Finding the Right Hills to Die On: Gavin Ortlund’s Case for Theological Triage

Do you know how to diagnose theological controversy, and treat it well? Author Gavin Ortlund helps us to figure this out.

Wearing masks in church? Vaccinations? What about critical race theory? Racism? QAnon? The Election!! I try to be optimistic, but it seems like Christians have had a lot of opportunities to divide over many different issues in 2021, many of them with theological underpinnings (The challenges of trying to do “online church” for over a year has not helped matters). Finding the right hill(s) to die on is not easy. I have my own story to tell about theological controversy, but it goes back a few years.

However, before I jump into that, I need to issue a disclaimer: It is very tempting, in the face of intractable theological disputes (or political disputes among Christians) to either run off into a corner, and cut yourself off from other people, and double-down on your viewpoint. It is also tempting to try to “church hop,” in order to find another expression of Christian faith that suits you better…. only to find that your new church has a lot of the same problems as your old church did, just framed in a different way.

Yet perhaps the most difficult temptation is to become cynical, and simply get disgusted when theological controversy arises, over a matter that you find to be somewhat trivial, over-hyped, or perhaps destructive, or even downright stupid, but that someone else considers to be super-important. Of course, there is the other side to this: someone ELSE might strongly disagree with YOU, because they think the issue is really super-important, and they find it frustrating that you do not seem to understand the gravity of the issue! After all, the same Jesus who loves the whole world is also the same Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple, challenging the complacent! So, maybe you SHOULD be more concerned about the issue being discussed!!

An extreme example of the temptation to become cynical can be found in Abraham Piper’s recent TikTok videos. Abraham Piper is a son of John Piper, one of evangelicalism’s most well-known pastors. At age 19, Abraham was excommunicated from his church, then tried to return later, only eventually to walk away from the faith. In the meantime, Abraham Piper has since become a multi-millionaire making jigsaw puzzles. He also has a TikTok page, with over 900 thousand followers, (compare that to his famous pastor/father, who has a 1 million Twitter followers) where a number of Abraham’s videos flesh out how he has deconstructed his faith on subjects ranging from “Almost nobody believes in a literal hell,” “If you’ve ever quit a religion, did you become something else?”, “If you still live with evangelical parents,” and “Three times Jesus stole stuff from people.”

Provocative stuff, for sure. But pretty sad in the end.

By the grace of God, I have not gone to such major extremes, with any of these temptations, and I certainly would not encourage them in others. When Christians double-down on their beliefs, or church-hop to get away from other Christians who do not see things exactly the same way, or who walk away completely and give into cynicism, the result is usually bitterness and resentment towards others, and that is never healthy. However, I can see how a lack of honest conversation, preventing people from expressing their questions and doubts in a non-confrontational way, can drive people to go to certain extremes. Finding the right hills to die on is not a very easy thing to figure out. Raising questions and doubts can sound scary when theological controversy surfaces, but they need not prompt conversation partners to automatically go into “freak out” mode when controversy arises. I would like to share my own brief story, and offer a positive resource I have found for working through such difficulties.

Why Splits in Churches and/or Other Christian Fellowships Can Be Nerve-Racking

Perhaps this will sound like a rant, but it is a pet peeve of mine: There are certainly times where Christians do need to separate from church bodies and/or other Christian fellowships, when they have lost their way spiritually or morally, drifting into theological error. However, there are other times when Christians can divide over matters that during the time of crisis seemed all-important and ultra-critical. However, looking back on the controversies months or years later, we realize that such controversies were far too overblown, doing more harm than good.

Here is my story: It was the 1980s and I was a campus leader in my small college Christian fellowship group. The charismatic movement swept through my group and I was caught right in the middle. Two of my dearest friends, who both helped to disciple me, took opposing perspectives in the controversy.

One of them, who later married a wonderful gal I had dated in college, had taken me to a charismatic prayer meeting. For a guy like me, growing up in a liberal mainstream Protestant background, I was dumbfounded when people started to speak in tongues all around me. My friend helped to establish me in having a regular “quiet time” with the Lord, using the Dake Annotated Bible, a popular Pentecostal study Bible in those days (Though I must confess I found myself buried more often in reading Finis Jennings Dake’s notes, as opposed to just focusing on the text of Scripture itself… but that is another topic for another time).

My other friend, who helped to answer a lot of my spiritual questions while I did my laundry, was one of the most passionate defenders of biblical inerrancy… a real stickler for clinging to the text of the Bible. He had been kicked out of a charismatic Bible study, for asking too many questions, and was told never to come back. To say that he “disliked” the “charismatic movement” would be an understatement. He firmly believed that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate after the last of the first century apostles had died. Once the New Testament was completed, the church had no more need for such miraculous gifts. In his mind, speaking in tongues in our modern era has continued to be all about promoting deception in the church.

