Monday, September 06, 2010

Of course Hitch thinks this: religious practice in America is tolerable because there are limits to what is tolerated

Christopher Hitchens argues that the way to get religious groups to integrate into American culture is to prevent them from wielding the public and political power they would like to wield. Mormons have given up on polygamy and have relented on failing to define blacks as fully human. Christian Scientists can be prosecuted for allowing their children to be kept from medical care. We're a long way from the Puritans of American folklore who punish witches but Hitchens sees the application in our current time as using force of law to preclude religious groups from attempting to influence policy. Where the culture warrior Christian sees the solution to dealing with encroaching Islamic terrorism as Christians more fully embracing the faith and getting God back into America Hitchens, unsurprisingly, believes the real solution is to defang and domesticate Islam so that it is as secularized in practice as other religious views have become.

Hitchens, in his odd way, is calling for the assimilation of Islam into American civic religion. That's not what he wants, of course, what he wants is for religion to one day vanish! But the upshot of the virtual inevitability of the religious impulse in humanity is that religion won't go away any time soon (if ever) and what cannot be conquered must be domesticated.

Now as a Christian there are all sorts of things I find disagreeable about Hitchens' approach. I do suggest, for the sake of discussion (not that a blog is a place to promote much discussion most of the time), that perhaps Hitchens' argument is the one that will prove most effective. Christians who want to use Christian dogma as the primary means to battle the encroachment of whatever variations of godless governance they see are forgetting how many Christians spoke about and treated the Catholics and Mormons who are now staples of conservative movements. Some fifty years ago there was a widespread worry that a Catholic in the executive office would be beholden to the Pope. A few years ago there were worries that a Mitt Romney would end up having Mormons dictate policy decisions.

Of course there are Christians who worry that if Muslims get more public influence we'll get sharia law ... even though if you peruse some of the literature of reconstructionists and theonomists you find that there's room for the two apparently contrasting movements to agree on a few things about the place of women and the value of public education. There is a sense in which we as Christians cannot really have it both ways.

There are distinct disadvantages to such a secularist state as we have but I am not sure American Christians realize what a great blessing that may be for our time and place and whether or not the Lord has a providential purpose in it. Sure, I don't know what that purpose would be but since I can't claim to know the mind of God on that issue or His will on that issue I don't have to pretend to even have a guess. It just may be that things which conservative Christians most fret about have a divine purpose we do not fully appreciate. Even Samson, stupid, violent horndog that he was, was used by the Lord to accomplish a particular purpose. If Christians doubt that God can use stupid, imcompetent, self-aggrandizing, morally corrupt or religiously apostate leaders to accomplish a greater purpose then they have just forgotten how often the scriptures remind us of this reality.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

righteous failures, Jehoshephat and Josiah--legacies of failure and legacies of success

I have been reading a lot of the narrative books of scripture since 2007. One of the things that immersing myself in the narrative books has forcefully reminded me of is that the heroes of the faith in the scriptures all reached the end of their lives as failures. They all built legacies that have lasted through to our day but that is because of the faithfulness of Christ, not the faithfulness of those instruments He used, still less through the success of those instruments He appointed to serve as his heralds. Though God's word does not come back voids the lives of many of thosse through whom God's word arrives have been poured out as drink offerings and their lives evaporated from the dust on to which they were poured!

Consider Jehoshephat and Josiah. The first of these kings allied himself by marriage to Ahab, one of the most corrupt and despicable of the kings of Israel. He attempted to embark on both military and commercial ventures that ended in disaster. In the end Jehoshephat died and chose his firstborn son to rule and his firstborn son proved wicked, destroying his brothers and surviving only because the Lord did not wish to break His promise to David that he would never lack a descendant on the throne. At length, however, the Lord took the life of the son Jehoshephat appointed as ruler. At the last the king's final decision was the worst decision he made and yet the scriptures reveal that he loved the Lord.

We like to tell ourselves that if we embrace wisdom and do what the scriptures teach that things will go better for us. Often this can be the case but as I have written elsewhere and as my friend Wendy has written so succinctly over at Practical Theology for Women, it is dangerous to presume that descriptions in scripture are prescriptions. Proverbs are not promises. You cannot take some passage about how some men may live to eighty years and "stand on the promises of God" to the effect that you are promised in the scriptures by God to live at least eighty years. You cannot take a passage such as, "He who finds a wife finds what is good and procures favor from the Lord" as a prescription since legions of passages in Proverbs speak of the horror of a bad wife and a listless child. An Abigail can still end up married to a Nabal no matter how good she is. As Koholeth warned, the race is not to the swift, nor victory to the strong, nor prosperity to the wise but time and chance happen to them all.

Yet we like to suppose, we like to tell ourselves, that once we unlock the hidden rules and principles of godly living we can avert this observation. If we work hard and do the right things and say the right things and think the right things and avoid all the wrong things that things will go well for us. If we put God where he belongs, the chain email goes, then all will go right with the country or our personal lives. The scriptures ultimately repudiate this thinking. Consider Jehoshephat whose life and legacy ended up being one of incomplete reforms and the appointment of a bloodthirsty successor. The king's legacy was finally one of failure.

