David Brooks gets it, at least from a secular point, and in a way (especially if you look at the comments from the clueless multitude of Times readers) that is terribly sad. In this essay, he preaches half of my sermon this week much better than I could. The problem, as Babel told us, is not the system. The problem is the individual human heart. As Brooks talks about, the individual no longer resonated to words like fortitude and courage. Aquinas and virtue theologians would put those as the cornerstone of the virtues. If you don’t have fortitude, the others will fall as well. When you no longer build virtue, you resort to the law to force something like virtue. Hence,
Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. The Kesebirs point out that these sorts of virtues are most relevant to economic production and exchange.
The law is always quid pro quo; it is a market. And it is always inadequate to the task. If the law can’t convict you of sin (second use, mirror) and move you toward virtue in the gospel (3rd use, rule) the best it can do is be a curb (first use or civil use). Hence,
The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.
That is the result of turning away from the call of the Holy Spirit. The only solution is the recovery of the vocabulary of the Spirit. A re-moralization is not about the law, although it has a role. It starts with repentance. And repentance doesn’t come about until the old Adam is dead, until we no longer want to keep our life but are willing to lose it for the gospel. And that might be why David Brooks can be so melancholy. Walking that necessary path is going to hurt. Our Polis, our politics, is not about virtue but about mere technique. Which technique do you want – delay and deny (liberal) or time to pay the piper (conservative)? A more wise Polis would be talking about prudence, patience, fortitude and temperance along with faith, hope and charity. But those require belief in something beyond the market. A belief we no longer have the Spirit for. “Take not you Holy Spirit from me (Psalm 51:11)…”
Biblical Text: Genesis 11:1-9
Full Sermon Draft
How does the Spirit work? That might be a question that leads to a just-so-story. But just-so-stories don’t give the Bible, and its author the Holy Spirit, enough credit. Such stories can be manipulative. If you are taking Babel as a just-so-story, the real purpose is to say “know your place”. It would be the Biblical Icarus, and God would be the capricious Zeus. But that is not the story told at Babel and Pentecost.
The story told is of a God who saves us from the worst of ourselves. The story told is of a Spirit that takes the wounds of sin an glorifies them. No longer are all the languages a reminder of how sin turns us inward, but they are a testament to the width of the love of God. The new creation comes not through compelling force or manipulative story, but through an invite to the heart. God’s will is done, the New Jerusalem is built, one heart (one stone heart turned to flesh) at a time.
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Biblical Text: John 17:20-26
Full Sermon Draft
…But Jesus prayer for unity continues and we might say gets tougher in verses 22 and 23. The basis of the unity in these verses is the glory. The glory that you have given me, I have given to them…that they may be one.
Now we’d love to see glory, because we think we know what it looks like. And our thoughts are glory are not completely false, just out of order. I say that because I’m assuming that most of our definitions of glory would probably be gleaming surfaces, gold streets, never ending crops, basically what John sees in the reading from revelation. But bringing that definition in at this point is out of order. That is the glory of the world to come.
The glory of this world is the cross.
If you want to see how you get from that to Mother’s Day (or at least an attempt) read/listen to the whole…
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There is something called the GSS, the General Social Survey. It is a large sample survey of the US population regarding several interesting data-sets like religious identity. It starts roughly in the 1970′s and has continued through today. Here is wikipedia on the GSS.
Here is a post by much better social scientists than I, looking at protestant affiliation across time through the GSS. Their point is the dramatic decline of denominations. And this is true, but I also think it covers up something else. What I think it is covering up is actually a great sorting out. Inside each one of those grouping that they have put together is a constant core. What you are seeing is the collapse of a specific type of American Christianity and a sorting out along the way.
