Posted on Monday, September 18, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Lesbian feminists with a penchant for Nietzsche, Freud, and DeSade are not typically my type.  Nevertheless, I fell in love with one in 1993 and have never quite recovered. I was then (as now) a happily married man and nothing untoward actually happened.  But when I purchased a copy of Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of her journalism, I knew that this was to be more than a passing infatuation.  Here was my ideal woman: Tough, thoughtful, well-read, and clearly somebody who could handle herself in a bar-room brawl.  Feisty is surely too small a word.

 

In the years since I have learned much from the delectable Ms. P.  She modeled for me both a scholarship and a journalism which engaged high culture and pop culture, moving seamlessly from Aeschylus and Freud to the Rolling Stones and Madonna.   She showed me that learning and writing could be fun and iconoclastic and constructive all at the same time.  Her rejection of the histrionics of victim-feminism, her refusal to follow the orthodoxy on date rape, and her demand that individuals take responsibility for themselves forced me to think.  Her contempt for the tone police, those self-righteous enforcers of the status quo, was evident on every page.

 

Of all her writings, though, the one I love the most – and the one I return to most frequently -- is the essay ‘The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,’ originally published in The New Republic but reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture.   The article does not, as I had hoped when I first glimpsed the title, offer some technical tips for romantically inept Calvinists; Rather it is a devastating critique of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.’s 1991 report on human sexuality. Nothing I have read since has ever done such a successful job of demolishing the pious pabulum which vitiates so much Christian discourse on sex and which has (as Paglia predicted) eviscerated the faith of its distinctive vitality. If ever there was an essay which cut through sentimental bombast that surrounds liberal Christian pieties and cuts straight to the real heart of the matter, it is this.   And in an era marked by a tedious and increasingly intense combination of political correctness and squeamishness about clear communication, it is still a breath of fresh air.

 

The key paragraph – vintage Paglia -- is this: 

 

The [PCUSA’s} committee’s prescription for an enlightened Christianity is “learning from the marginalized.” This new liberal cliché is repeated so often that I began to misread it as “margarinized.” We are told that “those of us with varying degrees of social power and status must now move away from the center, so that other, more marginalized voices . . . may be heard.” But the report picks and chooses its marginalized outcasts as snobbishly as Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes. We can move tender, safe, clean, hand-holding gays and lesbians to the center—but not, of course, pederasts, prostitutes, strippers, pornographers, or sadomasochists. And if we’re e going to learn from the marginalized, what about drug dealers   moonshiners, Elvis impersonators, string  collectors, Mafiosi  foot fetishists serial murderers, cannibals, Satanists, and the Ku Klu Klan?  I’m sure they’ll all have a lot to say. The committee gets real prudish real fast when it has to deal with sexuality outside its feminist frame of reference: “Incest is abhorrent and abhorred,” it flatly declares. I wrote in the margin, “No lobbyists, I guess!”

 

This is admittedly a little dated, at least in its lists of the marginalized.  Sadomasochism, pornography, and prostitution are being mainstreamed, and it seems quite possible that pederasty and incest will not be far behind.   String collectors, foot fetishists, Elvis impersonators, and Imperial Wizards may perhaps have to wait a little longer.  But even so Paglia’s basic point stands and liberal Christians will no doubt join the sadomasochism and pederasty bandwagons if ever they become part of the Mainstream Margarinized.  Why would they not?  Their ethics are merely the tastes of the world around in the imperative voice.  And that means their moral standards are ultimately formed not by the Bible or Christian tradition but by powerful interest groups in the popular media, by clichéd post-structuralist pieties, and by legislators on Capitol Hill whose political culture is little more than a function of the public relations industry

 

Yet there is another aspect to the essay, and that is Paglia’s barely concealed contempt for the attempts of liberal Christianity and of the gay lobby itself to make homosexuality respectable. For Paglia, sex is powerful and deviant sex reflects that power precisely because it is transgressive, because it breaks the rules.  For her, sex is an erotic, Dionysian force that threatens to shatter civilization as we know it.  Drawing on the later Freud, with distinct tones of Nietzsche, she understands the destructive power of sex and rejoices in it.  To tame it, to domesticate it, to make it respectable, to turn it into merely one more form of pleasurable recreation is to destroy both its substance and significance.

