Philosophical Kitsch

September 19th, 2017 by brandon | | No Comments
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As a wee lad in high school, I remember being struck by one particular quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” The she to which Vonnegut refers is Billy Pilgrim’s mother, and the thing that she purchased in the gift shop to give her life meaning was a crucifix, which hung above Billy’s bed as a child.

 

I suspect the quote struck me at the time because I took dual offense at it: as an American, I didn’t particularly like the suggestion that I was dependent on kitsch for my life’s meaning; and as a Christian, I really didn’t like the suggestion that a crucifix could be reduced to mere gift-shop knick-knacks. I’d like to think it suggests a deeper meaning, and the most stable foundation upon which to build a life, but more on that later.

 

In retrospect, however, I think Vonnegut might have been on to something, though not at all in the way in he thought. In fact, in a great bit of irony, his quote is nearer the truth now than ever before, but precisely because people first believed as Vonnegut wished they would—that is, because they stopped looking to the religious for ultimate meaning.

 

The idea first suggested itself when we stopped as a family at a particularly American restaurant right in the heart of America (Nebraska, if I recall) while returning from summer vacation. Among the more dated décor—Americana, primarily—hung the exquisitely fashionable: a feigned rustic, pallet-wood sign. On it, stamped in whites and golds, one could read, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

Enter Vonnegut. Here we have an item, purchased at something like a gift shop, attempting to imbue life with meaning. But as in décor, so in philosophy: kitsch abounds (and one might do well enough without it).

 

To explain, let’s tease out this particular instance of gift-shop philosophy a bit. If we reject the religious as ultimate (and assuming deepest meaning would have been found in religion, such as our satisfaction in Christ in Christianity), we now have a vacuum of meaning in our lives. Because no Ultimate exists—no universals, nothing beyond the confines of this life—meaning will have to reduce to self. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel raises this point in his book What Does It All Mean? Since we’re all destined for the grave (and the grave is the end of life, since no immortal soul exists), perhaps we should simply take life as it comes and try to enjoy it as much as we can. In short, perhaps you should just, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

The trouble, though, is this assumes a certain set of circumstances, i.e., that you have the power to do something each day that makes you happy. While many in the world have that option, not all do, and few have it each and every day of their lives. Imagine a refugee mother, displaced by genocidal atrocities, forced to choose which of her children she can keep from starvation. As she walks away from the younger of her two children, whom she is leaving to die, should she drink in the sunrise sparkling over the desert and find brief happiness in it? It would be a callused heart indeed who could suggest such a thing.

 

The trouble with our philosophical kitsch, then, is that it belongs to a certain segment of a certain society only—the segment that can afford kitsch, if I could put it bluntly. It is the special frivolity of post-religious affluence that can dream up such slogans and then dare to live by them (or at least attempt to).

 

For if we attempt to create meaning for our lives on the basis of circumstance-dependent slogans, we will always be at the mercy of our circumstances. When life’s vicissitudes gust mightily, the whole structure threatens to collapse. It is a house built on sand.

 

And that’s just the point. Philosophical kitsch, like decorative kitsch, is for adorning the walls of a well-founded structure—not for providing the foundation itself. When you use knick-knacks as load-bearing walls, safe to say those walls will come tumbling down faster than you can say, “Jericho.” First lay a solid foundation—choose a governing philosophy that provides meaning despite circumstances—and then (perhaps) throw some decorations up.

 

So, for example, if you’re particularly wedded to our illustrative slogan—you fully intend to do something each day that makes you happy—that’s well and good. Just make sure that’s not the base of your life’s meaning. Added in, as a conscious effort to drink deeply from the common grace offered us in the created world, it might spruce up the place a bit. Even then, I might choose a more robust version of the sentiment, as in George Mueller’s famous comment, “Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord.” The unchanging God, in whom all joy is found, is the only sure foundation, so why not seek your daily happiness in him first?

 

In sum, I suppose I could say this: if you (like most Americans?) are going to seek life’s meaning in a gift shop, let it be a religious shop at least. You could do far worse than a crucifix.



Marks of Smoking Flax

June 27th, 2017 by brandon | | No Comments
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The Puritans left behind a great store of wisdom—rigorously theological, warmly devotional, and always centered on Christ and his gospel. Sadly, given the diminishing attention paid to language, grammar, and the humanities, they are less accessible to modern audiences than they deserve. Still, there are a few Puritan works that are short and simple enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest every English-speaking Christian read them. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress would head the list, undoubtedly. But not far behind would be the wonderful little classic The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.

 

Sibbes takes as his text Isaiah 42:1-3,

 

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.

 

and from it shows the tender, loving grace of Christ, the Lord’s servant, towards his people.

