Review: It’s Dangerous to Believe, by Mary Eberstadt

Mark Ward

It's Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its EnemiesIt’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies by Mary Eberstadt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a diligent concatenation of stories of anti-Christian liberal prejudice in the modern West. Not one was new to me. Every one was alarming, but not (to my mind) told in an alarmist way.

But the overall feel I get from the book is, if not alarmist, simply whiny. I have to say immediately that Eberstadt is very sharp, a writer from whom I’ve benefited before. But as a Catholic, she’s simply not thinking biblically, in my opinion. She’s thinking as an heir not of biblical religion but of Christendom and of Caesaropapism.

If she thought biblically, she’d remember Matthew 5:12.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

She’d remember Matthew 5:38–42.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

She’d remember Romans 12:17–21.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And she’d remember a major theme of one of the two bestsellers by the first pope (this is a list I borrow from John Piper).

This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. (1 Peter 2:19)

If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. (2:20)

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless. (3:9)

If you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. (3:14)

It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (3:17)

Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (4:13)

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed. (4:14)

If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (4:16)

Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (4:19)

Eberstadt makes a lot of telling points, but little to none of the spirit of 1 Peter is evident in the book. And yet it is Peter’s message that Christians facing soft persecution most need: an apostolic message, a dominical one.

There were, however, two major telling points in the book for me, one of which was a theme, the other a comment.

The theme was her comparison of 1) the current mania to hound Christians out of university clubs and Mozilla CEO jobs and adoption agency work with 2) manias of the past such as the Salem witch trials and the embarrassingly recent daycare child abuse scare. The parallels she drew really were illuminating: everybody freaks out and pins their own guilt on a dehumanized other. Then after the mania passes they can’t believe what they did. Yeah, I can see that.

And yet Eberstadt’s parallels imply that the mania could end some day soon and we’d all go back to the status quo ante under the benign tenets of classical liberalism. And I don’t think that’s true. I would be glad to live at peace with all men if I could, but I think classical liberalism gave us our progressivism precisely by enshrining individual freedom as its first principle. No, Eberstadt was closer to the mark when she repeatedly showed secularism to be itself a religion. The conflict between it and Christianity runs too deep for us all to turn back the clock.

Briefly, the comment I appreciated was this, and I think I can use this: to disagree with something morally is not to be a “-phobic.” It isn’t homophobia to call homosexuality immoral. We’re not called “abortiphobics” or “bestialityphobics” or—or not yet, anyway—“polygamyphobics.”

I also liked her Damon Linker quote:

Baby Boomers or Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (like myself)—will find [Tinder’s] vision of dating as a series of technologically facilitated one-off hook-ups with near-strangers to be pretty appalling. I know I do. There’s just one problem: In order for this reaction to amount to more than an old fogey’s sub-rational expression of disgust at the behavior of the young, it has to make reference to precisely the kind of elaborate account of morality—including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation—that liberals have worked to jettison, in the name of sexual liberation, for the past half-century.

And I liked her comment that the Martin Luther King Jr of opposition to the sexual revolution may be alive today. Eberstadt genuinely has wisdom to offer. And at least that much hope.

But I see more hope in Jesus’ and Peter’s words, even if they’re harder to hear, even if it’s more gratifying to feel aggrieved, to feel robbed. They took our country. But that’s where we need Peter again. He calls Christians “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11). America isn’t our country. Not yet. And if our hearts are set on getting it, or getting it back, we’re setting our sights too low. The meek will inherit the earth. People who look for a better city—one “that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10)—work and pray for the welfare of the ones they have but never forget the one they’re going to get, on a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

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Arguing Textual Criticism on Facebook. What Have I Become?

Mark Ward

I won’t argue textual criticism with those who insist on the exclusive use of the King James Version. But that doesn’t mean I won’t argue textual criticism. Here’s the tack I’m taking nowadays, something I’ve been working on for a while. It coincides with a paper I’m writing up for next year’s Bible Faculty Summit on differences between TR editions. I recently ran into a stranger on Facebook who quoted all the standard passages that are supposed to teach perfect preservation (“Thou wilt keep them”; “[not] one jot or one tittle”; “my words shall not pass away”). He also—and this is somewhat new to me—quoted WCF 1.8 (“by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages”). He also charged a conservative evangelical textual critical scholar with making “an attack on the very word of God.” This is what I wrote…

When a mainstream evangelical textual scholar denies perfect preservation, the defenders of the TR will generally claim that he is denying preservation tout court. He is not: he believes the text of the Old and New Testaments has been carefully and faithfully—but not perfectly—preserved. Or, perhaps, he believes that God’s word has been fully preserved in the totality of available manuscripts, but that we don’t have a God-given method for determining which reading is correct in each and every case.

