Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Calvinists are better than their theology

Two people in the last couple days wanted to hear more about this idea, making it tied for the most requested post of all time on this blog. So...this one's for you.

There's been a bit of a brouhaha (which is surprisingly recognized by spellcheck!) over this post in the last couple of days. People who have heard me talk about Calvinism know that I support most of these ideas 100%. But here's the thing:

Most Calvinists are better than their theology.

Now, I have several Calvinist friends, and I know that any Calvinist who reads this is going to want to say that I'm thinking about it all wrong, or that I'm attacking a straw man, or what have you. I don't think that's the case. We're not going to agree, but I don't think it's because I just don't really get Calvinism.

Alright: Here we go.

Most Calvinists are better than their theology. Their actions towards the world (and the individual inhabitants thereof) are often more loving, more charitable, and just plain better than their theology entails.

Calvinists, by necessity, believe that God doesn't love the majority of the people on the planet. There's no getting around that. Not only does he not save them, but according to Calvin, he actively condemns them, "for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1). To love is to actively desire the good of the beloved, and the "inaccurate description of God’s character that Calvinism puts forth" (as Dr. Fred Sanders puts it) doesn't allow for that kind of attitude in God. And yet we find that many Calvinists, through missions work and charity, do in fact love people, many of whom are not merely not elect, but actively and purposefully condemned by God.

Let's get a little more specific, since the generalities can get muddy. Let's say that a good Calvinist has a beloved friend, or parent, or child, who dies an atheist. That good Calvinist, in loving that person and genuinely desiring their good, in praying for them and therefore actively working towards the good of that person, has loved that person more and better than their description of God is able to. Again, there is no way around that. Where God, far from desiring their good, actively condemned them to an eternity in Hell, these Calvinists have loved them, have worked towards their good and striven for their salvation.(And it is worth noting here that according to my Calvinist friends, God’s election/reprobation does not interfere with free will: Therefore, God is perfectly capable of saving these people without overriding their free will, and he chooses not to).  That is, of course, God's right...but it is not loving.

Calvinists are better than their theology. They describe God as someone who has eternally, irrevocably, irresistibly decreed not only the eternal destinies of everyone on earth, but every single action of everyone on earth as well...and yet many attack the mission field with the gusto of someone who might accomplish something meaningful. Many of them go through their day-to-day lives believing that a chance may come their way to bring glory to God, and believing (implicitly if not explicitly) that it is within their power to succeed or fail at that chance.

They're better than their theology. Many of them have a love for the lost that, according to their doctrine, just isn't shared by God. When someone falls away from the Church, they act as though it wasn't just God giving that person a temporary taste of goodness, just to snatch it away and render them even more worthy of damnation (3.2.11). That is why I would be happy to share communion with a Calvinist, and why this podcast missed the point. Because while it would be difficult to call brother someone who acted like their theology would entail, Calvinists are often better than that.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Motives, Mom-Blogs, and Over-Generalizations

Adam4d.com is a pretty great Christian webcomic. He has a gift for capturing foibles and errors--either of the world or the church--in just a few frames of comic. But sometimes, he goes too far--and because of his popularity and his proven track record, people go right along with it. And that's problematic.

In this comic, titled "The Rise of the Special Christian Mom-Blogs," Adam takes on the rise of "Christian Mom-Blogs," blogs that discuss certain aspects of life, from cooking recipes to Christian theology, from the perspective of a mom. And some of them--the "special" ones--have, according to Adam, abandoned orthodoxy and begun the descent into subjectivity. As the comic puts it:

"'Is there really a hell?' they asked. 'Is sin really sinful? What about sins that our contemporary society has decided to accept? Are they really sins anymore? Is the Bible really trustworthy?'"

I hated this comic. I hated it. I originally began this post with a discussion of the parts that I agreed with, but this is too important. 

This comic crossed the line

Because he did not confine himself to describing actions. He did not say "This is what they are doing, and this is why it is harmful." No. That was the first quarter of the comic. And then, without so much as a pause, he went straight into "They're doing it because they want the money/book deals/celebrity-status that comes with being heterodox in an age that prizes heterodoxy and heresy."