Both of my friends truly sought to love Jesus, but they had a difficult time getting along with one another. Trying to find common ground between my two friends was like trying to get my dog to get along with another neighbor’s dog. It was exceedingly difficult. And the rancor disturbed our whole fellowship group. Most people simply tried to stay on the sidelines, adopting more of a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” approach, but that did not go over very well either.

After my friends both graduated from my school, the controversy erupted among the followers my two friends left behind. As a campus Christian leader, I was simultaneously accused of “quenching the Spirit” by one party and of “smuggling charismatic deception” into the group, by another party. Weeks of meeting with people who had gotten their perspectives out of joint eventually produced some good fruit, and many relationships were eventually restored. We got through the crisis, but this was not terribly unlike the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” parties that have divided churches in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

I really hated being in the middle of this theological controversy, which was also a controversy of different personalities. Nevertheless, theological controversy is just something that Christians, particularly Protestant evangelicals, simply do and have from time to time. The question is how do we navigate such treacherous waters. Trying to figure out which battles to fight and which battles to lay aside requires gaining a lot of wisdom, a process that I must honestly (and personally) admit can be pretty hard to discern.

Gavin Ortlund’s Helpful Resource for Doing Theological Triage

That is why I took a great interest in Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, put out by the Gospel Coalition and Crossway books. It is a pretty short yet powerfully succinct book, that elaborates on Al Mohler’s theological triage model, discussed in a previous Veracity blog post. Another helpful resource in this category is Andy Naselli’s and J.D. Crowley’s book on the Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, also reviewed here on Veracity.

Gavin Ortlund outlines, as I would frame it, basically four orders of theological issues, faced by Christians:

  • First rank issues:  These would be theological issues that are “essential to the gospel.” For example, if someone denies the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, or the necessity of believing that Jesus died for our sins, then these would be issues serious enough for a Christian to leave a church and seek a new fellowship.
  • Second rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).
  • Third rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church.”
  • Fourth rank issues: These would be teachings that are “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).

The ranking system that Ortlund uses is reasonable enough. The problem comes in trying to figure out what doctrines fit in which ranking. This is where the “triage” part comes in, where being able to diagnose which issues belong in which category requires some wisdom and forethought.

Starting from the bottom up is easiest for me to process. A good example of a fourth rank issue is about where the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians from. My lead pastor holds the view that Paul wrote these letters while in a prison in Rome. This is the predominant view among many scholars as well. But I disagree with my pastor on this one, as I find the case for Paul having been in an Ephesian jail, when writing these letters, as more convincing. But is this dispute weighty enough for me to leave the church? No, of course not. The average Christian probably might yawn, and say, “Who cares?“, and for the most part, they would be right. The theological ramifications involved are in the category of indifferent.

However, there are other issues that are important, but neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church. Like Gavin Ortlund believes, issues such as the age of the earth, and the timing sequence of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus, including the nature of millennium, are surely important, but they are neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church.

It is the second rank category that most troubles me. Yes, there are issues that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” But I find that the category of urgent is far more elusive and slippery than what counts as essential and non-essential. For example, Gavin Ortlund is a credo-baptist, believing that believer’s baptism for adults should be a doctrinal standard for the church, while generally accepting previous receivers of infant baptism as members in his church; that is, infant baptism is “improper, yet valid.”

Ortlund therefore places the nature of baptism in the category of a second rank issue. It is urgent for the church, and it has an impact on how a local church governs itself.

But as someone in an interdenominational church, who values the diversity of different church backgrounds, I am not convinced that baptism necessarily belongs in that second rank category. As I experienced in my college years, I found it valuable to look for common ground, and cling to that, for the sake of the unity of the fellowship, while honoring that a subset of the group, or particular individuals, might hold to one particular perspective rather strongly. To that end, I find it worth it to try to keep the category of second rank issues as small as possible, and move as many issues as possible down into the third rank category. Ideally, I would hope that the second rank category can be squeezed down to basically nothing….However, that is not always practical.

The issue of baptism, to me, can fit within a third rank category, as long as there is a genuine commitment to find common ground. For example, both proponents of credo-baptism (adult believers baptism) and paedo-baptism (infant baptism) can agree that adults can be baptized. So, it surely makes sense that you can have adult, believer’s baptisms in a Sunday morning worship service.

But it is also reasonable NOT to have infant baptism performed during a Sunday morning worship service, lest you disturb the consciences of those credo-baptists, who do not find paedo-baptism to be legitimate. Instead, if someone wants to have their infant child baptized, then why not have a private, at-home service, or part of a small group experience, as long as a pastor is willing to perform such a baptism?

