[*] More on Challies' interview of Derek Webb

- Welcome Boar's Head tavern readers -

You'd think if I was going to comment on the Challies interview with Derek Webb, I would be brushing up on, say, emergent apologetics or perhaps re-read the Institutes to make the finest show of what I had to say.

You'd think that, wouldn’t you? Instead I watched Kung Fu Hustle and Eternal Sunshine of the spotless mind before re-reading the interview. Kung Fu Hustle is not even escapist: it's outrageous comic book stuff, and the only way to get it is to be a life-long comic book reader. It only makes sense in the context of archetypes and stereotypes, so if you're not into that kind of thing you should avoid it. I thought it was completely fabulous, a 4-star flick for its genre. What genre? The same genre as Curt Russell's Big Trouble in Little China and any of the better Jackie Chan movies.

Eternal Sunshine requires a second viewing and a whole blog entry of its own. I suggest to you, to whet your appetite, that it is proof that people with utterly secular and unregenerate minds know the truth about their lives but try to convince themselves that it's OK to be that way and that they should like it. I'll flesh that out in the future.

BTW, if there are any topics about which I have said "I'll flesh that out in the future" for which you are dying to read my promised follow-up and I have never followed up, you should remind me. I'm just one guy, and I don’t really have a master plan for the blog except that it either spreads the Gospel or makes me rich.

That said, let's think about something for a moment: is that really very much of a master plan? For example, if my master plan for the blog is actually either wealth or the spiritual enlightenment of others, can those two polar opposites actually constitute the same master plan?

I would suggest to you that they cannot. The statement "I don’t really have a master plan for the blog except that it either spreads the Gospel or makes me rich" either has to be a joke or a lie, right? Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and James Dobson notwithstanding, one of the objectives of spreading the Gospel ought not to be to get rich. It's a non-sequitur. Yes: you have to eat, and you have to wear clothes, and most of the time you have to spend money to do those things. But if you are spreading the Gospel to get rich -- or if you ultimately fool yourself into thinking that since you are getting rich by doing what you are doing, and you call what you are doing "spreading the Gospel" -- you are somewhat of a moron, spiritually.

I want you to think about that in the context that I own a Christian bookstore, OK? I don’t want anyone to say that somehow I don’t apply that standard to myself. For example, we throw away books that come in on bargain pallets that we know are written by people who reject the Gospel. We don’t sell rosaries (send your hate mail here). We work hard to educate our staff in the right way to address people who do not understand the basics of Bible translation, or who come in trying to peddle non-Christian spirituality as the Gospel, and we work to help people move from bad self-educational choices to good self-educational choices -- even if it means we don’t always make the first sale to them.

And I say all that to say this: there is no doubt that the Gospel has (on the one hand) clear consequences on our lives and (on the other hand) clear admonishment against the things we ought to studiously avoid. The Gospel is not some vague platitude that you can interpret any way you want to in order to be relevant to where you are right now. Seriously: what complete rubbish it is to think that you can make that message -- that begins and ends with a God Almighty who is completely in charge of the universe and has, as the main course of its philosophical feast that not only is man not good enough to please God, he is also not strong or smart or big or fast or clever or anything enough to save himself from being under God's wrath – into a message that appeals to people like a marketing campaign or a good political slogan.

Then let's begin to address Challies' interview with Derek Webb from the standpoint that, in principle, I agree with Mr. Webb that there is a supernatural aspect of the Gospel and a "natural" or common-place aspect of the Gospel, and these aspects cannot be separated from each other. The question, as with the shyster who thinks that the Gospel is good business, is whether the conclusions we come to from that place are compatible with the Gospel.

An interesting place to start this commentary is with this statement from Mr. Webb:

The way we proclaim that kingdom is by putting our hands to that. So you see someone who is hungry and you proclaim to them a kingdom where there will be no hunger by putting food in their mouth. If someone is ill or sick you proclaim to them the kingdom where there will be no sickness by caring for them or giving them lifesaving drugs. I think that is probably what St. Francis might have meant when he said to "proclaim the gospel at all times and if necessary use words." That is his famous quote. I really think that is exactly what he could have meant. We go into culture and proclaim the coming of Jesus' kingdom where all things will be made right by putting our hands to "the being made right of all things" and of course there is the literal proclamation of his showing up on the scene that we also need to tell people.
This is an interesting statement from Mr. Webb because of his use of St. Francis of Assisi here. It turns out that, if you do 5 minutes of research on this phrase, these are not Francis' words at all. It is in fact a bad paraphrase of Francis' Rule of the Order from 1221:
Let no friar preach against the form and arrangement of Holy Church nor unless it has been conceded to him by his minister. And let the minister beware of himself, lest he indiscreetly concede (this) to anyone. However let all the friars preach by works. • And let no minister or preacher appropriate to himself the office of minister or the office of preaching, but in whatever hour it has been enjoined upon him, let him without any contradiction surrender his office.

