Saturday, March 05, 2011

there's therapeutic moral deism and then there's "competitive deism".

Learned of this piece through Mockingbird (always an enjoyable blog to read), which in trun picked it up from the Wall Street Journal. Some salient segments:

Before they were famous, many of the biggest pop stars in the world believed that God wanted them to be famous, that this was his plan for them, just as it was his plan for the rest of us not to be famous. Conversely, many equally talented but slightly less famous musicians I've interviewed felt their success was accidental or undeserved—and soon after fell out of the limelight.

As I compiled and analyzed these interviews for my new book, I reached a surprising conclusion: Believing that God wants you to be famous actually improves your chances of being famous. Of course, from the standpoint of traditional theology, even in the Calvinistic world of predestination, God is much more concerned with the fate of an individual's soul than his or her secular success, and one's destiny is unknowable. So what's helping these stars is not so much religion as belief—specifically, the belief that God favors their own personal, temporal success over that of almost everyone else.

Intriguingly enough Strauss observes early in the piece that after years of interviewing pop stars who give God credit for their success (even adult movie stars) what can seem like humility the first few dozen times turns out to be something else. Perhaps like Marshall Cogburn we'll believe it the first thirty-two times we hear a Texas Ranger talking about lapping water from a mud puddle ... but we stop believing it the more times we hear it. The same thing can go with people who thank God for things in public settings. Strauss goes on to say:

Let's call it competitive theism, a self-styled spirituality that can be overlaid on any religion and has nothing to do with personal morality. This faith gap, I've noticed in the interviews I've done, is often what sets the merely famous apart from the ridiculously famous. It can make the difference between achieving what's possible and accomplishing what seems impossible.

If you THINK God has called you to change the world and be a superstar of some kind then you're more likely to become one. You can convince other people that you're humble or other people can imagine that you're humble but there is a point where if you are certain the divine entity/force/being that brought about the cosmos has appointed YOU to accomplish something big that hasn't been done you are going to be, it virtually goes without saying, mightily handicapped in the humility department. It would be difficult to find a closing thought more apt than Strauss' own:

The meek may indeed inherit the Earth, but until then, stars who are presumptuous enough to see themselves as God's chosen ones are likely to dominate the pop charts, award shows and sports championships. Talent counts for a lot, but so too does the motivating power of divine conviction.

sigh of relief about one project that is partly done

Okay, one of the four to five essays I have been tackling in my Mockingbird project is done. Truth to tell this is much less an essay series and more like a small book. It's going to include a number of polemics and observations about 1980s nostalgia of various kinds but I want to merely say that I have finished, mostly to my satisfaction, the first major chunk in the series.

I still feel there are all sorts of things that could have been better but I may have to settle for the reality that if I can spend a decade working on a sonata allegro form for a piano sonata that I can be hard on myself and a perfectionist about thematic exploration and arguments in essays. Or maybe I just have this impression about myself and I'm not that much of a stickler for words or phrases. :)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

sublimating numerous writing projects

There's a lot I mean to write here that I don't write. It's not for lack of interest in writing in the abstract but I realize I have other priorities a lot of the time and the ideas I want to write about are absurdly messy and wide-ranging. I haven't finished the Hell series, obviously. I haven't tackled new material in the stuff I was working on for City of God, which turns out to be okay since they're revamping and relaunching their format. Plus Mockingbird is covering some of the material I was planning on touching upon anyway.

And, speaking of Mockingbird, I have been writing and rewriting a bunch of stuff in a big project for them. My worry now has been that, as ever, I aspire to do to much with a project that could be fairly small. This was just going to be a simple overview of a few shows I like and it has mutated into a meditation on the ethical worlds of pop narratives, an examination of the self-deceiving nature of nostalgia, the pragmatic ways in which what we lionize from our past often had blatantly mundane or craven origins, and a deliberately polemical take-down of a lot of what my generation considers pop culture mythology. Most of what passes for "mythology" or pop culture iconography isn't really that at all and while I am tempted to expound upon this at length here I'm working very hard to save all of that stuff for Mockingbird!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"You deserve Hell. Everything else is a gift"

I won't need to advertise who tweeted this. This is an example of a theological statement that is true but can be pastorally useless. Apart from the salvation given to us by the Father through Christ and the work of the Spirit we are all doomed to continual death. All Christians can agree on this. The fact there is even such a thing as infant baptism at least suggests this in part. And I have already tipped my hand to alert readers who wonder where I might be going with this.

As folks at the BHT have been discussing, there are some simple, simply observed shortcomings to this simple theological statement, the universal proclamation that "you" deserve Hell and that everything else (whatever that may be in your life), is a gift.