Such a solution sounds acceptable to me, but this may not satisfy the need for clarity that a pastor like Gavin Ortlund would have for a local congregation. Being content with having a “common-ground” solution, with allowances for practices that fit an individual’s or a small group’s consciences, may not satisfy a local church’s desire for consistent doctrine and practice across the entire church fellowship.  There are those for whom a “common-ground” solution would not be good enough, coming across to some as being too restrictive and over-emphasizing conformity, while others would protest that not enough uniformity in church doctrine and practice can lead to other problems in the life of the local church.

The two areas that stick out for me, where this would be most problematic, is in the charismatic movement controversy, as exemplified by the introductory anecdote from my years in college; and in the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, particularly regarding whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church, in terms of governance of the church.

Some local churches do have a commitment to look for “common-ground,” while honoring issues of conscience, whereas other churches will find certain conflicting applications of conscience to be unworkable, in a local church. For example, speaking in tongues in a corporate worship service, in an interdenominational church, is not a workable solution, as that would not be pursuing a “common-ground” approach, though it might be very permissible to allow speaking in tongues in a small group Bible study, in the same church.

The various complexities surrounding the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” debates have taught me over the last year that the quest for unity can often be elusive when dealing with “urgent” matters, where the coronavirus controversies do fit within that second-rank category. Compound all of this with seemingly endless controversies regarding critical race theory and racism on the left, and nutty QAnon conspiracy theorizing on the right, have left many churches struggling for maintaining bonds of fellowship and unity. The craziness of 2020 led apologist Natasha Crain to call this “disagreement fatigue,” and I think that is a good way to put it. Finding “common-ground” is not always easily found.

For example, I know of Christians who refuse to wear masks and/or refuse to get vaccinated, based on some moral principle. They will cite their “freedom in Christ” as a reason why they should follow their conscience on this matter. But if someone is in church leadership, and they hold to this position, they also need to realize that their exercise of freedom is not beneficial to those other believers, whom for whatever reason, are unable to take the vaccine. Such vulnerable persons will likely not feel safe to stay in such a church. If the exercise of someone’s “freedom in Christ,” particularly in leadership, causes another fellow believer in Jesus to feel like the only path they can reasonably take is out the exit of the church door, then that tells me that such a church needs to rethink what it means to truly follow one’s conscience. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught me, is that I have a greater appreciation now for why some churches implement theological triage that includes the value of second-rank categories of controversy.

I just wish we did not have to be so distracted by such second-rank category issues, as I believe they keep us from focusing on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission, to make disciples of all of the nations. But alas, that is just the nature of things, in our social media driven world today.

Gavin Ortlund has a helpful YouTube channel, where he tries put of lot his theological triage philosophy into practice, by in particular inviting Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons into conversations, in an attempt to find common ground with his own Protestant evangelical tradition, and the other major historic Christian faith movements. It is worth taking a look at the Truth Unites channel to see how he does it.

In the following video, Gavin Ortlund applies some of the insights from Finding the Right Hills to Die On to the discussion of the millennium, making the case that the millennium is a third-rank doctrine, and not a first or second-rank doctrine. So, I appreciate Gavin’s graciousness towards others, even in areas of disagreement, which is a big reason I consider Finding the Right Hills to Die On to be an excellent resource for working through issues of Christian conscience, within the context of a local church.

 


Hans Küng: Dissent

Hans Küng, an influential and controversial Swiss Roman Catholic priest and theologian, has died this week at age 93. Hans Küng, was the youngest theologian to participate during the 1960s at Vatican II , a most remarkable event of the 20th century, that sought to bring Roman Catholicism into a more robust dialogue with the modern world. Küng was an avid proponent of such reforms, though many Roman Catholic faithful believed that he had gone too far, as evidenced by Pope John Paul’s censure of  Küng, when the latter directly challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility (among other things).

Hans Küng, popular yet maverick liberal theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, as a young priest and spokesperson at Vatican II.

My introduction to Hans Küng was through one of his many writings, namely his widely popular 1974 book On Being a Christian, that my mother had bought. On Being a Christian was one of the first theological books I read cover-to-cover during my senior year in high school, about a year after Küng had been officially censured by the Pope. My mom’s copy of the 700+ page book is filled with my vigorous underlining with a red pen. It was a fascinating dive into many of the things of which I had questions about, in what it really meant to be a Christian, soon after I had read through the New Testament, for the first time. From Küng I learned about the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and different theologies of the cross.  It was startling to realize that a great deal of what Christians often believe comes from tradition first-and-foremost, and only secondarily from a close examination of the Scriptures, and Küng was direct enough to say that. On Being a Christian ranks as one of most sweeping and accessible theological classics of the 20th century. Most of the more heavy topics went way over my high school teenage head, but it impressed me that Küng avoided dense theological jargon, making it a very engaging read. I was most impressed by Küng’s conviction that ‘Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, finally authoritative, decisive, archetypal, is what makes Christianity what it really is’ (p. 174)

Nevertheless, I soon realized that Küng was a maverick and progressive liberal when I got to his chapters regarding the possibility of salvation outside of the church. Previously, the 16th-century Council of Trent was clear enough: “no salvation outside of the church,” and that meant that Protestants were all roasting away in you-know-where.

