Conservatism and the End of the World

This week in The New Inquiry William Osterweil explores the recently prevalent “Ancient Apocalypse” film and TV genre. From Gladiator to Apocalypto to Noah to an endless shambling parade of zombie films, an Ancient Apocalypse doesn’t depict the literal end of the world, but situates its heroes at the end of an age, the downfall of a quasi-historical civilization. Osterweil explains:

There is a subnational social group: a tribe, city-state or family, living, if not happily, at least in stability and relative peace. That group receives a prophecy of a coming apocalypse. The prophecy proves true almost immediately, though it refers to the end of the world only insofar as it is the end of the group as currently constituted, the end of the group’s forms of life, the group’s world. This end is violent, sudden, and comes from the outside, in the form of natural disaster, foreign hordes, or rival groups with better technology—although its effects are exacerbated by internal decadence, corruption, weakness, willful ignorance, and/or betrayal.

At first blush, these apocalyptic fantasies may seem to promote conservative values. They feature strong heroic individuals who win survival or glory against all odds in the burning debris of a collapsed civilization. Conservatives are of course elitists, and apocalyptic fantasies have a uniformly dismal view of “the people.”

In all these films, perhaps the most consistent trait is horror at being in society, the nightmare of the social in general. In any scene in which people are in “the public sphere”—from drinking in a tavern to mass political decision-­making—the crowd is pictured as disgusting, weak, violent, bloodthirsty, ignorant and cowardly.

Of course, these are not actually conservative values. Conservatism exists to preserve civilization for the benefit of the masses, even if they don’t appreciate it, and conservatism is not a philosophy that worships the individual—better say liberalism or Objectivism.

Another problem with viewing this genre as conservative is that obviously after a cultural apocalypse there remains nothing left to conserve. Conservatism (not to be confused with right-wing revolutionism) dedicates itself to the specific task of preventing the apocalypse. Nothing survives the Ancient Apocalypse—or does it?

Certainly, as Osterweil in fact charges, this is a genre with “right-revolutionary” characteristics. He writes, “They imagine a fundamentally overturned world in which the political and economic structures are destroyed but current forms of social organization (the anti-black racial order, patriarchy, militarism) are strengthened in the process of their ending.” The protagonist himself may even die as a necessary sacrifice in establishing these values. The film, as a dramatization of the hero’s struggle against the moribund old order, then serves as his vindication to the audience and to “history.” Keep in mind that the Ancient Apocalypse is not actual history, but an anachronistic morality tale in historical costume.

The Ancient Apocalypse is in fact one more fantasy belonging to the anticulture, one more deathwork in which the ugly vices of modern culture take off their masks  for a moment in the supposedly neutral space of art. The genre even romanticizes the Hobbesian “war of all against all” which supposedly underlies the modern social contract. It dramatizes a kind of “survival of the fittest” a la Herbert Spencer or Malthus, in which the human race is violently purified.

A cultural apocalypse isn’t the literal end of the world, of course—”it’s just the end of you.” Civilization can survive a collapse. The Roman Empire fell to the barbarians, but it wasn’t long before the barbarians succumbed to Christendom and rebuilt the civilized world. But cultural resurrection doesn’t interest the creators of apocalyptic fantasy, who tend to set their stories in a pre- or post-Christian society.

The creators of “Ancient Apocalypse” films and, more broadly, those who create and consume what has been referred to as “disaster porn” get thrills from what are ultimately fantasies about their own destruction. It is a form of vicarious suicide. Osterweil writes:

” . . . the films reveal what yearning for apocalyptic survival as comeuppance actually is: a celebration of hate, prejudice, and a desire for death. . . . [A]ll the apocalypse cult has to look forward to is its self-­immolation in the cleansing and murderous distribution of ‘justice’.”

Apocalyptic fantasies exclude hope, the Christian virtue that typifies conservatism. Hope is not limited only to the afterlife, the Second Coming, or the individual. It also necessitates hopeful action, protection, and charity toward the people and elements of our culture that are weak and sick. It seeks to preserve, renew, and save even those things that are most at risk and weighed down by ideology.

In this respect, I think in one of his asides Osterweil perhaps misunderstands or misinterprets the Apocalypse of St. John, relying more on the convoluted interpretations imposed on it by 20th-century fundamentalists than an actual reading of the text in the context of its writing and the rest of the canon of Scripture. John’s Apocalypse was written to Christians who were already experiencing what felt like the end of the world, as Jerusalem was wiped out and Rome plunged into moral depravity and sadistic entertainments. John comforts persecuted Christians with the assurance that they have not been abandoned by Christ, and that he will be faithful to judge evil and restore the world.