And that's not alright. That's so far from alright that at first I couldn't believe he'd done it. But he did, and we--we being orthodox Christians--should call him out on it. 

Because in assigning a single (very uncharitable) overarching motive to such a class of people, Adam engages in the same sort of hate-mongering and ridicule that we accuse them of when they paint orthodox Christians as hateful inquisitors.

I disagree strongly with certain aspects of "mom-bloggery". But to accuse them--all of them--of greed is not only counter-productive, but hateful; and not righteous hatred, but the childish, petty hatred that resorts to name-calling instead of argument. Because the truth is, the vast majority of these mom-blogs are likely people who have put thought into this, and who sincerely believe that what they are writing is true.

And that's important. Because if we want to engage with people, if we want to talk with them and not at them, if we want to fulfill our calling to charity and love, then we need to treat people charitably and lovingly--which means not assuming the worst of their motives without evidence. 

I feel like I'm just repeating myself now, because this issue is so mindbogglingly obvious. But if you disagree, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Now: here's the bit that originally came first, before I realized that I really needed to call out the bad parts of the comic before-hand. It still holds, but I wanted to make it clear that his comic was not ok, and that it's something we should come down hard on. 

I share Adam's disdain for such an approach to Scripture, and I especially despise how such blogs are often done under the apparently unassailable mantle of "vulnerability." The particular approach of the "mom-blogs," combining disarming charm and rhetoric with a noticeable disdain for "theology" (the domain "where ideas are put above people") and orthodoxy, is often quite appealing to a (growing) segment of evangelical Christians, and that troubles me as well.

I can only imagine that he's targeting blogs such as Beth Woolsey's "5 Kids is a Lot of Kids", who has a lot of good things to say, combined with a few that I believe are ultimately harmful (though they go down sweet). And of course, Rachel Held Evans misses being included merely by the fact of not being a mom (at least, I think so). Both of these bloggers pit "love" against "theology", and, as another celebrity Christian-turned-heterodox said a few years back, "Love wins."

The fact remains, though: They hold to this position because they have thought it through, and not because they are greedy/doing it for the book sales. We owe them that assumption, until it is proven otherwise. And to do away with that assumption is to fail at the charity that we are called to. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poetry Transformed: TS Eliot and the clarifying beauty of Christianity

After four years as an English major and Torrey student--after four years of reading some of the best poetry the West has to offer--there is exactly one poet I still read: TS Eliot.

And that comes down to a few key qualities of Eliot's poetry. The haunting beauty, the constant switching between barely comprehensible and maddeningly-yet-enticingly incomprehensible, his constant preoccupation with time, eternity, and the relation between the two...all of that, yes. But the most interesting fact is that TS Eliot began his career as a poet as an atheist, and ended it as a Christian, and the change is not  merely discernible, or hinted at, or "possibly" there...it is as evident as the edge between light and shadow, between a blasted wasteland and a blooming hedge in May-time.


His pre-Christian poetry is haunting, and even beautiful at times, in the way that Ecclesiastes is. It is a sad, wistful beauty at best, a longing for things to be different, and a resignation to things as they are. This resignation is, indeed, Eliot's greatest comfort, and that which removes or threatens that resignation even for an instant is cruel. "April is the cruelest month," The Waste Land begins, as Eliot laments the way that April brings life out of the ground...life that cannot hope to sustain itself in the stony wasteland that he wanders.

It is difficult to truly capture the docile confusion of The Waste Land, the gentle and unresisting death of hope, and the resignation against certain doom, by merely quoting lines here and there. To truly get the full experience, you would have to read it in its entirety (which you can do here). Eliot walks a wasteland littered with "stony rubbish...a heap of broken images, where the sun beats." Although it is repeatedly interrupted by vignettes of varying degrees of lucidity, it always returns to the wasteland, as Eliot laments "Here is no water but only rock /  Rock and no water and the sandy road."

And while the ending seems to bring relief, it is only the relief of having nothing left to hope for. He fishes on the shore of a fish-less lake (earlier described as "Oed' und leer das Meer"), having turned his back on the wasteland, as the poem winds to its disjointed and unsatisfying end ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins"). Add in the footnotes that most people believe are completely made up, and you have the complete picture of a meaningless, ultimately futile journey that can only end in acquiescence to the wastes.