A note on the methodology. The list of denominations that the GSS records might be called “pre-schism”. Lutherans are pretty easy as we schism-ed early and often. What I’ve done is taken the ELCA bodies and the “Lutheran don’t know specifics” and put them in the same bucket. I’ve put the LCMS and the other specific bodies together. My assumption is that if you know enough to answer a specific denomination you have some tie to its theology. If you don’t there is an accomodationist grouping that doesn’t care about doctrine in any serious way. What I’m trying to construct is what I call a “proto-denomination”. The Episcopal Church, the PC-USA, the ELCA and the United Methodists are all in pulpit sharing arrangements with each other. What that means is that a minister who is ordained from one of those bodies is able to take a call or be a pastor of a congregation in any of those bodies. They have declared that any doctrinal divisions do not stand in the way of spiritually leading a congregation. So while church politics might keep them separate, and by church politics I mean that bishops in each body don’t want to risk losing a chair as long as the money holds out, those bodies are effectively one denomination or moving that way. I’ve kept all Baptists together. There are portions of presbyterians (PCA), Episcopal (Anglicans) and United Methodist that I’d have loved to split out, but this is the pre-schism problem. The GSS just doesn’t have those bodies. But when you look at the graph, I don’t think you need to see that to get the point. I’ve included the historically black denominations in the other line. And the last methodology note is that for the graph I’ve taken a 5 sample moving average to smooth the graph. What that means is that any one survey tends to jump around. For example, from 1986 survey to 1987 survey the Baptists went from 32% to 41% of the sample. That is the nature of a sample. Averaging over 5 years, each point having the preceding 5 survey points, helps to smooth such single survey effects.
This is the resulting graph:
Here is what I see – 3 flat lines and 2 converging lines. Baptists moving around 32% of protestants with little movement 80′s – today. Other/non-denom’s hovering around 23%. Lutherans hovering around 5%. The accomodationist proto-denomination hovering around 30% until roughly 2000 where it entered a steep decline. Around exactly the same inflection point “none” goes from 7% on a steep upward slope.
So, what does this mean? Well, other than nothing because I messed up the data which is a possibility, this is what I think. First, none of this says anything about how these groups do in comparison to the population. If the share of the population that gets lumped none-none (i.e. atheist/agnostic) is growing (and other surveys say it is) that is a separate point. This is within the religious world. Second, those groups that maintain differentiation are holding their own. Maybe not in reported membership. The LCMS has been declining in reported membership, but in survey response which is more akin to attendance than membership, it holds its own. Likewise with baptists and non-denoms. There might be an argument that just wait, the kink down is coming, but the fact that there are denominational groups that haven’t would seem to say not all denominations are the same. Third, the decline and growth is really a story of the accomodationist grouping. The great sort is happening or has happened. If you “believe, teach and confess” a specific doctrinal body you probably know it and find it significant enough to maintain. You might have troubles keeping some congregations going because the “don’t knows” have drifted away, but it should be possible given some political grace to stand. (What I mean by that is some congregational consolidation is probably necessary, and that might mean driving a little further for some, but the results should be larger and more vibrant/healthy congregations.) But the accomodationist grouping doesn’t have that core body of doctrine. They are not a theological group but a sociological grouping. And looking at the data, sociology is not enough to maintain them. There is a remnant in there – a portion of the UM, the PCA, the ACNA. My guess is that if we could split them out, the accomodationist group would look worse.
Spiritually, what I would say is what Christ says to the church of Philadelphia in Rev 3:10-11. “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”
Melanchthon, quoting Erasmus, at Luther’s funeral – God has sent in this latter age a violent physician on account of the magnitude of the existing disorders…
So many of the conversations that I have seem to center around “the magnitude of the existing disorders”. Many people realize “that ain’t right”. But there is an unwillingness, or an inability to say so publicly. And there is no willingness to bear the cost of correcting it. A big part of the disorders are a huge misunderstanding between the correct and necessary application of grace to the private person, and the public rightness of insisting upon the law (i.e. public morals).