The Ancient Apocalypse and more broadly speaking the disaster film in general sees nothing good in civilization. Its view of society and culture bears a resemblance to radical Islamist, Marxist, or totalitarian approaches: the past must be utterly destroyed to usher in a supposedly better order.

On a side note, these critiques do not necessarily apply to the “post-apocalyptic” genre, which at its best does seek to imagine how a humane culture might be rebuilt in the wake of destruction.

So where does this leave us? It is necessary to oppose and condemn apocalyptic fantasies as one of the means by which our society continues to destroy itself.  We must let Osterweil have the last word:

An apocalypse produced by collapse, by god or climate change, internal contradiction or nuclear bomb, will never provide heaven on earth.

You’re doing it wrong

Clueless politicians on the right and left are trying to relate to our generation by unironically appropriating internet memes.

dogesuranceExhibit A: BIG GOVERNMENT TROLLING.

This appropriation of doge by the Department of Health and Human Services is the latest in a series of terrible attempts to use internet memes to make apathetic Millennials want to get health insurance. Previously featuring Pajama Boy, Brosurance, mom jeans, and so on.

Why does HHS think that doge will make people sign up for health insurance? And why do they seem so darn clueless about how stupid it looks?

Now lest you think this is a problem with rich, old, out of touch liberals, I present:


Get a selfie with Sarah Palin. A shout-out from Newt (eww). Snag some swag (Pictured: Obama bobbleheads). And if you still want to go to their conference after these horrors, you can enter to win an all-expenses-paid trip. Just click “I’m In.”

This isn’t what Millennials want (although we do take selfies, laugh at doge, and use memes—ironically—to make fun of people.

Republicans and the Obama administration are saving us the trouble.

By the way: the only young people who still think selfies are cool can’t vote yet. Stop trying, politicians. You’re making yourselves look bad.

You know what would be nice? If politicians started treating Millennials as adults, and behaving like adults themselves.

But maybe that’s too much to hope for from Baby Boomer politicians.


The unpatriotic, double-plus ungood cowardice of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden is a wicked person, our elite masters and thoughtcrime enforcers agree:  a hypocrite who, having pledged himself to the preservation of America’s national security apparatus, has betrayed his trust by exposing its corruption.

Witness, for instance, this devastating critique of Mr. Snowden by Christine Sisto, a writer for National Review Online of whom William F. Buckley would not be proud:

Snowden committed his crime because of an insatiable need to be the center of attention, and he refuses to go back to the United States because of an aversion to being told that he is wrong — two defining hipster characteristics. And if I have learned anything from living in Brooklyn, it’s that hipsters are not to be trusted.

Yet, aside from not turning himself in for enhanced interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, Mr. Snowden has not exactly sought the ease and comfort of respectable whistleblower journalism, as if he had exposed Republican electoral fraud or some other such universally abhorred breach of the public trust. He publicly exposed a reality that most U.S. politicians have been unwilling to confront, even though it’s been staring them in the face since 2001: the imposition of permanent wartime abridgement of the American people’s liberties through pervasive domestic surveillance. He’s now ended up as a virtual hostage in Russia, a country not known for delighting in civil disobedience or free speech. It is likely his story will not end well. He has sacrificed anyone’s idea of a normal and happy life for his principles.

It is at least unchivalrous of the panoptic security state’s comfortable defenders to demand that its critic accept martyrdom to prove his sincerity.

If Edward Snowden’s critics were as intent as he is on exposing our country’s betrayal of its citizens,  we might take their concerns more seriously. Until then, we hipster conservatives will stand up for this hipster whistleblower.


Hatchette job

Rod Dreher brought to our attention that is hurting its customers by bullying publisher Hatchette. Customers are reporting ordering delays of weeks—even when books are in stock and the customer pays for advanced shipping.

A couple years ago, Hatchette and five other publishing houses lost an anti-trust suit when the government determined that they conspired to fix prices of ebooks sold on Amazon was the clear beneficiary of this anti-trust judgment, as you can read here. The irony of this case is that Amazon clearly poses a much greater threat to both authors and readers of books, than even these big publishing houses. Amazon has a history of strong-armtactics. By any objective standard, Amazon is the closest thing to a monopoly in this business, and its business practices ought to be under more scrutiny.

To register our disapproval, we have removed all Amazon product links from The Hipster Conservative. We had not been participating in Amazon’s affiliate program, so our bottom line of zero dollars will continue unaffected. We urge readers to patronize other vendors, including your local independent bookstores.

If you see a link we missed, let us know.


