Sunday, June 17, 2018

Standard time in the summer time!

Well, okay, it's technically late spring, but it's pretty hot out here in Arizona. This year for our family vacation, I decided to bring the curmudgelings to the only place in the continental United States where they could still experience time in the manner in which it was created to be experienced, without the onerous and rebellious hand of the federal government interfering with our precious religious liberties.

It being Father's Day and everything, I thought it important to set an example of patriarchal excellence for my vast legion of readers to emulate. Don't let Daylight Stupid Time oppress your family any longer!

[While we're here, Mrs. Curmudgeon mentioned something about visiting a "grand canyon." Still not sure about her priorities.]

Monday, June 11, 2018

"Masterpiece Cakeshop" as a harbinger of defeat

First Things posted excellent analyses of the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision by R.R. Reno, Hadley Arkes, and Darel E. Paul last week. As Paul notes, the extremely narrow decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, does not represent a victory for religious liberty but instead is a "harbinger of defeat."

Masterpiece Cakeshop is owned by baker Jack Phillips, who declined to make a custom wedding cake for a homosexual couple due to his Christian convictions. The couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which held against him. Phillips made his appeal primarily on free speech grounds: namely, were he to be required to design a cake which promoted a point of view to which he objects, that would be a form of state-compelled speech. Curiously, the religious liberty question receded to the background of the case. Yet more curiously, Kennedy's ruling addressed neither of these First Amendment issues, but instead overturned the Commission because one of its commissioners spoke of Phillips' religious convictions in disparaging terms.

In other words, as Reno puts it, the Commission failed to be sufficiently nice for Kennedy's tastes. But as Reno argues,
So Kennedy has always been deluded. Every use of anti-discrimination rhetoric necessarily demonizes those who do not join the chorus of affirmation. …The Colorado commissioner who implied that Jack Phillips was “despicable” was simply following through on the cultural logic. Kennedy is kidding himself if he thinks he can use the postwar anti-discrimination tradition to empower the LGBT agenda—while at the same time preventing religious believers and others from being attacked legally, economically, and culturally.
The commentary on Slate's "Amicus" podcast supported Reno's point when Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern described the commissioner's comments as reasonable characterizations. When reading the various opinions from the Supreme Court justices, it appears the majority of the Court differs from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission not on substance, but on style. That offers little hope for those of us who agree with Jack Phillips.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

"Churches," not "Church"

I direct your attention to the Washington Post article, "The sin of silence: the epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," not so we may discuss its subject, but instead so that we may discuss the way in which it discusses its subject. To wit: is there such thing as an "evangelical church" which exists in the manner that headline implies it exists? 

As author Joshua Pease writes, "Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically…." Precisely so. There is no evangelical Church: there are only evangelical Churches.

Evangelicalism is a diverse social, theological and ecclesiological phenomenon: it includes a wide range of types of Church government, from congregational to presbyterian to episcopal. The very fact that it encompasses nearly every sort of Church government imaginable means there is not, nor can ever be, an evangelical "Church" in a manner comparable to the "Roman Catholic Church." While the "Church of Rome" itself contains a surprisingly diverse portfolio of theological views and its governing structures are somewhat more complex and sophisticated than most Protestants grasp, it is nonetheless a defined body with a clear hierarchical authority structure, and therefore one may reasonably ask, "Is there an epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church?" Bishops may or may not enforce discipline, cardinals may or may not pressure the pontiff to enact and enforce clear policies, but whatever may occur we know who is in charge and who to hold accountable. We (or at least the media and Roman Catholics) may be able to determine who to call in order both to get answers and to get something done.

Not so amongst evangelical Churches. One congregation has excellent accountability structures, while another has none whatsoever; these contrasts are found even between Churches which are nominally part of the same "network" (ex. Acts 29) or "convention" (ex. the Southern Baptists). As Pease writes, 
Diagnosing the scope of the problem isn’t easy, because there’s no hard data. …The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism.
I'm not picking on Pease because I'm a pedant (or at least, not only because I'm a pedant), but because the headline of his article (which he may not have written himself) is only the latest example of a chronic problem to cross my transom. Particularly when discussing perceived problems within evangelical congregations, writers and speakers will refer broadly to "the evangelical Church" or "the Reformed Church," and ask why "the evangelical Church" or "the Reformed Church" doesn't do something about "x." The answer is not, as seems often to be assumed, that "the evangelical Church" is indifferent; it is that there is no evangelical Church. Accordingly, it is impossible to reform, or even change, the evangelical Church.

