Category Archives: Faith

The Harlem Renaissance: A Model For Cultural Engagement From Within The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher’s much acclaimed new book, The Benedict Option is being released this week. Having been a regular reader of his blog at The American Conservative, I’m somewhat familiar with his proposal. I’ve also just finished reading Nathan Irwin Huggins’ The Harlem Renaissance. While it would appear that the Benedict Option proposal and the Harlem Renaissance have nothing in common, there is much to learn from the Harlem Renaissance from Benedict Option devotees.

For the uninitiated, Dreher’s Benedict Option proposes that what some Christians term the “culture war” has been lost. The Christian faith is no longer the predominant worldview in the West. Christians have accommodated to this development largely by allowing themselves to become absorbed by consumerism and what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is a counterfeit of historic Christianity that reduces God to a divine butler. Dreher’s concern is that current Christian practice has accommodated the culture to the extent that professing believers have lost their distinctiveness. In Jesus’ terms, the salt of the earth has lost its savor, and is good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men (Matthew 5:13 KJV). The tradition that the fathers are to hand down to their children has become so diluted, that much of the Church has nothing substantial to pass on to the next generation. Dreher’s proposal is for Christians to “strategically withdraw” for the purpose of returning to the roots of the faith so that Christian practice regains its distinctiveness and has the “weight” to be passed down intact to future generations. Dreher is looking to the past, to the efforts of the monks in the early Middle Ages, who by strategically withdrawing from the world, preserved early Christian literature until such as time as people saw its worth and desired to read and study it and return to the faith of the Fathers.  Thomas Cahill tells this story ably in How The Irish Saved Civilization.

The Harlem Renaissance is a literary and artistic movement that fanned the flames of a robust black cultural identity beginning in the 1920s. While this movement, called the “New Negro Movement” at the time featured Harlem as its epicenter, its influence spread throughout America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. Historians typically see the waning of this movement beginning with the Great Depression, but its influence continues today. The artists of this period sought to create a distinctive black culture and to foster pride in black identity through the media of literature, drama, music, and the visual arts.

I raise this comparison because the Harlem Renaissance may be a possible sort of template for Christian culture-making within the Benedict option. The Harlem Renaissance was such a diverse movement that not all who were a part of it subscribed to all of the tenets that I mention below. Rather, these are general characteristics that summarize the philosophical distinctives of many of its voices.

First, in the Harlem Renaissance, blackness was promoted as a source of pride rather than a source of shame. Even while living within the constraints of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship, many of the voices of this movement promoted pride in black identity. Faith-shaming has made many Christian wary of coming out or living openly as Christians. Even if Christians are destined to be treated as second-class citizens, we need to develop a sense of the right kind of pride in our faith and in our identity, to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but to publicly live out our God-given identity in Christ.

Second, the Harlem Renaissance highlights the importance of community.The Harlem of the 1920s created an incubator of culture through a network of artists, patrons, and causes. While there were certainly artists who flourished outside of this community, living in a community that fostered a shared identity and cultural aspiration created symbiotic relationships that enriched the quality and distinctiveness of artistic expression. Not all Benedict Option-minded Christians will be able to relocate to residential communities of like-minded people. But it is necessary to encourage and be encouraged by like-minded people who believe that mining the treasures of the past and appropriating them for today is the way forward to further distinctive Christian living.

Third, while not every creator who was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance attained higher education, W. E. B. DuBois promoted the necessity of African-Americans being education classically, as free men, rather than only being apprenticed to a trade. In order to pass down the traditions of the faith, our children must be taught to think broadly, deeply, critically, as free people, hence the importance of a liberal arts education rather than an almost exclusive focus on scientific, technological, and vocational education.

Fourth, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance produced “high” culture and “folk” culture, rather than mass culture. Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Count Cullen were poets who strove to be great poets, rather than great Black poets. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston incorporated elements of black folk culture in their works. Jazz and blues, the only genre of music indigenous to America, originated from folk culture, then spread to popular culture and high culture. Popular culture, as we know it, was just beginning to develop during this period, so it’s difficult to know to what extent practitioners would have created art for mass or consumer culture. In today’s Evangelical tradition, most literature, music, and visual arts are geared toward mass or consumer culture rather than high or folk culture. Such works are here today and gone tomorrow. Those of us who are practitioners of the arts must aim long-term and seek to create works that will stand the test of time.

