14 February 2016

The Razor's Edge: Covenant Faithfulness and Apostasy Part III

When you break with a group like the Brethren you have taken a wholly different path and it's no surprise that some who have done this end up working out the implications.

For many years I've often thought about someone like Garrison Keillor, host of the radio show 'A Prairie Home Companion'. He's retiring this year and has recently been making the news. Many people mistake him for being a Lutheran as his show based on a fictional town in Minnesota often pokes fun at Upper-Midwestern Christian and thus Lutheran culture. But Keillor was raised Plymouth Brethren and he's mentioned it many times in the show and done pieces about how his family didn't celebrate Christmas etc...

I remember turning on his show back in the 1990s and a lot of people, even a lot of Christians I knew seemed to appreciate it. Even Thrivent Financial for Lutherans would advertise on the show. I could say a great many things about that but I will refrain.

And yet listening to the show I found it unpalatable. There was plenty of good music and genuine humour. His 'News from Lake Wobegon' was often very amusing. Keillor gives people that good ol' down home kind of feeling. He transports you to small town life, simpler times and folk memory. If you live in small town the humour resonates. Keillor both loves it and absolutely despises it.

The show is actually making fun of it all. He's like many people who revisit their small town after living in the city. They love coming back and remembering but at the same time they are so glad they don't live there anymore and can't wait to get away from it. In that sense he captures a certain restlessness that many people feel in this culture and its changing demographic situations. His post-war upbringing and generation feels it acutely.

And yet, there's a real bitterness in his poking fun at Christianity. He plainly despises it (at least its Biblical form) and his skits quickly degenerate into sacrilege and blasphemy. I turned his show off long ago. Occasionally if we were in the car on a Saturday evening I'd turn it on but usually we wouldn't last more than a few minutes. Our kids were young and couldn't have understood it anyway. Today if I was to listen to it, it would be pure polemics. I would be turning it off to explain to my kids what they just heard and asking them questions, challenging them to think it through.

Keillor hates Christianity and hates all the varieties of 'Bible Belt' culture. I will grant from my vantage point there's much to dislike about the nominal quasi-Christian culture that comes with Sacralism. I didn't enjoy living in the Bible Belt either and heartily reject politically conservative, militaristic, patriotic American Christian culture. His parents could have told him that and in fact tried to. Keillor rejected it all and has now made a career as something of a fraud. People associate him with the celebration of the 'Down-home' the good old days of American culture, Christianity and all... as long as none of it taken too seriously. He's made a career and a great deal of money mocking and destroying the very thing he's associated with. He's an absolute enemy of the culture he purports to celebrate. Personally I cannot stand him. His voice, his whole mannerism smacks of fraud and hypocrisy. Even 'The Writer's Almanac' an often informative five minute daily on many NPR stations is interesting to be sure but at the same time Keillor almost gleefully celebrates the apostasy and wickedness of many authors and literati.

I suppose he could be classified along with many others who wish to celebrate American history and culture but they wish to commemorate it by looking at through a rear-view mirror. It's gone and they do not wish to return or grant any validity to past intellectual or cultural frameworks. If reconstituted in today's setting (like on a radio show) it cannot be taken seriously but is instead an object of sentimentality, pity, humour and often scorn.

I often wonder if he's burdened by what he has done. He was spent his adult life 'cashing in' on portraying himself as something he's not. He's spent his adult life working to mock and destroy the world of his youth. I'm sure he loves aspects of it but he turned his back on it and now it's more like an anthropological experiment for him. I think of Keillor whenever I'm at a folk event and you see those kinds of wealthy academic and intellectual types in attendance. They get all into the music or folk art but at the same time completely reject the values and lifestyle that went with it and generated it. For them it's like an exercise in anthropology. They'll even dress up, learn to play the dulcimer etc... but they don't get it. They're flannel shirted fiddlers driving away in a Lexus. They're in a wholly alien environment and actually hostile to it. That's Garrison Keillor.

But it wasn't nominal worldly Lutheranism that produced him. The inherently weak doctrine of antithesis in cultural Lutheranism (even conservative Lutheranism) would have never produced a Keillor. It was the hostility generated by his apostasy from the Plymouth Brethren.

Breakpoint recently produced an episode on Keillor and Prairie Home Companion. I thought, 'Oh, maybe someone will call him out at last.' No, that wasn't the case. You can always count on the Colsonites to get virtually every issue wrong. They seemed pleased that his show was of the highest production value and that even though it poked a little fun, it was actually comfortable mentioning Christianity. This was something to celebrate much in the same way that Christians seem to get excited because a family prays around the dinner table in a movie. This is somehow perceived as some kind of cultural victory. It's missing the forest through the trees, straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

Apparently they missed that Keillor's primary goal seems to be the mocking of Christianity and the values of 'Christendom'. Of course, that's where it gets confusing. These values need criticism but not from Keillor's standpoint or motivation.

I suppose for the Colsonites when the 'gospel' is little more than hard work, worldly success and the building of culture with a Christian veneer, it would seem they don't have any real objections to Keillor and what he produced.

Or they're simply too blind to understand what Keillor is really all about.