Next week the 85th General Assembly of my communion, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is to meet on the campus of Wheaton College, that famed evangelical redoubt. As a Church, the OPC can make changes (to Church government, for example) which affect every member congregation because the OPC is a Church (singular) which operates under a unified system of government. If the OPC suffers an epidemic of denial about sexual abuse (and it's not my purpose here to suggest it does), then our system of government offers genuine hope that something can be done about it.

I sympathize with those who wish to reform the evangelical Church, with regard to sexual abuse or anything else. As my own professional vocation has been, in part, to play the role of reformer in a small way, I know what the struggle is like. I have had the advantage, however, of working within clearly defined government structures as I have pursued my reform agenda. Those who wish to reform the evangelical Church would do well to recognize there are only evangelical Churches, and to ask whether the absence of a defined hierarchical government is not itself a part of the problem they seek to redress and reform.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Thoughts on conversionism

There are a couple unhelpful ways of thinking, or even errors, common amongst American evangelicals which presbyterians would do well to avoid.

First is an overemphasis on a conversion experience. Several people in the Bible clearly have a conversion experience (such as the Philippian jailer), by which I mean that at one time they were not Christians, and then became Christians. However, that’s certainly not the case with everyone in the Bible, not even in the New Testament. (Timothy seems just such an example.) Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having a conversion experience. It should be equally obvious that there’s nothing wrong with not having a conversion experience. Unfortunately, overemphasis on the importance of a conversion experience has led some to question whether they truly have been saved, and that should not be. As I remember someone telling me sometime ago, “It doesn’t matter when you became a Christian; all that matters is whether you’re trusting in Christ rignt now!”

Secondly, some appear to think that genuine Christians do not sin, or at least do not commit particularly unpleasant sins. That may not be their doctrine, but that is their assumption when they question whether a particularly heinous sinner (or just someone who one finds unpleasant) is "really a Christian." The Bible does not teach us to think or talk this way. Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, and then committed what was probably the worst sin of his life: denying Jesus during his trial. The simple truth is that Christians are perfectly capable of not acting very Christian, but that, by itself, is not evidence they are not converted. Faith in Christ is the only thing that makes one a Christian.

I think of chapter 18.4 of our Confession of Faith: “True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair."

A related thought has occurred to me as I’ve thought about my own life. There was a period of time when I did not act like a Christian, and claimed not to believe in God. But I was baptized as an infant, and certainly did believe in God before that time. I wandered in sin, but then again professed saving faith. If I were to say I did was not really a Christian prior to that spiritual renewal, what would that say about God? That would seem to imply that he was not part of my life at all before that time, that his Spirit had done no work in my baptism despite my childhood faith, and that he did not seek after me as a shepherd after a lost sheep. It would seem to imply that I was saved because I chose to believe again, not because the Lord was more faithful to my baptism than was I. In other words, to deny that I was a Christian for some portion of my life seems to me to detract from the magnitude of the Lord’s grace in my life, and therefore to take away some of the glory which is rightfully his.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Hon. Steve Hogan

Steve Hogan, mayor of my hometown of Aurora, Colorado, died yesterday. He went fast; it was only two months ago he announced he had cancer. I didn't know him well, but he struck me as a kind and decent man. 

When my Cub Scout den was required to visit a public official, I found the mayor's e-mail address on the Aurora government website. I was surprised that he personally replied to my request, given that Aurora is the 54th largest city in these United States. He took it upon himself to meet my Cub Scouts on a Monday evening and personally gave us a tour of the city council chambers, the municipal building, and his office. He was patient with my boys, who seemed most interested in a candy dish.

I'm sorry he's gone. We need more of his sort in high office and public life.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Regarding "American War"

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. Clothbound, 352 pages.
For me, reading American War was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Though Omar El Akkad's intended audience clearly includes Americans, he is not a citizen of these United States, and so his depiction of our future is designed to make us reconsider our world's present, not my nation's past. I, however, have only ever been an American, steeped in reflection on our history and the meaning of the Civil War since high school, and so a novel about the Second Civil War must read, for me, as a commentary on my nation's past.

