Stanley Hauerwas on the End of American Protestantism

ImageI came across “The End of American Protestantism” written by Protestant scholar and Duke Divinity professor Stanley Hauerwas a few weeks ago. I am an Orthodox Christian who grew up in Protestantism, so I know Protestantism. It is all I have known for most of my life. I do not post this in any attempt to show up anyone who is Protestant nor to put down anyone. This is written by a Protestant, so it would be self-defeating to do that in any way! In fact, my own priest trained under Hauerwas and has respect for the man as do I! I post this because I wrestle with the 21st century American context in which I live. I am posting this because the American religious landscape has fascinated me and continues to do so.

Many have long said Evangelicalism as we know it in this country is dying out and soon to be replaced by the next big innovative thing. This article shows what it means to wrestle with things and to be honest. The American Protestant experience is in many ways failing. What Hauerwas has to say here is right on if you ask me. I do think Protestantism as we know it is changing. It will be replaced. I also feel that Secularism is in some ways to blame for this. Many of the mainline Protestant denominations have fallen victim to Secular Liberalism already and continue to do so. What does the future hold? I have no clue, but I think Hauerwas may be a guide for those honest enough to agree with him.

The End of American Protestantism 

By Stanley Hauerwas

Catholics in America know they do not belong, which is why they are so determined to demonstrate that they are more American than the Americans.

All you need to know to understand America is that the FBI is made up of Catholics and Southerners. This is because Catholics and Southerners have to try to show they are more loyal than most Americans, since Southerners have a history of disloyalty and Americans fear that Catholics may owe their allegiance to some guy in Rome. That is why the FBI is given the task of examining graduates of Harvard and Yale – that is, high-culture Protestants who, of course, no longer believe in God – to see if they are loyal enough to be operatives for the CIA.

The related phenomenon is what I call “the New York TimesCatholics.” These are Catholics, usually clergy, a New York Times journalist has learned to call after the Pope has issued an encyclical or given a speech that seems offensive to American sensibilities. They call a Catholic, whom they have previously identified as a critic of the church, to have confirmed that whatever the Pope has said, Catholics in America are not required to obey, or even if they are so required, Catholics will not take what the Pope has said seriously. From the perspective of the New York Times, therefore, a good Catholic is one that would be regarded by the Vatican as a bad Catholic.

But what I want to focus on here is the character of American Protestantism, as well as the religious awareness of the American people and the impact that awareness has on society and politics. No small topic. I think it first important to identify the perspective from which I speak. I am a Protestant. I am a communicant at the Church of the Holy Family, an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I teach in the Divinity School at Duke University, a very secular university. But before Duke I taught fourteen years at the University of Notre Dame.

I relate this history only to suggest that I come from the Catholic side of Protestantism. I am not sure I can make clear what it means to say I come from the Catholic side of Protestantism, but at the very least, it means that I do not think Christianity began with the Reformation. When I was interviewed for possible appointment to the faculty at Notre Dame I was asked what Protestant courses I would teach. I said I did not teach Protestant theology because I thought the very notion was a mistake. Rather I would teach Thomas Aquinas, because his work was crucial for my attempt to recover the virtues for understanding the Christian life. I saw no reason that Aquinas should be assumed to be only a thinker for Roman Catholics.

But my presumption that I could claim Aquinas as a theologian in my tradition betrays a Protestant consciousness that may be distinctly American. It turns out that even those of us who would like to be identified as representing the Catholic side of Protestantism do so as a matter of choice. This dilemma, I believe, is crucial for understanding the character of religious life in America.

America’s God

America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of a constructive Protestant social imagination.

I believe – as Mark Noll rightly suggests in his book, America’s God – America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. Americans were able to synthesize these antithetical traditions by making their faith in God indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that insured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in. That is why Bonhoeffer accurately characterized America Protestantism as “Protestantism without Reformation.”

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in America. The god most Americans say they believe in just is not interesting enough to deny. The only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and happiness.