Consider, by contrast, the legacy of Joash (Jehoash). He ended his life in apostasy and was guilty of having Zechariah son of the high priest murdered for prophesying against Judah. Yet Joash's legacy was to repair the Temple. Yes, he was at best a middling king and his legacy, too, was ultimately destroyed, but his life is a reminder that the ineffectual but sincere godly leader can leave a legacy of destruction and failure while the insincere apostate can fund things that last into successive generations. One of the problems of using a legacy to measure the success or failure of the godly is that the Spirit warns us through the scriptures that all is not so simple with us people as we'd like to believe.

As for Josiah, he attempted the widest-reaching reform the Lord's people had ever seen up to that time and we know he died in an ill-advised battle and that after him things never really got better and exile was inevitable (which we knew from Deutoronomy 30 anyway). We as Christians, particularly in America, seem to have persuaded ourselves through a combination of civic religion and partisan loyalty that thanks to some covenant we have with God that we can avert exile. The problem with that whole mentality is that it fails to comprehend the broader narrative context of that covenant as it applied to Israel. Israel was inevitably going to breach covenant.

That old axiom that "if my people who are called by my name heed my voice then I will hear them and heal there land" was prayed by a king who was a pioneer in Israelite apostacy. Consider that a prayer that Solomon would enact justice and drive out the wicked ended up not being answered. Solomon's legacy is so problematic that many Christians are willing to overlook even what he wrote in scripture about men and women on the mistaken assumption that Solomon wrote all that was compiled in Proverbs (he obviously didn't). Solomon built the temple that formed a lasting glorious legacy ... except for the part about worshipping all those other gods. That's the thing about leaders and legacies, just like Solomon the legacies are as terrible as they are great.

Consider in the history of our own nation--there are people who consider Abraham Lincoln to have been the greatest or the worst president depending on whether or not we're talking about the Civil War or the War of Northern Aggression. If we have endless debates amongst ourselves about contested legacies this is nothing surprising since the scriptures reveal that the kings with the greatest legacies often had the most conflicting legacies. The king who had a prophet/priest assasinated repaired the temple! The wisest of kings was a polygamist who levied heavy taxes and set up forced labor and put heavy burdens on the people and promoted idolatry. Those who stand up for holiness of conduct are often despots. Those who stand up for compassion are often dissolute. Those who are brave are often bereft of pity and those who are bold are often eager to be the center of attention.

If you consider what legacy you would like to be remembered for consider that legacy will inevitably be mixed. I was in a church setting for years that urged young men particularly to consider their legacy, to build a legacy. What is that legacy supposed to be? To be godly and set a godly example. That's great except for the part where no one is righteous, not even one. When you survey the scriptures and see the legacies of even the best men and women you see that there are pock marks on them. Peter was the rock and his confession was the foundation upon which the church was built but the Gentile question nagged him throughout his ministry. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles but even in his own time his works were twisted by unstable men to teach dangerous doctrines and his letters, as Peter warned, had many things in them that are hard to understand. The witnesses in the scriptures are manifold because with every strength there is a corresponding weakness. In the last ten years I have been convicted that a tradition that is strong on the epistles and wisdom literature is often utterly barren in the realm of poetry and narrative. As John Donne put it so beautifully in one of his sermons even are best thoughts and deeds are not perfect but Christ is perfect.

It is in this respect that Calvinists of a certain stripe have a paradoxically high demand of legacy and a low anthropology. Perhaps it is in this context that the failure to emphasize the poetry of the psalmists becomes instructive. There are arguments and reflections on the way in which the power of God is revealed that would reflect too high an anthropology, too high a view of humanity, for many a certain stripe of Calvinist. Certainly I found it puzzling when I read Ps 8 over the years where it says that God reveals His strength through the babbling of babies. It is only as I have gotten older and have had a few nieces and nephews that I have even begun to grasp that the God who created life that can beget life is powerful enough to use the weakest and most foolish things on earth to confound the wise and crush the powerful.

It is dangerous for us to pass too strong a judgment on those who we are told about in the scriptures. We can judge Jehoshephat for his failures but even a king as terrible as Ahab can have moments of reprieve that extend his life. We tend to want things all or nothing in our heroes and villains. We even whitewash or, if you will, paint with tar, those figures in Scripture we want to have uniform in character and legacy. One of the most memorable examples of this I've heard in any pastoral teaching was when Mark Driscoll said that because the NT author spoke of Lot as grieving over the evil of Sodom that we have to trust that's the case even though in Genesis there's no evidence of any kind that Lot really grieved much over the wickedness of the city. He wanted the NT to affirm what his hunch was reading the OT but that's not how the authors of the NT through the Spirit have spoken to us. As Richard Sibbes put it so brilliantly, James urges us to remember the patience of Job and does not remind us of all the speeches in which Job's impatience was on display. Through Christ Job was reckoned to be patient and in a similar way trusting in Christ means that God remembers on our behalf qualities which others would not necessarily see in us. To be sure I paraphrase with alacrity and perhaps with too much of my own interpretation of Sibbes interpreting James interpreting Job. I trust you'll bear with me. This is, after all, a blog.