Last, the Harlem Renaissance had their own “house organs” to publish and proliferate their works. The Crisis, perhaps the best-known magazine of this period, was the official magazine of the NAACP, and Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, published and promoted the work of African-American writers. The Messenger and The Negro World were political publications that also published poetry and essays of interest to their audiences.

Print media runs on tight margins today. First Things, Touchstone, and World are fine publications. Alas, Books and Culture ceased operations last year. While web publishing is incredibly cheap (it cost me nothing except for my annual subscription fee to WordPress to publish this essay), putting an essay, a poem, a story, or a novel into print makes a statement. It announces to the world that this work is worth reading and taking up space on one’s shelf. Publishing on the web has enormous advantages in terms of reaching both a targeted and diverse audience. Print is not going away. Certainly, Benedict option writers should seek to publish with the publishers who will give their work its greatest reach. But if the marginalization of Christianity has come, Christians will need to publish and promote their own work, and will need to develop the institutions and organizations necessary to do so.

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Injury Update

Below, you can see the carnage of our recent auto accident.  We are blessed to have survived and to have the assurance that we should fully recover.  In the meantime, there are daily difficulties that arise from being limited because of injuries.  I don’t want to write this in an ungrateful spirit, because my wife and I are so thankful for the kindnesses, meals, rides, errands, and many other tangible expressions of love from the Providence Extension Program (PEP) community where we both serve.

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Perhaps I’m reading the wrong book for this time in our lives, but I’m listening to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.  Broadly speaking, Gawande writes about the intersection between medicine and aging, and often finds that treating aging and its complications according to a medical model results in a tradeoff between safety and quality of life.  Gawande’s narrative is mostly comprised of the stories of people as they age, and are confronted with physical, medical, and lifestyle challenges that accompany growing older.

The experience I’m sharing with those in Gawande’s narrative is that because of the injuries sustained by my wife and me, everything takes longer and is much more complicated.  Even daily tasks such as laundry, finding clothes to wear, driving when I’m sufficiently between doses of pain medicine, making sure that Amy’s medications are within reach and organized, and having to take frequent breaks from working guarantee that productivity is a dirty word to me.   A couple of experiences have really surprised me about all of this.

I’m surprised by the amount of joy that caring for my wife gives me.  Amy and I took care of my sister for over a year.  Much of that time, Cathy was more dependent on others than Amy is.  Being in a position to help my wife has been the greatest joy of the accident, and an experience that makes me hopeful for the years ahead.

I’m surprised at how easily little things can upset me.  People have cooked for us and brought us dinner almost every night.  Most of the meals have been delicious, and even people who live far away (45 minutes or more!) have gone out of their way to help us.  But last night, I almost broke down because I wanted to have the foods that we used to cook before the accident.  Since the accident was right in the aftermath of our trip to Peru, we haven’t eaten a meal that we have cooked in five weeks.  Again, the sheer generosity of people is overwhelming!  Most of us would love to be in this position!  But the combination of missing the foods that we have made in the past and my inability to prepare them almost caused me to have a meltdown!

Unfortunately, I’ve been difficult to live with.  The last thing Amy needs is a cantankerous husband!  I need to pause and take a deep breath more often.  Amy and I are well cared for.   Our children couldn’t be more sympathetic or helpful.  But pain and loss of function are difficult realities.  I’m hoping that this isn’t a foreshadowing of what old age will look like for me.  God is showing me how much I need to grow in grace for us to have a gracious, happy, and peaceful home, which is something that with His help, we can achieve no matter what our limitations are.

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Recent Reading

While I’ve been convalescing and taking care of my wife after our recent car accident, I’ve set off on a torrid pace in reading.  The following are some snippets from some of the texts that I’ve engaged with over the past week.  Below is my account of Sunday’s readings.

 The Epistle to the Hebrews (ESV Translation).  I wasn’t able to go to church so I decided to attempt to read large portions of Bible books during my time on the disabled list.  I do have regular Bible reading plan, but Hebrews is my favorite book. I derived much encouragement from this letter to a church of Jewish background that was tempted to return to Judaism while suffering severe persecution.  The writer is sympathetic to the plight of this church.  His love for this church and his pastoral encouragement comes through loud and clear, and doesn’t keep him from giving his readers a “talking-to” where needed.

Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.  This book has stared at me for several years from my seat in the family room for several years.  I expected a hagiographic treatment of the leaders of the First Great Awakening in America.  Luminaries such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies were men of God whose preaching was blessed by the Holy Spirit in the conversion of those outside of Christ and the strengthening of the Church from within.  After reading the first hundred pages, I’m encouraged to see that while Murray believes that the Great Awakening was a giant boon to American Christianity, there were unsalutary developments as well, and his view of the Revival is more nuanced than I expected.

Murray has challenged the view that I’ve about the Great Awakening for many years.  Protestant church historians are largely divided into two camps on whether the Great Awakening was a positive development for American Christianity.  On one end are historians such as D. G. Hart and Nathan Hatch, who believe that the Great Awakening was harmful to the development of the development of the American church because the revival preachers operated largely outside of the individual church.  Because the church and its catechetical role tended to be bypassed by the revival preachers, the effect was a Christianity in America that was fundamentally individualistic rather than churchly, and harmful to the growth and development of the Church.  The tother camp, championed by Iain Murray, believes that the First Great Awakening was beneficial to the American Church, while the confluence of events known as the Second Great Awakening fostered deviance from orthodox Christianity.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve largely held to the second view.  However, Murray presents a more nuanced view than I expected.  He makes a persuasive case that the reason that the preachers of the Great Awakening often bypassed the institutional Church was not because they held a low estimate of the Church, but that often the Church as an institution (organized gatherings under the rule of elders, pastors, buildings, etc.) was still in an organizational and developmental phase, and thus lacked the capacity for the churchly Christianity that is the norm of the Reformed churches.

I’ve only reached pate 100, but I’m glad that I took this book off the shelf and I’m really profiting from it.

Serving With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson.  Much of this book is a rehash of other writings of Johnson that has been expanded and put into a more polished form.  However, Dr. Johnson has been one of the most influential men in the way that I view the ministry of the gospel.  I’ve really profited from his theological vision and his encouragement to combine such vision with the daily and weekly tasks of gospel ministry.

 

 

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On Crankiness

Crankiness.   Most people find this posture rather annoying or just plain boring.  Yes, there is the occasional H. L. Mencken, whose curmudgeonly writing is entertaining partially because of its cranky tone.  But Mencken has a rare capacity for the mot juste, which makes one willing to suffer through page after page of cantankerousness to find the inexpressible one-liner that will knock one’s socks off.

However, crankiness ought to be rare rather than routine.  Yet, it seems that in the writings of the two vocational groups to which I serve, crankiness is routine.  I am a minister in a small, somewhat strict Presbyterian setting, and a classical Christian school teacher.  I’ve read somewhere that there are something like 107 different classifiable feelings.  But in the writings of some in these settings, all of these feelings are easily reduced to one:  crankiness.

I’m writing this because this is a temptation that I’ve often succumbed to.  I’m repulsed by it.  Most of us find complainers insufferable, but we often notice that one is rejected from certain affinity groups without the proper undertone of complaint.

I understand the reason for crankiness.  Pure and simple, the reason is a misappropriation  of conservatism.  Not 21st century American political conservatism, which is ill-defined and cranky in it’s own way, but classic conservatism.  Classic conservatism at its root entails a sense of loss, a mournfulness that the tried and true heritage of the past is being rejected in favor of the new and novel.  Classic conservatism sees an arrogance in this rejection of the past, a lack of humility and teachability, and a dishonor for one’s fathers and mothers by those in the present age.

However, this crankiness quickly turns into a requiem for the past and a scorn for the opportunities of the present.  Yes, true conservatives do and should long for a celebration of the best of the past.  However, what is required is not the proverbial turning back of the clock but the joie de vivre of seeing the opportunities of the present day and a creative imagining of a preferable future and the faith-filled steps and processes to bring this preferable future into place.  A robust theological and philosophical vision must be brought to bear to face the “fallen condition focus” of the environments in which people serve.