Thus America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life. For example, Noll calls attention to the 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that did away with church establishment but nonetheless affirmed “the public worship of God, and the instructions in piety, religion, and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people, and the security of republican government.” Noll points out that these words were written at the same time Alexis de Tocqueville had just returned to France from his tour of North America. Tocqueville descriptively confirmed the normative point made in the Massachusetts Constitution, observing:

“I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion – for who can read to the bottom of hearts? – but I am sure that they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”

Protestantism came to the land we now call American to make America Protestant. It was assumed that what it meant to be American and Protestant was equivalent to a faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process the church in America became American – or, as Noll puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made.”

As a result Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.

Noll ends his account of these developments with the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continues to shape the way Christians – in particular, Protestant Christians – understand their place in America.

Yet I think we are beginning to see the loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America, just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism, and common sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. That is an obscure remark I must now try to make clear.

Modernity and the Corruption of “Freedom”

I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism – at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America – come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically, the feverish fervency of the religious right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but be a strategy that insures the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.

More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go. For the church is assumed to exist to reinforce the presumption that those that come to church have done so freely. The church’s primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money.

Let me try to put this in a different register. America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by “freedom.” The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Thus the presumption that if you get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television, you have had a “free choice.” The same presumption works for choosing a President. Once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So there is a kind of resignation that freedom requires.

I try to help Americans see that the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story is their story by asking them this question: “Do you think you ought to be held accountable for decisions you made when you did not know what you were doing?” They do not think they should be held accountable for decisions they made when they did not know what they were doing. They do not believe they should be held accountable because it is assumed that you should only be held accountable when you acted freely, and that means you had to know what you were doing.

I then point out the only difficulty with such an account of responsibility is that it makes marriage unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised lifelong, monogamous fidelity? I then observe that is why the church insists that your vows be witnessed by the church, since the church believes it has the duty to hold you responsible to promises you made when you did not know what you were doing.

The story that you should have no story but the story you choose when you had no story also makes it unintelligible to try having children. You never get the ones you want. Americans try to get the ones they want by only having children when they are “ready.” This is a utopian desire that wreaks havoc on children so born, just to the extent they come to believe they can only be loved if they fulfil their parents’ desires.

Of course, the problem with the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story is that story is a story that you have not chosen. But Americans do not have the ability to acknowledge that they have not chosen the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. As a result, they must learn to live with decisions they made when they thought they knew what they were doing but later realized they did not know what they were doing. They have a remedy when it comes to marriage – it is called divorce. They also have a remedy regarding children – it is called abortion.

The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story produces people who say things such as, “I believe Jesus is Lord – but that’s just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial to sustain democracy. For such a people are necessary in order to avoid the conflicts that otherwise might undermine the order, which is confused with peace, necessary to sustain a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common.

So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders, because of the necessity to avoid conflicts that cannot be resolved.

Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.

But a church formed capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may well think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to that task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop Francis George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume that there is no essential tension between being a Christian and being an American. As a result Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned.

America’s Culture of Death

If I am right about the story that shapes the American self-understanding, I think we are in a position to better understand why after 11 September 2001 the self-proclaimed “most powerful nation in the world” runs on fear. It does so because the fear of death is necessary to insure a level of cooperation between people who otherwise share nothing in common. That is, they share nothing in common other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.

That is why in America hospitals have become our cathedrals and physicians are our priests. Accordingly medical schools are much more serious about the moral formation of their students than divinity schools. They are so because Americans do not believe that an inadequately trained priest may damage their salvation, but they do believe an inadequately trained doctor can hurt them.

The American desire to use medicine in an attempt to get out of life alive is but the domestic form of American foreign policy. 11 September 2001 gave America exactly what she so desperately needed after the end of the cold war, for it is unclear if America can live without a war. Otherwise, what would give us a moral compass? So we got a “war against terrorism,” which is a war without end.

That Americans are willing to die for America is indicative of their most basic conviction. For, as Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle observe in their book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag:

“In an era of Western ascendancy, the triumph of Christianity clearly meant the triumph of the states of Christianity, among them the most powerful of modern states, the United States. Though religions have survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith. Still, in the religiously plural society of the United States, sectarian faith is optional for citizens, as everyone knows. Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith. Americans have often bled, sacrificed and died for their country. This fact is an important clue to its religious power. Though denominations are permitted to exist in the United States, they are not permitted to kill for their beliefs are not officially true. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.”

America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. Freedom names the attempt to live as though we will not die. Lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility, moreover, can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others.


