My alma mater has released a policy document—more like a principles document—on music. If I understand correctly, one of the major drafters of the statement appears to be my church’s beloved and respected assistant music director, Peter Davis. I do see in the document one scriptural argument (regarding Galatians 5) that I have heard him use to good effect previously in personal discussion.
How can you argue about homosexual marriage in the American public square but yet argue from Scripture—while still making appropriately couched appeals to scientific studies? Listen to Doug Wilson debating gay conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan (whose blog I used to read in the very early days of blogging; it was pretty neat to see him and hear him for the first time).
I’m afraid I must agree with Peter Leithart that Wilson’s reliance on the slippery-slope polygamy argument ended up being the tiniest bit unfortunate (though it still had value).
And I’m even more afraid that I must agree with Leithart about an even more important issue:
Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as He pleases.
Whatever the political needs of the moment, the longer-term response to gay marriage requires a renaissance of Christian imagination. Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.
This is a point I’ve tried to make before: if we limit our public arguments to citing scientific studies of homosexual marriage’s effects, to sociological impact surveys, or even to natural law arguments, we’re going to sound like bigots. Some of us may even be bigots, for all I know. We’re going to sound like bigots because bigots, after their public shaming in the 1960s, have learned to cloak their true motivations in more plausible, objective garb. ”I like n*****s—in their place—I know how to work ‘em” becomes “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
I wasn’t alive to hear Emmett Till’s murderer make that first quote, but the latter one comes from a professing evangelical Christian and former president, George W. Bush—and I was there, in TV land, when he said it. I remember thinking, “It is? It just is? Who says?” Even the President of the United States of America doesn’t have that kind of fiat authority.
Authority is the ultimate issue, because the argument is not over an is but an ought: what should marriage look like? Will it be determined by tradition, by majority rule? The overwhelming cultural pressure to accept homosexuality will and must push faithful Christians back to the only ultimate authority we have for our answer, God’s own. Otherwise it’s very hard for a freedom-loving, individualist American to say “no” to consenting adults who want to do what, you know, they want to do.
Nonetheless, you can maintain a lovingly firm stand on that authority without limiting yourself to saying only, “God said no.” There is more to be said that is faithful to Scripture and wise to the needs of the moment. And Doug Wilson says it as well as anyone. Watch the video (or read the prepared comments).
Alarmists have been warning about coming American persecution of Christians—or exaggerating existing persecution—for a long time. It’s a staple of those (supposedly type-written) fundraising letters sent out by parachurch groups. I’ve always been impatient and incredulous while reading these stories. They seem, if not fabricated, at least isolated. I’ve never been persecuted in America.
But even Christians who are not given to paranoia are now beginning to warn of possible violent persecution of conservative American Christians. The reason for this is simple: the cultural triumph of homosexuality. As Carl Trueman wrote during the controversy over Rick Warren’s prayer at Obama’s first inauguration,
What is becoming increasingly clear is that the day is probably not far off when those who regard homosexual practice as wrong will be consistently presented as the moral, cultural and intellectual equivalents of white supremacists. Al Mohler (who seems to have spent the whole week writing or speaking on the issues of Lisa Miller and Rick Warren) has pointed out that this issue is set to shatter any possibility of traditional, biblical Christians being considered cool. You can have the hippest soul patch in town, and quote Coldplay lyrics till the cows come home; but oppose homosexuality and the only television program interested in having you appear will soon be The Jerry Springer Show when the audience has become bored of baiting the Klan crazies. Indeed, evangelicals will be the new freaks.
But a writer on the opposite side of our culture’s main (?) divide, writing in the liberal online magazine Slate, thinks Christian fear of violent persecution is overblown. Her title and subtitle say it all: “Will Churches Be Forced To Conduct Gay Weddings? Not a chance. That’s just the scare tactic conservative groups use to frighten voters.”
No one but God knows the future, so she may be right. The current rise in cultural acceptance of homosexuality may actually presage a massive move of God in American hearts like the Great Awakening in Jonathan Edwards’ day.
But jailing conservative Christian pastors is not so outlandish that the Slate writer cannot even imagine how it might occur. She knows just what it would take for American culture to shift that far. Listen to how she ends her piece:
It’s just wrong to spook voters about gay rights by arguing that gay people are coming for their churches. It’s not gonna happen. Not just as a tactical matter, but also as a legal one. If that ever changes, it will be because we’re as united about the pernicious nature of anti-gay discrimination as we are about racial discrimination. Or until no one wants to belong to a church that doesn’t perform same-sex weddings, any more than they’d want to be in a church that forbids interracial ceremonies. Maybe we should be there. But I don’t need to tell you we’re not.