I also think of the author Ken Follett. He was raised in the Plymouth Brethren. I cannot recommend his books as they are filled with a great deal of smut and immorality. That said, his tales are interesting and he writes a good popular novel. Christianity doesn't come out looking very good but as usual what is being attacked as Christianity is often the Sacralist counterfeit.

Follet talks about how he was totally deprived of an appreciation for Church history and hence he later became fascinated with cathedrals and the Middle Ages. This led to him writing 'The Pillars of the Earth'. A few characters in the book, a Welsh monk and a stonemason are supposed to be sympathetic in terms of their faith and values, but as a Christian I did not find them to be. They were realistic in terms of the Medieval Roman Catholic context but that made them all the more tragic. Roman Catholicism was and is a tyranny of false Christianity. Whether he means to or not Follett accurately displays the false values and misguided piety generated by Sacralist theology.

I think it's a grave mistake to isolate our children from history and culture. We have to be in the world but not of it. The Breakpoint people have no sense of antithesis. Most Evangelicals don't. In fact American Evangelicalism was in many ways from the outset a rejection of the antithesis born of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. But at the same time the isolationist approach to Separatism can also prove harmful.

I would rather dive in (a bit) and help my kids learn how to think and interpret. I teach them about evolution and Greek philosophy. We wander around inside Roman Catholic edifices and I make sure they see (a bit) of television, music videos and the like. And yet I also make it clear that although we can enjoy a song or laugh at aspects of what is being shown or said we cannot do so uncritically. Often there is a mix of good and bad in what we're encountering, the trick is how to navigate it in our minds and hearts.

I don't want my kids to grow up feeling like something was kept from them, or that they're wholly ignorant of how the world works or has worked. I want them to understand and then also understand how and why we're different. We can be simple concerning evil but at the same time we have understand to a degree what it is that we're opposing. Often we are forged by opposition, by being forced to work through an issue.

I think of Rebecca Stott, another author with Brethren roots who has abandoned the faith of her parents. Her book 'The Coral Thief' was an excellent read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was captivated by the setting. Paris in the days following Waterloo came alive and she painted an intriguing portrait of the West on the cusp of great change. She promotes Evolution (Pre-Darwin of course) through a story of wondrous settings and captivating characters.

I am not an Evolutionist in any sense but as an Anti-Sacralist I cannot help but rejoice in the toppling of Christendom. I believe Heaven rejoices as well (Rev 18). Of course the strange new world that results from its fall is equally perilous just on different terms. It is an era which will make the antithesis more pronounced and thus increase the danger and yet in the end make for a more vibrant Church and witness.

But Stott's own biography is a very sad story. Her characters haunt the underground world of Paris, the realm of catacombs and back alleys. They are social outcasts and rebels. I see that as more the world we as Christians are supposed to inhabit, especially in the Industrial era. We are the social pariahs, the societal heretics, not its masters. Stott is iconoclastic and yet it's we (the Christians) who are supposed to be. Instead the Church has so often sought to be respectable and part of the Establishment order. We are Biblicists but that shouldn't make us social conservatives or bourgeois.

She labels her Brethren upbringing as that of a 'cult'. As an unbeliever she's spiritually blind but I can't help but believe her church failed her.

Of course as I read her story I also think of the Reveil, Haldane and the genesis of Restorationist Christianity on the continent, which still survives today. The Brethren Churches which Stott calls cults were birthed on the Continent during this same period... a true light in the darkness.

Finally when it comes to apostasy from the Plymouth Brethren I am also forced to think of Aleister Crowley, undoubtedly one of the more wicked men to haunt the first half of the twentieth century.

What happened with Crowley I cannot say but his break with the faith of his parents was so absolute and superlative as to boggle the mind. He did not turn from theism to atheism, but from Christianity to the occult. He ran headlong into a total and complete rebellion not just rejecting the Gospel but with determination embracing spiritual darkness. It's a sad and tragic tale and Crowley seemed to outstrip all others becoming known as the 'wickedest man in the world'.

Again, I don't blame the Brethren per se. Rather I think it points to the crisis generated in true Biblical antithesis. Those that break with the Gospel, in this case they have a very clear mental grasp of what it is and what it means, are left with no alternative. Their rejection (if reject it they must) is total and final. Crowley understood that.

While we wish our children to persevere in the faith they have been born into and raised with, we also must help them understand that though they may never have a 'Damascus Road' experience, a total 'conversion', they must still understand the antithesis.

Sadly those who embrace a deficient theology of conversion often manipulate their children into having an 'experience' and yet all too often this proves superficial. Children born in the faith are reckoned holy by Scripture and reared in the covenant, in union with Christ. They need not necessarily have a crisis-conversion. In fact I hope they don't. If they do, then something went amiss that they 'stepped away' in order to 'feel' the need to convert. I don't wish that and there's really no basis for it. I would rather have them say they cannot remember a time in their lives that they did not trust in Jesus Christ.

And yet they must understand that their Christianity cannot be comfortable, it cannot be at peace with the world. We live on a razor's edge, straight is the way and narrow is the gate. That's not a popular message and to many they neither want to live under that paradigm nor impress it upon their children but as strangers and pilgrims we are exhorted to abstain from fleshly lusts, self-gratifying desires and covetous temptations. James 4 reminds us that fleshly lusts are more than physical desire and adulterous thoughts. James reminds us that friendship with the world is enmity with God.