Tag Archives: Alan Jacobs

A Humble Parson’s Response to Alan Jacobs

I tend not to preach on them because in the fifteen minutes a week I get for proclamation of Jesus I start with the gospels. But in my personal study I spend an inordinate amount of time in the twelve minor prophets. I feel drawn to them in a deep way because of the end of the age society they see. They are sent to prophesy, but their conviction is like Amos. “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman. But the Lord took me from following the flock.” They prophesy because the Lord told them to, and they do so with a passionate intensity, but what they do not prophesy with is an expectation that they will be heard. When a herdsman approaches a King, he knows that a seat at the table is probably not on offer. Joel cries, “who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind…”, but when the Lord has pity it is tied to the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. Hosea is told to marry a prostitute as a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness, and his two kids receive the worst unique names in history. Habakkuk, tired of his prophesy, takes his complaint to the Lord. “How Lorg shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry ‘violence’ and you will not save…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth.” These prophets have words that cut my heart, and promises that I claim in Christ, but they stand to me as an awful warning for my brothers of the flesh.

I am thinking about the twelve after reading Alan Jacobs’ article in Harper’s Magazine. A strain in that article is a lament that Christian Intellectuals abandoned the liberal public square. His rebuke in these regards is not a heavy one. Mr. Jacobs understands that it was partly a two-way street. Richard John Neuhaus developed his own vehicle because when he talked about abortion he was no longer welcome at the liberal table as he had been over the Vietnam War. Likewise Mr. Jacobs does take Christians such as Marilynne Robinson to task for a witness to the liberal table that in my more harsh twelve inspired thoughts would be “peace, peace”. She is the house prophet saying all is well while Jeremiah is in rags. Another strain that Mr. Jacobs picks up but then abandons is Stanley Fish’s thoughts in First Things about just this desire to be a Christian Intellectual at the liberal table. “The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.” It is this strain that I wish he would have developed more for his audience in Harpers.

Being a Lutheran, we think in terms of Law and Gospel. The law is simply the demands of God. It can be summarized as the 10 commandments or probably better Jesus’ summary, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…and your neighbor as yourself.” The bitter truth of the law is that we can’t keep it. It is good and wise, but beyond our fallen ability to actually live. That causes all sorts of strategies. You can restrict the demands of the law. “Who is my neighbor?” or “Am I my brother’s keeper?” are classic attempts to limit it. You can also replace it. Arguably this was the Pharisee strategy in tithing mint and cumin. They substituted certain holy looking ceremonial practices for the demands of the law. Likewise, this is start of Luther’s reformation calling out indulgences, pilgrimages, relics and other pious acts that were replacing the actual law and gospel. Our modern liberal society also has gutted and replaced the law. It does not have ears to hear even the basics of natural law such as marriage and children let alone the tougher strains of the temptations of the devil, this world and the flesh. In Lutheran parlance not only will it not look in the mirror of the law to recognize its sins, it has also jumped the curb of the natural law meant to be shared and keep us all safe in God’s providence.

In Lutheran Law and Gospel thinking, one cannot be raised by the gospel – the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – until we have been killed by the law. When ears are closed and hearts are hard, that is the time of the prophets, of the twelve. What that looks like is confrontation. What that looks like is crazy, right up until the moment everyone is carried away. Into oblivion for the 10 Northern tribes, into exile for Judah. That is the wrong message for my congregation. For them the message is more eschatological – “comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord”. Today we might be like the grass of the field, but we are forever safe in the Lord’s hands. But for those outside Christ I can only hint at that. Tease like the parables into contemplation. There are two choices for those outside. There is the kinder and gentler law proclamation, like Corinthians 13 on love. It is heard at every wedding, and it is a ridiculous call. I can’t do that sacrificial love on my own. That takes the indwelling of the Spirit. One can be temporally kind and hope that in the moment of the first fight or the first night he’s home way late, the newlyweds will contemplate how they have trespassed that love they said they wanted. Then there is the proclamation of the twelve. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” That is about as effective as you might think. But as Mr. Jacobs quotes Rorty, “of course the theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” Such prophecy as the twelve is nor really prophecy for listening, but prophecy for witness. It is the Lord putting down a marker for future generations.

Mr. Jacobs ends with the lament that the liberal table lost the ability to hear religious responses “at least in part because we Christian Intellectuals ceased to play it for them.” That might be true, but as a humble preacher I would have to add a caveat. We ceased to play it for them because the Word God was sending us wasn’t peace, but repent. As much as Cornel West and a steady stream of mainline preachers liked to claim being a prophetic Christian witness, the dreams they dreamed very often did not line up with the Word. We have had a plague of prophets, but an absence of the Word.

Boomers & Stickers

That title is a reference to Wendell Berry. A rough translation: Boomers = people who go where ever the opportunity is greatest regardless of the mess they leave behind. Stickers = people who stay in one place because the community is greater than the individual. As with all dualities it is immediately true and false at the same time. Berry’s deeper point I have taken to be that the rules of American society have become too tilted toward Boomers. Even if you were a sticker, the price is individually too high. But a society of all boomers lacks the social capital and cohesion to exist for any length of time.

There are a lot of Christians who have resonated with Wendell Berry. My guess is that many have read him on “place” and sticking and heard echoes of “running the race” and seen his virtues of “place” in the community called the church, which in most Americans experience is a local thing. Yes, in episcopal churches there are far away hierarchies, but even in the Roman Catholic Church in America, the religion of daily life is played out in the local parish. Nobody fears the coming of the inquisition. Coming from a Lutheran standpoint, and I would say Confessional Lutheran based on the Treatise of the Power and Primacy of the Pope (TPPP), that local nature of the church is a correct understanding. The church is found where the word is preached and the sacraments administered correctly. The entire church is present in that local congregation, or maybe said better that congregation is the church in that place. Anything “above” or outside of the congregation is not church although we might call it that. The church above or outside of the congregation is fine, but we should recognize it for what it is – de jure humano – a human construct. The reformers where fine with the Pope so long as he would admit his office was by human law.

Alan Jacobs questions if this resonance is misplaced or even reconcilable with Christianity. His primary evidence is Jesus and Paul who were clearly not “stickers” but in Paul’s case traveled “to the ends of the earth”. To make place a primary commitment is as Berry does is a form of idolatry.

I’d agree with Jacobs in so far as I think Berry’s place is a secularized form of the church. Christians who read Berry and make an equation of church and place are making a jump that Berry doesn’t. But Christians who make that jump are reading the deeper truth that Berry can’t or won’t make. The church is a place. The church is the proleptic or out of time appearance of the Kingdom of God in this dying age. In so far as the Christian is a sticker to the place of the Kingdom, the virtues of place in Berry are applicable. The deepest of those virtues in my understanding is simple the ability to stop coveting the greener grass on the other side of the fence and to recognize our vocations where we are. Some are called to be apostles which would mean a bunch of travel. But wherever they go they are still in the place of the Kingdom living out their vocation. They did not leave because of covetousness but because of call. And to do so is not to leave at all. Likewise the pastor called to the same place for a lifetime, or the layman who works quietly in the vineyard where they have been placed, are also living out their vocations. The world would say to them -“Boom, you are not getting the most out of life, you must go elsewhere.” The church and God instead would say no. There is honor and fulfillment in living your life in place, “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)” Berry’s form of place is idolatry because his place is literally a physical place in this dying world. But Berry, unlike many other forms of secularism, is sanctifiable with a better understanding of place. The Christian’s home is not here, but the Kingdom. And that Kingdom is in every place. One can go and never leave. Likewise one can never leave, but have everywhere in the communion of saints.