The Culture Wars Weren’t Real

Writing in the February 9, 2018 TLS, Julius Krein says:

…the culture wars, in a critical sense, were never real. The Right did not “lose” and the Left did not “win.” The true winners were Goldman Sachs, Amazon and Facebook, and their victory was inevitable. What was disputed all along were merely the terms under which a neoliberal political economy would be legitimated.

Totalitarianism was Supported by the Masses

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt says that that the Soviet and Nazi totalitarian systems rested on mass support:

No doubt, the fact that totalitarian government, its open criminality notwithstanding, rests on mass support is very disquieting. It is therefore hardly surprising that scholars as well as statesmen often refuse to recognize it, the former by believing in the magic of propaganda and brainwashing, the latter by simply denying it…A recent publication of secret reports on German public opinion during the war (from 1939 to 1944), issued by the Security Service of the SS, is very revealing in this respect. It shows, first, that the population was remarkably well informed about all so-called secrets – massacres of Jews in Poland, preparation of the attack on Russia, etc. – and second, the “extent to which the the victims of propaganda had remained able to form independent opinions.” However, the point of the matter is that this did not in the least weaken the general support of the Hitler regime. It is quite obvious that mass support for totalitarianism comes neither from ignorance nor from brainwashing.

The Failure of the West

The impending collapse of Western governments and of the social order can be traced to a failure to embrace the ethical norms that God has revealed to us in the Scripture. An overall greed and lack of self control have contributed heavily to our living far beyond our means. Spending on military domination and the impossible schemes of the Welfare State have bankrupted our governments.
The entities that arise from the wreckage of the coming cataclysm will have to embrace frugality, restraint and prudence. The best way to achieve these virtues is the way of submission to God and new life in Him.

Zadie Smith on Happiness

From here.

SMITH: The thing about happiness is novelists think they know something that other people don’t know. [David Foster]Wallace wrote about this subject quite well. And I witnessed it just last week when I was in Mexico at this resort. The things we think are going to make us happy, that we aim for, are full of nullity. If you go to an upscale resort, which Nick and I went to, never going to these places before, you think, “I want go somewhere with no culture. Just a beach, drinks. I’ll be able to have a good time.” And it’s like death, right? It’s a nice time, but it’s basically like death. And it’s lots of Americans walking around telling each other, “This is great, right? I’ve got a big fuzzy nipple drink and I’m in the pool, and I can see the sun setting. This has got to be happiness!” I heard one Texan saying to another, after a moment of doubt, looking slightly glum and bored, “If you can’t be happy here, you can’t be happy no place.” He knew he was unhappy. Many novels are about that. But I just read this book called Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. He put it in the context of Christianity because it was the joy that made him a Christian. But this feeling of joy that came over him—Emerson had it, too—it’s completely different from happiness. Happiness is, “I won some money,” or, “You got the bird you wanted.” This is an inexplicable feeling of gratitude. It comes over you sometimes. And particularly if you are unreligious, you don’t know what to do with it. You suddenly get this wave of something beyond pleasure. And I think the novel has been a bit shy of describing that because it blends itself so easily to sentimentality. But I’ve had that feeling from time to time ever since I can remember. Nick always says this about me, and it’s true, I have to do everything I can to not be a Christian. I have to put all my energy into not being religious. It’s a daily effort. But I think we often pretend this feeling doesn’t exist-that it’s deceitful. When I was writing NW, I read A Simple Heart by Flaubert. It’s a long short story about a girl—a maid-—who has a parrot. She lives a perfectly nice, quiet, happy life as a maid. And then she dies. That’s it. What’s so extraordinary about it is how unusual that narrative is.

Ventrella on Sovereign Grace’s Deficient Cultural Engagement

I just ordered, and look forward to reading, Jeff Ventrella’s new book Church and Culture. The synopsis says:

Full-orbed response to a proposed statement on the church’s responsibility in culture by Sovereign Grace Ministries — and a valuable resource in elucidating a Faith that champions a comprehensive Gospel amid a church culture that all too often reduces the Gospel to personal salvation.