All of the sudden it sounds like there’s a big crack in the doorway slammed shut by her “not a chance” line. That’s because cultural unity against “anti-gay discrimination” doesn’t seem anywhere near as far-fetched as it did just a few decades ago.
And I’m going to take this where you might not expect me to go: Christians bear some of the blame for our current situation. American Christian conservatives failed to unify against the evils of race-based (and “man-stealing” based [Exod. 21:16]), chattel slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we paid for it with a bloody war. Then American Christian conservatives well into the 20th century failed to unify against slavery’s step-child, institutionalized racism. The bloody price for the latter failure has not yet been paid; perhaps it will be paid when the pro-homosexual forces fully and finally cement the link between racism and homophobia—when every job denied a black man is paid for with a job lost by a persecuted Christian, when every slur uttered against a black woman is repurposed for conservative Christian stay-at-home moms.
If white Christians had paid the cultural price, despite persecution, in 1870—or even 1950… If they had stood united against the denigration of God’s black and brown image-bearers, we would have a strong platform to stand on today. Every “we don’t serve your kind,” every “you can’t sit here” (Jas 2:1–7) was a sledgehammer blow to our own future soapbox.*
I won’t even (fully) deny the link between racism and homophobia. I think it demeans the Civil Rights movement by equating skin color, something that no one can choose, with immoral and degrading sexual behavior, which is an act and a choice that can be resisted. But I will admit that some professing Christians appear to me to object to homosexual marriage for the same basic reason their parents objected to miscegenation: the ick factor. Bigotry. Prejudice. Racist “heterophobia” (fear of other races marrying mine) may sometimes be a branch from the same root that grows homophobia.
The Christian position on homosexuality must not stem ultimately from our personal, existential distaste for “homosex,” as scholar Robert Gagnon calls homosexual acts (in order to distinguish them from the inclination to perform them). That distaste is a factor; it’s evidence of God’s law written on our hearts (Rom 2:14–15). But without God to tell me homosexuality is immoral, and without a Creator God standing behind natural law arguments—I have no authoritative reason to believe that my dislike of a practice is any clue to its morality level. The admittedly few homosexuals I know are not even icky people; they’re very nice to me. I insist that they’re doing wrong only because God says they are, and because I love them enough to warn them not to do things God dislikes.
Christians must humbly and lovingly rebuild our cultural platform, and we must do it with rock hewn from God’s own word. Only then will we be able to stand when the rains descend and the polls come, and beat upon our house. Great may be the fall of it if we do not.
May God help us all.
*I didn’t even raise the issue of divorce and/or serial marriage among America’s professing Christians. As Newt Gingrich’s second wife told him when he proposed that they keep up appearances despite his ongoing affair, “This is not a marriage!”
Here’s the latest summing up of the controversy, from an excellent wordsmith over at the New Republic. He points out something every thinking Christian should understand: materialist scientism has managed to grab the chair formerly occupied by philosophy (and before that, theology) in Western culture, and when scientism cannot answer fundamental questions any more persuasively than the previous occupant of its chair, it “proceeds to … almost comic evasion(s).”
In other words: everyone accepts certain presuppositions by faith, without any evidence—except what counts for evidence by virtue of their prior faith. And as a wannabe amateur two-bit theologian, I’d like to add that that faith is inherited/chosen/developed out of something more fundamental, one’s love for God or hatred of Him.
To a man with a hammer everything seems like a nail, and when a wannabe amateur two-bit theologian gets hold of the concept of presuppositions, he sees them everywhere. But I can’t help it, and I think it’s helpful. Because presuppositionalism pushes away the detritus covering up our real reasons, our heart reasons, for what we say and do. I agree with that excellent wordsmith at TNR:
[Nagel's] troublemaking book has sparked the most exciting disputation in many years, because no question is more primary than the question of whether materialism (which Nagel defines as “the view that only the physical world is irreducibly real”) is true or false.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Sometimes I skip to the end of a book review when I’m reading it in a rush. I think I’ll try that while writing one: don’t buy this book. Get Al Wolters’ Creation Regained instead.
Now on to some substance. Gene Fant has a lot of it. But I just don’t see how that substance is very Christian, precisely because it isn’t very biblical. To be clear, I’m not sure I detected much if anything that was un- or anti-biblical. But neither can I imagine how an undergraduate student could read this book and come away with a truly biblical vision for the liberal arts. I do not see how this book helps “reclaim the Christian intellectual tradition,” as the series title promises.
There are multiple Christian traditions, not all of them intellectual. There’s only one I know that, in my humble estimation, manages to claim the title “biblical” when it comes to the liberal arts. And Fant wasn’t reclaiming that one. How do I know this? Because the most biblically fundamental reasons for studying the liberal arts were entirely absent from this book, and it is the genius of that (hitherto unnamed) Christian intellectual tradition to draw on those biblical reasons. These reasons stand at the beginning of the biblical record: the image of God and the creation mandate (Gen. 1:26–28).