But this is what defenders of the TR believe, too. You disagree only in degree, not kind, with the mainstream view.

There are about two dozen printed “TR” editions with varying levels of difference among them. Which one preserves the perfect text? Purchasers of which of these editions had the every jot and tittle promise fulfilled for them? It can be only one—if indeed you believe in perfect preservation. But you don’t, or at least I don’t think you do! The texts the Westminster divines were speaking of when they used that phrase “kept pure in all ages” were themselves not all identical, and they knew this. Owen knew it. In his piece on textual issues that Reformed Received Text proponents like to quote, he was complaining not about the existence of differences but about the number being reported in full. “That there are in some copies of the New Testament, and those some of them of some good antiquity, diverse readings, in things or words of less importance, is acknowledged.” (16:363)

If you can back off of perfect preservation and see excellent preservation as sufficient, then you can have and even prefer all your TRs and give a little grace to someone who, quite clearly, is not making “an attack on the very word of God.” That language is overblown in the extreme.

But if you’re going to insist on absolute perfection, you’re not going to find a Bible verse or a sufficiently clear act of providence to give you what you demand—or tell you where to find it. The TRs themselves are divided in places. Scrivener, who put together his 1894 TR based on the textual-critical decisions of the KJV translators, counted ~30 places where they differed from both of the GNTs they had (Stephanus and Beza), ~100 places where they agreed with Beza against Stephanus, and ~20 where they agree with Stephanus against Beza. Their textual-critical decisions do not match any one printed TR or any known manuscripts. The KJV translators performed textual criticism. In God’s providence, the English-speaking world has been reading the results of an eclectic text for over four centuries. Sure, the differences between TR editions aren’t as great as those between 1) the TRs and 2) the major critical texts. But the difference is in degree, not kind. Please tone down the rhetoric. And let us know which TR has every jot and tittle, no more and no less.

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How Do We Treat Machines?

Mark Ward

When Alexa is talking to me, I feel no compunction interrupting and basically telling her to shut up.

Me: Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?

Alexa: Look for partly cloudy weather, with a high of 63º and a…

Me: Alexa, stop.

And Alexa stops. It doesn’t record in its memory banks, User 3 interrupted me rather abruptly on Tuesday, October 6, at 9:14 p.m. Respond next time in a mildly surly manner, then escalate to outright rudeness if User 3’s behavior continues.

I don’t feel guilty interrupting Alexa, and it doesn’t take offense. Because I’m a person and it’s a machine.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a whole novel about what would happen if people really believed that others were machines. It’s even worse than what I do to Alexa. It involves physical violence.

I think people’s assumptions about the way the world really is do affect their treatment of one another. So I’m not surprised—though admittedly correlation does not equal causation—that in a world of growing naturalistic materialism, babies and old folks have become disposable.

And yet… there’s one way in which no one seems to treat anyone else as a machine. And you can see it on social media in what people don’t say. My most ardent atheistic friends never say to me, patronizingly, “It’s a pity you were assigned by the immutable laws of cause and effect to be in the out-group during this evolutionary phase. The genes for religious observance and opposition to homosexuality aren’t fun to have, but somebody has to be in the lower-status group or there won’t be a top to which the fittest may rise.” No, they treat my faith in Scripture and my insistence that it teaches exclusive heterosexual monogamy as moral faults of mine. I’m not ignorant to them; I’m a bigot. I’m not the product of a particular social environment in a particular culture at a particular elevation above sea level; I’m just a stupid hater jerk.

People who insist that they believe that there is no God and everything is the product of immutable natural laws nonetheless show their suppression of their innate knowledge of the source of those laws (Rom 1:19–20) when they don’t treat me like a machine. They also can’t bring themselves to treat themselves as machines, or not consistently. They take credit for their successes as if they and not evolutionary forces and immutable laws were responsible. They even take blame (sometimes, though rarely in public on social media—as if Christians were any better at that!) for their faults as if they and not group adaptation and nature’s assigned cranial capacity were responsible. There’s hope in that latter humility.