Sovereign Grace reflects a typical Annabaptist take on culture, so it’s good to see it called out in a public way.

Jordan Reviews Weber

In the Westminster Theological Journal 44, No. 1, James Jordan reviews Robert E. Webber’s book “The Secular Saint: A Case for Evangelical Social Responsibility.” He writes:

When the present writer accepted the assignment of reviewing this book a year ago, I anticipated a relatively simple assignment. I found, however, the task to be difficult. On the one hand, The Secular Saint appears to be designed as a simple introduction to the questions of the cultural mandate and Christian society. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and recommended further readings. On the other hand, the book also claims a more rigorous purpose: “What I hope to do, therefore, is to set forth the various historic models, show their grounding in Scripture, illustrate them from history, and evaluate their effectiveness in the modern world. In this way I hope both to provide a theology for social concern and to set forth the major models of social awareness that have appeared in the church” (p. 14).

Accordingly, I shall review the book from two perspectives. First, let us consider whether Dr. Webber has written a “safe” and reliable introduction for young Christians to the matter of biblical thought. The book is well laid out, with each chapter broken up into sections and sub-sections. The questions for further discussion are helpful. The Reformed reader, however, will not be so happy with the recommended further readings. Liberal and neo-orthodox writers vastly outnumber orthodox ones. The student is directed to the works of Richard Niebuhr, Jacques Ellul, Gerhard von Rad, John Bright, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, among others. The only conservative book on the cultural mandate recommended is that of Henry Van Til; ignored are the works of R. J. Rushdoony, E. L. Hebden Taylor, F. N. Lee, H. van Riessen, Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, etc. The reader is, however, directed to the writings of recent “left-wing evangelicals,” such as Richard Mouw and Ronald Sider. The resulting impression is that only liberals and left-wing evangelicals have done any work in this area, an impression which is misleading. The overall effect is likely to lead the student away from historical evangelical orthodoxy and toward loose views of Scripture, sadly increasingly common in modern evangelicalism today.

Moreover, still considering the book’s possible usefulness as an introduction for young Christians, many church leaders will be distressed by Dr. Webber’s setting aside of the question of the historicity of Genesis 1–11 (p. 35). My guess is that Dr. Webber accepts these chapters as at least partially historical, but his idea that the question of historicity can be set aside, even for a moment, actually destroys, in my opinion, everything he is trying to say. As C. Van Til and F. A. Schaeffer have so often pointed out, the cultural mandate cannot be grounded in mere ideas, which substitute the “idea of history” for history itself, and the “idea of creation” for the truth of creation ex nihilo. Ultimately the world and society do not matter at all if they are merely constructs projected by the Kantianized mind of man. Doubtless Dr. Webber would agree with me here, but one wishes that he had given a clearer statement of the matter in his book.

Orthodox Christians will be distressed to read on p. 39 that the woman, after the Fall, “is to be subject to her husband, a perversion of the partnership she enjoyed in the garden.” At the very least, this smacks of modern egalitarianism, not of biblical covenantalism. And what are we to make of the statement on p. 177 that God’s self-disclosure “is preserved in Scripture as a trustworthy record of God’s revelation”? The Bible is far more than a mere record of revelations; it is itself written revelation.

My conclusion is that this book, considered as an introduction to the social mandate for young Christians, is too often misleading and unhelpful. Let us now review the book at a more sophisticated level, as a treatise on evangelical social responsibility.

