Is Conversion the Answer?

Rod Dreher makes several salient points about converts to Rome and Orthodoxy:

Yes, but in my personal experience, the Catholic Church in America has only a facade of unity. Every Catholic parish I’ve been a part of has been basically Protestant, insofar as most of the people seemed to believe that they had a right to believe whatever they wanted. The unity was fairly superficial. Mind you, I’m in no position to say to what extent the Orthodox Church in this country is any different, because my experience is relatively short and limited almost entirely to my own parish. But I would be surprised to learn that we Orthodox on the whole were much different in that regard.

I’ve said the same thing myself: Catholicism in the USA is just Protestantism with a different name. You have gay Jesuits, hardcore Trad Opus Dei types, the First Things crowd, EWTN, liberals like the Kennedys, and on and on. There is no unified, glorious Church. It’s an illusion in the mind of the convert who lives in the world of ideas. Dreher continues:

I keep telling Protestants I know who want to convert to Catholicism that I don’t want to get in the way of their decision — though I would like them to consider Orthodoxy — but that they should realize that they’re probably not going to find an escape from modernism in their local parish. The church of Pope Benedict and First Things magazine, and your favorite conservative Catholic bloggers, is not the church you’re likely to encounter down the street. If you’re convinced of the case for Catholicism, then you almost certainly have to become Catholic — but go in with your eyes open. Similarly with Orthodoxy, we have, like Catholicism, the institutional and historical tools for resisting modernism, but if the pastors and the people remain indifferent or hostile to them, Protestants searching for solid ground to stand on may be unpleasantly surprised.

Again, this is not an argument against becoming Catholic or Orthodox. But it is a warning that it’s impossible to escape modernity and its challenges to tradition and traditional faith. When Father Dwight says that the fissiparous nature of individualist modernist faith will eventually give way to disbelief, because it’s not anchored in communal experience, I agree with him in principle, but would ask him what his prediction is for Catholic parishes that are populated by individualists in religion? (N.B., Father Dwight recognizes in his post that modernist Catholic priests shouldn’t be surprised when people quit coming to mass.) Similarly, I am aware of several Protestant congregations who are far, far more unified in belief than any Catholic parish I’ve been a part of, no doubt because those Protestants who don’t share the core convictions of that congregation found another congregation to attend. Mind you, without a Magisterium (Catholic) or a high view of the authority of Tradition (Orthodox) to hold on to, I don’t know how those congregations over time will remain grounded in their particular judgments. But having the theological mechanism for stability, as the Catholics and the Orthodox do, is no guarantee either.

This makes lots of sense. Because Protestant churches in our day are usually based on shared convictions such as worship style or theology, we have much more unity (at the micro level) than Catholics do.

I have a friend who left the Greek Orthodox church to which he belonged, because he was desperate for a spiritual encounter with the living God, as opposed to the empty formalism of his home parish, which, as he puts it, was more interested in worshiping Greekness than in worshiping God. He became a born-again Evangelical. Despite all the legitimate criticism that can be leveled at American Evangelicalism re: its lack of stability and susceptibility to cultural trends, is it really the case that children raised in a traditional church that has valid sacraments but is spiritually dead are going to have a better chance of living as Christians there than they would in an Evangelical church that has all the trappings of modernity, and an essentially modernist, individualist theology, but that for whatever reason has chosen a theologically traditional set of principles around which to organize, and lives it out in a vigorous, vibrant way?

This is the rub. Tradition and liturgy are life to me and those like me who seek to escape the modern church wasteland, but they were death to my Mom who wanted relationship with God and wasn’t taught that in the Lutheran Church of her day (though she could have had it, had they rightly understood their own past). We can’t re-pristinate the past and create some perfect model that never existed. We can meld the best liturgy and tradition with our modern condition, all the while being bathed in the Scripture as the ultimate norm.

