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« An Afterword About BindlestiffAssignment #1 »

A Word About Bindlestiff

  01/28/14 , by Dissidens, Categories: Bearings, About

 

I think we all know some people who wouldn’t know where to look to find their own toes unless we gave them a minute to think about it, and even then it might help if we removed all the shiny and beeping things from their immediate environment.

But right now I’m not talking about those people; I’m talking about everyone else. Everyone else knows that Evangelicalism has fallen on very hard times. Modern Evangelicalism has not produced a Bach or a Bunyan or a Herbert or a Milton or a Spurgeon or an Eliot or a Pärt or a Chrysostom or a Melanchthon or a Thomas More, nor has it produced a class of people who could benefit if someone else produced a Bach or a Bunyan or a Herbert or a Milton or a Spurgeon or an Eliot or a Pärt or a Chrysostom or a Melanchthon or a Thomas More. But what Evangelicalism has produced is a contempt for the past that did produce good things.

Evangelicalism produces mimics, bureaucrats, and celebrities, which makes it laughable that they should want to speak to us about cultural engagement. And while we admire the fine work Evangelicals have done in The Gospel Blimp, women’s romance novels, Unshackled, and reworks of secular self-help books, we think the religious life requires more.

For example, if you were to sample religious periodicals—as I have done below—you will see the kind of thing that captures the moral imagination of the modern Evangelical:

Hearing God in the Midst of Suicidal Thoughts
The Dude’s Guide to Manhood
The Cross-Shaped Purpose of Life
Struggling with Singleness
How to Change Your Mind
Preventing Sexual Abuse in the Church
Is Recreational Marijuana Use a Sin?
How Should Christians Respond to Noah the Movie?
You Asked: Should Women Be Military Chaplains?
The Drama-Free, Totally-Healthy Christian Homeschool Movement
Womanhood by the Book
Defending Your Marriage Against Mediocrity
Ten Secrets to a Successful Marriage
6 Deadly Enemies of Marriage

Evangelicals are morbidly shallow. They are unrepentant populists. And this is not just inconvenient for me, this is incompatible with the faith.

To say such a thing invites our readers to think I’ve crossed a line: “Sure,” quibbles the reader, “Evangelicals are not the brightest bulbs in the large assortment and they might have to huddle together in small groups to function as nightlights, but to say their beliefs are incompatible with faith is going too far!”

There are two things that might be said to such a reader. First, this is exactly the view Evangelicals take of themselves: this is the complaint Fundamentalists lodge against Neo-evangelicals and it is the complaint Neo-evangelicals lodge against Fundamentalists. This is how continuationists think about cessationists. This is how Creationists regard Theistic Evolutionists. And this list could go on. No one would say his opponent is going to Hell, but they do say the other guy compromises the faith to such an extent that he deforms the Gospel. And the Gospel is what they assert constitutes their essence; that’s why they call themselves Evangelical.

Some Evangelicals cannot even persuade other Evangelicals that Mormons are not Christians.

This is not what anyone would call the unity of the faith.

The second thing to say is that the church serves two social functions. In Roger Scruton’s words, the church a) establishes the motives on which a community depends, and b) it teaches the art of feeling. The reader must agree that Evangelicals have established no motives on which the entire community depends. They have their local and parochial dogmas, obviously, but nothing that defines the community they themselves grandly designate “Evangelical”. Evangelicals cannot even produce a useful doctrinal statement; take a look at the one the NAE publishes and ask yourself if it has been particularly effective in establishing common motives or if it is a flimsy pretext for institutional alliances. Ask yourself if those two things are the same.

As for teaching the art of feeling, very little needs to be explained to you. Evangelicals don’t exhibit any competence in the art of feeling so it goes without saying they cannot teach it. In their attempt to appear relevant they have balkanized the faith beyond recognition.