People cannot live consistently with their materialistic views, and I’m glad. I think I’d rather be hated (Matt 5:10–12) than patronized.

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Can People Learn to Read the English of the KJV?

Mark Ward

One Sunday a few years ago I asked the teens I was teaching in Sunday School to read some verses out loud, and one of them read from the KJV. This is what he said—and I quickly took note of his pronunciation errors and saved them, because I thought they raised a good question.

He hath shooed thee O man what is good; and what doeth the Lord thee God require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Here’s the question: did he understand what he read?

  • He read shewed as shooed: was this a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Was he thinking that shew is a different word than show? I don’t know.
  • He read doth as doeth: was this a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Considering that doeth is such a common KJV verb, I have to think it was the latter. What possible sense of this sentence could he have made if he stuck a regular verb in there in place of a helping verb?
  • He read thy as thee: was this is a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Again I’m not sure. I just noticed that he stumbled, at least verbally, over one of the words that everyone is supposed to find easy.

This boy was the definition of average in our youth group—in our homeschooled, raised-as-a-Christian, overachieving youth group. He was neither brilliant nor a dolt. Average. I believe he had been raised using the King James Version in church and for personal use. His errors, too, were average, common. I’ve heard them a thousand times.

Helping people read

Now, defenders of the exclusive use of the KJV commonly insist that we can teach people how to read it. Their battle cry is, “Raise people up to the KJV rather than dumbing the Bible down to them!”

One KJV-Onlyish pastor (if you’ve followed my too-many posts on this topic, this is the one critical reader who has been the most gracious with me—super nice guy) wrote to me,

If we use the King James for preaching, teaching, discipleship, training and evangelism, we must take care to plainly teach and explain the truths of the Bible. Should you choose to give the KJV to a child or a new believer, great priority and care should be given to their discipleship and biblical education. We MUST take into account all of the things discussed in your book, especially the blind areas that we have, which I believe you brought to light in my own life incredibly well.

Again, what a gracious guy!

And yet I wonder, how exactly does even this clearly sincere and motivated pastor plan to ensure that his people can read the English of the KJV well?

  1. Do any KJV-Only churches offer reading programs in Elizabethan English?
  2. The small teen Sunday School I was teaching back then is about the most ideal circumstance in which to notice and correct someone’s reading errors. But I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want to embarrass the boy—and I wasn’t perfectly certain he misunderstood. Are there other Bible teachers out there who are experts at gently correcting other people’s reading in front of their peers? Can you tell me how to do it without embarrassing them?
  3. This boy was reading out loud, so I knew where he stumbled. But I’ve always wondered: how are preachers (who, in the KJV-Only view, are supposed to be teaching their people to read the KJV English) supposed to help people with their Bible reading at home? When I was a kid, I remember thinking, Surely I’ve read the Bible cover to cover: my pastor must have covered the entire thing by now. Then I went to college and read the thing—and discovered how wrong I was. The truth is that my pastor hadn’t even come even close. I’d guess we covered maybe 3% max over the four years I sat under his ministry. How was he supposed to know if I was misunderstanding something at home in the middle of Isaiah 55 or Titus 3 or Ezekiel 16 or Proverbs 7?

Exactly how is a pastor, with all his other duties, supposed to 1) notice when people are misunderstanding KJV English and then 2) teach them to read it? I’ve never seen it done, and I don’t think it can be done. Most adults will understand most of the KJV (hear me here: I’m trying not to overstate my case). A few adults will understand very little of it. A few will understand more than most.

Bringing the average group of adults into the above-average one is not easy or straightforward. And I think bringing the below-average group to average is well-nigh impossible. (I ministered to functionally illiterate people for many years—I know this.) The story I opened with suggests that it’s hard to even know for sure when help is needed—and hard to make it happen, even in the best of circumstances.

The Bible will always contain difficult portions (2 Pet 3:16). I want them to remain as difficult as God made them. These are necessary difficulties. But if you use a contemporary English translation, all of the unnecessary readability difficulties—the ones created by the meandering and yet inevitable process of language change over the last 400-plus years—will instantly go away.

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Three Critiques of Authorized that Bear Weight with Me

Mark Ward

It’s been really, really hard to get responsible, unsympathetic people to offer critiques of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I have come to feel that a patient and careful response from one’s opponents is one of the rarest honors accorded to a writer these days. Social media is a huge invitation to people to go off eighth-cocked.