Whence I beseech in the Charity, which God is (cf. 1 Jn 4:16), all my friar preachers, prayers, workers, clerics as much as lay (brothers), that they strive to humble themselves in all things, not to glory nor rejoice in themselves nor to exalt themselves interiorly because of the good words and deeds, indeed because of no good thing, which God does or says or works at any time in them and through them, according to what the Lord says: "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you" (Lk 10:20). And let us know firmly, that nothing pertains to us, except vices and sins. • And we ought to rather rejoice, "when" we would fall "into various temptations" (cf. Jm 1:2) and when we would sustain whatever kind of difficulties of soul or body, or of tribulation in this world for the sake of eternal life.
What Francis is here exhorting his brother friars to is not silent "random acts of kindness" but a kind of humility which was absent from the monastic orders in his day. His order here is not to preach with works first then with words, but to hold one's self in the right perspective and not to seek after any great station in life.

Now why is this bit of nit-picking important? I'll give two reason that I think are important:

(1) In the least case, if we are going to use Francis as an example of what we are talking about in terms of the physical ministry of the Gospel, we should portray him as he was and not as we would like him to be. He certainly thought that doing good works were the central part of his order's mission -- but that was, in part, because his order was setting out to reform monastic abuses. If we are going to use this example to underscore Mr. Webb's idea that the believer ought to do more things in Gospel ministry, we should at least ask him who then gave him the permission to preach this truth through his music and his extensive portfolio of writings. Francis' point is highly nuanced -- touching on the attitude of monastic service, the kind of aspirations a friar should have, the kinds of service appropriate for the life in the order, and the relationship the order ought to have to "the church". I applaud Mr. Webb for wanting to do the good works; I question why, if Francis is an advocate of the standard, he does not abide by the other matters at stake in this rule.

Honestly: we know why. Mr. Webb is not a Catholic (I would pessimistically add "yet"). He does not abide by the rules of ecclesiastical hierarchies, and yet at least half of the point of Francis' rule he is citing is specifically for the sake of maintaining ecclesiastical order. In that, we have to be careful in letting a statement like this wedging itself into a place in this discussion where it doesn't belong.

(2) It indicates the loose sort of reasoning Mr. Webb uses to jump from point to point. To be specific, if this is how he handles a merely-historic source, how can we trust him to handle the word of God better?

Of course, we need to offer some charity here -- because I certainly do not deny the point, as the book of James says clearly, that true religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world, that we are to be doers of the word and not just people who say "amen" when the pastor gets into his Calvinism riff. Nobody is denying that the very core of Christian life is doing the things that the Gospel says to do, and that the Gospel does not just say that we should look forward to a resurrected life and yammer on about theological paradigms, but that we should be living right now as a life resurrected from the sinfulness and death we lived before.

So the charity is this: I agree with the principle Mr. Webb here is advocating on-net. What I question is the method for advocating that principle which he uses here -- which is not a fair treatment of sources but a lopsided treatment of a source which is not necessarily saying what Mr. Webb is trying to say.

What is far worse, unfortunately, is what comes next in this answer to the first question Tim asked:

And I really think that the other half of that gospel is so neglected that it was worth devoting a record to.
Listen: I'm a complainer about the state of the church in the U.S. I admit it. There's no question that the American Church is frankly in disarray. It's sickening. But one of the reasons it is sickening, all told, turns out not to be that the church doesn’t do good works.

Now, how do I justify saying that? Well, let's think about Hurricane Katrina for a second, shall we? What was the largest private relief force on the ground for that disaster? Some of you are about to say, "Red Cross", and that'd be pretty close. The problem is that the agency actually putting the most people on the ground may have been under the umbrella of the Red Cross, but they were a little group known as the North American Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yup: conservative evangelicals turn out to be the largest relief organization in America.

Let's also look at poverty relief in Africa. As you may have seen in my previous posts on this subject, private American donations to African relief equal the total contributions made by France or Germany or Canada, or any number of combinations of European countries. What my previous posts didn’t outline was that most of this money comes not just from "private" organizations but from "religious" organizations. And that money, for the most part, isn’t just shoveled into a furnace blindly: it is directed to particular missionary activity that includes food and medicine and infrastructure.