Now, Vatican II had settled on a “concentric circle” approach to how far salvation might extend towards non-Roman Catholics. Of course, Roman Catholics were at the center of the circle, whereas Protestants, like myself, were in the next circle outside of that, being “separated brethren.” Other circles were added at different levels to accommodate those of other religions and even atheists. The basic idea was that the closer you were to the center of those circles, the higher the likelihood you might be saved, and the farther away you were from the center, the less likely you would be saved.

Küng’s approach, however, took me by surprise, adding a twist to the official position of Vatican II. He suggested that various Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. could indeed be saved, as long as they were faithful to their own various religious traditions. This seemed to me to push back against the very uncompromising teaching of the Bible, as taught in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Perhaps God might find ways to reach others who have yet to hear the Gospel, through means that we in our limited human perspective can not fully understand, such as through dreams, etc. But Küng’s approach, that sought to honor the religious efforts and good works of non-believers, appeared to undermine the very principle of Scriptural bedrock teaching, that we are not saved by our religious efforts, but rather by the gracious and saving work of Christ alone.

On top of that, I read Küng’s most confusing section about the resurrection. While Küng affirmed a belief in “resurrection,” he simultaneously rejected the empty tomb. How Küng was able to reconcile that belief with the witness of Scripture was beyond me (see Richard Bauckam’s review of Küng’s seminal work).

Though well-intentioned, it has always appeared to me that progressive attempts to “modernize” Christianity, to make the faith more palatable to contemporary sensibilities, do so at a cost of diluting some of the great foundation truth claims of historically orthodox Christianity. This is true, not only of the Protestant mainline tradition, in which I was raised, but also in progressive elements of Roman Catholicism, the theological home where Küng dwelt. So, it really was not a surprise that then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), who had once been a close ally and friend of Küng’s at Vatican II, later sought to aid in Pope John Paul II’s censure of Küng, believing that Küng had simply gone too far.

I have a copy of Küng’s memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom, that a friend has given me, that I had been hoping to read one day, before Küng died. Alas, this did not happen. Küng did much to help Vatican II, as a reform movement within Roman Catholicism, to succeed as well as it has, and his positive contributions, of which there are many, deserve such hearty recognition. For example, Küng was extraordinarily gifted, being one of the first Roman Catholic theologians to address a group of prominent astrophysicists on the relationship between faith and science. Küng was also prominent in starting a dialogue between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians over the nature of justification, breaking the ice in a conversation that had been stalled for over 400 years. Küng was also outspoken in his views regarding priestly celibacy, as he understood the mandated practice as being against Scripture and contrary to the historic tradition of the church. He also criticized Rome’s ethical policy that prohibited artificial birth control.

However, Küng’s tendency in certain other areas to push historic, orthodox boundaries to the breaking point serves as a painful lesson to anyone who believes that you can simply rewrite fundamental doctrines of the faith, and pretend that you are somehow still “preserving” the faith once handed down to the saints, over the centuries.

It simply does not work.

A “faith” that merely pretends is merely wishful thinking that lacks any substance behind it. Both the faithful in the churches and critics outside of Christianity will see through a supposed “faith” that pretends certain things to be true, when in fact, they are not. Dissent, when it effectively serves to undermine orthodoxy, produces more confusion and mindless wishful thinking than anything else. However, dissent, when properly engaged to steer the church back onto its proper course, is something to be commended. May the positive elements of Küng’s dissent be remembered more than his negative elements of dissent.

Other prominent influencers in the Christian movement have also died within the past month, but who were significantly more orthodox and less controversial in their thinking than Küng. John Polkinghorne (1930-2021) was a world-class, Cambridge-trained physicist, who shocked his colleagues when he left the world of science to embark on a path towards Christian ministry in the Anglican church. Polkinghorne’s work to integrate science with Christian faith has helped many Christians reconcile what many others believe is irreconcilable.