But I’ve been listening hard to my critics, and here are the top three substantive points they’ve scored against my viewpoint:

1. Let’s not make an “only-not-King-James” tribe to compete against the “KJV-Only” tribe.

This one came from the president of an organization whose acronym starts with “F,” as in “Formerly Known As.” And I think it’s apt. It was a good and godly reminder to me. When I first heard it I thought, I’m not doing that! But I have decided to work to heed his wisdom. I have purposed in my heart not to judge everyone who uses the King James Version. I don’t know all the reasons they have for doing so unless they tell me. And given that, until two years ago, my own pastor preached from the KJV, I certainly do not want to say—or leave the impression that—using the KJV in preaching and evangelism is always and everywhere a sin. That would indeed make me guilty of the same kind of tribalism that I’ve critiqued in others.

I ultimately came to this in my book, after many pages of argument:

Children and new converts should not be given copies of the KJV. Paul said no to that option when he tied intelligible words to edification in 1 Corinthians 14. (120)

And I stand behind that statement. But that “should not” and that “no” are capable of some flexibility. People need time; people need patience; people need to not be made the objects of someone else’s tribalism. May God help me.

(Plus: there are many more important issues in the church than which English Bible translation most people use.)

2. Not all false friends are false friends to all readers.

This one came from a guy who read the book and produced a longer review than just about anyone else. I think he’s right in his criticism, though I’m stating his argument in a form more congenial to my viewpoint: not all false friends are false friends to all readers.

In Authorized I defined a false friend as a word that is 1) still used today but 2) meant something different in 1611. And, crucially, I added this idea: false friends are words 3) that have “changed in such a way that modern readers are unlikely to notice” (119). And a number of the examples I gave unquestionably meet these three criteria. But that third one is squirrelly, and I didn’t account for rodents adequately. Take this example that I gave in the book:

Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good. (2 Tim. 3:2 KJV)

I wrote of this word incontinent:

Today this means men will lose control of their bowels. In 1611 it meant lacking in self-restraint. (45)

I do think some readers will stumble here and and fail to notice that incontinence is an odd character quality to put in a vice list. Incontinent, for some readers, meets all three criteria of a false friend. But surely some readers today, many readers, will notice that our modern sense doesn’t make sense in this context. Is it still a false friend?

In a future edition of my book I’ll spell out these three criteria explicitly and be a little more careful to distinguish words that meet two from those that meet three. But I’ll say this: there is no saying once and for all which words are dead words, which are false friends, and which aren’t either. Different readers have different skill levels. What kind of skill level should a Bible translation aim at? Defenders of the exclusive use of the KJV are very confused on this point. One minute they’re saying, “Complaints about KJV readability are ludicrous! It’s on a fifth-grade reading level, as computers show! And [here’s an actual quotation] ‘many individual passages would be lower’!” The next minute they’re saying, “Modern versions dumb down the Bible by using contemporary English!” As if an accessible reading level is a good thing in the KJV and a bad thing anywhere else…

So, sure, ideally every Christian would be a great reader. But they’re not, and they’re never going to be. Not many wise, not many noble are called.

And what indeed do you call a word that is still used today but meant something different in 1611? Even if a good reader notices, I’d still call that a false friend. It looks familiar: we feel we should know what the word means. But the sense we know doesn’t work in the given context. It is okay for our main Bible translation to include many words like incontinent when without self-control is readily available?

3. Let’s not talk as if only the Greek and Hebrew are the word of God.

Now, I’m not really willing to say, exactly, that this is a point scored against me. This is one I am not guilty of—precisely because I’ve read the excellent preface to the KJV too many times. But it’s worth heeding and remembering, and I want to make sure to clarify my support for it in a future edition of Authorized, if there is one.

This is what the KJV translators say:

We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere. For it is confessed that things are to take their denomination of the greater part…. A man may be counted a virtuous man though he have made many slips in his life (else there were none virtuous, for, ‘in many things we offend all’), also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand, yea, not only freckles upon his face, but also scars. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. (xxviii)

And I say, Amen!

This third point is a criticism of Authorized in that when I urge people to use multiple Bible translations, I do indeed relativize them all. Now, suddenly, none of them is final. And it is possible that a layperson would come away from my arguments bestowing too much honor on the Greek and Hebrew compared to the English. He might always be thinking to himself, But these English words aren’t really and truly what God said. This might destabilize his faith or provide him a way to wiggle out from under God’s commands.