Here is everything Fant says about the image of God:
Perhaps there is something to the notion that our creative and inventive abilities are a part of the image of God that we bear. (81)
Here is everything Fant says about the creation mandate:
To learn about God, we must undertake research into his creation, from the humans who have a specific form of dominion over the world to the animals, plants, and even elements that fill every nook and cranny of the universe. (60)
Book reviewers aren’t supposed to complain that they didn’t get the book they wanted. But how can you write a whole book reclaiming a Christian view of the liberal arts and fail to explore these foundational points? It would be like a book about basketball basics that only mentions dribbling and shooting in respective footnotes. Dribbling and shooting are the organizing principles of basketball, the two practices built into the sport without which none of the other practices make sense. Likewise the image of God and the creation mandate.*
Fant speaks broadly and generically, glowingly, about the Christian view of the world. He also, to be sure, has numerous insightful and intelligent things to say about that view. But I couldn’t discern an obvious method of organization toward a big point, and certainly not toward a scriptural point.
Let me share with you a few of the quotes that struck me as valuable insights:
Scientific pursuits must never become detached from other disciplines, particularly ethics. Science is the best means we have in telling us what we can do, as it describes the mechanisms of the physical world (e.g., we can study chemicals and design drugs that can cause our bodies to undergo changes). The scientific method, however, is ill-equipped to tell us what we may do in terms of ethics or practicality (is it ethical to use a drug to end the life of a person who is suffering from depression or to terminate a pregnancy?). Moreover, science as a discipline is completely unable to tell us what we must do (must we force a patient to undergo a drug treatment that can save a life but that the patient does not want?). Rightly understood, science is a tool, not a philosophical system. (70)
As Augustine once pointed out, math is discovered, not created. (61)
Much of the perceived conflict between faith and science is really an issue of data hermeneutics. Scientific materialism treats the universe in much the same way as literary critics detach text from authorial intent. If the universe has no author, then it has no intentionality, which means that its meaning is found only in the minds of its interpreters, those who analyze scientific data. The intentional fallacy that has afflicted much of literary criticism is shared by those who subscribe to a scientific viewpoint that there is no intentionality to the universe either. If the universe is random, it has no meaning. If it has no meaning, it has no originator of meaning. All authority, then, is ceded to the interpreters: scientific materialists. If the world has meaning, then it is only logical that is has an originator of that meaning; without an originator, there is no source of meaning. Or meaningful data. If the world is meaningful, then by definition it cannot be random. (78)
[Christian college] campus chapel programming should be viewed as a first-tier activity that reinforces the work of the core curriculum and grounds this work with specific applications that may be discerned in that context; too many campuses view chapel as an afterthought or a “throw away” hour that is a holdover from past times. Few things energize a Christian campus like an effective chapel speaker whose message resonates with previous discussions in the classroom or spurs subsequent class interactions that are relevant to the topics at hand. (90)
Perhaps some of the hesitancy to tackle theological content in the core curricula is a belief that students possess basic scriptural and doctrinal literacy when they arrive on campus. This belief, however, is undermined by the reality that even the best-educated and most church-saturated students who arrive at Christian institutions tend to lack in-depth knowledge of even the most basic facts of the faith. Surveys and polls all consistently bear this out. (91)
Another hesitation to include theological content is the sense of many, if not most, faculty members that they are ill-equipped to lead such discussions. I suspect that this is partially due to the way that professors are trained: they are specialists who know a great deal about a particular subject so are hesitant to hold forth on subjects outside of that field. The stakes of theological discourse are even higher; in the end, many Christian faculty members end up teaching their courses in ways that differ little from their secular counterparts at other universities; they do not teach in distinctively Christian ways that drip with theological content. (91–92)
These are valid and important insights from a man with valuable knowledge and experience. But I’m afraid his book illustrates that last quotation. His book is surely different from what secular literature professors would say. But it lacks the full distinctiveness of the biblical worldview, because it fails to dig deep into what the Bible says about the liberal arts.
*He also mentioned the story of Scripture—the metanarrative that provides a Christian view of the liberal arts—just once (76), but he managed to use the word “fulsome” eight times. I counted.
My valued friend and one-time interview guest, BJU preaching instructor Kerry McGonigal, preached a great message in BJU chapel today. He used the whole book of 1 Peter to argue for a particular kind of response to our culture’s intolerance of Christianity.
I would now like to use the literary device known as “litotes“ to praise his message: it was not stupid.
A modern liberal arts education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.