The presenting case is one Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who “went walking the Appalachian Trail” and came back with his South American “soulmate”. Roughly three years later, the same Mark Sanford, presents himself as a candidate for the US House of Representatives. This presents us with a pickle. The Christian religion instructs us to forgive. The former Governor has repented, has married his “soulmate” and presented his candidacy as a request for forgiveness. This is a terrible mash-up of public and private. The former Governor from the outside appears to have done everything necessary to receive absolution, privately. He is perfectly able to walk in grace in private life. As 1 Thessalonians would say, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs (1 Thessalonians 4:11).” There is a big bridge between that quiet private life, and a public one. When you present yourself for public office there is a much different standard. It is not exactly the same thing, but a good place to look for a public standard might be what St. Paul requires of ministers otherwise know as the office of public ministry. Let’s take a look at 1 Timothy 3:1-13.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
The only changes that I might make to such a list for public office in a pluralistic state would be when Paul speaks of “holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” I might substitute something like support the constitution with a clear conscience. That would exclude any revolutionary candidate whose true purpose would be to subvert public order. Otherwise, that list for overseers and deacons (aka bishops/pastors and elders) would serve as a good list of requirements for secular (or temporal) public office. It is not a list marked by strict holiness, but a smart practical list of traits in one who governs. As St. Paul says, to desire public office is no shame but is in fact noble. But, there is no requirement to grant public office. And there is no shame in a quiet private life. To desire the noble public task there are certain requirements – like one wife, not prone to fall into disgrace, faithful in all things. If you don’t meet this, thank you for your desire, but you don’t meet the first requirements.
We can forgive former governor Sanford. We can find like Jonah Goldberg “something quaint” about his scandal. Compared to pressing young interns and sending pictures of your crotch, going walking with an age appropriate soulmate almost sounds sweet. We can also say, such actions disqualify you from public office. In fact Christians should say such things. The appropriate time to have done so for the ministers of South Carolina was during the primaries so that the sword of Damocles didn’t hang over the voters head, where you could vote for someone who would vote for what you like but who is himself unqualified for office, or vote for the person taking you in the wrong direction but meets more fundamental qualifications. Yes, I know that makes us judgmental. You know what, good. The mature should “have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 6:14).” Until we are able to do so, the magnitude of the existing disorders will only increase. If you give an inch, the devil takes a mile.
And what this ultimately does is discredit what we believe in most dear – the gospel. (Douthat gets it.) You cannot come to the gospel without hearing the law. The law is both our tutor in our need for the gospel, and our guide to living the God fearing life. Our problem today is not the same as in Luther’s. Our problem is not that we are beset by a lot of holy-made-up-work crushing our souls. Our problem today is cheap grace. Our problem today is not hearing that the life of a Christian is one of daily drowning and arising. We can’t sacrifice a house seat for a few months, so we live with someone not fit for office. We can’t pick-up our cross or deal with life in community (i.e. the church) so we walk out and go “spiritual”. If the magnitude of the disorders are so great, pray for a violent doctor, because the other option is a disappearance beneath the waves. On this Ascension Day, it is the Lord who raises up and who dispatches. Our time on the stage might be drawing to a close. Just like all those other empires of history.
NPR had a short segment on a question that was sent to Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution). The hook was for those upcoming graduates who are lucky enough not to get sucked into the maw of this economy, what should they pursue if they didn’t really have “a passion”? And Dr. Cowen expressed some inability to . . . → Read More: Follow your passion?
From the Iliad – Book 22 –
With this, Achilles drew his bronze-tipped spear from the corpse and laid it down, and as he began to strip the blood-stained armour from Hector’s shoulders he was joined by others of the Greeks, who ran to gaze at Hector’s size and wondrous form. Yet all . . . → Read More: A Proper Burial
Sermon Text: John 16:23-33, Acts 16:9-15 Full Sermon Draft
The text continues one of the LCMS divergences from the revised common lectionary (RCL). In that RCL John 16 is never read on a Sunday. I’m somewhat surprised as this is all part of Jesus’ final teaching to the disciples at the last Supper, and . . . → Read More: Prayer and The Sabbath Day – A Simple Way to Pray
Our recording system is still on the fritz. So, I’ll have the sermon up later today. I need to re-record it, and I made enough notations in the text prior to service that I need my delivery copy which is in my study.
I’ve come across it most through the blogging of Tyler Cowen, but . . . → Read More: Monday Ponderings – Signaling
The Christian Century published a couple of articles on the PC-USA’s production of a new hymnal. This is an interesting essay basically defending the publication of hymnals. This is the more interesting story told about the making of it. As the first articles notes, there have been a series of new hymnals produced by denominations . . . → Read More: An Inside Look