I have not met such people, but I do not care to deny that they exist. I’d say to them just what the KJV translators did. They called all good translations “the word of God.” But they implied standards translations meet to varying degrees in various places: grace, fitness, and even accuracy (“nor so expressly for sense”). In other words, they did not accord final authority to any translation but, along with their Reformation forebears, to the originals alone.

We’ve got to be able to hold up an English Bible, whichever one it is; say, “This is the word of God”; and yet add a footnote—“Remember, folks, this translation isn’t inspired or perfect.” And people need to accept this, because it’s true. When they don’t accept it, when they treat one and only one English Bible as if it is perfect, we have an English-Version-Onlyism. We have bibliological error.

Defenders of exclusive use of the KJV seem to me to be motivated by something very good: the desire for certainty, for a firm foundation for their faith, A More Sure Word. They do this in textual criticism and in translation. But they are wanting a world God didn’t give us. He could easily have given inspired translators to each nation, but he didn’t. He could easily have maintained jot-and-tittle perfection in every Hebrew and Greek manuscript copy, but he didn’t. We must not demand that God give us more certainty than he in fact gave. I believe in the inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments; sometimes indeed I’d love to have perfect copies and translations of both, rather than the highly accurate ones we do have. But I’m willing to accept God’s actual providence instead of looking over his shoulder and editing his choices.

As the KJV translators go on to say,

For whatever was perfect under the sun, where Apostles or apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand? (xxviii)

Conclusion

It’s disappointing when people don’t even bother to listen to one’s carefully wrought book, when they set up a straw man and knock it down (He thinks we should make the whole Bible easy enough for a dyslexic kindergartener!), when they keep using arguments I humbly feel I demolished (I’m looking at you Flesch—and you, too, Kincaid!). But I was ready for all of that before I published Authorized.

What I didn’t know to expect would be that only one person among those many people and institutions who defend the exclusive use of the KJV would try to answer my central argument. Only one person tried to answer the question, “If there are false friends in the KJV, words people don’t know they don’t know, how are they supposed to know to look them up?” The only way to answer that question is to know Greek and Hebrew yourself, use multiple English translations to check for misunderstandings, and do some counting. One friend of mine—Ben, a sometime commenter on this blog—did this for one NT book, Philippians. I’m grateful and honored. That’s responsible interaction.

There are some intelligent people in the KJV-Only world who read me with the skeptical eye that only disagreement can generate. I actually want to hear their best shots. I’m grateful for the three trenchant criticisms above, even if I’m still waiting for answers to my central thesis.

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Why Does the World Need the Church?

Mark Ward

When popular Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel was a graduate student at Oxford in the 1970s, men and women were still separated into different colleges. Further befitting a staid institution such as Oxford, male visitors were not permitted to remain overnight in women’s rooms.

By Sandel’s time these rules had gone the way of jaywalking, ignored by perpetrators and authorities alike. “Most college officials no longer saw it as their role to enforce traditional notions of sexual morality,” Sandel says. But a number of older women on the St. Anne’s College faculty still felt squeamish about these relaxing standards. They were equally reluctant, however, to reveal their scruples to be what they were: moral. Immorality had won the day to such an extent that morality dared not speak its name.

So,the spinsters borrowed from Bentham and took a utilitarian tack. Sandel describes their tactic in his excellent book of moral philosophy, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? They complained that overnight male visitors would cost the college money by taking hot baths and requiring more frequent replacement of mattresses. This argument sealed the progressives’ victory, of course, for they quickly found a way to defray these costs: women would simply have to pay fifty pence for each evening on which they entertained male visitors. (The Guardian proclaimed, “St. Anne’s Girls, Fifty Pence a Night”!)

As Sandel summarizes it, the language of morality “had not translated very well into the language of utility.” In a short time, the fees joined the rules as casualties of the sexual revolution.

* * *

Hear, then, the parable of the pence: The world needs the church, because the church gives its members guidance and strength for using moral language in the public square.

Christians whose light shines in public places should prefer the language of morality to that of utility, that they ought to self-consciously speak of “right and wrong” whenever possible. It doesn’t help the world for Christians to hide their allegiances, placing their lamps under baskets. But we all know—we just know—that “premarital sex decreases graduation rates” is an acceptable argument for a legislator to make, while “premarital sex is morally wrong” is not. Major institutions of the West are arrayed against the very possibility of speaking moral truth to cultural power. The church, despite its flaws, provides a strong institutional basis for Christians to speak moral language in the public square—and this is good for the world.