By 2075, rising waters have drastically altered this country's geographical and political landscapes, driving coastal populations inland and the nation's capital to Columbus. South Carolina, as is its wont, threatened secession and so was subjected to a viral agent by the national government which led to a quarantine of the entire state. Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama actually did secede, with Louisiana and east Texas hotly contested. Secession's pretext, apparently, was the criminalization of fossil fuels, but one gets the impression it had just as much to do with all our old grievances.

That's where my cognitive dissonance settled in. The politics of American War have enough echoes of our past that I kept looking for analogies to the 1860s. However, El Akkad tells a story of refugees and radicalization, presumptuous interference by foreign governments, and the cultivation and molding of terrorists. In other words, he tells the story of the wars America has created in the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East. He sets it in my country, apparently, in order to draw from us a deeper sympathy than we might otherwise give to persons from foreign lands with foreign-sounding names.

Read that latter way, it's a fairly effective book. The dialogue is a little clunky, and I think he failed to get inside the heads of his female characters in a believable way. At the same time, all his characters and their choices make sense, including the one who commits the worst terrorist attack in history. I was reminded of the inherent offensiveness of the American presumption that we may interfere in other nation's affairs in order to gain what our leaders think to be an advantage. 

Despite what one of our presidents liked to say, they don't hate us because of our freedoms. They hate us because we've colonized their countries. If you don't understand that, then maybe it's time for you to read American War.

Friday, May 4, 2018

"The Who's Tommy" at the DCPA

I may be the only person introduced to the Who by Pete Townshend's solo work, but that's what happens when your parents' musical tastes run toward West Coast cool jazz and show tunes and you're the oldest kid in your family. My attention was caught by tracks from The Iron Man: The Musical on Washington D.C.'s classic rock station; when I bought the album, I found the Who's tracks less interesting than Pete Townshend's performance of "A Friend Is a Friend." I went on, as only an obsessed teenager can, to collect all his solo albums and carefully analyze and annotate every song. It was only after some years that I decided I should probably pay some heed to the music he wrote for his band as well.

Tommy needs no explanation (and there's no point explaining it to the people who might need it explained). The Who's legendary concept album has again been revived as a stage musical, this time by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Theatre Companion and I found cheap tickets and so brought along Thing 1 for a show the other night; the latter is now at the perfect age (14) to be introduced to the incomparable rock'n'roll genius of Pete Townshend, and was appropriately impressed by the music and lyrics. Tommy's plot, while convoluted, is relatively easy to follow. At the same time, its philosophical points are comprehensible only through a close reading via the lens of the rather incomprehensible Meher Baba, so I had no concerns that Thing 1 might be led down the perfidious path of eastern mysticism.

As Thing 1 observed, this production of Tommy is better characterized as an opera than a musical, as there are only a few lines of spoken dialogue. Some of the album's songs were dropped, while others were rewritten or given additional lyrics to better fit this version of the story. I had no complaints on that front other than with "1921," which makes no sense in that this production is set after World War II, whereas the original was set after World War I. (During "1921," I was so confused that I though I must have been misunderstanding the actors. I wasn't.)

Once one gets past the fact that one is watching a musical, rather than listening to the Who, the performances in this production are uniformly strong. The three actors playing Tommy at different ages appeared together on stage more than once, enabling the audience to participate in Tommy's hallucinatory take on his reality. Given my druthers, I'd have preferred to see the musicians, who were hidden from view. I imagine they might have distracted from the action, but I find it exceedingly difficult to listen to "Pinball Wizard" without watching a guitarist.

This production of Tommy proves the material's strength: one need not be a fan of the Who in order to be thoroughly impressed.

Monday, April 30, 2018

I, Too

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

After the apocalypse, a non-dystopia

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. 2014: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Kindle edition.
Station Eleven confirms my deeply held conviction that influenza will kill us all. It begins with an outbreak of the "Georgian flu," which is not only remarkably contagious, but finishes off the infected within 12-24 hours. And just like that, civilization is gone.