After two helpful introductory chapters on defining terms and problems, Webber has two chapters on biblical background. There are good observations here concerning man’s place as the image of God, dependently creative, and man’s rebellious attempt to become independently creative. The brief discussion of the nature of Cainitic civilization as characterized by violence is also well written and helpful, but pales in comparison with Rushdoony’s treatment of the same subject in Revolt Against Maturity (Thoburn Press, 1977). The biblical discussion is marred, in my opinion, by Webber’s premillennialism (p. 65) and by an incomplete discussion of the relationship between OT law and NT “kingdom ethics”: he rightly says that NT ethics is thoroughly grounded in the OT (p. 60), but discusses the Sermon on the Mount almost as if “kingdom ethics” were to be identified with the recorded teachings of Jesus while He walked the earth (p. 69). The relationship between the teachings of the pre-incarnate Christ on social matters (in the Torah) and the New Covenant is foundational to any attempt to set forth a Christian social ethic, especially in setting forth biblical canons for evaluating various proposed Christian ethical options.

There follow three chapters, on the separational model, the identification model, and the transformational model. The problem with Webber’s discussion here is that he fails to see that the orthodox or transformational model actually and by design incorporates the virtues of the other two. Questions can be raised, moreover, regarding his discussion of the history of the three positions. I think that the pre-Constantinian church should be classified as transformational, within its permitted parameters, rather than separatist. Why else all the apologetic writings? Moreover, the idea that the early church was pacifistic is certainly debatable. Many would hold that the early church rejected military service on the grounds that it involved idolatry, not on pacifistic or separatistic grounds (cf. Tertullian, De Idol. 19;  De Corona Militis, 11). Similar considerations underlay the early church’s objection to its members’ becoming judges. There is no biblical basis for objecting to capital punishment, and the church did not go through some flip-flop when Constantine came to power. The church had been working to transform the world from a position outside society; after Constantine she was working from a position of ascendancy. More appropriately, Webber uses the anabaptists as illustrations of separatism, and orthodox Lutheranism as an illustration of identificationalism.

In the section on identificationalism, there is a section on civil religion. While Dr. Webber’s discussion of folk religion is useful, his application of the concept of civil religion to modern America is strangely misdirected. The civil religion of the United States for the past 150 years has been liberal humanism. The ecclesiastical wing of this civil religion is not evangelicalism but the liberal mainstream denominations. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have definitely been outsiders during this period. Conservative political thought, isolationistic and libertarian, favoring the death penalty, etc., has also been a minority opinion for a long time, and the election of Ronald Reagan does not indicate any real reversal of that trend. Webber’s identification of conservatism, evangelical and political, with the established civil religion of America is highly questionable, and functions as a red herring. We are left to think, I suppose, that men like Ron Sider are outsiders. Actually Ron Sider and his friends are very close to the mainstream of modern American civil religion, as their widespread popularity and acceptability indicate.

Dr. Webber says on p. 174 that “evangelicalism appears to be aligned not only with conservative theology but also with conservative politics, and it is certainly not (as a whole) in the forefront of social reform.” What is this supposed to mean? Contrary to Dr. Webber, it means that evangelicals are definitely working for social change, since the prevailing orthodoxy in America is liberalism. Evangelicals involved in working against organized theft (fiat paper money), against organized murder (legalized abortion), against pornography, and for the reinstitution of the death penalty, are working against the tide of prevailing liberal orthodoxy. In an age of liberalism, conservatism is radicalism.

Dr. Webber’s discussion of the transformational model includes sections on Augustine, Calvin, and (!) liberation theology. The historian can only wince to read such statements as this, written with reference to Calvin’s times: “A rapidly growing capitalism had the effect of increasing the cost of living while at the same time decreasing the value of human labor” (p. 150). In fact, capitalism has never had such an impact, rather just the opposite. It is state-manipulated mercantilism that is the culprit here. Webber summarizes Calvin’s own thought at one place with this statement: “He [the rich man] is to share his wealth so that the poor will no longer be poor and the rich will no longer be rich” (p. 151), surely a superficial reporting of Calvin’s views.