Argentinian evangelist Luis Pulau (1934-2021) was in many ways the “Billy Graham” of Latin America, who preached the Gospel to millions, and who became a unifying figure for evangelical Protestants all across Latin America, in the latter half of the 20th century. I will never forget hearing Luis Pulau speak at Urbana 1984, when he addressed the vexing topic of Christianity and other religions, one of the topics that so energized Hans Küng. Pulau reminded his listeners, including me, that there is a good answer for those who worry about the salvation of those who have yet to hear the Gospel:  Genesis 18:25 asks, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Luis Pulau’s answer was a resounding “YES,” and that has been good enough me.

The following illuminating 2009 interview with Hans Küng, before he became debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, while Benedict was still Pope, gives a flavor of Küng the man, Roman Catholic critic, and thinker.


Franklin Graham Supports COVID Vaccinations…. And Gets “Cancelled” For It By Some of His Followers?

I just got my first COVID-19 Moderna vaccine.

Some of my Christian friends, however, are a bit nervous about the vaccines. Sure, there are genuine concerns. But most of these concerns, upon closer examination, are unwarranted.

Hesitancy about using vaccines has a variety of factors behind it. A March 2021 Pew Research study observes that about 33% of Black Protestant Christians are wary of taking a COVID vaccine. The same study observes that about 45% of White Evangelical Christians are either cautious or dead set against any COVID vaccine.

So it comes as no surprise that when Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, and an influential spokesperson for many evangelical Christians today, announced his support for taking COVID vaccines, the reaction from some of his most ardent followers was swift and furious. Like Graham, I have relatives in my family line who served as medical missionaries, where the administration of vaccines have saved countless numbers of lives. Nevertheless, some denounced Graham as promoting a “devilish lie.” Some of Graham’s critics believe that taking the vaccine is a sign of taking “the mark of the beast.” However, a careful reading of Scripture shows that taking “the mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation, is a loyalty oath, and not something that can be forced upon someone by someone else. It would appear that bad interpretation of the Bible is just as much a pandemic as is COVID-19.

Furthermore, when people use Bible passages like 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“Do you not know that you body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…“), that is really a misuse of the Bible. You might as well decline the use of any modern medicine, if you plan to be consistent with that way of thinking. Paul even recommended that Timothy take some wine to remedy the latter’s health ailments (1 Timothy 5:23). So it seems odd for Paul to suggest that if he really had in mind a prohibition against all forms of medicine.

Others are hesitant about such vaccines because of suspicions about government programs.

Others are unsure, because as in the case of the Moderna vaccine that I took, these mRNA vaccines are so new and have not been tested across millions and millions of people. However, the mRNA vaccine technology is not as new as people think, having undergone a number of other successful test trials in other applications over the past several decades.

Then there is the long held distrust of the medical establishment by the “anti-vax” movement, which is totally against vaccines of any and all kinds.

Critics of vaccines do have at least one point to make in their arguments, and it is an important one: No vaccine is entirely risk free.

When I went to get my vaccine, I was asked a whole list of questions, to make sure I was the right candidate to receive the vaccine. Not everyone should take the vaccine, because of certain side effects. But the percentage of people who should not take the vaccine is very, very small. For most people who do experience side effects, those side effects are relatively mild and do not last for long. If people have questions about their use of a vaccine, they should consult their doctor. If their doctor does not offer good answers to these questions, then that might be a strong signal suggesting that it is time to find a new doctor.

But while no vaccine is entirely risk free, that is true with just about everything in life. I know of many people who think nothing of it to hop into a car, and drive across town to run an errand or go to work. However, the likelihood of getting into a life-threatening automobile accident is orders of magnitude higher than is experiencing a life-threatening injury from a vaccine. Still, I see thousands of people driving in their automobiles all of the time. Furthermore, taking a COVID vaccine is much, much safer than being exposed to the COVID virus itself.

I have come to learn that vaccine hesistancy is not just an American evangelical Christian thing. A large percentage of secular Europe is more skeptical of vaccines than is the American evangelical Christian community. I have also seen paranoia at the other extreme, too, where some people are so freaked out by COVID-19, that they will wear a mask while driving in their car…. even though no one else is with them!!

Yesterday, Christians in the West celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus, along with the hope of Christ coming once again to right all wrongs and heal all diseases. Yet unless Jesus returns in the near future, the likelihood is that mass COVID vaccination programs will continue to be effective in reducing the pandemic, and life should return to a more regular pattern of normalcy.

COVID will never fully go away. Yet the same is true about the 1919 Spanish Flu, based on the N1H1 virus, that killed millions of people, in the wake of World War One, a century ago. Descendants of the 1919 N1H1 virus still exist today, though they typically come in a more muted and less deadly form. Still, getting a yearly flu shot goes a long way towards making the flu more of a nuisance and less deadly than it was when 50 million people died a hundred years ago, when fewer treatment options and no effective vaccines were available then.