Or rather, almost all the people are gone. Civilization persists, particularly in the form of the Traveling Symphony, a company of musicians and actors which caravans from settlement to settlement around Lake Michigan performing orchestral pieces and the Shakespearean canon. Their motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, is "Survival is insufficient." Or, as Mandel seems to be suggesting, survival has never been sufficient for the human species.

While Station Eleven kicks off with an apocalypse, it's far from a dystopian novel. Mandel uses Arthur Leander, a Canadian actor of some celebrity, to create the book's through-line: all the main characters are connected to him, even if in a minor way, although he dies of a heart attack just before the Georgian flu strikes. (No spoiler alert required: said cardiac event begins on the very first page.) Leander enables Mandel to move the narrative back and forward in time, and to introduce the titular "Station Eleven:" a self-published comic book by Leander's first wife which is itself set on a sort of ruined world. The Leander storyline is much more than a narrative device, however: it's a means by which Mandel can illustrate that human culture persists wherever humanity persists.

Life without running water, electricity, or any other features of post-18th century technology would be hard and uncomfortable. It would not, however, be a life without culture. That, at least in part, is the glory of humanity, which reflects the glory of the culture of the Trinity.

Monday, April 16, 2018


I've been listening to The Hilarious World of Depression podcast since its inception, and for a long time it was my sole source of therapy. (All by itself, that one sentence tells you I've got a whole raft-load of issues.) Now, however, I'm talking to actual therapists and seem to have a handle on my symptoms, and host John Moe's frequent admonitions talk about depression in order to normalize  it have finally sunk in.

There are a lot of reasons for an OPC minister of Word and sacrament to not want to talk about his depression, not least of which is the fact that my depression comes with a chaser of paranoia. Pastors are under constant scrutiny by their congregations, and most of the members under their care have unresolved father issues which make them extremely reluctant to embrace the painfully obvious fact their preacher has problems of his own. In my case, I also have a presbytery which is not known as a safe place to express weakness, and I believe I have good reason to think that my acknowledgment of mental health issues could be used by some as a pretext to lower the boom on me. Now that I'm not as fervidly paranoid, though, I realize that even my enemies may have some sense of human decency; and if not, we have colleagues to thwart their more vindictive efforts.

So here goes.

I've had a few episodes of situational depression in response to traumatic events (such as Church conflict and when we lost our daughter). The "clinical depression" (if that's the correct term) began about six years ago when a problem with recurring sinusitis became a sinus infection that simply would not go away. I've been in physical pain for much of my adult life, but this pain was of an entirely different species: it wasn't the intensity, but the quality. I was perfectly capable of living my life, but I was so miserable that I simply did not want to. Although the sinusitis was finally resolved through surgery, it turned out to be masking Meniere's disease (fluid in the inner ear) complicated by a form of migraine. Since then, it's been a long journey of figuring out a regimen of vitamins, supplements, medication and sleep to deliver me from a constant sense of disorientation and unease. I think things are under control now, but I also know that I'm one sleepless night away from being plunged back into despair.

There's a clarity to depression. Most people seem reluctant to admit that, but it's true. Depression strips away the comforting reassurances we tell ourselves and allows you to see things as they are. Life is hard and full of suffering, and no one ever survives it. There's a hollowness to most relationships, and God, without a physical presence, seems absent.

On the other hand, one should acknowledge that depression makes it more difficult to recognize that God's lack of physical presence is not the same thing as absence.

People talk about suicidal ideation as though it were a shocking, well-nigh unthinkable thing, but for me it's a simple reality. I am a very slow thinker, but once I solve a problem it tends to stay solved. Now that I have a plan, I can't get rid of it: it's in my head and can't be dislodged. Obviously, I haven't done it, but there are times when I have to come up with reasons not to. Mostly, it's because I know how much it would mess up my kids.

I remember one of my ministerial colleagues being surprised that I wasn't afraid of God's wrath for violating the Sixth Commandment, but I'm not. That's one of the side-effects of believing the Gospel. While taking one's own life is a more heinous sin than others, the Shorter Catechism reminds us that [e]very sin deserveth God's wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come." (Westminster Shorter Catechism #83-84) If the Cross has delivered me from God's wrath and curse, due to me for all my sins, then even a violation of the Sixth Commandment cannot separate me from the love of Christ (Romans 8:33-39).

Depression is bad enough. I'm grateful it couldn't rob me of my assurance of salvation.