Most liberation theology is not even Christian, and so one questions what it has to do with this book. Liberation theology generally is simply Marxism couched in Christian language; to the extent that it has any genuinely Christian elements at all, they are almost wholly Roman Catholic. Moreover, liberation theology is not transformational, but is a form of identificationalism: the Christian is to identify with the “poor and oppressed,” whoever they may be. This is in principle no different from identifying with the rich and powerful. The so-called “gospel” is wholly identified with the political platform of one-party—it just happens to be the party that gets all the sympathy from secular humanists and from “left-wing evangelicals.” It has nothing to do with transformational Christianity.

The final chapter, designed to give a contemporary perspective, is also misleading. Webber is excited about the social reform movements that came out of Arminian and Pelagian (Finney) movements in the 19th century. These groups were in fact characterized by a considerable number of quasi-manichean notions, such as the sinfulness of using condiments and drinking wine, the morally transforming effects of using Graham flour, abolitionism (which taught that all slavery, even biblical slavery, is wrong), egalitarian feminism, etc. Webber would have done better to discuss the life and work of Abraham Kuyper, or of J. Gresham Machen.

From a Reformed or conservative evangelical viewpoint, The Secular Saint cannot be recommended. Its discussions are too often misleading and one-sided. The conclusion of the study, that Christians should live in the world but not be of it, does not really advance the discussion. Any treatment of these issues must be compared with H. Van Til’s classic Calvinistic Concept of Culture, currently sadly out of print, and there can be no question which is the more profound and helpful book: Van Til needs to be brought back into print.

Serious typographical errors occur on p. 131 (line 12) and p. 177 (lines 26–28). Other than that, the book was in good condition as regards format.

American Culture

…American culture or civilization has been, in the main, a Baptist modification of old catholic and Reformed culture. The New Christian Right, in its attempts to stem the tide of degeneracy in American life, is a Baptistic movement, and this is the reason why the New Christian Right finds itself in a condition of crisis, confusion, and indeed impotence. The thesis the editors are setting forth, then, is that American Christianity must return to a full-orbed Biblical and Reformed theology, and set aside Baptistic individualism, if it is to have anything to say to modern problems – indeed, if it is to survive.

– James Jordan, The Failure of American Baptist Culture, 1982

Counter-revolutionaries, not Conservatives

The time to use the label “conservative” has come to an end. What is left to conserve? Child slaughter for all? The freedom to blaspheme? Mass pornography? Lawrence Auster puts it like this:

Since the Congress can now command citizens to do anything the Congress wants, since America as a republic under a government of limited powers is now officially dead, therefore conservatism, which if it means anything means support for that republic of limited powers, is now also dead. For conservatives to continue to support the constitution means supporting a leftist government with unlimited powers. Therefore the only meaningful form that conservatism can now take is counterrevolution, which means: opposition to the lawless regime that America now is, and the declared intent to dismantle it. Any “conservatism” short of counterrevolution is simply subscription to, loyalty to, patriotism to, subservience to, a leftist unlimited state.

I think America has been revolutionary for a long time, exporting that revolutionary spirit across the world. As Pope Benedict put it, “Everything started with the sexual revolution“:

The “sexual revolution” unleashed in the 1960’s was intended to “free” human sexuality from the straightjacket of traditional morality. It began to sing the praises of sexuality as a simple consumer good and means for obtaining pleasure. The satisfaction of the sexual impulse was propagandized as the way to happiness and to the true development of the personality. Values like self-control and chastity were accepted less and less. Many maintained that sexual continence was unnatural and unlivable. Others in turn sought to transfer human sexuality completely into the realm of the “private” and the “subjective”: if two persons love each other and want to express this in the language of love, why should they be prevented from doing so?

Subsequently the exercise of sexuality was detached more and more from marriage, and above all with the global spread of contraception, from procreation. It was asserted that the “old” understanding of sexuality corresponded to another culture, which in the meantime had been transformed.

