Democracy for Republicans

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There’s a really good essay by Jacob T. Levy (Professor of Political Theory at McGill University) over at the Niskanen Center today in which he argues that the Republican Party needs to renew its commitment to democracy. “One sign of seriousness” of a post-Trump Republican Party, says Levy, “would be a commitment to building a Republican Party that can win free and fair elections, a Republican Party whose strategy rests on appealing to pluralities or majorities and that can embrace more voters rather than fewer.”

Levy goes on to document how over the past 30 years, both at the federal and state level, Republicans have frequently failed to win a plurality of the popular vote and yet still have held majorities in legislative bodies. The Republican Party, says Levy,

…is now the beneficiary of all the countermajoritarian mechanisms that make it difficult to translate voting pluralities or majorities into electoral wins, including those that were deliberate creations of constitutional design, those that evolved more or less accidentally, and those that were opportunistically engineered in recent decades. It is moreover the beneficiary of actions that selectively suppress voter turnout and eligibility to vote. Democrats more often than not command popular-vote pluralities even though many Democratic-leaning voters are discouraged or prohibited from getting to the ballot box at all.

Levy argues that the longstanding conservative suspicion of majoritarian democracy is based more on the Founders’ understanding of classical, zero-sum Roman economic precedents, and that such a system is poorly equipped to handle modern commercial capitalism. And while that conservative suspicion is often justified by an argument that the mob will just vote for socialism to line their own pocketbook (as if the elites aren’t also voting for their pocketbooks?), Levy argues that position is unjustified by history.

While there have been deeply despotic socialist regimes in modernity, these have almost never come about through the domestic subversion of democratic governments; they have been imposed by external military domination or else have replaced domestic oligarchic autocracies of one type or another. The fear of the redistributionist mob exercises a powerful hold on the conservative imagination, and has often served as an excuse for repression and constitutional violation. But we should understand that excuse as an excuse.

It’s a long essay and worth reading in its entirety. While I’m not personally likely to support most of the Republican Party ideals regardless of their political strategy, I’m fully on board w/ Levy’s conclusion:

It would be good, in other words, to have a competition in the direction of freer, fairer, and more open-access elections, with competing ideas about what that means and what to prioritize. That’s compatible with making an issue out of instances of Democratic misconduct that themselves call for future-oriented, general, rule-governed remedies. But it means not an agenda based on fake panic about nonexistent undocumented-immigrant voting or almost nonexistent voter fraud, not an agenda about dressing up restriction as reform. I am not sure that there are currently any powerful Republicans who are willing to try to take part in those debates, Republicans who are willing to embrace the goal of building a party that can win pluralities and majorities of freer and more open elections. I am sure that it will be a good sign when there are.

What systemic repentance might look like for the Evangelical church

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There are a few big stories rattling around the American evangelical church community lately that I see as being related. I’m not sure that there’s a single root cause, but there are some common symptoms and conditions that contribute to them all.

There have been barrels of ink used to write on these issues already. I’m primarily thinking about:

Recognition of a broad historical pattern of misogyny within the church.

The #ChurchToo movement, recognizing a long pattern of cover up of sexual abuse and assault in the name of protecting church leaders and “the church’s witness”.

The disgrace of several multi-site megachurch pastors.

Reeling yet? That’s all just within the past five years or so. And there are undoubtedly more revelations to come.

Common threads

A few decades from now I’m sure there will be analyses with better perspective on this stuff, but right here in the middle of it I want to suggest two common threads in all of these.

Powerful, unaccountable men.
Whether at the megachurch level or the independent Southern Baptist Church level, men craving power find ways to set up systems that will keep them from accountability. They hand-pick their elder boards. They re-write church bylaws and membership agreements to ensure that they have all the control.

Systemic silencing and ignoring of women
If you haven’t read Beth Moore’s post yet, go read it. She’s just one of many, but expresses the issue well. In complementarian churches, women who are themselves fully committed to the idea that they shouldn’t be elders or teachers too often find themselves pushed out of any role that smacks of leadership. Tim Challies, no flaming outlier in the neo-Reformed camp, restricts women from publicly reading Scripture in a worship service. John Piper says that women shouldn’t be police officers because they ought not to be “giving directives” to men. I could go on.

Practical steps going forward

It’s not enough to lament. Real repentance includes taking real steps toward change.

When the doctor tells you that you’ve got heart failure and high blood pressure and are going to die very prematurely if you don’t make some changes, you don’t just say “thanks, doc” and then keep your old lifestyle. You re-evaluate your priorities. Sure, you believed strongly in desserts and cheeseburgers and lots of Netflix time. But if you want to be healthy, you may find that a belief in vegetables and desserts in moderation and regular exercise are also acceptable life choices and will allow you to flourish in a way you wouldn’t otherwise.

Similarly, the evangelical church needs to look at its “life choices” and tightly-held doctrinal distinctives and the fruit that has resulted and make decisions accordingly. How serious are we about repentance?