Aside from the health factors, Christians really should support COVID-19 vaccination, for the simple reason that such decisions impact their witness to the truth of the Gospel. For if Christians get the reputation that they are highly susceptible to conspiracy-thinking that goes against science, then the next generation of young people will be only more and more inclined to judge the Christian faith itself as yet just another conspiracy theory that should be rejected.

Let us help our young people have more confidence in the truth of the Gospel… and not less.


Passion Week Devotionals for Mind and Heart …. In a Pandemic Year

Greetings on this Psalm Sunday! A year ago, much of the world was in COVID-19 pandemic mode. A year later, while conditions have improved, there are still many whose Passion Week experience is still relegated to watching stuff on Zoom, YouTube, and Vimeo. For this week, I have dug up a set of online video devotionals, put out by Justin Taylor of Crossway Publishers and the Gospel Coalition, one 3-4 minute video per day, that will help anyone think through the events of Jesus’ last week, before his Crucifixion and Resurrection.  In each segment, an evangelical New Testament scholar walks us through the events each day, giving us a deeper sense of what Holy Week is all about, to inform our life of prayer.

Of course, I am following the Western calendar, but my Eastern Orthodox friends can follow this in a month when they celebrate Pascha (Easter) on May 2nd!  I pray that these devotionals, for head and heart, will edify you:

Psalm Sunday:

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Holy Monday:

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Holy Tuesday:

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Holy Wednesday (some call it “Spy Wednesday”):

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Maundy Thursday:

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Good Friday:

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Black Saturday:

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Easter Sunday:


The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Carl Trueman on Our Cultural Crisis … and “Mr.” Potato Head??

Who am I?” A profound yet difficult question. How does one go about trying to answering it?…. and what does this all have to do with “Mr” and/or “Mrs” Potato Head?

A generation ago, the thought of “a woman being trapped in a man’s body” was commonly rejected as unthinkable silly talk. Such a thought was judged to be simply incoherent.

Today, the idea that anyone can simply define their own gender, as an expression of one’s self, is quite normal, in many social, political, business, and educational institutions. Three examples come to mind to illustrate this:.

  • Among ordinary Americans: A 2020 Gallup poll shows that 1 in 6 Americans, between the ages of 18 and 23, consider themselves to be somewhere in the “LGBTQ” category, as opposed to 1 in 50 Americans, ages 56 and older.
  • In politics: In the month that I am writing this post (March, 2021), the U.S. Senate is considering a bill, already passed in the House of Representatives, called “The Equality Act,” that would enable sweeping changes in current law, regarding how schools, employers, religious-affiliated institutions, and even parents of children handle such questions of self-identity.
  • In business: A book that features testimonies from trans-persons who later regretted pursuing gender reassignment surgeries, or other medical procedures, Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally, was delisted from the world’s largest book seller, Amazon.com, as Amazon says that the book violates their company policy, which prohibits them from selling books that “frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.

That first example alone blows my mind every time I think about it. So, how did this radical perception of the self change so rapidly within such a short period of time?

While still keeping the characters of “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Head, in February, 2021, Hasbro announced that they will remove the “Mr” from the overall brand name, which is now simply, “Potato Head.” Now “kids [can] create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads,” presumably with interchangeable parts, where dads can become moms, and moms can become dads. How did we get here? Carl Trueman helps us out. (Link to the full Hasbro press release, including the video you have to see to believe)

The Roots of Our Current Crisis Regarding the Self

Before going any further, it is important to say that gender dysphoria; that is, having a sense that one’s personal experience of gender is not congruent with one’s biological sex, is a real phenomenon, involving real people, with real confusions and real consequences. We should never be quick to brush off the difficulties facing by people, particularly youth, who struggle deeply with troubling, and often painful experiences related to gender identity. (See my review and personal reflections on Preston Sprinkle’s marvelously helpful book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, The Church, & What the Bible Has to Say ) But aside from such personal and pastoral issues, as important as they are, there is the broader question of how such fluid understandings of gender have emerged in the larger cultural conversation, in the secular West. Where did this sudden emergence of gender identity questions come from?

If you consider yourself to be a thinking Christian, and the current wave of interest in all things “trans” concerns you, then I know of THE book that you need to read: Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution is a long awaited attempt to frame the historical and philosophical factors that have led to our current, cultural moment. Trueman currently serves as a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, but he has had a distinguished career as a Fellow at Princeton University, and in teaching church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in England, Trueman is what can best be described as a confessional Protestant, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, holding fast to an unabashedly Reformed and Puritan mode of evangelical faith, and a cohost of the Mortification of Spin podcast, an intellectually and spiritually invigorating podcast I listen to from time to time. But as Trueman articulates so well in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he is fully conversant with the best of modern and post-modern philosophy and historical studies. His work is lucid, insightful, and inviting, all at the same time. In fact, you really do not learn of Trueman’s confessional convictions as a Christian, until towards the end of the book, but he does so in a thoughtful and irenic fashion, without shying away from the challenges of today’s controversies.