 

Her basic thesis is that liberal Christianity cannot cope with sex as it really is.  Instead it has to make into something anodyne and inoffensive as defined by the aesthetics of the wider world.   Cultural tastes trump biblical teaching and historic Christian ethics.  This is the problem of liberal Christianity in microcosm.  Make Christian doctrine merely an expression of religious psychology and, as sophisticated as that might seem, it leads in only one direction: the assimilation of Christianity to the world.   

 

Ironically, Paglia here is more Christian than the liberal Protestants she lambasts so mercilessly.  Traditional Christianity, with it various sexual taboos, its physical discipline of celibacy for those who are not married, its view of marriage as lifelong and sexually monogamous, and its refusal to make sexuality and sexual behavior a matter of bland personal preference, acknowledges sex as precisely the dangerous, atavistic force that she too sees it to be.   Paglia and orthodox Christianity are two sides of the same sexual coin.

 

But here is where Paglia differs with the sexual attitudes of the permissive society.  When (almost) everything is permitted and when all social and legal prohibitions and restraints on sexual behavior have been stripped away, society has made sex safe. Too safe. In enfranchising the deviant, it eliminates deviation.  And when nothing is forbidden, sex actually loses its meaning and becomes just one more bland form of entertainment, pleasant but of no social significance, rather like consuming a vanilla ice cream. 

 

So why do Christians capitulate to such nonsense so easily?   Here Paglia and I are on the same page: Because the Christian church is too often not satisfied with being the Christian church, with all of its austere dogma and demands, but prefers to be merely an insipid and derivative mouthpiece for modern emotivism.  Liberal churches do what they always do: In an effort to remain credible they dutifully turn up to baptize whatever sentimental mush the world wants to promote on the trendy topic of the moment.  Of course, it always does this a day or two late, but that’s what happens when your ethics are simply a response to norms which the world has already embraced.   No longer is it ‘Thus saith the Lord!’ so much as ‘Now, now, poor dear, you just do what feels right for you.  Oh, and please, whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about it.’

 

Given her polemic against the therapeutic drivel and middle class mores of modern sexual liberalism, could it be that Camille Paglia has a better grasp of Christian teaching than the pope? Even as it has sought to make sex the central component of human identity, sexual liberalism has evacuated it of any real significance through its ruthless destruction of taboos.  In Paglia-speak, liberals, secular and religious, have turned Eros and Dionysius from volcanic deities into quiet suburbanites with a mini-van, a mortgage, and a bottle of hand sanitizer on every surface.   In traditional Christian language, they have turned sex from the mysterious, powerful, terrifying and procreative source of life into just one more pleasurable hobby, like stamp collecting but with more orgasms.

 

Liberal Christians seem to have a compulsive need to overthrow the traditional teachings of Christianity, and sexuality and human identity now provide the present battleground for this Oedipal struggle. Tendencies that Paglia observed in 1991 are much, much worse today, but such continue to perplex those of us – believers and atheists -- who have no problem with historic Christianity being historic Christianity.  As Paglia declares towards the end of the essay:

 

As a lapsed Catholic of wavering sexual orientation, I have never understood the pressure for ordination of gay clergy or even the creation of gay Catholic groups. They seem to me to indicate a need for parental approval, an inability to take personal responsibility for one’s own identity. The institutional religions, Catholic and Protestant, carry with them the majesty of history. Their theology is impressive and coherent. Efforts to revise or dilute that theology for present convenience seem to me misguided.

 

It is a shame that more Christians do not think that way.   We do not need to listen to the panjandrums of the wider world.  We need that Paglian attitude: Christian sex should be transgressive and thumb its nose at respectable pieties.  You know – exclusively heterosexual, within the bonds of marriage, with single people remaining celibate.  That breaks all the modern taboos and threatens the comfy orthodoxies that now dominate sexual mores.  Sex is simply too important to leave it to the lobby groups of sexual liberation. Plus, as Paglia knows, breaking the rules makes it more fun too.

 

And, as I write this and reflect upon the delectable Ms. P, I think that I might be falling in love all over again.

Posted on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

My inbox has been full of positive reactions to the PBS docudrama which aired last night.  It is now available online here.