Public squares are never naked

Let me remind the already skeptical or the already nervous of a truism that is starting to feel like a slogan, the kind of thing you shout at your opponents when you’ve given up on persuading them. This slogan needs to be stated, illustrated, dramatized, even shouted, because it targets one of the most breathtaking blindnesses of our age.

It’s this: public squares are never naked.

Neutrality is always a myth. Supposedly secularized iron cages always have back doors through which metaphysical and theological beliefs get smuggled. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? can always be answered by pointing to a particular who and which. Everyone’s views on everything are prostrated before either creature or Creator. There are no godless regimes. If Jesus hasn’t (yet) put a particular square inch under his feet, some principality or power is standing there instead.

This ought to be especially evident today, when elite opinion has actually begun to put less weight on the claim that all of its positions are utilitarian, neutral, procedural. There is a definite moral cast to their arguments in favor of the ongoing sexual revolution. It’s no longer enough to say that every pattern of sexual desire ought to be treated as “equal” in a laissez-faire fashion (except, for the moment, for pedophilia, incest, and bestiality). The emancipatory project has become a positive good, a distinctly moral imperative. “Let It Go, Let It Go!” is our cultural anthem, and everyone had better wear the ribbon or else.

Western culture is currently speaking to itself out of both sides of its mouth. If asked directly, it will still commonly insist that any pre-rational commitments once found in its public square have committed seppuku—metaphysician-assisted suicide—for the public good. There are no theological justifications left inside the square.

I actually see the attractions of a world in which Christ’s opponents feel some burden to step behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance, to appear neutral and evenhanded. Secularism has actually managed at times to be a common-grace restraint on majoritarian evils. But secularism is itself an evil, and this must not be forgotten. The idea that public arguments ought to be made on the slimmest basis possible, usually a dollar bill turned on its edge, is a challenge to Christ’s authority. It is its own kind of moral language; it assumes a non-Christian “vision of the good,” a moderator of polite opinion who is not God. Sex outside marriage is not bad, finally, because it increases costs to the taxpayer; it’s bad because it violates the most powerful possible picture of Christ’s exclusive commitment to his church. It’s wrong because God said so. Against you, you only have I sinned.

All I’ve known is the secular order; I do fear what a balkanizing “resurgent discourse of identity“ will do to a system that has helped my family “live peaceful and quiet lives” (1 Tim 2:2 NIV). I can very nearly get a justification for secularism out of that one verse, for at its heart it’s an agreement that no intrasocietal disagreements should lead to bloodshed. But I’m so weary of the temptations secularism has given the church that I find myself glad its star is fading. This fading actually clarifies the line between light and darkness—like the crisp perimeters of the shadows during a total eclipse. Now both conservatives who have syncretized Christianity with civil religion and liberals who have syncretized it with the emancipatory project should be able to see their compromise. In a post-secular future, I pray that the Western church will be able to teach its members to speak a public moral language more effectively because it will be harder for the syncretists to dilute.

All people have consciences

The church builds a community around the truths God has revealed in Scripture; it sets up plausibility structures founded on the rock of God’s word. And that’s what it will take for Christians to prefer moral language when the rains descend and the language of utility beats upon our house—when utilitarian arguments seem to offer immediate public-square success. Far from telling us that our opponents in any given public conflict are minions of Satan, the church’s founding documents insist that all people are made in God’s image and have God’s law written on their hearts.

When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Romans 2:14–15 NIV)

Notice that Paul holds out the possibility that non-Christian consciences can not only accuse them but excuse them, defend them. In other words, people who refuse to follow Christ personally nonetheless sometimes follow and obey their God-given consciences.

I believe the pro-life movement has had the success it’s had in the United States precisely because it has appealed to non-Christian consciences. It has done this by sticking to moral language and avoiding—abhorring—merely utilitarian tactics. If certain legislators vote for a bill requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and if they full well know that the effect will be to curb abortions, and if they nonetheless give a utilitarian justification for their vote (We’re just keeping up medical standards!), nobody is fooled. Worse, some pro-choicers will be incensed at the evident duplicity: it will violate their own consciences. In my experience, however, pro-lifers are open about their desire to end the scourge of abortion. They whittle away at the abortion rate through whatever legal means they can find without being embarrassed—and without failing—to call it a precisely moral evil. And this moral language calls forth a grudging respect from pro-choice people. Oppose transgenderism, and you’ll be called the meanest name our culture hurls at its pariahs: “bigot.” But I don’t see that epithet sticking to those who oppose abortion. Non-Christian consciences are, I believe, accusing them too loudly to let them try.