How Did We Get Here, to This Cultural Moment?

Back to the original question: “Who am I?”  The question of one’s self-identity has undergone a cosmic shift over the past few centuries, argues Trueman. The touchstone on which Trueman places his analysis comes from the thought of the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, author of the highly acclaimed The Secular Age. But for Trueman’s purposes, he zeroes in on Taylor’s work as to how the concept of the self has changed during the modern and post-modern eras. In particular, Taylor argues that the shift in answering the question, “Who am I?,” has increasingly moved towards an inward, introspective direction. In the premodern world, the concept of self-identity was wrapped up in what some external, objectifying source said about you, such as a parent, a feudal lord, or a priest or other spiritual guide expressing a body of church teaching. The quest to understand one’s self-identity is grounded today in a therapeutic mindset, by “looking within.”

Reinforcing this point, Trueman highlights the thought of American sociologist, Philip Reiff, who says that today we have a “plastic” view of the self, whereby we can fashion our own-self conception to be whatever we like it to be. Together with that, Trueman adds Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre as yet a third voice, who suggests that today’s language of self-expression is primarily “emotive,” namely that today’s ethical “values” are essentially the products of “expressive individualism.”

Trueman contends that this bend towards “expressive individualism” is inescapable now. The Christian church is caught in the thick of it all. Diagnosing how we arrived at this “expressive individualism” is the set of historical ideas that Trueman seeks to unpack in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Owing largely to the influence of Sigmund Freud, all of these trends find their biggest impact in the areas of human sexuality and gender: Someone is “gay” because they “feel” that way, and that tells them a lot about “who they are.” Or, as has emerged in recent years, we have the idea that someone can define themselves as being a “man” or a “woman,” simply on the basis of how they “feel.” The language of identity has moved, in small increments, from the objective to the subjective.

Far be it for me to try effectively lay out the full framework of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I can best refer the reader to consult either the summary reviews written by Regent College theologian Paul Helm, at his website, or at MereOrthodoxy.com. Let it suffice to say that Trueman does a masterful job weaving in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Darwin to buttress his thesis, along with some erudite analysis and critique of the Romantics, like William Blake and Percy Shelley, as well as an engagement with other seminal thinkers like Rousseau and Nietzsche. In particular, I once had a particular fascination for William Blake’s view of Christian spirituality, but Carl Trueman has convinced me that such a warm appreciation has been sorely misplaced, due to Blake’s advocacy of “free love” in his early years. Among a host of other insights, Trueman gave me the most succinct analysis of ethicist Peter Singers’ rationale for accepting abortion that I have ever read, due to Singer’s attack on orthodox Christianity (readers interested in pro-life concerns should read The Rise and Triumph for that reason alone!)

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the consequences that have been born out in terms of the legalization of same-sex marriage and widespread public acceptance gender re-imagination, is all the fruit of cultural trends in the past few hundreds of years that Trueman brings to light. While readers may know very little about Rousseau and Nietzsche, in particular, the thought patterns they championed have seeped into all levels of society, from pop-culture to the halls of academia.

Book reviewer Mark Ward calls The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self an “excellent — though long and at times tedious — book.” I would not characterize it as “tedious“, but it does assume at least some familiarity with a number of the world’s greatest thinkers since the 18th century age of Enlightenment, which might be daunting for the uninitiated. But Ward is right to point out that far too often Christians will dismiss the uncomfortable ideas of the Sexual Revolution in a very glib fashion as being “from Satan,” as though that should settle the matter. This is naive.

All ideas, including evil ones, do not spring up from nowhere. They have a history. There is a path that such ideas follow. At first, these ideas appear to be ridiculous. But then slowly over time, they gain more and more traction, until whole societies will adopt them as perfectly acceptable. For Westerners in the 21st century, this is including not simply mainline liberal Protestant churches, but even evangelical churches, to varying degrees. Today, we see the growth of such ideas being slowly cultivated, which eventually bears the fruit that we see all around us. Reviewer Andrew T. Walker likewise has other helpful insights, as well as does this interview with Trueman by Fred Zaspel.

One particular application has to do with how poorly Protestant evangelicalism, in general, does at presenting a truly sacramental expression of distinguishing between male and female, in the life of the church. Far too often, evangelical churches will get sidelined with questions about whether or not women can serve as elders/pastors in a local church, thereby missing the deeper question as to how churches can effectively model what it means to be Fathers and Mothers, in an age where understandings of gender and human sexuality owe more to cultural stereotypes, as opposed to reflecting on the great theological truths of the Christian faith. We live in age when differences between male and female are often reduced to something merely having to do “with the plumbing,” and even that can be altered, with the appropriate medical procedure.