Crankiness is not a fruit of the Spirit.  It’s not enough to grieve the virtues of bygone eras. Biblically, the only “good ole’ days” were the ones before the Fall.  While many “white-bread” American Protestants look back with longing at the fifties, one does not need to think too hard in questioning if our African-American brethren experience a similar longing.  Crankiness is an unfortunate lapse into the flesh and a blessing of what is more properly called the lack of joy in our lives. Crankiness is the work of the flesh that the Christian must put off.  Joy is the fruit of the Spirit that we must “put on.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say, rejoice.”  While this is easier said than done for a habitual pessimist like myself, this is the imperative of the gospel.  The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is what allows us to rejoice, even when temporal circumstances may not bring happiness or optimism.  As long as God is present, all things are possible.  This is what is cause for rejoicing, rather than bygone virtues or present optimism.

 

 

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Catechism of the Catholic Church

catechism-of-the-catholic-church-200I woke up thinking through Plato’s view of the human body today.  This will come up next week when I teach Books IV and V of the Republic.  Expecting some associations with and attempted slanders of the Roman Catholic view of marriage and physical relations in marriage, I read up in The Catechism of the Catholic Church  on marriage and the expression of marital love to confirm that the Roman Church is not Neo-Platonic in her conception of the physical body.  The degree in which the Catechism is not Neo-Platonic in its view of the human body, marital love, and the gift of children is rather astonishing. Plus, I experienced the added bonus of reaching the beautifully written and theologically informative document that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is.   If only we had something like this as Protestants!
We do have the Westminster Larger Catechism, Baxter’s A Christian Directory, and the 1559 edition of Calvin’s Institutes that are somewhat comparable in scope.  However, the Reformers wrote catechisms for every generation and even sometimes the faithful in their own churches.  Alas, I think it was David Wells who said, “our is not a creed-making age”.  If this is an accurate observation it makes the Catechism of the Catholic Church an even more amazing achievement. It seems to me that this is the one theological work of the 20th century that future generations will see as a “classic.”
The Catechism covers not only issues of personal belief and conduct, but also social issues such as just war, birth control, abortion, etc.  and is so beautifully written.  I probably should put it on the reading list for this summer.
The structure of the Catechism is the same as most Reformation era catechisms.  The first part contains “what we are to believe concerning God.”  The second part contains “what duties God requires of us.”  Another way to summarize the Catechism is that it has three sections:  The Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.  All of the Reformation catechisms except the Westminster are organized around these three symbols of the faith:  what to believe, how to live, and how to pray.
I haven’t been able to read much in it.  But from what I’ve read, I highly recommend it for both Protestants and Catholics.  Protestants will find much more common ground with our separated brethren than many would expect, and where there are differences, It behooves both Protestants and Catholics to be informed about what those differences are and be able to accurately understand and express those differences.
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Philosophical Method, Plato, and St. Thomas Aquinas

I introduced my tenth graders to Plato’s Republic on Monday.  The Republic dives right into a demonstration of philosophical method that can be hard to follow for the uninitiated.  So today, we did a class exercise in philosophical method and attempted to define justice, attempting to give them the experience of engaging in and experiencing a philosophical discussion.  Our exercise was a success in both Western Thought classes today.  I have two more sections of that class tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.
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Plato (or Socrates) tends to ask questions and not arrive at a final answer.  So in preparation for this exercise, I read just a  tiny bit of St. Thomas Aquinas on justice in Summa Theologica, II:II, Q. 58, A. 1.  My daughter gave me Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa for Christmas last year, and over this past summer, I was able to make some headway in it.
 St. Thomas makes me remember that  “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).  The Summa is an intellectual tour de force.  From what I can tell, the Summa may be the high water mark of the Christian church in both philosophy and theology.  I feel a little bit of a guilty pleasure in writing this, because I’m a convinced Protestant.
The reason why I find St. Thomas so beautiful and edifying is his philosophical method.  St. Thomas begins to form a definition of a concept by assembling the best points of the arguments of his ideological opponents, interprets theses arguments in the most charitable and best light toward his opponents to build an ideological fortress that looks unassailable.  And in every article that I’ve read of the Summa, he demolishes the ideological fortress of the ideas of his opponents to build his definition
 The style, the majesty, the meticulous thinking of St. Thomas, and his humility shine through to make the Summa a beautiful thing.  I’ll have to read Lombard’s Sentences, which was Thomas’ model, to see how much they are alike.  But talk about “copyrighting your faults”!  Here is this ponderous, methodical style that Thomas has, which many people would believe to be a great liability (I’m not sure about back in his day, but it certainly is in ours!).  Yet, Thomas trademarked it, and became the “Dr. Angelicus” of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, in many ways, of all of Christendom.  
The Summa is theological manual, a catechetical tool, to instruct people in the faith.  But above all, I see its beauty.  The beauty of expressing complex ideas in methodical way, of closing off all of the possible doors and windows that Thomas’ ideological opponents may be able to escape through, and doing this so modestly, without a hint of pompousness or unctuousness.  The beauty of breaking down complex ideas and making them simple is the gift of the teacher.  Every time I read in the Summa, I marvel at what a gifted teacher God has given the Church in St. Thomas, and how much can be learned from him.  
What have you read lately that has given you a new appreciation for the beauty of words aptly spoken?  I’d love to hear from you!
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Small Things, Big Influence

