because, well, those women had just complained that they were upset that no guys were asking them out, right?

So for these guys who followed those rules in the hopes that A would lead to B and then to C either failed A or became disillusioned with the whole thing. One Christian I know has said several times that if God's promises are only good for the life to come what good are theY? If there's no earthly benefit to being a Christian why be one? Well, who says the earthly benefits promised by Christ are the ones you think you should get? Me, I'd like a job, and I pray that I get one soon! Forgive me if I think that another guy's lament that he hasn't gotten laid yet is a relatively minor concern.


I'm not going to do the other stock Christianese thing which is to declare in solemn, righteous tones that if you haven't gotten married yet and really want to be married then maybe God has prevented you from getting married because you've made marriage an idol. No, I'm going to suggest that maybe you lack the fiscal, emotional, and social competence to even be in such a relationship and should stop wasting your time lamenting that you don't have what you would probably ruin. See, compared to the that proposal the pat Christianese answer doesn't sound so bad, does it?


There are a few guys I have known who are ostentatiously bitter that they never paired off and they'd rather blame the shallowness of women or the uselessness of the estate of marriage rather than concede that their lack of matrimonial bliss stems from their problematic disposition. These are guys with a gut-level emotional need to argue passionately about anything, to be right about everything, and to take things personally. It's not really any wonder to me, even as a single man, how they managed to somehow have marriage slip through their fingers. It's easy for a guy to declare that it's only ever the less attractive women who talk about the shallowness of men in seeking after the "hot" woman. It's less easy for a guy who has said this to face the facts that he's not hot enough or financially stable enough to catch a woman's eye. Some guys and gals get so resentful about this injustice they decide to abandon the faith.


Well, how do I know they weren't going to do that at some point anyway? Suppose they had gotten that magic wife or husband and she or he died of a congenital disease? A cancer in the brain? A car accident? A murder? Suppose the spouse was raped or sustains a brain injury that leaves them a functionally and truly different person, not the person he or she was on the wedding day? Intellectual arguments against the Christian faith I can understand and to a certain degree respect. I'm still a Christian so I beleive there are reasons to still be a Christian that go beyond the objections I have heard and read but intellectual objections I get. Emotional objections to people who found Christianity wanting because it didn't give them what they thought they deserved are a different class of person. People who reject the things they coveted, and for which they hoped Christianity would be the means to attaining what they coveted, these people I confess I have little ability to respect unless they are able to spell out that this is what their motive was.


Why? Because to the extent that we as Christians tell ourselves that we don't value social and economic status as a foundation for a healthy marriage we do seem to do ourselves and each other a disservice. We don't help things by gearing practical teaching primarily around the assumption that most people ought to marry. When we tell each other that if you just be the best Christian man or woman you can be and he/she will be knocking at your door that's not true. We don't know. As I've written elsewhere, proverbs are not rules that, if followed, yield automatic and inevitable results. None of us is as righteous as we tell ourselves in our most confident moements we are, even if we only go by the sliding scale of comparing ourselves to others or comparing ourselves to where we once were.


The sin nature is like Brainiac in the DC animated universe. Sure, Superman, you destroyed Brainiac that one time in his space ship. You don't know that he's hiding in Lex Luthor's computers at LexCorp. You beat him by stopping him from using a kidnapped Luthor to build him a body an effect a get-away? Well, cool, but he's not gone, just taking a different form somewhere else. I'm not going to keep being a super-nerd and spoil anything about the Cadmus arc there. The point is that when we are most willing to exonerate ourselves is when we should suspect ourselves. The beginning of considering other people as better than yourselves might be something as simple as not thinking you're better than other people. Don't thank God that you're not like that tax collector. You and I both do, that, though, and that is to some degree why the young, restless and Reformed among us had best keep repenting, especially of the things we're liable to take pride in.


One of those points of pride can be that we sucker ourselves into thinking that so many young bucks are attracted to our culture of neo-Calvinism because of the sturdy doctrine and manly discourse on a proper understanding of saving faith that is not imbued with legalistic works. We're growing and important and if a big chunk of those people won to our side were dithering Arminians who decided to give us a shot because they were uptight with the legalism of Wesleyan Holiness teaching then I feel sorry for them already. They'll find that we Calvinists are plenty legalistic enough ourselves, we just put a different varnish on things. It may be the sociological reasons young bucks favor new Calvinism has less to do with the doctrine and more to do with what things we allow that their old church traditions forbade. I know of at least one mother on the internet who fled Pentecostal churches for high liturgical worship and `twas all for naught because her teenage son has figured out that Pentecostal girls in worship teams are hot. I was a Pentecostal teenager once and, yes, some of them are hot.


If as the neo-Reformed love to say "What we win them with is what we win them to" we'd best ask ourselves some really, really hard self-incriminating questions about what our sales pitch is to guys actually is. If in winning the young men we win the generation then what is our sales pitch to the men? Dollars to doughnuts it's not as much doctrinal purity as we think. We think it's Jesus but what if "Jesus" means gaining an increasingly significant amount of social capital in a church structure while becoming a more eligible bachelor who eventually marries, has children and leaves "a legacy"? Isn't this a way for us to advertise to young guys, "You can totally drink, smoke, and get laid and be on the team and if you do it our way it's all better than the ways the world does it." Of course it's not just neo-Calvinists who can do this. For all I know Lutherans and Anglicans and emergents and Catholics and so on can do it, too. I notice it more in the neo-Reformed camp because of spending a good chunk of my adult life in this orbit. I don't assume we are unusually guilty but nor do I assume (as I trust has been obvious) that we are unusually innocent.

1 comment:

Matt J. said...

Excellent stuff. Along the same lines as the idea that the neo-reformed and the emergents are fighting over the same group of upwardly mobile young guys.

Really basic things like wanting to drink and get married explain human behavior and church social dynamics (in most cases) WAY more convincingly than theological arguments.

On a side note, J., I had some other questions to throw your way. Could you send me an email? (Since yours is hidden. :) )