To say that "the other half of the Gospel is neglected" is a vague accusation at best. Before I get all cylinders firing here, let's move on and see what Mr. Webb does to flesh out his concern in particular in order to see if he's talking about things that can be fixed -- or ought to be. For that sake, I am going to pass over a comment he makes in this first question, reserving the right to amend and revise my remarks in the future.

In the next question he includes this reply:
And I think that anybody can tell you that when you study a lot of theology and you study a lot of God's character and you study his attributes you get into a very theological type of discourse. That is a great thing to do. That is a great foundation to have. But if that theology never turns into ethics then it can become a real idol because the rubber of theology must meet the road of ethics at some point or the other or else it's not informing how we truly love the people around us. It's all very theoretical. Being very well trained in theology but having it never affect your ethics, we run the risk of being nothing more than ringing cymbals and clanging gongs.
And who isn’t going to say "Amen" to that? Theology is not just a comfy chair where we read a good book: in case you missed it in my on-going series on orthodoxy, theology ought to be the basis for all the decisions we make.

Let me be clear here that there are two kinds of error that good theology ought to head off: the first is the error that we ought to do nothing; the second is that what we ought to do has no direct relationship to our theological bedrock. Now, in theory, Mr. Webb is against both of these errors as he elaborates in his "rubber and the road" analogy. But does he actually practice this opposition?

He eventually says this:
I have a certain view of the way God governs all things, I think those are the main distinctives of the Reformed tradition, and of course I believe that. And that is part of who I am and that's part of how I see the world. ...
... there has been a little bit of a mutiny happening because there are some folks who are more into Reformed theology (and I think that might have been what first attracted them to me) and they are starting to get a little nervous. A few of them have started to jump ship because I think my views on the role of social justice in the life of the believer might begin to take a turn from typical Reformed theology on some of these points. And that's okay with me because, again, I didn't sign up to be the poster boy. And so what's starting to happen is that there are some really Reformed folks who are starting to get a little nervous who have typically been the ones who have blindly come to my defense, no matter what I would do, because I think I've been so predictable to them.
The italics are mine, not Challies'. This gets back to my intro comments: your premises ought to determine your conclusions. For example, if you think that the Gospel is good news spiritually but you do not think that the spiritual world has any interaction with the day to day way things run in the material world, you can claim you're "born again" and then live any way you want. But if you believe that you cannot view the world as if everything on the left-handed spiritual world never interacts with the right-handed material world because Christ was God incarnate, and God is therefore active in this world, you cannot claim that you have received spiritual renewal and then sit on your spiritual size-48 butt.

In the same way, reformed theology is not a new player on the block. It is a pretty astonishing thing when you study it. It has a lot of philosophical moxie outside of the centerpiece of the Gospel because it has, as its centerpiece, the Gospel. It has political ramifications; it has social ramifications; it has interpersonal ramifications; it has economic ramifications. And, for the most part, those implications have been spelled out by some pretty smart fellas -- and I don’t mean just Steve Hays.

So when Derek Webb turns out not to advocate the rest of Reformed theology's world view, we have to ask the question, what does he mean when he says, "that is part of who I am and that's part of how I see the world"? Doesn’t compartmentalizing the high view of God's sovereignty and the finished work of the cross from the rest of one's worldview do exactly what Mr. Webb has, up to this point, advocated against in saying that the two prongs of the Gospel -- love God, love your neighbor -- must come together in the life of the believer?

This is going to wrap up part 1 of this discussion, but here's what gets me about where this conversation inevitably goes from here: Somehow, because the last 30 or 50 years of American Christian history have been an ideological battle against disastrous theological errors -- like diluting the authority of Scripture, and radical individualism, and secular hegemony, and atheism -- folks like Mr. Webb and a whole host of smart guys think that the church has given up on anything but the theoretical doctrinal positions of the faith. And in that, they say, "fine: good. Doctrine. I'll put on a reformed t-shirt for the sake of argument, but what about this idea that there should be economic justice? What about loving gay people? What about war?" And they ask these questions as if Reformed theology and the Bible do not answer these questions clearly and frankly, with significant "rubber meets the road" applications to the problems at-hand.

This is a pretty slippery fish that Mr. Webb tosses out on the table, and we'll see if, over the next few installments, he has any kind of a grip on it that gets it off the table and onto the frying pan.