And as bad as that is, The Hollow Men is worse. Holy crap, is it worse. "We are the hollow men," it begins. "We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! / Our dried voices when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless."

This is hopelessness. This is futility. This is Ecclesiastes, but with a crucial difference: Solomon knew that there was something more and better, even though it was unknowable. The Hollow Men betrays no such hope: Only a listless questioning of whether it is like this "in death's other kingdom."

This world is dead. And it ends "not with a bang but a whimper," as Eliot tries-and fails--to find comfort in a recitation of The Lord's Prayer, as the end of the world overtakes him. (I should say here that another good friend of mine sees the possibility of a more hopeful death here, which might result in a resurrection: We disagree).

A classmate in Torrey lamented Eliot's "pessimism" and his low view of life and existence, but she was wrong to do so: pre-Christian Eliot is notable precisely for his exacting accuracy when it comes to an atheistic worldview.

That was written in 1925. And in 1927, Eliot entered the Anglican Church of England. And in 1930, he wrote Ash-Wednesday, and everything was different.


The mechanics of his poetry did not change. The broken sentences, the half-finished thoughts, the mixture of knowledge and incomprehension, that all remains. But there is now an unmistakable sense that his thoughts have something real and actual to strive for, that though the finishing of his thoughts are beyond his ability, they are not beyond existence.

In his conversion, TS Eliot did not go halfway. He went straight from atheism to the ceremony-laden, sacramental "high church" of Anglicanism, rather than the "low churches" that had sprung up in a sort of rebellion against it. And Ash-Wednesday, itself named after one of the Holy Days of the Anglican calendar, shows Eliot wrestling with that sense of collision between earthly and heavenly things that such a sacramental order entails.

Make no mistake, this is not the "Now I'm a Christian and everything's super great!" kind of conversion story. Eliot may not understand his faith entirely. He may not understand how he can leave his past behind. He wrestles with his past, with the meaninglessness of his past life, in imagery that is extremely graphic. He is confused and questioning about his new faith. But it is not the resigned confusion of The Waste Land or the deathly apathy of The Hollow Men. It is, rather, a passionate and active straining towards understanding. Rather than lament his lack of understanding, he actively petitions for this lack to be remedied--and what's more, he holds out genuine hope that it will.

But the contrast is sharpest and most evident in his Four Quartets, which is similar in structure to The Waste Land--but that is where the similarities end. In The Waste Land, the meaning is always much less than you had believed and counted on. The narrator spends the poem searching for water, and once he find it, it is nothing but a desolate sea, a place to fish and wait for the ruin of the world. But in Four Quartets, "the purpose is beyond the end you figured." It is not a dearth of meaning, but an unforeseen abundance and significance, found in prayer, and resulting in redemption ("And prayer is more / Than an order of words, the conscious occupation / Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.")

Here we see the operations of the "wounded surgeon", who with "bleeding hands" and "sharp compassion," is able to heal those who are dying. Here is the wrestling with the sacraments, and the paradox of Good Friday ("The dripping blood our only drink,/The bloody flesh our only food:/In spite of which we like to think/That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-/Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.")

And always--always--we see the relationship between time and eternity, and the idea that time can be conquered and redeemed, but only from within time, only from an interaction between eternity and time. And of that, we have the Incarnation, where "the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual."

You could write a paper on just one of Eliot's poems. I cannot do them justice here. But it is crucial to note that the end of all this is redemption: A redemption that comes not through comfort and ease, but through sacrifice and fire. As Eliot wrestles with his past life and considers how much of it was wasted, or misguided, or "things ill done and done to others harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue," he sees that there are but two outcomes:

"From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."

And it is that refining fire which dominates the ending of the Four Quartets. it is a fire that heals and purifies even as it burns, and it is in contrast to the fire that only rends and destroys.

"The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire."

This has been TS Eliot. You might enjoy him as much as I do: You might be unable to stand him. However, you should definitely at least give it a shot.