 

Calling All Christians To Think Theologically… and Imaginatively

Trueman admits that diagnosing the problem is one thing. The harder part comes in trying to come up with an adequate solution. The chaos resulting from this therapeutic revolution appears to have no end in sight. Furthermore, this reconceptualization of the self has political consequences. It is not enough to merely tolerate inward expressions of the self. They must all be recognized as morally valid. This explains why the ratcheting up of the culture wars, over the previous few decades, have now reached such a high, fever pitch. The advocacy for the “Equality Act” is no historical accident. It is the culmination of years of culture pressure, building up slowly over time.

Trueman does suggest that the answer for Christians, in how to respond to this movement, lies in the importance of community. As Christians grapple with these issues, they need to do so within the context of a worshipping community, in submission to the study of the Scriptures, as opposed to working out their angst on their Facebook and Instagram social media pages.

Comparatively, the so-called LGBTQ community, though it is hardly a monolithic entity, has enjoyed strong bonds of community, over the past few decades. Such bonds are in many ways as supportive, if not more supportive, than what you find in many Christian churches. But the communal cohesion of the LGBTQ movement has been its primary engine for success, and orthodox-minded Christians have much to learn from this strong sense of community bonding.

As far as the “Potato Head” brand goes, the idea of mixing and matching “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Heads, with presumably interchangeable parts, to produce different varieties of families and gender transitions, is merely one of the many ways Philip Reiff’s concept of the “plastic” self is being integrated into the norms of post-modern society. Critics of those who are concerned about this transformation of the self will surely dismiss such criticism as being hyper-over-reactive. But it is the up-and-coming generation of young people who will be left trying to figure all of this stuff out.

What To Do About It?

Is the answer to try to boycott Hasbro? Probably not, at least not in the long run. Neither is trying to return to some “golden age” of Christendom the answer either, through trying to control and takeover the machinery of civil government. At least, that is my take, and from reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I gather this is Carl Trueman’s perspective as well. Applying such cultural pressure might accomplish something in the short run, but it will surely just enrage proponents of such cultural shifts, causing them to double-down against Christian “intolerance.”

Thankfully, Christians are not alone in their anxiety about all of this. There are also secular liberals, and other thinkers, who are deeply concerned about such fluid understandings of the self. Consider best-selling author Abigail Shrier, from her appearance before Congress arguing against the proposed Equality Act. Her testimony that the Equality Act would encourage great harm against women and girls, in our society. But Christians need to go further than this, with a more transformative outlook upon contemporary Western culture.

What it does take is for Christians to learn how to think about the Bible’s view of the self, and how that is contrast with today’s view of the self. Christians ranging from plumbers and construction workers to soccer moms to college professors need to be able articulate an evangelical theology of the self. This is not a job just to be left with pastors and Christians public intellectuals. It is something that must be cultivated in Christian small groups meeting in living rooms, Bible classes meeting in church buildings, and in one-on-one get togethers for coffee and lunch.

Every Christian believer needs to be a theologian able to articulate a theological anthropology that adequately describes a Scriptural view of the self. Christians can then help their non-believing neighbors understand the beauty of what God intended for humanity, without flaming the passions of the culture wars. Christians need to rediscover the value of natural law, and think creatively to stir the imagination with a genuine picture of what the Kingdom of God really looks like, that our secular neighbors might find attractive. We must recover the art of persuasion. Thinkers like G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis did this in their generations. We need new Christian voices to do the same in ours. Carl Trueman sets out the task before us.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is surely to be one of the most, if not “the” most, important and reasonably accessible intellectual history of the West to date, that bears consequences in the marketplace, the voting booth, and in the world of education, that shapes our children. Christians need to be conversant in these matters, so that we can be better persuaders of the truth of the Gospel, as opposed to automatically going to the “you must be Satan” line of attack, and thus stopping the conversation. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will help the thoughtful Christian to engage these new and revolutionary ideas, that appear to be going mainstream, so that we might be able to have thoughtful and meaningful discussions, even where there are sharp points of disagreement. This is a must-read for Christian pastors and thought leaders, or any Christian committed to thinking deeply about the rise and triumph of the modern self.

A number of excellent interviews with Carl Trueman are available on YouTube, but I found this discussion between Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler and Trueman to be particularly engaging.  You may not agree with every aspect of the discussion, but if you are on the sidelines about whether or not to read this book, I would urge you to listen to an interview like this, and I believe you will agree that the topic is perhaps one of the most timely and important ones Christians, as well as non-Christians, need to have together.


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