Posted on Friday, September 01, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I recently had the pleasure of doing a podcast with Tony Payne, of Moore College, Sydney, in which we talked about the piety of the Reformation and Reformers.  You can find it here.  We also chatted briefly about the greatest literary description of the impact of Protestant piety upon the households of ordinary, rural people: Robert Burns's great poem, The Cotter's Saturday Night, a beautiful poetic account of the preparations for the Lord's Day in the house of a poor crofter.  NB: It is not me reciting the poem or playing the bagpipes on the podcast.  But kudos to TP for including both.

Posted on Thursday, August 17, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This week's Spectator has a powerful, if very harrowing, article on prostitution and the harm it does.  All pastors -- all Christians -- should read it.  It reminded me of a podcast interview the MoS team did with Heather Evans, of Valley Against Sex Trafficking.   That too is worth a listen for anyone who wants to grasp the real horror of the sex trade.

 

Some months ago I heard Leon Kass give a lecture in which he reflected on his time as a teacher.  He recalled how he had once been called out by a student for using the term 'prostitute' instead of 'sex worker.'  He told the student that 'sex worker' was a complete misnomer because it implied the person was being paid for sex.  Prostitutes are not paid for sex, he said, they are paid to go away.  Very true.  One might add that they are also paid to allow someone else to deprive them of their basic identity as human beings.  One of the key quotations in the Spectator article is from a 'john': ‘I like prostitutes cos they do what I tell them. Not like real women.’    Indeed.  As the Spectator says, 'it is not "sex work". Most of the time, it is modern slavery.'

 

Those who use prostitutes degrade and defile somebody's mother, somebody's sister, somebody's daughter.  They help fund a diabolical industry of vile exploitation.  They are not the victims.  They are really no more than rapists who happen to pay their victims for their silence.  The church -- and society -- should have a zero tolerance approach to such people.

Posted on Sunday, August 06, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This week I am giving the Moore College Lectures in Sydney.  The title of the series (with due homage to the great Peter Taylor Forsyth) is Reformation Preaching and the Modern Mind.  My hope is to use the Reformers, especially Luther, as a source for building a theological understanding of what preaching actually is.

 

In my first lecture, I concluded by offering the following seven theses which I will be defending (sometimes indirectly) in the remaining five:

 

Seven Theses on God and Preaching

 

The Reformation offers the following vital insights into preaching which helps us to understand it (both message and medium) as a theological act:

 

1. God is a God for whom speech is the primary vehicle of creation, presence, power, authority and new creation.

 

2. Those made in God’s image use speech in an analogous way to God himself.

 

3. God exerts his authority through the speech of those made in his image.

 

4. God builds his kingdom by the speech of preachers.   Preaching offers an alternative and "real" reality to those false realities created by the world, the flesh and the Devil.

 

5. Speech is axiomatic for both the content of salvation and the means by which salvation is applied.

 

6. The cross of Christ is axiomatic for both the content of gospel preaching and the shape of gospel ministry.

 

7. The existential engagement of preacher and congregation with the message is vital, given that such engagement is by its very nature engagement with God himself and with the tragedy of this fallen world.

 

And I left the final words of the lecture to Peter Taylor Forsyth himself:

 

“The Christian preacher is not the successor of the Greek orator, but of the Hebrew prophet. The orator comes with but an inspiration, the prophet comes with a revelation. In so far as the preacher and prophet had an analogue in Greece it was the dramatist, with his urgent sense of life’s guilty tragedy, its inevitable ethic, its unseen moral powers, and their atoning purifying note.”[1]




[1] Positive Preaching and Modern Mind (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1907), 3-4.

 

Posted on Wednesday, August 02, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Over at his blog at Patheos, Professor Chris Gehrz has responded to my most recent post at First Things.   Rod Dreher has provided a good reply but I offer here just a couple of brief comments.

 

First, Professor Gehrz seems on the whole to think that I see the problem with the LGBTQ movement as one of sexual morality.  I certainly do see it as a matter of morality, but then I see the problem of heterosexual cohabitation as one of sexual morality too.  But morality is not what makes this issue so contentious.   What makes the LGBTQ issue interesting and more significant is that it is also a matter of fundamental identity.   That makes the political debates surrounding the issue of profound importance, as anyone knows who has observed how the matter has played out in the public aquare in general and higher education in particular.