 

If we’re honest about the struggle—the war our flesh and the Spirit wage within us, the temptations we face, and (all too often) our falls into sin—we will soon feel discouragement and doubt. Will we ever be sanctified? Will the war ever cease? Can I be sure of my salvation when I struggle so? Hear how Sibbes describes this struggle:

 

Some think they have no faith at all because they have no full assurance, whereas the fairest fire that can be will have some smoke. The best actions will smell of the smoke. The mortar wherein the garlic has been stamped will always smell of it; so all our actions will savour something of the old man. (45)

 

But how may we know that we are truly Christians, and not hypocrites hiding behind a profession of faith? “In a gloomy day there is so much light,” Sibbes writes, “that we may know it to be day and not night; so there is something in a Christian under a cloud whereby he may be discerned a true believer and not a hypocrite” (37-38). A smoldering wick, though it show no flame at the time, nevertheless bears the mark of heavenly ignition. And once lit by heaven, according to the promise given in our text, Jesus will not suffer to see it extinguished, but will fan it into flame once more.

 

With this in mind, Sibbes suggests ten marks of “smoking flax,” that is, of a smoldering wick. When the marks are present, when we see these rules at work in our lives, we can be sure God’s irresistible grace is at work within us to mortify sin and raise us to newness of life. He is actively forming Christ in us.

 

  1. “If there be any fire in us, it is kindled from heaven.” The light kindled in us by the Father of lights, Sibbes reminds, is the same light as in the Word. We must have heavenly light to discern heavenly truth. If we accept the Word as true, receive it, and seek to see its truth lived out in our lives, God’s light has surely “sparked” the interest within us.
  2. “The least divine light has heat with it in some measure.” Sibbes goes on to say, “Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections.” As we grasp biblical truth, it affects more than just our intellect; slowly but surely we begin to feel the fundamental structures of our hearts changing, until our affections are in line with the truth we profess. We value supremely what is supremely valuable; we treasure Christ above all. Here Sibbes follows Augustine’s famous dictum: “As a man loves, so is he.” Our affections truly determine our nature.
  3. “Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way.” The world clamors for our attention, and many forces seek to direct us: media, politics, culture, friends and family. However, a true Christian will always look to God’s light as revealed in Scripture first and foremost. Sibbes offers a helpful analogy to distinguish between those who had a moment of intrigue when hearing the gospel, and those whose hearts were truly set aflame by God’s grace: “The light which some men have is like lightning which, after a sudden flash, leaves them more in darkness. They can love the light as it shines, but hate it as it discovers and directs.” If we say we like Jesus well enough, but bristle at his teaching (or the teaching of his prophets and apostles), we hate God’s light as it discovers and directs; if, however, we trust his light to guide and direct even when we struggle to understand the why, we prove ourselves to be smoldering wicks at least.
  4. “Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross.” If God’s light is at work within us, and as we trust it to direct us, it will reveal impurities within us. We will allow it to separate flesh from spirit, to help us identify and ultimately mortify what is carnal.
  5. “So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him.” When God’s light reveals uncleanness, immorality, and sin within us, we receive the rebuke with joy. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6), and what better friend have we than God himself, speaking through his Word? Our affections have been changed, so we delight most in Christ, and delight to be like him in increasing measure. Whatever tends to that end, we welcome with joy. If, however, we feel the sting of rebuke and resist it—draw the shades of our heart to keep the light out—it is likely we remain unregenerate. “There is nothing in the world more uneasy than the heart of a wicked man made to listen to spiritual instruction, until, like a thief, he puts out the candle so that he may sin with less restraint.”
  6. “Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active.” Grace works. Even in the midst of sin, when our flesh seems to be all-conquering, there is a “contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful.” The true light will flicker even in our darkest moments.
  7. “Fire makes metals pliable and malleable.” And so grace, where it is active, makes our hearts soft and prepares us to be changed. However, “Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.”
  8. “Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire.” Grace, where it is active, will make everything in us gracious. All will tend in a Godward direction, to the fame of his name. As Paul puts the same principle, whatever we do, we will do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  9. “Sparks by nature fly upwards.” Our desires and aims will mount upward, toward heaven. A person cannot desire the holy unless grace is at work, “for we cannot desire anything which we do not believe first to be, and the desire of it issues from love.” Sibbes notes these desires must be (1) constant, for this shows their supernatural origin, (2) directed to spiritual things such as faith and love, not because of a pressing need or emergency (in which case the desire is selfishly motivated), but “as a loving heart is carried to thing loved for the sake of some excellency in it,” and (3) accompanied with grief when the desire is hindered—that is, when sin masks Christ’s loveliness.
  10. “Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and, the higher it rises, the purer is the flame.” Where grace is truly active, it grows in measure and purity. “Ignis, quo magis lucet, eo minus fumat (As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke).” If we are truly in Christ, we will grow more like him; when we see no growth in grace, we show we are not so much as smoldering wicks. As one contemporary pastor puts it, “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.”