Belief in Russia

Last week at Juicy Ecumenism, Metropolitan Jonah,  the former primate of the Orthodox Church in America, rejoiced that Russia has risen from the grave of secularism:

Churches and houses, businesses and stores, even government buildings and public squares proclaim the Paschal joy of Christ’s Resurrection. Festal processions of tens of thousands of people, led by hundreds of vested clergy, wind through the streets of Moscow, Red Square and the Kremlin, singing the Paschal hymns, as all the bells in all the churches and bell towers, from the Kremlin to the countryside, toll in joy.

This was unimaginable thirty years ago. It is still unimaginable to many in the West, and outrageously politically incorrect. Who could permit the faithful Christians to process from their churches, some at the heart of the center of the government buildings, with Christ is Risen! hung on the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House? It might offend someone! Choirs of students gathering in the quads and halls of the State Universities to sing the Paschal hymns and shout Christ is Risen! Call the Police! The CIA! The NSA… [sic] Homeland Security!

What has arisen in Russia, Jonah says, is not just a restored Orthodox faith, but a distinctly Christian national outlook and mission. Having drunk the cup of secularism to its bitter dregs, Russia died with Christ and has now arisen, purged from the Soviet spirit.

A new “Holy Russia” emerges as a defender of Christianity against Islamism—in Jonah’s words, against “the formation of a new Caliphate.”

Jonah then indulges in flatuous geopolitical commentary. Western criticism of Russia’s aggression against Eastern European border republics is uncalled for, he says, and Russia’s seizure of Crimea is merely equivalent to Western encouragement of pro-Western governments in the region.

Russia took back Crimea, whether we like it or not. That does not mean they want to take over Ukraine. However, Western meddling installed its own regime in Kiev, and has not ceased provoking Russia. To provoke a war? The ignorant media even refer to Russia as the Soviet Union, a comment as tasteless and insensitive as toasting Hitler at the commemoration of the Holocaust.

Although Jonah does not mention Vladimir Putin by name, he suggests that Putinesque autocracy is healthy and natural in the Russian context:

When its reintegration is mature enough, Russia will likely enthrone a new Czar, an autocrat consecrated by the Church as an icon of Christ’s reign on earth.

It is worth comparing Jonah’s vision of “Holy Russia” to David P. Goldman’s insightful perspective on the matter. Like Jonah, Goldman has no patience with the flaccid anti-Russian posturing of Foggy Bottom neoliberals. America should put up or shut up—but rather, we ought to learn to understand Russia’s international outlook and goals, which are different from ours. Russia, Goldman says, is not a nation but an empire, which protects its center by establishing Russia-friendly buffer states in places like the Baltic, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Syria.

While Goldman and Jonah agree to the extent that they both believe opposing Russia’s regional imperialism is counterproductive to Western interests—do we want Israel to survive, or not?— Goldman’s assessment of the Russian imperial character is more sober and less fantastic than Jonah’s “Holy Russia.” For one thing, it is clear that Vladimir Putin aspires to be a secular prince, not an “icon of Christ’s rule on earth.”

It is one thing to consider whether countries may, in God’s providence, have distinct spiritual or religious vocations. Many countries are certainly characterized by specific religious phenomena, whether Evangelical Protestantism in the United States, or Anglicanism in Britain, Lutheranism in Germany and northern Europe, or the many national and regional inflections of Roman Catholicism. Perhaps even now China is developing its own potent and unique form of Christianity.

As David Goldman observes, Russia is an empire, not a people. Still, she may perhaps become a new Holy Russian Empire, heir to Byzantium as the Holy Roman Empire was heir to Rome. Who can say? But these empires and nations and religious movements are not Christianity itself.

Jonah and his idea of “Holy Russia” remind me of Shatov, a character from Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Shatov is a student who renounces the atheistic international anarchist movement he once embraced. In a conversation with his former friend, the irredeemably wicked Nicolai Vsevolodovich, Shatov passionately defends his new, Russian faith.

“Do you know,” [Shatov] began, with flashing eyes, almost menacingly, bending right forward in his chair, raising the forefinger of his right hand above him (obviously unaware that he was doing so), “do you know who are the only ‘god-bearing’ people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world in the name of a new God, and to whom are given the keys of life and of the new world… Do you know which is that people and what is its name?”

Shatov recounts how, before the atheist Stavrogin turned to evil, he proved that Russia and Christianity were one:

Do you remember your expression that ‘an atheist can’t be a Russian,’ that ‘an atheist at once ceases to be a Russian’? Do you remember saying that?

“Did I?” Nikolai Vsevolodovich questioned him back.

“You ask? You’ve forgotten? And yet that was one of the truest statements of the leading peculiarity of the Russian soul, which you divined. You can’t have forgotten it! I will remind you of something else: you said then that ‘a man who was not orthodox could not be Russian.’”

“I imagine that’s a Slavophil idea.”