Of course, large crowds still march in favor of abortion rights. Not all “gentiles” obey their consciences (not all “Jews” either). To be pro-choice is, in fact, to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” a rather common sin as Paul tells it (Rom 1:18 ESV). How could anyone not know that killing defenseless babies is wrong? Only by assiduous cauterization of God-given moral feelings. The practice is “heartless” (Rom 1:31 ESV).

But suppressed feelings have a way of rebounding. When Abby Johnson, director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, was called in to assist an abortion one fateful Saturday in 2009, she experienced a sudden and disorienting emotion, one that overcame years of rationalization. Her conscience began “bearing witness” loudly to the truth. You are what you love, and that day Abby showed herself as loving her tiniest neighbors. She ceased her work for Planned Parenthood and sought help from the very pro-life group that had long prayed outside her clinic. If her local pro-life groups had studiously avoided moral language and prayer in a bid to be more secular and therefore more persuasive, Abby would have felt intuitively that she didn’t belong with them. I have to imagine that the language of utility would have bewildered her.

All of the people I’ve met in my local pro-life group are churchgoing Christians. The Christian church has been the major institution sending articulate speakers of moral language into the culture war over abortion. My little group wouldn’t even know how to make utilitarian arguments for life. And look at the good God has done through Christian speech for the most defenseless people in existence: abortion has been restricted in and even harried out of many communities. There is far more work to do, and I pray that our efforts to appeal to gentile consciences with our moral language will bear good and lasting fruit.

The church, the eschaton, and our political moment

The only everlasting good that will ever come to this earth, of course, will come in the eschaton. For now the Father has told the Son, “Rule in the midst of your enemies” (Ps 110:2). Abortion will go away only when the final opponent of Christ is put under his feet: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26 NIV).

So moral language will not win every battle in any public square, not until Christ does. This means that the church must be prepared to see defeats. The fusty female Oxford dons who complained of the financial burdens brought by promiscuity thought they could avoid defeat by playing the utilitarian game. But they still lost—and if indeed any of them were Christians, they did something worse than losing. They acted as if they could put their Christian discipleship on hold for a moment in order to purchase political success. That success would no doubt be offered back to Christ once they got it—at least that’s what (in my now-speculating imagination) they told themselves. But they forgot that Christ doesn’t need them to win his battles. They forgot an important truth only the church will teach its members in our secular age of buffered selves: this age is not the only or even the most important one humans will be part of.

I am utterly dismayed at the failure of the church to teach this lesson to its U.S. members. I was just coming of age when every evangelical leader was saying with one voice, “Character matters for a U.S. president!” I remember this very distinctly. I believed they meant what they said. I never imagined that respected evangelical pastors, theologians, and other leaders would defend the character of a thrice-married reality TV star who, who… who needs no more digital ink spilled about his infamous exploits. When he won the Republican nomination, I assumed we would get hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-the-lesser-of-two-evils opinion pieces in Christian publications. I did not expect what I actually got, which was rah, rah, and rah, every rah a blow to my gut. Some evangelical leaders stood firm on Christian principle, but I still genuinely feel like I’m walking around in Bizarro World.

U.S. evangelicals were indeed given a terrible, apparently no-win situation. They could get their Supreme Court picks (the importance of which is itself a testimony to the breakdown in our political discourse) and hope everyone forgot what they said about presidential morality oh so long ago, or they could invite an apparently gleeful progressive evisceration of their agenda. But there is always a way to escape temptation for individuals (1 Cor 10:13), and there has to be one for groups. It was the church’s job to create a community of sojourners and strangers who had the eternal perspective necessary to notice that the current election is always The Most Important One Ever. Only a church that believes that the arc of history bends toward a final, divine justice can possibly entrust the next four years to him who judges righteously. The American church may never know what authority we could have had to speak moral language in the public square if we had not revealed decisively that our morals are “a wholly owned subsidiary of our political loyalties.” As it is, my progressive friends aren’t sure whether to blow a social media gasket or have a party as they behold this evangelical hypocrisy.