 

Second, and flowing from the first, Professor Gehrz states that he does 'I don’t believe that marriage, sexuality, or gender identity is anywhere near “the heart of the Gospel.”'  This statement would seem to indicate that he does not see the LGBTQ issue as one of identity (unless he wants to argue that identity -- who we are and who we think we are at our most fundamental level-- is nowhere near the heart of the gospel).  But even if it were just about sex, then sexual morality seems to be something about which both Jesus and Paul have many things to say. It is not for us to mark off as irrelevant to the gospel areas about which Jesus and Paul spoke.

 

The problem here is clear: he thinks I'm talking about sexual behavior/morality and he sees that as being of little importance, at least when it does not fall outside the boundaries of morality as society currently constructs them. But I am talking not so much about morality as about identity and the politics that flow from that.   And his failure to realize that this is the nature of the debate over LGBTQ rights etc., or perhaps his eliding of the matter of identity and morality in a manner which minimizes the significance of the former, means that he is completely underestimating the nature of the political problem. 

 

And, of course, we get the usual coda (using the military images of which he apparently disapproves when utilized by Rod and myself): "Conservative Christians have long waged culture war on sexual minorities, with precious little of the mercy, love, and grace that are actually at the heart of our Gospel."   Such an unqualified statement has a rhetorical force and no doubt plays to the progressive gallery but it actually slanders the many conservative Christians who have worked with grace, love and patience in this area, often in anonymous, local contexts.   Indeed, such a sweeping generalization from one who professes not to be able to see into the hearts of others nor to jump to cynical conclusions regarding those with whom he differs on these issues is quite remarkable. I wonder what he counts as 'waging war'?  As little as believing that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, and that sexual activity is to be restricted to that relationship, and that one has the right to say that in public perhaps?   Because that is certainly how the liberal culture now defines it.

 

 

Posted on Saturday, July 01, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

For me this summer is to be one of engaging Martin Luther.   Next Friday I am to be the token Schwaermer at a conference on the Word of God for Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors and theologians.  In August I am giving the Moore Theological College Annual Lectures on ‘Reformation Preaching and the Modern Mind,’ in which I will attempt to articulate a theology of preaching by drawing extensively on the writings and insights of the Doc.  Luther’s concept of the theology of the cross and of the theologian of the cross was, and remains, one of the most powerful articulations of the connection between the content of the gospel and the form of gospel ministry as set forth by Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians.  It is note the church needs to hear struck again and again.

 

Then, in the autumn Baker Academic will publish Between Wittenberg and Geneva, the fruit of the last few years of theological, historical, and ecclesiastical conversation between myself and my friend, the great scholar of the Lutheran Reformation, Bob Kolb. 

 

This latter work has a deeply irenic character.  I have made no secret over the fact that I believe confessional Lutherans are the more natural partners for ecumenical dialogue for the Reformed than are the Evangelicals.  We hold a similar attitude to church, confessions, the classical doctrine of God, and justification.  When Luther’s pastoral thought is studied carefully, the distance between Lutherans and Reformed on ethics is negligible and his model of ministry is exemplary.  Preaching is central to both communions.  Sacraments are important and, although the historic point of dispute, I find Luther’s Small Catechism on the Lord’s Supper to be an acceptable way of describing the matter.  Further, we have a common belief in a connectional polity which sees true church unity as more than merely a matter of spiritual affinity between autonomous congregations.  In short, we can have real ecumenical discussion with Lutherans that we cannot have with Congregationalists of whatever stripe because congregational polity rules out by definition any real churchly ecumenism.  Informal friendship is all that can ever be achieved.

 

2017 is a significant anniversary.  Hopefully it will be used by Evangelicals to re-engage with historic Reformation Christianity, including its polity and priorities.   For the Reformed and the Lutherans it offers the opportunity of re-engaging in full and frank discussion of both our shared creedal heritage and our principled confessional differences.  Luther has much to offer the Reformed, especially on the issue of the theology of the Word, the Cross

 

As a postscript, I spoke at a Reformation conference with T. David Gordon last week.  To celebrate the occasion, the church brewed a special beer. But it is pointless to check your local beer store.  Only 24 bottles exist, shared equally between the two men on the label…….

 

 

Posted on Tuesday, March 07, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I have received unexpected and unsolicited gifts of two drinking vessels recently.  The first, from the person we at the Spin know simply as Evil Amy the Less, the author who last year had the slanderous temerity to base (and indeed name) the character of an alcoholic priest in her novel of medieval times upon a distinguished and universally loved and respected church historian, needs no further comment.