Accountability
Pastors and leaders need real, tangible accountability. For denominations that are structured with congregational autonomy, there should be elder boards that can call pastors on the carpet when need be. We need to take the qualifications for eldership seriously. Not argumentative? Not greedy? Heck, we need to take the fruit of the Spirit seriously. Peace? Patience? Kindness? Self-control? A lot of this stuff is obvious and just needs to be followed.

Additionally, stronger denominational oversight, even an accountability hierarchy, may be appropriate. It’s not a silver bullet – the Roman Catholic church is the largest religious bureaucracy in the world and has its own accountability issues – but something needs to be done. If congregational autonomy is so important that it precludes churches from reporting and protecting other churches from known sex offenders, congregational autonomy is an idol that should be done away with.

Bigger is not better
Can we all just agree at this point that big multi-site churches with charismatic preachers streaming in over video are a really, really bad idea? How many more Driscolls and MacDonalds do we need to build and then destroy these empires before we’re willing to acknowledge that this model is unhealthy, produces unhealthy churches, and causes serious hurt to thousands of believers who were a part of those churches? Give me an army of Eugene Petersons ministering in little neighborhood churches rather than a Mark Driscoll or James MacDonald or (dare I even say it) Matt Chandler projected larger than life on a video screen at campuses across the country.

Listen to women and believe their testimony
When women and young people come forward with allegations of abuse, we must take them seriously. We must have good processes and training in place at our churches to make sure that children and young people are protected. And we need to be willing to expose abuse if it happens, and learn from it, and improve. This is non-negotiable.

Bring women into leadership
It seems obvious that if women were included in the leadership of these churches, and if they were listened to and had power such that they could take action, we would not have the systemic ongoing issues with abuse that we have today. (Again, not a silver bullet – Willow Creek has women in leadership – but still…)

I don’t want to add another thousand words to this post to stake out a position on complementarianism vs. egalitarianism. (OK, so I want to, but that’s another post.) But even pragmatically, if people like Scot McKnight and N. T. Wright – neither of whom can reasonably be accused of being wild-eyed progressives – can find a Scriptural basis for women being ordained into ministry leadership, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether complementarianism is a second- or third-level doctrine that deserves another look.

Finally

Repentance requires action. Repentance for particularly painful, systemic sin probably requires painful, systemic action. Whether the evangelical church in America will be willing to broadly repent remains to be seen. I pray that it will, and commit to doing what I can in my own congregation to act out that repentance.

A passion for Jesus and for justice

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Justice is inherent in justification.

This understanding of justification will have enormous effects on the church’s understanding of mission. Like Paul, the church that lives by this account of justification will not merely be trying to “save souls” but will want to be God’s agent in the creation of a justified and just people – transformed and participating in Christ and his current work in and through the church.

Evangelism – sharing the good news – will be a message about liberation from all sorts of sin, including hatred and violence and injustice, and into a new life. Centrifugal activity, or outreach – embodying the good news in the public square – will mean siding with those who are neglected and mistreated, whether in the neighborhood or in another part of the world. In fact, the differences between terms like “evangelism” and “outreach” will in part collapse, not because Jesus is being replaced with justice, understood in some generic, secular way, but because Jesus is justice, the justice of God incarnate. The result will be a deeper spirituality, not a lesser one, a closer walk with God (the God of justice), not a more distant one. In fact, the result will be a passion for Jesus and for justice.

— Michael J. Gorman, from Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission

My 2018 Reading in Review

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Time for a quick recap of my 2018 reading. I’ve done several reading posts through the year so this can just be a summary.

Thanks to Goodreads I can report I read 71 books in 2018. 33 of those were fiction, the remaining 38 were mostly history and theology, with a few biographies thrown in. Though I have a large virtual stack of unread books in my Kindle app, most of my reading this year was still dead tree books. (Maybe this year I can start plowing through the electronic ones…)

A few notable favorites for the year:

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak
Meeting Brad Jersak and hearing him teach this past summer at the Water to Wine Gathering was a highlight of my year. In this book Brad sketches a truly hopeful view of final things, of an eternal city whose gates are always open and inviting. I need to go re-read this one.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
I’m sure I wasn’t ready to read this one when it was published back in 2011. But to pick it up in late 2018 and read Dr. Cone’s insightful parallels between the cross on which Jesus suffered and the trees on which so many black people were lynched throughout American history was a powerful thing. I was struct by how the Bible is adaptable and interpretable (a more palatable word to some might be “relevant”) to such diverse swaths of the human experience.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
This one is a sort of alt-history crossed with Hidden Figures written from a strongly feminist viewpoint. Loved it. Next to pass it on to my daughters.

They weren’t all awesome.

Generally if I start in and after 40-50 pages I’m significantly unimpressed, I just put the book back on the return-to-library pile and pick up another one. Life’s too short to stick it out through bad books. There were a few clunkers, though, that I did manage to get all the way through and wouldn’t recommend. Two that stick out are Street Freaks by Terry Brooks (sci-fi writer trying cyber-punk and abusing every cliche in the genre) and The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, which I wrote about earlier.

On to 2019!