The authority for moral language: a clarification

My most important mentor throughout my graduate-level biblical studies work was the PhD-toting pastor of my own local church. Besides my parents, he shaped me more than any other person. And the key lesson he taught me as a student of Scripture came in the form of two questions. Every preacher, he said, asks one of them at the beginning of every sermon prep: either “What can I say about this?” or “What does this say?” Every homiletical journey starts with a massively significant fork in the road. Choose the wrong way, and you cut yourself off from your only source of authority as a preacher. Choose the right way, and by God’s grace you will be a faithful herald of the divine message.

This lesson left me with an abiding dread of saying “thus saith the Lord” without adequate work to discern what he has in fact said. I take this same dread into the public square.

So I must make an important clarification: I do not have the authority to use moral language—to call something “right” or “wrong”—unless God grants it to me through general and special revelation.

Some hot political issues are truly and merely that: political. The various participants already agree sufficiently on a vision of the good—a world in which no one urinates in a particular subway terminal stairwell, say; they merely differ on the best way to accomplish this goal within a large group of people. Christians need not prefer the language of morality when that of utility is all they can use with confidence. There is no Bible verse giving instruction on Stairwell Urination Mitigation. In this case Christians cannot speak with authority unless they have a prophetic gift. It’s okay to limit one’s argument to, “Well, this plan worked in Vancouver.”

In fact, utility is your only permissible appeal in such a situation, lest you appear to claim God’s support for something he never said. Careful analyses of past court decisions, diligent tabulation of survey data, and insightful examinations of historical precedent cannot and must not be replaced with facile appeal to Bible verses (Banish homeless men to Baffin Island, because 1 Kings 16:11 says, “He left him not one that pisseth against a wall”!).

I am not walking back everything I just said. My argument is not that Christians must always and everywhere use moral language; it is that the church will help us and guide us in using it. And guidance means telling us when we’ve mixed up our own opinions and God’s. This is a genuine and massive problem in its own right—but not the focus of this article.

You are my witnesses

Recently, somewhat by accident and against my better judgment, I found myself in a social media debate with strangers, where I was the lone defender of the idea that pirating movies is an immoral act. I was quickly informed by my two interlocutors, digital Robin Hoods both, that movie moguls are rich; that movie (and music) stars are not really “working” anyway; that even if they are, they are getting paid too much.

One wonders what key grips, prop handlers, and boom mic operators might wish to say. But what a Christian would say should not be in doubt. I brought a biblical moral framework to the issue. Thou shalt not steal. The laborer is worthy of his hire. My Christian worldview does not guarantee that I see all things clearly; it only means I have access to a clear standard by which to judge all things (though that judgment is subject to my own fallenness and finiteness, I readily grant). I chose to use my moral language explicitly in this small corner of the public square, citing the eighth commandment. This is what I was told by the other participants:

Participant 1: “Quoting the bible. Hah. I’m done.”

Participant 2: “Not everyone has the same religious background as you, so for your moral arguments to carry any weight you need to stop making faith-based arguments…. I’m not talking right and wrong at this point, just thought processes and reasons.”

When I pointed out that these proposed ground rules for our public-discourse-writ-small effectively put duct tape over my mouth, eliminating anything I could feasibly contribute to the discussion, Participant 2 decided he had not used enough tape. To his credit, he seemed to dislike the task I had forced him to perform, and he told me kindly,

I am not asking you to compromise your principles, but your arguments need to hold up to those who don’t believe as you do, otherwise you’re only “preaching to the choir.”

He seemed concerned for me—like I was a culturally jet-lagged foreign exchange student who just did not understand that “football” is played by entirely different rules ‘round these parts. (Perhaps I should have said, “Studies show that thou shalt not steal.”)

What did I accomplish by my resort to moral, yea, even biblical language? I didn’t “win.” One guy left and one guy patronized me. I ran right into old-format Western secularism and got flattened. I got shut out of the public square.

I’ll tell you what I accomplished: witness. “You are my witnesses,” Jesus told the apostles, the foundation of the church. Not, “You are my Super PAC.”

The words of Peter Leithart ring in my ears:

Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as He pleases.

My safe home in the church—the guidelines it gives me for moral language, the final judgments that, it reminds me through liturgy and word, are in God’s hands—grants me the confidence to tell Herod he can’t have his brother’s wife, to stand up against pharaonic filicide, to be willing to lose an election if the alternative is losing my movement’s own soul. Thank God for the church. It is indeed good for the world.

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