The new year often brings out the belief that we ought to make sweeping changes in our lives.  Beginning a rigorous exercise regimen, losing a substantial amount of weight, living within our means, and disciplining ourselves to save for the future are common New Years Resolutions.  Some of us also serve in professions or capacities that continually pressure us to do the “new,” the “unexpected,” the “unprecedented,” and to be “innovative.”  All of these desires and expectations may seem a huge burden to us.

However, the small things, done day by day, have an incremental value that we often overlook.  We underestimate the impact of faithful habits, incorporated into our days.  Those who have deep influence are faithful in what we would consider the small tasks.  For me, one example is circulating among my students and greeting them, talking to them about how their day is going and other small talk, instead of having my head down and ignoring them because I have “significant projects.”  Will I have deeper influence in their lives because of how well I prepare my lessons, or how much I connect with my students?

There is some proportionality here as well.  We are not to ignore what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law” and be satisfied that we can check off the details.  This is the error of the Pharisees that Jesus condemns in Matthew 23,  However, Jesus is not advocating that we neglect the details and concentrate on the big picture only.

Faithful, daily tasks, as small as they may seem at the time, grow into something greater than the tasks themselves.  Consistent care of children usually results in more than a checklist completed of child care tasks, but children who are loving, well-behaved, and a pleasure to be around.  Sometimes it’s difficult to remember this.  But it’s encouraging when we do and are able to carry out this idea in specific ways.

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Half Baked Manor Update

It’s been a beehive of activity the last couple of days here at Half-Baked Manor.  We declared war on our friend Mr. Mouse yesterday.  One of the traps was tripped but no bait was gone and no mouse carcass was found.  So, Mr. Mouse is still at large.

The Missus went to the fabric store today, and unbeknownst to me, picked out some fabric to recover our kitchen table chairs with.  She came home and went right to work on it.  She is full speed ahead in project mode!  I’m amazed at her creativity and blessed by her industry.  The new pattern is a much lighter pattern than we have now, which is great.  We’re always trying to find ways to brighten up the public areas of Half Baked Manor, and it looks like this one will be a great success.

While she did all of this, I was at a seminar on opportunities for the Church to serve disabled people.  I’m blessed to serve in a very loving church family.  We have a number of people in our congregation who are living with disabilities, so this was something that piqued my interest.  I rejoiced to hear someone from outside our church family advocate reaching out, welcoming, and serving people who live with disabilities and their families.  However, it broke my heart to hear of people bringing guests and family members with visible disabilities being asked not to return, because it makes people “uncomfortable.”  I do remember Jesus commanding his disciples to bring in the blind, and the lame, and the halt.  Also, for a faith whose core teaching is that humanity is fundamentally broken and that the only way out of that brokenness is through Divine Redemption, it seems rather contradictory to shun those who are visibly broken.  Maybe the rest of us are just better at hiding our brokenness.

One of these days (and I mean soon!), I’m going to take the WordPress tour and figure out how to add links, pictures, and everything else to flesh out my posts and give a little help to my friends!

 

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