If it is true (and it is) that all people apart from saving faith in Christ deserve Hell then what about aborted or miscarried babies? What about babies who die in miscarriage? If one holds to a staunch credobaptist position as Driscoll does, and if one holds that baptism is symbolic entry into the Church rather than having any baptismal regenerative effect then a baby who dies as the result of miscarriage has not had the time to make the intellectual assent necessary to be said to have believed the Gospel. Furthermore if one affirms both natural and federal headship as the means through which Adam's sin is imputed to each generation of sinners this means that babies who die apart from Christ cook like scrambled eggs in Hell (as my brother Toroto Man decided to so inelegantly put it).

So Driscoll can affirm that it is true that we all deserve Hell and everything else is a gift. Does this then mean he told his wife Grace after she miscarried that the dead babies deserved Hell? No, pretty obviously he did NOT tell his wife that, just as he wouldn't tell women who have aborted babies that those babies have been doomed to Hell because they weren't able to make a sufficiently articulate profession of faith in the substitutionary atoning work of the second person of the Trinity on the Cross.

If someone has been raped or physically abused by a parent; if someone has been defrauded by an employer; if someone has been murdered; if someone has been physically wrecked in some way by the limitations of medical practice then these things, however harmful, are still better than a person deserves. Notice I'm not contesting the universal applicability of the statement, just pointing out that it can make a hash of the practical application of a substrata of Christian teaching, particularly for staunch credobaptists who hold that the purpose of baptism is symbolic and public recognition of an existing faith in Christ. I do hold that is one of the things required for baptism but I'm less about sacramentology here than the gap between universal affirmation and personal pastoral or Christian conduct.

I strongly doubt that Driscoll told his wife her lost babies were probably in Hell but that they can hope the Lord in His kindness has preserved them. In fact I would affirm there is nothing wrong with, as it were, hoping against hope on this issue. From the standpoint of pastoral care and public Christian profession the tension is not in affirming the paradox that the babies you lost "deserve to go to Hell while hoping Christ will preserve them, it's the gap between the universal declaration with respect to everyone while privately living in a way that tends to assume that the Lord "will" be merciful. In other words, we can declare confidently what everyone deserves on the basis of our being sinners in public but privately we will still feel there are things that have happened to us that are terrible and should not have happened.

Driscoll, for instance, has often spoken about how the death of his grandfather angered him and that he didn't think that the world ought to be the kind of one where grandsons lose their grandparents to death. But so what? The best Driscoll's grandfather deserved was Hell and everything else was just a gift right? Driscoll and I can both affirm that abstraction but that won't make either of us feel less miserable when people we love die, will it?

Now of course a tweet is going to be nothing more than a pithy statement meant to provoke thought and that far Driscoll's tweet cannot but succeed. Well done stirring up conversation, Mark. And as I have said repeatedly, I don't even contest the basic truth of the assertion given some ten years of context in which to understand what Mark does and doesn't mean by the tweet! I have made no real effort to hide my identity and Mark himself knows I have vouched for him in numerous contexts and even fielded theological questions on his behalf. So the last thing I want anyone to surmise is that I'm just looking to take him down. What I'm trying to do is to fairly grant what I understand the intent behind his tweet to be while granting the legitimacy of concerns some people have about how this kind of theology would play out in pastoral counseling settings.

I am, however, not very interested in explaining the nuts and bolts of how a truncated hamartiology actually has played itself out in pastoral counseling settings, if you get my meaning! I certainly won't do it in this blog. It will suffice to say that I have written elsewhere on this blog about my concerns about the truncated hamartiology that pervades the teaching and culture at Mars Hill. Perhaps the best example of the tension between the formal observation and practice is with aborted and miscarried children. I have not seen any married person or parent at Mars Hill seriously propose that without baptism and an articulated faith in Christ that dead babies go to Hell. I know one single guy who has but even he made that point at least half in polemical jest. Still, the jest has a certain truth to it, if one were consistent about total depravity, credobaptism, and imputation then it would be necessary to suppose by default that all miscarried or aborted babies end up in Hell estranged from Christ.

If it's fair to declare categorically that even rape victims have gotten better than they deserved because they deserve Hell or that aborted babies deserve Hell then it's fair to point out that if there be any gap between the universality of this proclamation and how we treat the people we actually live with here and now then there's a "tension" at work and that resolving that "tension" into one extreme or the other may be a sign of a weakness in our doctrine, our lives with respect to the doctrine we profess, or potentially both.

That said, it's not a weakness I personally feel is necessary to hammer on any time I think I see it. Pointing out the paradox of not wanting to live out the implications of doctrines we affirm in the abstract is just one of the challenges of Christian living. If you're unwilling to say that family members or friends are not even Christians because they don't hold to your church's doctrines then you're human enough to realize that you don't want to embrace something that would preclude you from loving your neighbor. Our hope is in the kindness of Christ extended to us by the Father and at work in us through the Spirit more than in our ability to always and only consistently live in light of what we say about that. I.e. Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. [Just because I'm a Presbyterian doesn't mean I can't appreciate a prayer with Orthodox roots]