 

The second, however, provoked more substantial historical ruminations.  It arrived yesterday and is a beer glass with one of my favourite Luther quotations inscribed upon it, taken from one of the Invocavit Sermons of 1522.  The curvature of the glass means that the picture is not entirely legible but the whole statement reads as follows:

 

“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing.  And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no price or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.”

 

I love this quotation, mainly because it references beer and thus clearly indicates that no Southern Baptist leader could ever claim Luther as an antecedent (and that is even before we touch upon his theology of baptism, the Lord’s Supper etc etc etc).  Bear that in mind during this 500th anniversary year....  But I also love it because it rests upon Luther’s supreme confidence in the proclamation of the Word.

 

In the popular imagination, it is the Diet of Worms where Luther is at his most vulnerable, standing before the massed elite of the Holy Roman Empire, to defend his theology (and I have a porcelain beer growler commemorating that scene).  In fact, other moments were equally risky – Augsburg in October 1518, for example.  And we also know in retrospect that Frederick the Wise had instructed his equivalent of the special forces to make sure Luther was kept safe.  Hence, his ‘kidnapping’ and subsequent sojourn in the Wartburg Castle under the pseudonym Junker Georg.

 

But while Luther stayed at the Wartburg, leadership in Wittenberg passed to his colleagues, the non-descript but radically inclined Konrad Zwilling, the young and gentle Philip Melanchthon, and the passionate Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt.

 

Karlstadt had been Luther’s senior colleague.  He was part of the Wittenberg faculty theological discussions driven by the rediscovery of the works of Augustine.   He had stood shoulder to shoulder with Luther at the Leipzig Disputation in April 1519.  Yet he was flawed.  Too verbose for his own good, it was inevitable that he would be literarily eclipsed by the talented pen of Doctor Martin.  And he tended towards a transformationist theological vision.

 

Late in 1521, Karlstadt and Zwilling started to drive the Wittenberg reformation in a radical direction.  Stirring up iconoclasm and riots, Karlstadt took to walking around Wittenberg dressed as a peasant and officiating at mass in a plain robe.   Then three individuals arrived, the Zwickau Prophets, who believed in the continuing direct leading of the Holy Spirit and thereby neglected the crucial centrality of the Word and the inseparability of Word and Spirit.

 

Wittenberg looked set to descend into chaos.  Luther returned incognito in December 1521 and, while pleased at the strides the reforms were making, he was deeply disturbed by the chaotic atmosphere and the iconoclasm.  Then, in early 1522, the Elector recalled him to the town permanently.

 

This was the moment Luther was most vulnerable.  Like Will Kane in High Noon, he was now totally alone.  His theological allies were either too timid or had gone over to the charismatic lunacy of the men from Zwickau.  The knights were conspicuous by their absence.  And the Elector was waiting to see what would happen: he knew that if the reformation in Wittenberg could not be brought under control, he risked invasion from the Emperor; if Luther failed, Frederick would have to reimpose the old ways.  Luther had no decisive allies.  It was all down to him.

 

In this context Luther quite literally preached the reformation back onto a stable footing in a remarkable series of pulpit performances which come down to us as the Invocavit Sermons on 1522.  By the time he had finished, the Zwickau whackos were gone, and Zwilling and Karlstadt had had to leave Wittenberg.  Luther was back in control with Melancthon as his gentle second-in-command.  Others, like Justus Jonas, who had been swept up in the madness had returned to sanity.  All was well.  Luther had preached God's Word and God's Word had done it all. And it is from these – and from that crisis moment – that this quotation is drawn.

 

 

So every time I sip the amber nectar from this wonderful glass, I will thank God that I am not a Southern Baptist and then I will praise him for the power of his Word as so admirably demonstrated in Wittenberg in the dark months of early 1522.

 

POSTSCRIPT: The glass is produced by Reformation Glass whose products are available via Amazon but not through the SBC.

 

Posted on Tuesday, March 07, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Reading Augustine's De Trinitate this semester with a group of students, I was struck by this brilliant analysis of the way that sin operates.  It comes from Book XII:

 

"For just as a snake does not walk with open strides bur wriggles along by the tiny little movements of its scales, so the careless glide little by little along the slippery path of failure, and beginning from a distorted appetite for being like God they end up by becoming like beasts."

 

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Donald Macleod has written a moving obituary of the Rev. Dr. Iain D. Campbell.  You can find it here.