Category: The Way of All the Earth

Which transformationalism?

September 25th, 2011 — 7:34pm

Reading through George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, I came across an interesting comment about late 19th-century Christian transformationalism; it helps, I think, to distinguish genuinely Reformed transformationalism from the civil religion and/or social gospel with which it is frequently confused:

“Americans were easily persuaded that their nation was destined to lead the way in . . . cultural advances. By the Revolution many evangelicals were already loudly proclaiming that the triumph of the American cause and of American principles was a sign of the kingdom [of God]. The spiritual hope was thus partly secularized and nationalized as the American civil religion was born. At the same time, however, the American experiment and the continuing efforts for cultural reform and progress were to a degree Christianized. The idea of transforming the culture fit well with the Calvinist Puritan tradition, but the idea of ‘Christianizing’ the culture never turned out to be as simple as supposed. In some areas – such as the campaign against slavery – evangelicals succeeded somewhat in transforming the culture by Christian standards. In other areas, just as certainly, the culture – with its materialism, capitalist competitiveness and nationalism – helped shaped [sic] American Christianity. Seemingly oblivious to this distinction at the time, evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom.”

This illustrates (and it is too often ignored) that without a robust biblicism undergirding the transformationalist project (i.e., a view of the Bible that takes its authority and truthfulness absolutely seriously), there is no standard for determining whether “progress” is in a Christianizing or secularizing direction.

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Carter hits a homerun

September 1st, 2011 — 4:28pm

Kudos to Joe Carter over at First Things for this article. Exceptionally well said.

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Christianity that lasts

May 12th, 2011 — 3:10pm

I’ve recently been reading Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died. A very eye-opening work, with all sorts of contemporary relevance.

To illustrate, here’s a history lesson the church today would do well to ponder: Jenkins asks why the Christian church in North Africa simply disappeared in the wake of the Muslim invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, while the Christian church in Egypt has survived to this day and even flourished under Muslim rule. He offers this telling proposal (p. 35):

“The key difference making for survival is . . . how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed [emphasis mine]. The Egyptian church succeeded wonderfully in this regard, while the Africans failed to make much impact beyond the towns. While the Egyptians put the Christian faith in the language of the ordinary people, from city dwellers through peasants, the Africans concentrated only on certain categories, certain races. Egyptian Christianity became native; its African counterpart was colonial. This difference became crucial when a faith that was formed in one set of social and political arrangements had to adapt to a new world. When society changed, when cities crumbled, when persecution came, the faith would continue in one region but not another.”

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A footnote

May 3rd, 2011 — 11:32am

In my sermon this past Sunday, I referenced a story about the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the exact provenance of which I had not bothered to research. A dear friend (who shall remain nameless lest I embarrass him) subsequently sent me a link to Benjamin B. Warfield’s account of the story. Those who heard the sermon will note that I got a few details wrong, but the substance is there. Here’s the pertinent paragraph from Warfield:

“What is ‘the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism’? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ On receiving the countersign, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’ – ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!’ ‘Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,’ was the rejoinder.”

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Black Death and modern man

February 17th, 2011 — 10:33am

I’m currently reading through Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Her work came to me highly recommended, and now that I’m into it, I have no difficulty seeing why. Here’s a sample of the way she probes the connections between that troubled period and our own (hence the “distant mirror”):

“Survivors of the plague [she is closing out a chapter on the Black Death], finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

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To speak of Men

February 2nd, 2011 — 7:06am

“But to speak of Men. Some will say this and some that; but most, thinking little, will ever hold that what is in their brief span in the world has ever been so, and shall so ever remain, whether they like it or no. But there are some that think otherwise; men call them ‘Wise’, but heed them little.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” in Morgoth’s Ring)

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On calendars

November 30th, 2010 — 5:39pm

“There are about forty different calendar systems currently in use in the world. Some of these systems replicate astronomical cycles according to fixed rules, others are based on abstract, perpetually repeating cycles of no astronomical significance. Some carefully and redundantly enumerate every unit of passing time, others contain mystical ambiguities and metaphysical discontinuities. Some are codified in written laws while others are transmitted by oral tradition.

“The common theme of each system is the desire to organize the calendar to satisfy the needs and preoccupations of society. Besides simply serving the obvious practical purposes, this process of organization provides a sense, however illusory, of understanding and managing time itself. Thus calendars have provided the basis for planning agricultural, hunting, and migration cycles, for divination and prognostication, and for maintaining cycles of religious and civil events. Whatever their scientific sophistication, or lack thereof, calendars are essentially social covenants, not scientific measurements.” (George Grant and Gregory Wilbur, introduction to The Christian Almanac)

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A day that changed the world

August 24th, 2010 — 9:17am

For those who care about such things (and shouldn’t we all?), today marks the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths.

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London and Mecca

August 12th, 2010 — 1:42pm

Muslims understand what many Christians do not: that to answer the question “What time is it?” is to define the history of the world; and that to impose one’s answer to this question is to shape the destiny of the world. For over a century, the world has set its clocks by a tower in a former center of Christendom; will it soon be setting its clocks by a tower at the center of worldwide Islam (article here)? Symbolic victories are victories, make no mistake about it; and the one religion on the planet with a serious program for world conquest (since Christendom went all soft and pluralistic) is set to pull off a coup.

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Beginning stages

June 22nd, 2010 — 3:45pm

“Who can say that Christianity has had the time to translate the totality of its contents into institutions? I have the impression that instead we are still at the beginning stages of Christianity.” (Rémi Brague, The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, p. 22)

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