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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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Mainline Resurrection Can’t Do Without…the Resurrection

In a much commented-upon article by Ed Stetzer, he warns that, absent some kind of resurrection, statistical trends indicate that Mainline Protestantism’s days are – literally – numbered.  His analysis suggests that the Mainline has about 23 years left.  Stetzer goes on to argue that Mainline survival, at minimum, will need some serious changes in ethos to mount a comeback:

My personal hope is that mainline Protestantism will experience a resurrection of sorts, something Christians tend to have faith in. However, such a move won’t come from following the trajectory it has been following.

The future of mainline Protestantism is connected to Christianity’s essential past, where the resurrection can be proclaimed again unabashedly. Jesus is not just a good person who suffered unjustly. Jesus’s death and resurrection makes our dead souls alive again.

These kinds of reflections often induce histrionics in some (mostly Mainline) pastors and blogging types. They smell a boogeyman here, who is also their scapegoat for all things bad in the church: the evangelical Christian. [Cue ominous tones.] In fact, in some circles, all you have to do is associate phenomenon x with evangelicals and x automatically becomes an evil second only to Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin.  It’s a hackish formula, but a ubiquitous one nonetheless.

The argument, rather predictably, usually goes something like a) “Evangelicals who insist on orthodoxy are really just bigots and use doctrine as a cover for their racist/sexist/homophobic policies,” or b) “Insisting on doctrine is a kind of legalism like that of the Pharisees, when what really matters is ethical behavior toward others.”  The first is pure conspiracy, the second is a false dichotomy.

What these apoplectic reactions miss is something that even the most evangel-y of evangelicals will admit: orthodox doctrine (at a minimum, say, the witness of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds) is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient of church vitality.  Of course there are churches with solid doctrine that are spiritually dead (that’s how the Methodist movement got it’s start, for John’s sake).  But to take this as a reason to downplay or jettison basic doctrine is a total non-sequiter.

Nowhere is this more clear, biblically and historically, than the resurrection of Christ.  Modern and postmodern theologies  too enamored of their own wisdom to believe in ancient dogmas like the physical resurrection of Christ are hopeless from the ground floor.  Are there congregations with vital ministries and kind hearts where the pastor and many, if not most, of the congregants reject the supernatural in the biblical narrative? Certainly.  Are there growing religious congregations that reject Easter in favor of some kind of spiritual or psycho-social “resurrection?” I’m sure.  But the success of these only makes their error that much more tragic, because what they are succeeding in is not what the apostles, saints, and martyrs could recognize as the Bride of Christ.

St. Paul is crystal clear about this with his flock in Corinth:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, NRSV)

As the Apostle makes so clear, the point of the resurrection is not to grow churches, but to give real hope that the oldest enemy of humanity, the grave, does not win in the end.  A cold piece of paper with the doctrine of the resurrection scribbled upon it does not create vitality, of course.  However, a church committed to resurrection as God’s victory in Christ not as a dead letter, but as a way of life and ministry, can transform hearts, families, and communities.  Without the basic truth of the resurrection, though – if Christ’s bones are in a Jerusalem hillside – than even the most active, loving, and inclusive of churches are little more than quaint country clubs or social service agencies.

In short, there is no resurrection of the Mainline that is worth a tinker’s damn unless the resurrection of Jesus is front and center in our life and proclamation.  With it, a world of possibilities – nothing less than the New Creation itself – is open to us. Without it, “we are of all people to be pitied.”

I’ll give Ed Stetzer the last word:

If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.

I imagine that many mainline Protestants would agree, and perhaps the supernatural message of Easter, believed and shared widely, could bring the resurrection that mainline Protestantism needs.

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Jesus Didn’t Fight No Bums

How might Rocky illuminate Jesus’ atonement? In Rocky III, the beloved pugilist’s aging trainer, Mick, is terrified at the prospect of Balboa fighting Clubber Lang, played famously by Mr. T in his breakout role.  Rocky doesn’t understand Mick’s fear, as he’s on a long win streak and feels quite confident.  They have the following exchange, culminating in one of Mick’s most famous lines:

Rocky: He’s just another fighter.
Mickey: No, he ain’t just another fighter! This guy is a wrecking machine! And he’s hungry! Hell, you ain’t been hungry since you won that belt.
Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

Rocky discovers, to his horror, that the win streak he’s so proud of is manufactured.  To protect him, his trainer has been picking fights that amounted to the path of least resistance.

In his classic treatise On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes quite a similar point about Jesus, in a discussion about the nature of his death:

A wonderful translation, with an introduction by CS Lewis.

And as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not choose opponents for himself, lest he cause suspicion that he is fearful of some, but leaves it to the choice of the spectators, especially if they are hostile, so that when he has overthrown the one they have chosen, he may be believed to be superior to all, so also, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself be believed to be Life, and the power of death might be completely annihilated. So something wonderful and marvelous happened: that ignominious death which they thought to inflict, this was the trophy of his victory over death. (On the Incarnation, [Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011], 75.)

In other words, because Jesus didn’t choose a cleaner, quicker, or less “ignominious” death, none of his opponents (or the disciples’ future opponents) could accuse him of seeking an easy way out.  Because he submitted to such a vile death as torture and crucifixion, the very barbarity of this death became “the trophy of his victory.”

Jesus didn’t fight no bums.  He didn’t hand pick his opponents.  He faced the worst killers the world had yet invented – the Roman Empire – and the horrible, common death the endured became the means through which the power of sin was shattered.  Our Lord didn’t pick an easy fight, and for that, we can all – with St. Athanasius – be thankful.

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