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Volume 13, Issue 3: Anvil

N.T. Wright and All That

Douglas Wilson

With increasing frequency, I am asked what I think of the work of N.T. Wright. I have read a goodish bit of his stuff, although not all of it. Regardless, I think I may have to deliver an opinion now, anyway, because one of the gentleman's strengths appears to be that he can write faster than I can read.

So let me begin with the commendation. Anyone who is interested in getting at what the text of Scripture actually says cannot afford to miss reading Wright. He is adept at showing connections within the text. He is an outstanding exegete, and he does not shy away from showing how the text conflicts with "standard" interpretations.
Having said this, I would still want to register some concerns. I am convinced that he would agree with some of these concerns, but that agreement, if there, would have to be teased out of his writings, and is by no means an emphasis of his.
The first problem is that he is in many ways the epitome of what an academic scholar should be. Unfortunately, one of the rules of the academy is that within those walls one must suffer fools gladly, provided they are published in the right places. One of the reasons conservatives have a problem with Wright is that he doesn't appear to have a problem with crazy people. He does not agree with them, but responds to them judiciously and cogently, all the while supressing the longed-for horse laugh. Thus in his scholarly interaction, he appears to accept (kind of) a methodological neutrality, and his sense of the antithesis is hard to figure out. Over in England, he probably feels like a theological right-wing fanatic, but when European theology becomes the implicit standard of measurement, good guys can still find themselves in a pretty weird Mirkwood.
Secondly, while Wright's emphasis on corporate justification is important and necessary, the way he stresses it is a cause for concern. But in a taped lecture of his, I heard him explicitly say that he was not denying the Protestant doctrine of individual justification. Given his overall approach, this is consistent. One cannot talk about omeletes without talking about eggs in principle. At the same time, he rarely mentions the eggs, and this makes some among the Reformed (rightly) nervous.
That said, they commonly have their own problems. Calvinistic pietists (especially in the American individualist stream of things) talk about eggs all the time, but this does not logically entail omeletes. Despite legitimate concerns, they could still spend some profitable time with Wright.


 

Placing Chandra Levy's Blame

By Douglas Jones

One of the gravy privileges of being the "establishment" is that you have permission to pretend that your worldview equals neutrality. If Rep. Gary Condit and Chandra Levy were Evangelicals, cultists, or devout Roman Catholics, we'd hear no end of media psychologizing about how their faith was a factor in their behavior. Waco because of this; Scalia because of that. Progressive secularists are immune from such analysis. They don't ever have to answer questions about their personal doubts, crises of faith, or whether their views conflict with reality. Medieval Christianity enjoyed such privileges too.

Because of this, media omissions are often far more interesting than the story we're allowed to see. The media certainly won't allow us to consider certain acts as sinful. Conservative columnists have complained about Condit's adultery being ignored. They're right, but the establishment is individualistic (as are most Christians), and adultery is no violation of that sacred code. To them, each of us is a sacrosanct ball-bearing—perfect, clean, unquestionable, and free to bounce in and out of community bonds.
Individualism hates history too, so we're not allowed to blame Chandra's parents for their wretched parenting. What respectable parents, for example, would encourage their daughter to work with the moral lepers of D.C.?
We're allowed to see happy family videos, but we're not allowed to note that Chandra's dad must have been so neglectful of her that she had to seek fatherly attention elsewhere. Or that they taught her that romance can undo any oath. Her mother says that some of her last words were, "Don't become a Monica Lewinsky!" But they shaped her to live like that long before.
Chandra's parents gave her the conscience to embrace someone like Condit in the first place. Yet they can stand in front of the camera and weep for the evils that someone else did. But none of this can be used to show the hollowness of modern life. Why don't they doubt their American secularism? Their democratic values? Their deathly progressivism?


 

Worshiping at CBA

By Douglas Jones

I knew it would be dangerous, but I just had to sit in on the worship service at the recent Christian Booksellers Association convention (now, just the CBA). So what was the big deal?

Thousands of us were seated for the show, and the whole stage was of the most professional television concert variety. The two mega-screen TVs gave us regular close-ups and fade-aways of all the performers, and everything was draped in black, except for the colorful, flowing silk sails that formed an abstract cross over the stage. The stage lights hung low to add that professional stage sense. After prayer, an actor-guy came out and reenacted several episodes from Abraham's life which was followed by a very blond and award winning duo and then a smooth jazz singer. The "message" came from Bruce Wilkinson of Jabez fame, and he encouraged publishers to take over the best-seller lists with wonderful literature like Left Behind. The service closed with a moving mini-documentary for a local charity project. The overall content and structure was common to many evangelical churches.
But the obvious finally struck me. The worship itself presented a clash of worldviews, a clash of symbolisms, almost on the level of, say, wrapping a stage in the symbolism of Hinduism for a science talk or decorating a famine relief conference in Nazi regalia. Here Christianity was being expressed via symbols and connotations of modernity.
Technology wasn't the problem, but the way the technology was used simply imitated modern techniques that can ever so naturally express Enlightenment assumptions about individualism and romanticism and anti-historicalism. We see these techniques and symbols in every commercial, and here we Christians were clueless that these were expressions borrowed from an alien worldview.
Marshall McLuhan urged that "the medium is the message," but simple poetry teaches us something similar. The text of the worship service was Christian, but the visual metaphors were from Descartes and Rousseau. The latter easily undid the Christian vision.
We can all easily miss such subtle symbols, but modern Evangelicalism's obsession with the literal makes us unpracticed, easy prey to those who know the real power of expression.


 

The Coming Musical Reformation

By Douglas Wilson

The coming musical reformation of the Church will be like getting used to a good oatmeal stout after a lifetime of drinking Miller Lite. But unlike a change in our drinking habits, this reformation represents a far more pressing need, as pressing as the beer need might be.

At the center of this reformation is the singing of psalms, and, as if that were not enough, these psalms must have much more musical texture than we are accustomed to. And this means learning psalms and hymns from the Reformation era and before. And some of them are pretty strange.
To continue the analogy from drinking beer, the first response of those Miller-Lite-ites tasting a hearty stout for the first time is that it tastes "bad." In a similar way, the first taste of the richness of musical reformation can be evaluated as a "dirge," "complicated," "not really worshipful," and so forth. But this is because our taste buds have atrophied, and not because we have anything intelligent to contribute to the discussion.
One of the distinctive features of this kind of music is the strong presence of syncopation, intelligently used. The psalms coming out of the Reformation were frequently—well, angular. Queen Elizabeth I called them "Genevan jigs" because of this strong rhythmic element. But one of the things that happened as the years went by was an increasing discontent on the part of newly-arrived pietists, who wanted the singing to be more predictable, straight, tidy. So, they ironed out all the wrinkles, and trimmed every measure that the result was a body of music in a straight-jacket.
In our congregation, we have thoroughly enjoyed this struggle. The first few times through the original version of "A Mighty Fortress" were a sight to behold. It was surprising that no one actually fell down. And the Thomas Tallis version of Psalm 95 is as robust as congregational music can get.
Of course, writing about these psalms doesn't really convey what it is like to sing them. That has to be done in real time. But God willing, within this next year, Canon Press is publishing Cantus Christi, a psalter-collection of many such psalms and hymns. In my view, this project is one of the most important things we have ever done. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of faith. The liturgy, the Psalms, the Lord's Table, all have a profound shaping effect on the faith of those who grow up under such influences.
The tragedy is that in contemporary worship so much of what shapes is shapeless.

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