“The Slavophils of to-day disown it. Nowadays, people have grown cleverer. But you went further: you believed that Roman Catholicism was not Christianity; you asserted that Rome proclaimed Christ subject to the third temptation of the devil. Announcing to all the world that Christ without an earthly kingdom cannot hold his ground upon earth, Catholicism by so doing proclaimed Antichrist and ruined the whole Western world. You pointed out that if France is in agonies now it’s simply the fault of Catholicism, for she has rejected the iniquitous God of Rome and has not found a new one. That’s what you could say then! I remember our conversations.”

Shatov has himself risen, returned from the deadly ideology of international anarchism, which was a forerunner of the international communism which destroyed Russia. Having been an anarchist and an atheist, he now strives for nationalism and Christianity. But just as anarchism and atheism have been closely linked in his mind, so, now, he can make no distinction between the Russian “nation” and Christianity itself. Even his belief in God is in a way contingent on this national idea.

Nikolai Vsevolodovich looked coldly at him. “I only wanted to know, do you believe in God, yourself?”

I believe in Russia… I believe in her orthodoxy… I believe in the body of Christ… I believe that the new advent will take place in Russia… I believe…” Shatov muttered frantically.

“And in God? In God?”

“I… I will believe in God.”


Would Jesus turn water into wine at a same-sex wedding?

Marie Antoinette must be ghostwriting editorials and judicial opinions now, because all we hear from the bench or on the internet these days is let them eat cake. Yes, today’s pundits and jurists can think of no more dangerous threat to democracy than a few confectioners who don’t want to provide same-sex couples with the flavorless monument to conspicuous consumption that is every American couple’s dream.

The cake is a lie

Bone of contention

Bone of contention

The “cake” meme is largely a smokescreen to portray religious people as being hung up on something that’s not a big deal, since usually the person who makes a wedding cake does not need to attend the wedding. But the threat of compulsion also extends to other constituents of the wedding-industrial complex such as photographers, caterers, florists, jewelers, property owners, website creators, innkeepers, musicians, journalists for the Style section, and whoever else is involved in inaugurating a modern family. Does a person who offers a service has no right to refuse that service to anyone, even if it means participating in an event that mocks a religious rite he holds sacred?

Of course, one can get married without all of these trappings. Religious ministers and justices of the peace are quite happy to authenticate a lawful marriage, with or without cake.

What would Jesus bake?

"What would Jesus bake?" Dana Ellyn, 2009

“What would Jesus bake?” Dana Ellyn, 2009

But I bring you no manifesto for alternative weddings and simpler lifestyles. I think same-sex couples can use all the help they can get in concealing the essential vacuity of their nuptuals. What bothers me is all the speculation about who Jesus would or would not bake a cake for.

As far as we know, Jesus never baked anything, although he made a lot of bread on a couple of occasions. But Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding, and that was no accident. Let’s look at John 2 (my paraphrase), where Jesus first outs himself as a miracle worker by helping people get tight.

On the third day of Jesus’s ministry as a teacher, both he and his mother were invited to a wedding in the town of Cana, and his disciples attended with him. When the wine ran out, Jesus’s mother came to him and told him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” His mother told the servants who were standing there, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now there were six large stone jars standing nearby which were used for the Jewish purification rites, each holding 20 to 30 gallons. Jesus said, “Fill them with water,” and the servants filled them each to the brim. “Now draw some out and take it to the master of ceremonies,” Jesus instructed them.

When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that had become wine (he did not know where it came from, although the servants knew) he called the bridegroom aside and chided him for a breach of etiquette. “Everyone serves the good wine first, then after the guests are tipsy they bring out the rougher stuff. But you have saved the good wine until now!”

Baptism of Christ Meister von DaphniThis story is doing a number of very symbolic things. First, in John’s gospel the story follows right after the story of Jesus’s baptism and calling his first disciples. It is his first miracle. Baptism is a Jewish purification ritual, and the prophet John was baptizing people who wanted to be cleansed from their sins and follow God. As Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s spirit descends on him. Thus, Jesus’s first miracle is a sort of self-referential pun. The waters of baptism are drawn out of the washbasins and become “spirits” through a mysterious action of grace.

Second, the master of ceremonies’ reaction upon tasting the wine shows that the bridegroom is the one responsible for the wine. This explains Jesus’s response to his mother informing him that there is no wine. On the face of it he seems to be saying “Not my party—not my problem.” But Jesus’s statement carries a double meaning. He doesn’t deny that he is a bridegroom, but he observes that the wedding has yet to take place. Mary’s response to Jesus is not to argue with him but to order the servants to do what he says. Mary and Jesus are communicating in a mutually understood language of symbolic riddles.

