Saturday, January 10, 2009

Manly Calvinism?

This weekends NY Times Magazine has an article about Mark Driscoll, a popular minister in Seattle. I wanted to bring it up on my blog to start a discussion with my calvinist friends about how to parse his (offensive to me) message given our background. I should mention first that I think the writer does a great job, although I wish she would have consulted other mainstream calvinists with some of her discussion of the impact of calvinism.

My primary question is about the way Driscoll's understanding of masculinity and authority are tied up in his understanding of calvinism. A few illuminating quotations:

Driscoll is adamantly not the “weepy worship dude” he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, “singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”
The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

“They are sinning through questioning,” Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.
Now, I think I heard that John Calvin himself was kind of an authoritarian jerk and sexist (it was the 16th century after all, who wasn't?). However, I don't think that Calvin's theology, or the other theology in that tradition necessarily implicates these attitudes. In fact, I found Molly Worthen's conclusion quite satisfying:

At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view. Driscoll’s New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.
So here's my question for participation: DOES Calvinism lead to this kind of arrogance and machoism?

Here's another: why does Driscoll reject most evangelical's distrust of alcohol, tattoos, cursing and violence, but stand resolutely behind traditional gender roles and sexual mores? (My suspicion: he likes power and to be "tough" and feminism takes away power from men like Driscoll.)

Also, I think it's incorrect to associate warm fuzzy Jesus who doesn't challenge anyone or deal well with bad things that happen with liberalism. This might be my bias, but I think liberal theology does the opposite: acknowledges the wages of sin in the world and calls for justice. Also, are tattoos and spiky hair still a mark of hipness? Just saying.


Dameocrat said...

I don't know but it looks like he is attracting the same group of drug addict men, evangelicalism has always attracted so I am not going to worry about him much.

bethany said...

hi dameocrat. you don't know me, so maybe you don't understand my investment in these questions. I'm a committed Christian with some affiliation with Calvinism. So dismissing evangelicalism as a group of drug addict men is not only inaccurate but mildly offensive.

Jesse said...

I saw this too and was going to email you about it! Fascinating article.

Anonymous said...

I think that perhaps, from a female empowerment advocate's (forgive me if I dislike the word feminist) perspective, your problem with Driscoll is his associating Christ's masculinity with his worthiness. Jesus sufficiently showed that true power is in resisting evil, even to the point of suffering. This really doesn't bear much resemblance to traditional masculinity. Christ's power has nothing to do with the fact that he was male.

I am also a committed Christian with some affiliation with Calvinism, and I find some of Driscoll's worldview refreshing, but most of it offensive. His remark that there is too much "singing prom songs to ... Jesus" really resonates with me. For the most part, Driscoll is offensive to me because he proudly hates. (There are other reasons, but they're, shall we say, deeper.)

For starters, I am not a Calvinist. My thought, as a Christian with a Roman Catholic background, is that it is Calvin's view of unconditional election which has coaxed many a weak Christian into the sin of pride (chosen before the world began, as if by some personal worth over those not chosen, rather than God's own mercy). This is purely based upon what I have witnessed in my life, and my own attempt to understand it. But, I cannot separate this from total depravity, because that notion allows Calvinists to claim that they are now regenerate and free from total depravity. Many Calvinists internally take the leap that they are fundamentally better than non-Christians in some way. I blame this on shoddy Reformed teaching and dispensationalism, which are quite clearly the protestant flavors of the past century.

I do not wish you offend you here, so please read these words with Charity where possible. In your blog post and in the Driscoll worldview, there is a fight between liberalism and different blends of conservativism. What I see in this fight is a thirst for Apostolic Orthodoxy. Liberals seem thirst for the compassion and justice called for by Christ and shone through in the lives of the great saints past, which is missing in so much of the "christian" world today. Conservatives thirst for the asceticism, self-denial, world-denial also called for by Christ and shone through in the lives of the great saints past. (There is another liberal-conservative fight over what is literal in our Christian stories, which is probably somewhat foundational to all of this). So much of the "christian" world is awash between two sides, compassion and personal righteousness, or, if you stand on the other side, acceptance of sin and legalism.

I think it is this thirst for orthodoxy which has shaped Driscoll's ideas of what a Christian should be (in some ways tolerant of alcohol, tattoos, cursing and violence, but sexually conservative). Calvinism has made this perfect dichotomy between the Christian and the heathen. One perfect in Christ and one totally depraved. And, purity is so often a barometer for who is in Christ and who is not, arbitrarily decided by some alpha-male pastor. And, to ease the burden of discernment (because we've got to filter who belongs in the body!), sometimes this barometer make sins of things which are not necessarily sins by themselves, such as alcohol, tattoos, cursing and violence. On the other hand, liberalism is, so many times, a reaction against this theology.

Oh, but, the world is not so black-and-white, and the Holy Scriptures testify to this many, many times if one is willing to read it on its own terms. Proper Christianity (orthodox Christianity), then, is a faith of greys. A religion which neither has nor claims to have all the answers, but has more answers than man could ever find on his own, more answers than man could ever need to find his way home.