So having corrupted both pulpit and altar, Evangelical mimics, bureaucrats, and celebrities are going to have to concoct some sort of makeshift religion which can serve to inform the world of its views on Duck Dynasty, holy hip hop, Downton Abbey, the gay gospel, abortion, same sex marriages, human trafficking, Supreme Court rulings, spousal abuse, immigration, and all other ephemera that preoccupy a shallow and restless culture.

Certainly the crying need of the 21st Century is for Christians to respond correctly to Noah the movie.

Evangelicalism will become less coherent and less credible as time passes. And this is a problem for you. This is a problem for anyone who attends the little brown church in the wasteland.

 

v 

 

David F. Wells was recently interviewed about his God in the Whirlwind, and he was asked:

“This is a great time for Christian faith!” you declare near the end of the book.  What do you mean?

to which he replied:

It’s really simple. As the postmodern mood has deepened over the last three decades, the chasm between Christ and culture has deepened. Whatever remnants of Christian thinking have largely disappeared. Like the European nations, we are also post-Christian. But I look on the positive side of this development. The gospel now shines forth as a striking alternative, and for this clarity we should be grateful.

 

I’m sorry, as much as I appreciate the contribution Wells has made to this discussion over the years, this is a dubious statement: it has the advantage of being true but it has the disadvantage of being incomplete and therefore misleading. (I think Wells was satisfying the inevitable demand of our contemporaries: “We will entertain your criticism only if you propose a solution we find satisfactory.”)

It is true that these are dark days, it is true that the postmodern mood has deepened, it is true that Christianity’s cultural vestiges are gone, and it is true that American religion is as post-Christian as the European nations. But any legitimate reason for hope rests on the existence of a light that does indeed shine forth. Evangelicalism is not that light. I think it is revealing that Scripture is primarily the record not of receptive audiences but of faithful witnesses.

This state of affairs justifies our serious reflection, and Bindlestiff is one place to do that. You find yourself, whether you admit it or not, whether you can perceive it or not, worshiping and ministering among dilettantes and chatterboxes who are not inclined to take instruction from Bach or Bunyan or Herbert or Milton or Spurgeon or Eliot or Pärt or Chrysostom or Melanchthon or Thomas More.

One way or another you will have to speak about eternal things to people who care about only ephemeral things.

How will you do that?



19 comments

Comment from: the_divine_passive [Member]  

In a world where even the word “gospel” has become a brand marker for people who won’t be told how to live, I’d need to know what Wells means by it before I could even agree with him.

01/28/14 @ 17:02
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

That’s a fair point.

Just because I appreciated his books on the renewal of Evangelical theology doesn’t necessarily mean we could be best buds. It was just gratifying to hear someone being honest with these inbred, smug, poptart Evangelicals for a change.

01/28/14 @ 17:22
Comment from: the_divine_passive [Member]  

Agreed. He was a needed smoke alarm for me back in the mid-nineties. Here’s to hoping that by “gospel” he meant something more profound than “the midbrow evangelical lifestyle.”

01/29/14 @ 00:13
Comment from: Brad Kelly [Member]  

One way or another you will have to speak about eternal things to people who care about only ephemeral things.

How will you do that?

I’m open to suggestions: next week I am preaching on Hebrews 12:18-29.

01/29/14 @ 05:12
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

dp:

Right. Evangelicalism is God for the artsy-fartsy, bored, dabbling PBS viewer who will probably never be touched by any art but who might be briefly distracted by a spectacle made with arty things.

Always Precious Moments but never Rodin; always Liberace but never Clara Haskil.

Brad:

Hebrews is the ideal book to do this.

I take the view that Hebrews is not about the supremacy of Christ. It is about the gravity of unbelief.

There’s no doubt that Christ is supreme over all things, but the writer of Hebrews was skilled enough that if the supremacy of Christ were his controlling idea, he could have written a different letter to make that point.

Chapter 12 follows chapter 11 which praises not just the excellences of Jesus but the examples of the faith of men (for whom Jesus is a worthy example to us but unknown to them). Outline the entire epistle and ask yourself if every section and every argument points to Christ or points to a faith brokered by Christ, a faith in promises yet to be fulfilled and a rest yet to be enjoyed.