Lincoln’s Insight for Today

June 20th, 2017 by brandon | | 1 Comment
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In his book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, Andrew Delbanco shares what he considers “one of the most remarkable” of Abraham Lincoln’s writing, a short reflection only, perhaps intended as the beginnings of a speech. Lincoln writes:

 

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A., is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker?

Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it is his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

 

In this brief, inchoate musing (idiosyncratic comma usage and all), Lincoln not only anticipates the modern notion of race as “socially constructed,” but also demonstrates the tenuousness of dealing in moral non-absolutes. As Delbanco comments, “Lincoln knew it was fatally dangerous to oneself to deny to others the rights one claims as one’s own”—a point fraught with relevance for people on both sides of political aisles and religious spectra.

 

The issue of religious liberty springs to mind immediately. On one side, for political conservatives and some pious Christians, we have the danger of denying religious liberty to others (read: Muslims) that we would shudder to see denied ourselves. If one may ban Muslims from entry into a country purely on the basis of their religious beliefs, what is to prevent another from banning Christians for the same reason? As Lincoln might say it, “Take care. By this rule, you are to be banned by the first person you meet with any cause—just or unjust, founded or not—who fears you.” (It is worth noting that this is precisely what happened when Senator Sanders questioned a candidate for public office two weeks ago, as I discussed in my last post.) This is why Christians in America (notably the Baptists and Free churches) have always advocated for the separation of church and state: because they did not want government to meddle in the free exercise of their religion, they knew they could not promote or accept the meddling of government in anyone else’s religion either.

 

But I suspect Lincoln’s musing poses a greater corrective to the other side (what we might call liberal secularism), those who would lump all orthodox believers in any religion together under the pejorative “fundamentalist.” The reason Lincoln’s words prove so incisive here is because they bring out the notion of “social construct.” If race is not an absolute category, but merely a social construct (as is surely the case), then the boundaries might shift, and you might find yourself enslaved rather than enslaving.

 

How does this apply to the modern liberal secularism?

 

Simple. At this point in time, most everything is assumed to be a social construct, notably truth and virtue. If one denies mathematics or physics as racially or sexually oppressive, or denies science when it conflicts with our vision of progress (as in the case of transgenderism), what is to keep someone else from denying your truth in the name of progress or equality? If virtue is malleable to culture, and either the zeitgeist or the majority vote become sole arbiters thereof, what happens when evil becomes accepted virtue culture-wide? (See: Nazi Germany.) I’ve sawed off the very branch I’m sitting on right at the trunk.

 

Given globalization, this bother becomes even more troublesome quite quickly. If my virtue is mere social construct, and I encounter someone from another society, who thus possesses a different social construct, who is to arbitrate between us? If I regard the brutal subjugation of women as evil (as I do), but I encounter someone who sees it as the natural order, what can I say? I’m a victim of my own open-mindedness (especially if I’m a woman). If I continue to insist that truth and virtue are relative concepts, I can make no argument against whatever I perceive as evil anywhere I see it. If, instead, I insist that my (or the prevailing culture’s) view of truth and virtue is absolute, I’ve made myself (or my culture) god, which is breathtaking hubris—and unlikely to convince any who don’t share my apotheosizing religious convictions.

 

The way forward—in truth, the only sensible way—is to accept the presence of absolutes, not only social constructs. This was the implicit ground of Lincoln’s whole argument. As Delbanco comments, “In the last analysis, Lincoln regarded the hope of building one’s dignity on another man’s degradation not merely as an error but as sin” (emphasis added). What is wrong is wrong because it is wrong—not just because my culture thinks it is, or because it is in my interest to believe it is. Of course, this demands an accepted standard of truth (justice, sin, virtue, etc.), and here we find ourselves among the deepest, most important questions humanity can ask.

 

Space precluding longer argument, I would only submit that truth, if it is to be timeless, supracultural, must spring from a Being who is eternal, and who is Truth itself (cf. John 14:6).



Bernie’s Blunder

June 15th, 2017 by brandon | | No Comments
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Although I’m a tad late to the party (I only blog once a week), I think I should offer some words of response to the comments Senator Bernie Sanders made last week at the confirmation hearing of Russell Vought, an evangelical Christian. I think some response is in order because the views Sanders espouses have broad cultural appeal, even though they betray misunderstanding, illogic, and hypocrisy. It is very likely most evangelical Christians will have to respond to a similar line of argument, and should be prepared to answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Here is a transcript of the exchange, per David French:

 

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

 

Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .

 

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

 

Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

 

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

 

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

 

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

 

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

 

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

 

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

 

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

 

There are substantial, significant constitutional issues with what Sanders had to say. Those wondering why Christians fear the loss of religious freedom in America need look no further than this exchange. However, I am not a constitutional scholar, nor do I care much to meddle in politics (especially at this point in history), so I will restrict my comments to the logical and theological issues in Sanders’s views. There are three in particular that bear mentioning:

 

  1. The Theological Issue. Here we might give Sanders the most grace, as one wouldn’t assume he would know the central teachings of a faith not his own. His ignorance can be excused, although his audacity in decrying orthodox Christianity in his ignorance probably should not be. For the view that Vought attempts to express at several points in the interview includes, as he says, the centrality of Jesus for salvation. At my church we’re in a series on the five “solas” of the Reformation right now, and among them is solus Christus—only Jesus. This is not a peculiar understanding of Christianity, held only by a few radicals; this is the express teaching of Jesus himself, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The idea that salvation is found in Jesus alone—that there is no other name under heaven whereby all must be saved (Acts 4:12)—is central to the entire story of redemption as revealed in Scripture. Hardly a jot or tittle anywhere in the whole of the Bible would make sense apart from it. It is true that some who profess to be Christians—such as Senator Van Hollen, who joined the questioning—deny the exclusivity of Christ. But as J. Gresham Machen demonstrated almost a century ago in his monumental Christianity and Liberalism, that view is something altogether different from Christianity, and ought to go by a different name. That religion teaches, in the famous words of H. Richard Niebhur, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” One may certainly adhere to that religion, but one cannot deny that it is different from the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone found throughout the holy scriptures—and on the lips of Jesus himself!
  2. The Pluralist Issue. In many ways this is the most troubling part of the exchange. It seems that Sanders displays not only ignorance of Christianity, but also of Islam, Judaism, and really every major religion, for all teach exclusivity of salvation. If it is offensive to millions of Muslims in America that Christianity teaches salvation in Christ alone, is it also offensive to the tens of millions of Christians in America that Islam teaches salvation through Islam alone? The first of the five pillars of Islam is shahada (faith), and requires that every convert utter and believe the phrase, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In other words, a non-Muslim cannot be saved. When orthodox Muslims are candidates for public office, will Sanders ask them if all Christians stand condemned in their view? If they reply in the affirmative, will he accuse them of being Christophobic? Will he ask the same of orthodox Jews? Hindus? Buddhists? It seems, given Sanders’s comments, that the only people fit for public office are those who hold to a heterodox, secularized, pluralist understanding of any religion. And given the illogic inherent in the pluralist position—different religious teachings are mutually exclusive, so they cannot all be true—this seems to be a doubly foolhardy view.
  3. The Hypocrisy Issue. That last point—that only secularized views of religion are acceptable—brings out the hypocrisy of Sanders’s views. Though not in the name of any religion, Sanders’s comments imply a wide variety of religious beliefs, such as pluralism and tolerance. But even though this is a “secular” perspective, it is still theological at its core. Sanders is making claims about ultimate reality—about God—whether he intends to or not. He is declaring orthodox Christianity suspect, and with it—given the pluralism issue—every major religion. In its place he is extolling the virtue of secular humanism, with its views about deity, humanity, morality, etc. He is, in effect, claiming that his view is exclusively true. This is shocking hypocrisy, because he is making this implicit claim while denouncing the exclusivity of another! Sanders thinks he is right. Vought thinks he is right. The beauty of a democratic republic—one that at least claims to value religious liberty and treasure it as a right—is that both men are entitled to their opinions, and to bring them into the public sphere. The government cannot endorse one or the other, but can welcome men of both faiths into office. Sadly, Sanders, in his hypocrisy, is trying to shut the door to every faith but his own—in essence, asking government to enshrine secular, humanistic pluralism as the official state religion.

 

How should Christians respond? In the words of 1 Peter once more, “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” We need to address the arrogant, illogical, and hypocritical teaching of Sanders with love, humility, and winsome persuasion. Some will have the opportunity to do so on the national scale, and I am grateful for men like Russell Moore who are seeking to do just that. But most of us will have to do it one-on-one, with our family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have imbibed the spirit of the age without recognizing the dangers inherent therein. We can ask loving, insightful questions, drawing them out until they begin to see the concerns I’ve expressed today.

 

And above all, we can keep pointing them back to Jesus, because he is the only way—no matter how unpopular that teaching (and it was equally unpopular in the state-sanctioned pluralism of first-century Rome!). Contra the spurious Christianity Niebuhr described, we have sinfully rebelled against a perfect and holy God, and he is justly angry with us. We deserve the condemnation we stand under. But he has made a way. Our punishment fell on Jesus, that we might seek shelter from the storm of God’s wrath through trust in him. Remember, all—Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, secularist and mystic—“have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)—and Christ Jesus alone.