By turning the water into wine, Jesus shows who he is. He chooses a wedding for the scene of his first miracle, and puts the rituals of the Law of Moses to an unexpected and inebriating use.

Jesus is the bridegroom

The New Testament speaks of Jesus as a bridegroom, and his people, the Church, as a bride. It speaks of a wedding feast in the new Jerusalem at the end of days. In choosing a wedding as the scene of his first miracle, Jesus looks ahead to what he will accomplish through his life, death, and resurrection. When, at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them that he will not drink wine again until he sits down with them in his Father’s kingdom, he is thinking once more of that heavenly wedding on the eve of his most difficult trial.

Turning water into wine shows that Jesus has no problem with people having fun, and perhaps also shows that he was willing to help an embarrassed bridegroom save face. But the way the story is told shows that the real purpose of the miracle is to be a sign of who Jesus is and what he has come to do.

Would a same-sex wedding have been an equally significant setting for Jesus’s first miracle? Jesus expressed some clear opinions about marriage, such as when the religious teachers asked him about divorce: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). Whatever you may think of it from a practical or political standpoint, the theological definition of marriage involves one man and one woman (Jesus neatly excludes polygamy too, if you’re paying attention).

Cake-eater Kristen Powers may be right in one sense: there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a Christian baker making a tall white cake for a same-sex couple. Maybe by doing so the baker is showing the love of Jesus. Maybe not. Right or wrong, it’s just a cake. But she misses the point about the wedding, and about Jesus. What Jesus did at the wedding in Cana was miraculous, gratuitous, and transformative. His love is a gift. He challenges us to be washed in the waters of baptism and filled with the new wine of the Spirit.

Just as the wedding feast is a significant symbol in Jesus’s ministry, the marriage rite holds a sacred place in the hearts of his followers, some of whom make a living by baking cakes or taking pictures. Compelling them to violate their religion by participating in a ceremonial mockery of this symbolic celebration is a form of religious persecution.

So would Jesus  turn water into wine at a same-sex wedding? Perhaps a better question to ask is this:

Would his mother have asked him to?


Why we can’t outgrow church: an ecclesiology of suffering

Donald Miller responded to his critics today, suggesting that he is one of many Christian leaders he knows who, according to him, do not attend church. What a fascinating morsel of gossip, casually tossed to the salivating watchdogs. Tell us more, Don!

Besides being a petty example of the “but all my friends are doing it, Mom” excuse, this reasoning does little except to suggest one more reason evangelicalism is in trouble.

In yesterday’s post, I gave Miller a lot of credit, because I sympathize with his disillusionment over what seems to be the contemporary evangelical status quo. An intellectual briar patch! An aesthetic wasteland! A sacramental void! But there are alternatives to that besides giving up on church entirely, as I tried to suggest.

Miller’s latest essay is less sympathetic. Like a child who reacts against his parents’ culture, he rejects the outward forms and practices of American evangelicalism while retaining its worst premises and assumptions.

He evades his critics’ arguments from scriptural authority by essentially arguing to another authority, the vague authority of a kind of impressionistic structural critique of church institutions. He claims that they have tended to follow the shape of power in successive epochs, although to be honest I mostly lose track of his argument here.

But so what? And not every church has done this. The Roman Catholic church might be an impossibly archaic relic of bygone days, but at least it hasn’t attempted to drape itself seductively across the non-Euclidean contours of modernity, and it’s still rather popular.

But no, Miller says, change is a good thing. It’s appealing to your customer base, the American way! Give the consumer what he wants, and if his tastes change, change the product.

This would be fine except that the Church is not a product. It’s a Body, visibly manifested in the world in the form of Christians meeting together in “churches.” And I think evangelicals need to start taking baby steps back toward the idea that our participation in those churches is not entirely by choice, nor is the way those churches are structured and administered entirely open to alteration.

Division in the Church is a scourge, probably allowed by God to punish us for our sins against one another and chasten us into being better followers of Christ. I think it hurts Jesus more than it hurts us. It’s one of the reasons he died–to bring us back together in him, to repair the effects of sin that divides us within ourselves and from each other.

I also think we need to suffer with Jesus. We need to be in imperfect churches, with people who hurt us, so that we can emulate the Apostle Paul when he said:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church . . .” (Col. 1:24)

Paul knew churches that were doing it wrong–way wrong. He didn’t abandon those churches. Instead, he suffered so that they would repent and find unity. We need an ecclesiology of suffering.

What I see in Donald Miller’s essays, to speak crassly, is an ecclesiology of self-actualization. Church as a form of therapy. You can use it if it “works” for you, or not if it doesn’t.