Against Evangelical Hipsters

In the Summer 2009 issue of The City there is a superb piece of writing that diagnoses a creature that I come across quite a bit online and sometimes in the flesh up in D.C. – the evangelical hipster.  John Mark Reynolds wrote the piece, where he diagnoses the persona of these individuals:

Secularists should stop worrying about a theocracy: Anderson finds young Evangelicals to be like young Mark Studdock in the C.S. Lewis novel That Hideous Strength—more spaniel than pit bull in their desire to charm rather than snub those that despise them. In fact, Anderson’s article essentially accuses young Evangelicals of being just like the characters Mark and Jane Studdock. Like Mark, young Evangelicals desire admission to the “inner ring” of the culture more than any other temptation. Like Jane, they are lightly educated, but take their thoughts very seriously. Unlike Mark and Jane, young American Evangelicals are given Blue Like Jazz rather than Taliesin through Logres.

Although I have often seen this, I’ve never quite put my finger on it like Mr. Reynolds does. The admission to the inner ring of the culture is THE temptation for me and many folks who have moved beyond Left Behind and Christian bookstores and think they have it all together. To me, the solution is to take a stand and appear to be a (gasp) fundamentalist on some issues. I realized some years ago that one thing which makes men like Tolkien great is that he had beliefs and he stood for them. We can easily quibble with his obscurantist stands on motor cars, roads and airplanes, but he had reasons for believing and he believed! He was not a perpetually vacillating ninny who never arrived at a position and did not stand up for the Creeds and culture which gave him birth.

I see the solution to this drift in the hermeneutic approach of James Jordan and Peter Leithart, the post-Reconstructionist conversation, the Creeds and Liturgy of the Anglican Church, and a saturation of Bible study. But many who see through Christian “positive hits” radio and local church anti-intellectualism yo-yo to the far opposite side, embracing Obama, horrible sexual ethics, a flawed Bible and no church authority. Reynolds continues:

Evangelical youth are being corrupted and Evangelical scholars and leaders are at least partly to blame. Why? The church and the Evangelical academy have, by and large and for various reasons, rejected Christendom and left Evangelical youth to create their own inadequate pseudo-culture on the fly.

Amen to this! We’ve had para-church pablum and bad doctrine on parade for 50-100 years now. The Reformed and Lutherans have held there own in terms of intellectualism, but most of the rest of the church is out to sea and doesn’t know how to think critically. Reynolds describes those who get tired of this shallowness only to embrace leftist shallowness of a different kind. Any jibe at Bush gets a laugh. Limbaugh is a buffoon. Republicans are idiots. I concur with most of this thought, but from an even way further right position, not a liberal, ill-thought out hatred of culture and mores. Still, Reynolds words strike home with me.

The attack on patriotism is a part of this assault on Christendom. “Christendom” in the mythology of the academy is about power and politics. Patriotism is a simple trick to get the rubes to turn over power to politicians. Evidently the solution to this problem is to either to abandon politics altogether or to “speak prophetically to power,” though generally only to Republican power. Of course, Christian intellectualists ignore the ties of prophets like Nathan or Isaiah to the royal house of David since this would spoil their pristine idea of the non-partisan Biblical prophet.

And Reynolds says patriotism can equate to the holy grail concept that I have espoused: community.

Of course, disdain for patriotism contradicts another value of intellectualists: the love of authentic community. Isn’t “a strong love for your folks” just another way of describing patriotism? The solution in many Christian colleges has been to allow everyone in the world to love and take pride in their people group except for Americans.

Another searing critique applies to those who utilize Orthodox and Catholic critiques of Protestants, but only as a tactical way of blasting their own communities, not at the cost of believing all that claptrap about sex taught by Rome or the East:

The group Anderson describes are more horrified by the strong, traditional Protestants than by Catholic or Orthodox beliefs, but this is no real sign of an ecumenical spirit. Too often the Evangelical young adult merely uses Catholic and Orthodox thinkers to tear down those parts of Evangelicalism they do not like while ignoring those parts that that challenge their assumptions. They are cafeteria ecumenicists. Roman Catholic teaching on birth control and sexuality are not quoted or applauded, though nothing is a greater challenge to the norms of Evangelical sub-culture. Evangelical intellectualists tend to ignore those writings by John Paul the Great or the brilliant Benedict XVI that attack post-modern or pop culture views of sexuality or scholarship. John Paul certainly spoke truth to power and helped liberate millions from murderous tyranny, but the tyranny was a leftist one and Evangelical parents admired him, so he is not the kind of Catholic they admire.

The whole article should really be read and digested. I see too much of this love of approval in myself and I am determined to root it out.