I started the year thinking that I needed to burn through my Kindle and purchased book backlog. Then a week later I went to the library and borrwed four more books. Maybe I have a problem… but I guess it’s a good sort of problem to have.

Painful but true words about gifting

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If you are entrusted with a certain gift, most of the people around you won’t be similarly gifted. They won’t be able to see as clearly because God has not equipped them to. But being gifted with discernment does not give you permission to be spiteful, arrogant, or judgmental toward them. It is your responsibility to help the community by raising uncomfortable questions and then waiting patiently while it struggles with them. And more than likely, you’ll have to wait much longer than you want.

— Hannah Anderson, from All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment

Fans with Bands

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I went down a little bit of a YouTube rat hole the other day watching a playlist full of videos where musician fans of big artists get pulled up on stage to play with the band. It started here:

Which in the replies led me to this playlist:

Some of them are a little too obviously pre-planned – the 11-year-old who magically ends up on stage with Carrie Underwood has her own YouTube channel with 30,000 followers – but most of them are genuinely delightful.

For instance, this one where a teenager joins Bruce Springsteen on stage to sing “Growin’ Up”:

Or the college kid here who boldly asks Billy Joel to sing “New York State of Mind” while the kid plays the piano, and proceeds to win Joel’s grudging respect:

But hands down, the winner in these has to be anybody singing the “For Good” duet with Kristen Chenowith. There must be a dozen of these on YouTube. And why not? It’s a beautiful song, just challenging enough to let a good vocalist shine, some nice harmonies. And Chenowith is a generous performer, encouraging her amateur counterparts, guiding them along through the song, and seeming to genuinely enjoy the experience. Here’s an example:

I think I love these so much because you see momentary flashes of the true joy of making music together, and you get reminded that while a lucky (and very talented) few make it big, there are talented musicians everywhere who could, on a given night, step in and hold their own with their favorite band.

As a musician myself you can bet I’ve had idle daydreams where I was in this sort of scenario myself. But even though I’d give my eye teeth to do the Behold the Lamb of God Christmas show with Andrew Peterson and gang, it always seems uncharitable to wish that Ben Shive would break his hand and need an impromptu replacement. (But if he ever does, Andrew, give me a call, eh?)

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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Having read very few black theologians over my past couple decades of reading theology, it was far past time for me to get to the late Dr. James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Dr. Cone, a longtime proponent of black liberation theology, makes a forceful case for the parallel between the cross of Jesus Christ and the hanging trees on which so many black people were lynched throughout American history.

Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

The book came with great reviews and reputation, so I was a little bit underwhelmed by the first few chapters. But then came chapter 4, “The Recrucified Christ in Black Literary Imagination”, and Cone introduces us to the vivid poetic imagery that black writers have used to parallel Jesus’ suffering with those of black Americans, and I found myself heading off to the internet to better acquaint myself with Countee Cullen, Robert Hayden, and Langston Hughes.

The concluding chapter, though, was worth the entire book. Dr. Cone shares his own experience and then explains his beautiful theological conclusions.

The Christian gospel is God’s message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world. As such, it is a transcendent reality that lifts our spirits to a world far removed from the suffering of this one…

…And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly”. It is also an immanent reality – a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst… Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for “pie in the sky”.

And so the transcendent and the immanent, heaven and earth, must be held together in critical, dialectical tension, each one correcting the limits of the other. The gospel is in the world, but it is not of the world; that is, it can be seen in the black freedom movement, but it is much more than what we see in our struggles for justice.

I could quote the whole last chapter but I won’t. It’s really worth picking the book up to read the whole thing.

Or maybe just one last paragraph.

As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today…

Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor. “Do not fear those who kill the body’s, and after that can do nothing more” (Lk 12:4).

Simply wonderful.

Making the rounds…

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I’ve been playing music in church since high school and as a member of worship bands at least since college, and have played most all the instruments on the team save for electric guitar, but yesterday was a new one for me: I’ve never had this view before for a full worship service.

The worship team was short a drummer for the week; with the middle daughter now taking drum lessons I have an electronic kit at home that I can practice on.

It was really a lot of fun. My goal was to practice enough that I didn’t embarrass myself, and I think I managed that. To be fair, the songs were relatively easy. Still, I hope they let me do it again sometime.

For All The Saints

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This great hymn was sung at the end of President George H. W. Bush’s funeral this morning. Written by Anglican priest William Walsham How in 1864, I’m always drawn to how it gets the sentiments of a Christian funeral so right.

(The typical hymn tune setting SINE NOMINE by Ralph Vaughan Williams doesn’t hurt anything, either, though I do remember struggling mightily to play it unrehearsed as a teenaged church pianist.)

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who Thee by faith before the world confessed;
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But when there breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
in praise of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Of disappointment and unexpected footwear

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A week ago I ordered some foam replacement earbud covers from Amazon. Friday the package showed up. It did not contain foam replacement earbud covers. Instead, it contained this pair of handsome Spider-Man socks, even in my size!

After a brief consultation with Amazon customer service, my order was refunded and they’re letting me keep the socks. Now I’m still waiting a few more days for another order of earbud covers, but on the whole, we’ll call it a win.