It’s one thing for those who’ve been severely victimized by the church, or abusers in church disguise. You may need to find healing, embrace Jesus’s love for you, and learn to love yourself again before you can forgive and accept the church. On the other hand, the best place to find that healing may be within a healthy church.

But either way, the more spiritual, the more mature, the more like Jesus we are, the more willing and able we ought to be to suffer in and for the church. This is one primary way we connect with Jesus.

I don’t think I’ve yet tasted what it means to suffer in and for the church. But I believe that’s my calling as a baptized child of God, and I can’t escape it and stay in a relationship with Jesus. For me, Christianity is a dead letter without the church.


Donald Miller doesn’t need to go to church

Photo of Donald Miller (source: Twitter)

Christian author Donald Miller

I really like Donald Miller. He has a knack for encouraging people to follow their unique gifts. He understands how to talk about being a Christian without making people feel guilty. That’s why I appreciated his recent post: “I don’t worship God by singing. I connect with him elsewhere.”

The average church service, Miller says, doesn’t help him find a personal connection with God. For one thing, the average church service doesn’t do much for people who have more “visual” and “kinesthetic” learning styles, like Miller. It’s all mostly about hearing things—the worship band, the preacher.

Then Miller admitted that he doesn’t attend church often. That raised a lot of objections from people on Twitter: What about Christian community? What about fellowship and accountability with other believers? What about serving others?

The thing is, Miller already does those things. He has close Christian friends who hold him accountable. Isn’t that “Christian community?” He exercises his spiritual gifts by writing and teaching others and helping people develop their own callings. He has a blog and a Twitter feed where he communicates grace to people on a daily basis. Maybe Miller’s spirituality is just the postmodern, internet-enabled evolution of what we used to need church for. After all, cultural Christianity is dead.

Denny Burk (Image credit: Twitter)

Denny Burk

But maybe we shouldn’t let Don off the hook so easily. Bible professor Denny Burk writes:

Miller’s view of the church differs markedly from what we find in scripture. For him, the church is not defined by the preaching of the word and the right administration of the ordinances (e.g., Acts 2:42). Instead, the church is amorphous, “all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.” How different this is from the way that the Bible speaks of the church as local bodies of believers “who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). God is omnipresent, but the church is not. If you are not with a gathered community, you are not at church—despite Miller’s claim that the church is “all around us.” . . .

The New Testament pattern for gathered worship . . . involves the people of God coming together to enjoy the apostle’s [sic] teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). Gathering with God’s people like this isn’t an optional add-on to following Christ. It is part and parcel of being a disciple. To neglect this is to deny the faith altogether. In fact, John describes apostates as those who stop gathering with God’s people.

Burk also has a point. Christians shouldn’t neglect to meet together for “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship . . . the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The Bible is pretty clear about that. At the same time, who says that this has to happen within the institutional church setting?

I ask for the sake of argument, because I think Donald Miller’s critics are blind to what evangelical churches, the kind of churches Don is thinking of, have become. Many of them are almost entirely marginal to the Christian life, and in some cases worse than useless to the Christian who wants to grow in faith.

If church is about community, you can find community elsewhere.

In fact, you can create a community of your own. Reach out to lonely people who need love, and healthy people who have something to give.

If church is for learning about Jesus, you may learn better from books and podcasts.

The pastor of your local church is probably not John Stott, or Alistair Begg, or John MacArthur, or Tim Keller. He’s probably a man of slightly-above-average intelligence trying to balance his teaching responsibility with all of the other ministry he’s called to do. Not every Sunday is going to be an inspiring, enlightening experience.

If church is for fellowship with other Christians, you can do that in your home or at the coffee shop.

Even if your church has a fellowship meal after the service, a noisy room with your kids running around and climbing over the tables is not necessarily the best place for deep fellowship. Find or make places to meet with other Christians. You can do it anywhere, and you should!

If church is about experiencing God emotionally, it may not deliver the goods.

Even the amped-up, professional quality worship band of a megachurch may completely fail at inspiring people like Don, or me, who just don’t operate on that level. It’s more annoying and distracting than anything else. And by the way, the septuagenarian choir of the local UMC church singing “In the Garden” may be even more vexing. We may very well not experience God emotionally at any church.

If church is about listening to the Holy Spirit, you may do that better in a quiet room at home.

Maybe the amped-up worship band is drowning out God’s still, small voice. Maybe the chatter of toddlers in the back seat is harshing your prayerful mellow.

If church is about an aesthetic experience, you can go to an art gallery or a rock concert.

And they’ll do a better job.

If church is about discipling other Christians, you can start a small group or a teaching ministry.

Don Miller did this and has blessed a lot of people.

If church is for worshipping and praising God, you can do that anywhere.

Christian radio! Singing hymns with your family! Hiking in nature! Telling a friend about Jesus!