As an aside, Karl Barth was like a cool drink in the desert for such a thirst for Apostolic Christianity. My Barth might be a little iffy, but I'll give it a shot. Barth essentially restored the idea to reformed thought that man could never fully know that he was elected through Christ. I've read it summarized something like "assured but not positive". The whole theology fixes the unconditional election/humility problem.

Sorry for the novel... well, kinda sorry at least :)

bethany said...

Hi John, thanks for the comment. A few replies. First, I agree that the association of masculinity with awesomeness is troubling, but I am also troubled by the relegation of ideological strength to the masculine and compassion and justice to the feminine. This limits both genders, which is why I identify as "feminist" because I believe that encapsulates more than just girl power.

Secondly, your analysis of how Calvinism creates a dichotomous world (christian/heathen) makes some sense, but it is NOT my experience of calvinism at all. Instead, I experience Calvinism as a source of serious humility and a tradition of intellectual and cultural engagement. This is perhaps what troubled me so much about the article. How can a theology that has been good in many ways in my relationships with the church go so horribly offensive here?

Jeff said...

Hi Bethany! Have you heard of The United Church of God? You may find it interesting.

Take Care!

P&R said...

Just reading the blog post and the article behind it, I can't say that I know thoroughly Driscoll's thought.

But, as presented, it's wrong. It's wrong because it is not derived from the Scriptures so much as a reaction to cultural trends with a biblical gloss. To be sure, the liberalism he objects to is also a reaction to cultural trends with a biblical gloss, and therefore also wrong. In this sense, J. Russ is quite correct in the need for apostolic orthodoxy as antidote to both.

As a Calvinist, I find that apostolic orthodoxy that is the proper foundation of the Church in Scripture. I also think that it is the biblicism of Calvin, let the chips fall where they may, that was his strength.

Mr. Russ - Total depravity, rightly understood, is immensely humbling. Unconditional election, rightly understood, does not mitigate that, but it does empower and liberate one for service.

bethany said...

I don't know what is meant by "apostolic orthodoxy" and simply thinking about the words gets me a meaning so broad as to be useless in these contexts. I tried googling but came up empty. If there is a particular mode or dogma associated with this position, please enlighten me.

P&R said...

"apostolic orthodoxy", at least as Mr. Russ seems to be using it and as I intend to use it, refers to the core of apostolic teaching.

As a Catholic, I suspect Mr. Russ includes in that the Apostolic Succession - the inheritance that the Bishops of the Church are charged with safeguarding. As a Protestant, I think primarily of the foundation laid by the apostles and which is preserved for us in the text of the New Testament.

Regardless, it is this foundation that should drive our agenda, our thought, and our practice. It's one of the reasons the seminary I attended pushed against topical sermons (at least, at that time). Better to let the text drive the message than the message drive the text.

But too often we let the main streams of our culture set the agenda and then try to color it with a kind of biblical paint. I think we are all tempted to do this, and from what I read I think Driscoll has succumbed to the temptation.

While Scripture and culture are, in a way, engaged in a conversation, it is important to start that conversation with the Bible rather than the culture.

Liz Neeland Fetzer said...

Absolutely fascinating article. I am definitely not super familiar with Calvanism, so my comments are based solely on personal experience, but this guy is VERY offensive and I would probably be pretty upset if he were the only representation of my church that others came across! I too, Bethany, self-identify as a feminist and have serious problems with his outright disdain for anything that he deems to be unmasculine. I have attended traditional Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ and now a nondenominational modern evangelical church, but I have not seen that "love songs" to Christ turn off traditional "masculine" (if we want to give them that label) men. No one I know thinks of Christ as a wimp with a limp wrist. How ridiculous is that and how denigrating for any gay followers of Christ! For instance, I have seen my husband develop a greater sense of caring and selflessness and servitude to an arguably "nonmasculine" version of Christ. I too have noticed some problems that I have called "watered-down" Christianity in some megachurches I have seen and I would put Osteen in that category. I do think there is such a thing as striking a balance for seeker sensitivity though and that many have gone too far to the culture side and away from the gospel. If you appeal to popular culture and a feel good attitude exclusively, there is nothing Christian about that. But if you preach disdain and condemnation from the get go, I think it underscores the main message of Christianity and of course would turn off anyone with a vestige of skepticism in them. The churches that I have found to be "true" in contemporary culture find a way to make themselves relatable but first are committed to the gospel. They encourage questioning, not condemn it as this is part of a seeker's journey. The lack of tolerance for questioning by this guy is particularly problematic for me if one is to believe that Christianity is at all a rational journey. This guy's view of Calvanism seems to be sort of like a categorical imperative, but aren't we allowed to rationalize our way to the Truth somewhat? I know that the Truth exists with or without our rationalization of it, but I cannot accept anything without first examining it. What do you think, Bethany?

bethany said...

Thanks for commenting, Liz! I think we are in agreement. With regard to your last comments, I think that if Truth is accessible to us at all, it HAS to be subject to questioning and exploring. A defensive attitude is perhaps evidence of a more serious doubt.