Hebrews is about angels, creation, lifetimes subjected to bondage, graves in the wilderness, loss of Sabbath due to unbelief, fear of a repetition of Israel’s failure, a promised rest for the faithful, the service of obedience, leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ [!] and pursuing perfection, the horror of having seen the light and turned away from it, our soul’s anchor in hope, a better priest and a better sacrifice—but to what end? to the making of Jesus the bestest priest of all or to the realization of a better, undecaying promise the rejection of which has to be the greatest sin time could witness?

If the faith illustrated in chapter 11 was commendable for witnesses of an earthly tabernacle, an inferior priesthood, an inadequate sacrifice, and an unrealized hope, how tragic must it be for you first century Hebrew believers to throw away a perfected, realized hope?

Hebrews is about patterns and pictures and shadows and intimations and glory the scale of which could not be understood without all the preparations of the first covenant. It is about the promise of invisible things. The Old Testament sets the table but the meal hasn’t been served yet.

You Hebrews who want to go back to the old regime? who visits a friend to watch him set the table?!

So Hebrews 12: 18-29 is a picture of thunder and clouds and blackness and tempest and threat of death and the voice from a rattling mountain. What will become of the faithless when the entire universe rattles?

I think Hebrews might be the first book I would go to get people beyond an obsession with temporary things, personal benefit, and comfy religion.

01/29/14 @ 09:34
Comment from: parepidemos [Visitor]

Well now I’m curious to see your rationale for Hebrews over The Revelation.

01/29/14 @ 09:51
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

Well, the writer of Hebrews is making a case; St. John is witnessing things to come.

01/29/14 @ 10:12
Comment from: parepidemos [Member]  

Sure, I get that. I’d have expected you to argue that the vision would more profoundly shape the moral imagination. But I don’t have my shorts in a wad over it.

01/29/14 @ 16:16
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

In some senses, Yes. John is giving the ultimate apocalypse, no question. Not only of things never seen, but things unimaginable; a fitting revelation of Jesus Christ.

There’s your “supremacy of Christ” right there!

But I think there is desperation in this plea to Hebrews, of all people, who are abandoning the journey just when they are beginning to see the porch light.

01/29/14 @ 18:12
Comment from: parepidemos [Member]  

Yours is a worthwhile observation about Hebrews. Of course, most of Revelation’s seven churches are in no small danger themselves.

01/29/14 @ 23:50
Comment from: Brad Kelly [Member]  

I have tried to bring some of those things out. As we went through Hebrews 11 I emphasized that faith is not “blind.” Faith sees the unseen and lives accordingly (11:1, 3, 7, 8, 10, 13, 16, 26, 27). This week the anti-hero Esau will be discussed who squandered the eternal blessings of his birthright for a single meal.

But I am trying to get through to people who are well fed. (Not meant as a slam on my particular congregation- I think it applies to pretty much any American congregation).

I take the view that Hebrews is not about the supremacy of Christ. It is about the gravity of unbelief.

That is good, but I don’t think I would separate them. Unbelief is so unfathomable because of the supremacy of Christ.

For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.

Those who stop at saying it is “just” about the supremacy of Christ definitely take one step too few.

01/30/14 @ 03:32
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

parepidemos:

Well, yes, the Apocalypse should do that, but it doesn’t, unfortunately: the revelation of Jesus Christ has become the revelation of the Apostle John and has become a hermeneutical plaything. I really don’t believe our contemporaries are able to read the book for what it is. They put the Bible on their left knee and the newspaper on their right knee and enjoy exercising the gift of cartooning.

They are like those dogs you find which have no concept of pointing; a bit of food has fallen to the floor, you point to it so the dog can lick it up and he looks at your finger!

This is a handy example of how we treat texts, including Hebrews.

Brad:

No, you cannot separate them: to refer to one is to illustrate the other! No one is denying that Christ is supreme; you can preach that all night long.