The sexual revolution is indeed at the heart of both the changes to our society and the modern edifice of liberal statism. Abortion is the sacrosanct principle that is defended at all costs. As long as we make peace with the revolution, we have lost. So we are not conserving anything, we are now fighting a counter-revolution, one that will probably have to be played out over centuries and in quiet places, while the tottering society collapses and disintegrates.

Against the Grain

Is the Church calling people to a truly radical alternative way of life, or is it playing around the margins? Our society now tells us that two income families are the norm. Childlessness is increasingly normal, even for married couples. Fundamentally, our two income paradigm of life strikes at the heart of the nurture and teaching of children in God’s wisdom. Having children so that you can sacrifice them to daycare for a few years until the State steps in and turns them into compliant citizens for the next thirteen years isn’t exactly the best way to pass on the faith.

Foundational to my thinking is the idea that there is no neutrality in this world and the State is certainly not neutral about religion. It is anti-religious and teaches a false philosophy of the equality of gods. It is therefore critical to the spiritual health of our children that they are in private school or are home schooled. Churches can support this by teaching, by starting schools, and by maintaining a fund to send kids to school.

The systemic nature of the problem facing us is immense. When we are young and probably not thinking too clearly about how life works, we are inclined to go to college where we run up enormous debts. Or perhaps we join the military and run up credit card debt. Either way, we enter our mature years with debt. Cars cost a lot, housing costs a lot, so when we you get married, you have even more burdens placed on you. Then you have a kid. Now how will you move from being a dual-income to a single-income family? The deck is stacked against you.

So is the Church teaching her people to forego debt? To live in a manner conducive to single income living after children arrive? To forsake a public school system that is antithetical to all we believe? Or are we just trying to save souls for heaven and not worrying about earthly concerns?

What we are called to is suffering, and in our context that may not mean torture and imprisonment. It may mean long days, sleepless nights, living in close quarters and doing without. Embracing children and fighting the system may mean embracing a low standard of living. I confess that I am not an example of the best way to do this. But I think I can still see with clarity the conflict that we are in. Michael O’Brien addresses what we are called to in the context of his own calling to be an artist and a writer:

As a married man, I have always strived to put the needs of my family first. From the beginning, my wife and I have remained of one mind and heart regarding our life’s sacrifice of giving everything for the service of Our Lord and the Church. Without this unity it would have been impossible, and surely would have collapsed in the early stages and at any point along the way. In fact it was she who, shortly after we were married, first urged me to consider this way of life, and it is she who has never complained about the hardships involved, and she who has buoyed me up whenever our situation looked scary and hopeless.

By putting one’s family first I do not mean for a moment that a distinct calling from God should be rejected because the life of a Christian artist in these times probably means material insecurity. Part of accepting the call, for most people, will demand an ever-deepening trust in divine providence. While divine providence never promises us a comfortable life, it promises us all that we truly need to accomplish our missions in life.

For most of us, we can probably forget the idea of having a middle class standard of living with good pension plans. The way of Christian art as a full-time vocation demands sacrifice, and with sacrifice comes stresses and testing, which are increased when one’s family responsibilities are great. That is why it is important for married couples to discern very clearly, together, before launching with full commitment into this vocation. They must understand that their first vocation is always the sacrament of marriage, and the call to art a subsidiary vocation.

Many of you who have written to me are not married, and yet the essential task remains the same for you: to seek the will of the Father and the guidance of the Holy Spirit with your whole hearts. A life of prayer and sacraments—of union with our living savior Jesus—is absolutely essential, if we hope to bear good fruit in the world.

Skeptical History

Barzun points out the skeptical nature of early modern historians:

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, history as we know it, the habit of dealing with all problems by recording their career in time, had hardly been invented. Historians were mere chroniclers who either neglected the whole European past since the fall of Rome, or else made it into a replica of their own age. The historical attitude becomes dominant first in the works of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Gibbon, and it is significant that in all three historical-mindedness is allied to religious skepticism.

I wonder, (a) if this is true and (b) if so, what accounts for it?