If church is for networking, you can do that somewhere else.

People used to join a church for the business connections, because it was the social hub of the community. Now, any given local church is peripheral to the community. There are dozens of other, more effective ways to network.

If church is for serving other Christians, you don’t need to go on Sunday.

Most of the serving that happens in a church community doesn’t happen on Sunday morning.

If church is for accountability and spiritual growth, you don’t need to go on Sunday.

In fact, you need to join a small group or find a group of friends for mutual encouragement, because Sunday morning is, again, not the best time to do that.

If church is for evangelizing the lost, it’s possibly the least efficient way to do that.

Maybe some of the church members or their children need to be converted, but most of you are sitting there because you already believe in Jesus.

If church is for submitting to the church elders, where do those elders derive their authority?

One tweeter mentioned that church is about “learning from elders” who are “shepherds for our souls.” But this raises the question: who are the elders? Is Donald Miller an elder? A lot of people feel more “shepherded” through his gracious ministry than by their local pastor.

What Donald Miller—and his critics—are missing about church

Ed Underwood tweets: “The point of preaching is difficult to define, but the point of churches [is] to build redemptive communities.” Going to church isn’t about whether you learn about God, it’s about being part of a community that is being redeemed and transformed by Jesus Christ. But “redemptive communities” are not absent from Donald Miller’s life. Indeed, his ministry is about fostering and nurturing gracious communities where people use their spiritual gifts to build each other up in love.

What Miller, and his critics, are missing about church—and what many of their churches are missing about church—is the central thing that ties all of these activities and concerns together.

Church isn’t about individuals being educated or obtaining an emotional experience. It’s also not about a social support network. It’s about a body—it is a Body. And as much as we should care about “the local church,” any particular local congregation is not that Body. All Christians, everywhere, who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are members of that Body (1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12).

So why should we care about the local, individual church congregation?

When a local church congregation meets together as a visible manifestation of the universal Body of the church, Jesus Christ is present. He becomes present in a special way, not in the way that He is always present for each of us through the Holy Spirit, but in a communal and sacramental way. Heaven is coming down to earth.

The way that Jesus makes Himself present to the gathered church congregation is through the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is not just something we do “because Jesus said so,” or to “remember” what He did for us. It is a “feast that makes his guest,” as George Herbert wrote. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is literally feeding us with the spiritual food of his body and blood, in the elements of the bread and wine.  In the liturgical prayers, we are participating in the eternal liturgy that is already going on in Heaven. In the reading and preaching of the Word, we are becoming participants in the story of God, and being taught by the apostles and prophets.

Painting by Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Churches that don’t believe these things, or don’t practice them regularly, need to think about whether their way of doing church is relevant or necessary in today’s world. All of those other priorities I described can be done outside of the gathered church community, and in some cases they can be done better.

A church community should be about all of those values and activities. But without the direct, connection to Jesus Christ feeding us through the liturgy of the Word and Sacraments, I agree with Donald Miller. Those things are peripheral to what is supposed to happen in church.

A thought about learning styles

Traditional liturgical worship is a lot more “visual” and “kinesthetic.” In fact, it engages pretty much every sense. We sing psalms and hymns with our voices. We listen to the Scriptures (and read along, if that helps). If our mind wanders during the sermon, we look around and see images that tell us about God in other ways. We move our bodies, taking a break from sitting to stand, kneel, or walk up the aisle to receive. We exchange greetings with others to remember that we are all part of one Body. We make symbolic gestures, such as the sign of the cross, or a reverential bow. We taste bread and wine and remember that Jesus is feeding us with his flesh and blood. We repeat some of the same prayers every week, so that they have a chance to really sink into our souls and transform the way we relate to God. Miller might appreciate stepping into a traditional Lutheran or Anglican church sometime and see whether our whole-body approach to worship suits his learning style better.

UPDATE: Go read “Donald Miller and the culture of contemporary worship” by Mike Cosper. Says what I was trying to say, only better.

Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light

C.S. Lewis on movie adaptations; also my Hobbit review

My wife and I went to see the second Hobbit film this afternoon. In many ways it was a fun movie, but it lacked, shall we say, the wonder of Tolkien’s imagination. It reminded my wife of this excellent bit from C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” in which he reflects on the problems involved in adapting literary adventure to the screen.

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins—not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went—only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death)–the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.

The female elf-warrior of the movie does not quite fit Lewis’s description of the “totally irrelevant woman in shorts,” but that whole action sequence, along with the overworked one involving molten gold under the mountain, seems to have been invented to fill hours that might have been better spent in enjoying Beorn’s hospitality or even observing the councils of the High Elves, who were entirely missing from this episode.

Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light

The Hobbit needed more of this, less pinball physics (credit:

All that said, the second Hobbit was probably better than other recent action movies and not a terrible way to spend a few hours, so you might as well go see it.

Image: outline of a cannabis leaf

The Eternal Adolescence of the Libertarian Mind

There is a time in a young man’s life when Reason, the pure, demanding goddess, awakens, shining in her dawn with all the certainty of early faith.

As he matures, other voices arise to balance Reason’s demands, lest she drive him to inhuman lengths of rationalization. Reason should not be a master; she is a servant who does her best work in the cause of Truth and Love.

Not long ago, when I was a young teenager, I became a Calvinist through participating in online forums, which I think is also where most young libertarians are minted. The guiding principle of Calvinism is God’s total sovereignty over all that is and everything that happens. Libertarianism’s hardly less absolute doctrine is the utter sovereignty of the individual over himself, and the injustice of all forms of compulsion.

Looking back, I have been able to moderate my Calvinism, even to the point of admitting the reality of human free agency. In the same way, most young libertarians mature as they gain experience with other people and the world they live in. Opinions mellow rather than changing entirely.

But some never grow up.

This week, Catholic libertarian journalist Tim Carney wrote an endorsement of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, pointing out the Attorney General’s consistent stance on personal and economic freedom issues, even to the point of opposing big business interests who collude with the government, opposing busybody laws like smoking bans, suing the Feds over the unaffordable healthcare bill, and being guardedly open to legalizing marijuana.

Predictably, Internet libertarians tried to hack Carney to pieces. They claim the candidate is dangerous on “social issues.”

Image: outline of a cannabis leaf

The Libertarian Sacrament

These libertarians have all the depth of teenage potheads, and are almost as feeble-minded. They are remarkably gullible. They are always credulously repeating left-wing slanders against conservatives who supposedly want to “ban” contraception, as if that were even a remote political possibility. They are unserious and dishonest.

As Carney points out, libertarians seem content to throw away tangible political goods for imaginary hypothetical gains. Robert Sarvis will never get enough votes to give Virginia libertarians a strong third-party influence; meanwhile, in effectively voting for Terry McAuliffe, libertarians will serve themselves a nice big dose of the cronyism, taxes, and corruption they hate.

Lying, cheating, and slandering are the well-known tools of today’s Left, which has no principles besides a desire to consolidate all powers in a war against good. Libertarianism, though, is based on principles, and one of these is the principle of prudence. The fractious, self-destructive libertarian attitude is especially unbecoming.

If Libertarians wish to gain more political influence and respect, they are doing it wrong. Libertarian hero Ron Paul had the right idea. By staying in the Republican Party, he slowly developed a libertarian grassroots GOP base in Virginia, as we saw in the 2011 Republican presidential primary, where he gathered a significant minority of the vote. I voted for him myself.

This is the reason the Tea Party or the Christian Right is so scary to the Left: They have strategically decided to work within the Republican establishment to nudge the party in a certain direction. They pick fights and make a stink about the issues, but they also usually play ball and deliver the votes. With patience and realism, libertarians too could be winners in this game.

But the libertarian imagination is in a state of arrested development, occupying a merely imaginary world, unable to embrace the personal realities of society and politics.

It is true that the two-party system is flawed and corrupt. But to separate from a party does nothing but nullify any influence you might have had within it. I admire, in theory, the multi-party parliamentary systems of Europe, with their coalition governments formed through alliances of larger parties with smaller, issue-based voting blocs. Greens, Socialists, and far-right groups are not entirely shut out of the political process, as they more or less are in the U.S. But our situation is different. Until we rewrite our constitution, wishing we could be a European republic is a waste of time.

Another difference with American splinter groups is that they tend to be in the thrall of sexual ideology to a degree that their Continental counterparts are not. A French socialist can be strongly pro-family, oppose abortion and marriage revisionism without being ostracized. In America, it is practically impossible to have any kind of respect as a Green, a socialist, or even a Libertarian, without speaking the required shibboleths of abortion “rights” and “gay marriage.” This extremism drives away people of strong morals who would otherwise be sympathetic to the party’s central concerns.

Let us be honest. “Social issues” is the evasive Libertarian code for Cuccinelli’s sincerely-held traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality, and the Libertarian opposition to those beliefs. They appear to think that opposing Cuccinelli’s religious beliefs is even more important than making progress toward the positive libertarian value of personal freedom.

The essence of this kind of libertarianism is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

These libertarians are Russell Kirk’s chirping sectaries. They are the cracked reeds of the political swamp, distinguished only by the noise of their continual chatter.

The writer does not hereby endorse any political candidate or party.

Essays, criticism and other fun stuff for hipsters, conservatives, or both.