All I’m saying is that the point of the letter lies in the whole, not in the part. We don’t want to turn a perfectly brilliant letter into a teatime Christology and lose the effect of the whole. Hebrews contains too many other illustrations, explanations, references to ignore its purpose. The purpose is found in all of them together, not just the one that makes its greatest appeal.

And I think the purpose is to put its readers in mind of the long view of human history, not the immediate, personal, middle-brow, how-to-think-christianly-about-my-miserable-self-obsessed-existence, Sunday morning pastime known as Evangelicalism.

01/30/14 @ 08:31
Comment from: parepidemos [Member]  

“the revelation of Jesus Christ has become the revelation of the Apostle John and has become a hermeneutical plaything.”

Of course. I’m stipulating competent hermeneutics, as are you with Hebrews.

01/30/14 @ 09:58
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

That’s my only point.

We aren’t being clever when we say Hebrews is about the supremacy of Christ, we are being illiterate. We are obscuring the purpose of the whole to make a theological point, and I take it that this is one of the ways we have produced a generation of those small-minded, shallow, middle-brow religious hobbyists we call Evangelicals.

And this is why we have to tolerate celebrities sharing with us keen insights into “the cross-shaped purpose of life” or “how to change your mind” or “the ten secrets to a successful marriage”.

01/30/14 @ 10:30
Comment from: Brad Kelly [Member]  

100% agree with your last two posts on Hebrews. Thanks for saying what I wanted to!

01/30/14 @ 10:43
Comment from: scooter [Member]  

Besides your own studies, is there any books or commentaries that helped you the intent of Hebrews? It’s my favorite New Testament book, and your explanation is stirring a desire to study it again.

01/31/14 @ 11:54
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

Not really; the only commentary I read religiously is Lenski. If I open my mouth on a NT passage without having run it by Lenski, I feel like I’m winging it.

For my money, no one has his competence in Greek and is informed by historical precedent like him.

And he’s not even the one who put me onto what I love about Hebrews; that was an entirely different sequence of events.

01/31/14 @ 12:38
Comment from: Jesse [Visitor]

Do tell of this sequence!

02/06/14 @ 20:24
Comment from: Dissidens [Member]  

Well, I’m not sure it will be of much interest to anyone else, but since you asked.

A small doubt has chafed me for years. I was taught, and I devoutly accept, that a sermon must have a rhetorical unity; that was never hard for me to accept because I think everything we say and write must have a rhetorical unity. But the problem that chafed was the kind of preaching that permitted a homiletical unity to obscure a larger literary unity. I don’t think it has to, but in practice it does.

In practice this has left preachers treating great epistles like a 3 X 5 index card box of sermons and congregations embracing a nibble-view of Scripture. We’ve grown up with Our Daily Bread fantasies on Biblical snippets and we have these kinds of sermons. The Bible is not a sequence of comfort passages or systematic theology lectures or evangelistic calls. If context is as important to hermeneutics as we say it is, this is a horrible way to ignore the great controlling ideas of the NT writings. Especially if we want to continue telling people they are inspired.

I think this is why it is so hard for simple Christians to profit from their own devotions. One of the greatest aids to understanding any text (and you don’t have to study Greek and Hebrew) is to relate the parts to the whole.

Ephesians and Hebrews were the two—and the Apocalypse as well—epistles that left me most uneasy. Look at the prominence of mystery in a letter written to believers in Ephesus, the crossroads of mystery religions. Not just the number of times the word appears; look at how mystery “comprehends” the matter at hand. I don’t think you can understand Ephesians if you don’t grasp the reason that mystery should figure so prominently in it. I’m not saying that everyone should agree with my interpretation of Ephesians, but I am saying that anyone who doesn’t deal with the way Paul chooses to explain the Christian faith to people living amongst worshipers of several mystery religions is just not being an honest reader or a capable expositor.

There are sections of Hebrews which make it obvious that Christ is supreme; there are sections that tick off the ways he is supreme. There’s no denying any of that; but a few selected parts do not explain the whole.

The good can be the enemy of the best.

02/06/14 @ 23:00

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