I love America and I love being an American. The energy of Americans – their ability to hew out lives often in unforgiving land, their natural generosity – I cherish. But I am a Christian. I cannot avoid the reality that American Christianity has been less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America’s god is not the God we worship as Christians.

If I am right that we are now facing the end of Protestantism, hopefully that will leave the church in America in a position with nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. God may yet make the church faithful – even in America.

Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His most recent books are War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity and Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir.



ImageThis is an excellent article and review of the new film Don Jon, which highlights the effects of porn upon our society. I sense recently that there may be a slight turning of society’s view of porn and how its effects. I firmly believe that porn is not only dangerous both to a healthy mind and heart for those who partake, but also to relationships. I think what Don Jon is seeking to do, by what I have gathered, is to question the “goodness” of the porn industry. It is using the avenue of film to prompt thought and conversation about the dangers of porn where there may not be any other way to promote such dialogue. The fact that it is coming from a Hollywood big timer like Joseph Gorden-Levitt makes it LOUD! I hope that this film will bring about much thought and conversation about this subject. I hope we as a society can begin to have a changing of mind about this matter. This particular review is a great conversation starter! Enjoy!

A Tangled Web: Don Jon Highlights Real-Life Effects of Internet Porn

By Mary Rose Somarriba

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s new film raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? In  Verily’s upcoming Nov/Dec Issue, Mary Rose Somarriba gives an answer.

“How do you watch that s***?” exclaims Scarlett Johansson in what is possibly the best minute of acting in her career. She’s playing Barbara Sugarman, the flame of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his recent film Don Jon.

Barbara is livid with rage and baffled; she found a string of porn sites in her boyfriend Jon’s browser history. They had a good relationship, she thought. Why did he need to look at other women?

“Everyone looks at porn,” Jon retorts. As he sees it, porn is as American as apple pie. While he may keep it private—the only real person he tells is his priest in the secrecy of confession—porn is a big part of his life, something he needs on a daily basis.

For Gordon-Levitt’s first written and directed feature film, Don Jon (which sensitive viewers should know is filled with porn clips) raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general?

Don Jon is a bold contribution to a recent trend in entertainment, giving audiences a real—and grim—snapshot of 21st-century relationships. Call it post–Sex and the City realism. There’s the recent film Lovelace, contrasting the exciting story, as we were told it, of Deepthroat star Linda Lovelace, and the completely un-sexy version as it really was. There’s Girls on HBO, known for showing ugly, lifelike sex scenes. There’s Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, managing to make ultra-risqué performances devoid of any sex appeal. It’s as if sex is no longer sexy in pop culture. What was once a warm and alluring mystery is now a cold, anatomical display. If intimacy is dead, porn may have killed it.

Still, many think porn has mostly good effects. Porn helps people express their sexuality, some say. It helps men live the fantasies they can’t with their partners. It’s an escape. It can even add spice to tired relationships, Oprah and Dr. Ruth suggest.

But in reality, porn can make it harder to appreciate real sex. As Pamela Paul documented in her 2006 book Pornified, dozens of men whom she interviewed anonymously revealed, “I used to view porn online, but I began to find it more difficult to stay aroused when having sex with a real woman. . . . Real sex has now lost some of its magic. And that’s sad.”


That sadness comes through the many laughs of Don Jon. It was sad, for instance, to see the way the men treated women. How Jon and his clubbing buddies constantly sized them up—comparing each to the fantasy women in porn. An all-around attractive girl was a 10, also known as a “dime” (Scarlett Johansson qualified). But most girls fell short of the ideal, so the boys resorted to zeroing in on different body parts. One woman’s breasts were a 4, for instance—hardly worth their time.

Here the film offers a glimpse of reality. In a 2004 Elle/ poll of 15,246 Americans, one in ten men admitted that porn had made him more critical of his partner’s body.

Not surprisingly, many women feel deficient next to porn-star competition. According to Paul’s commissioned nationwide poll conducted by Harris Interactive, six out of ten women “believe pornography affects how men expect them to look and behave.”

Of course porn isn’t the only avenue through which unrealistic expectations of beauty can make women feel inadequate. Major motion pictures, television shows, even commercial advertisements have long employed sex appeal as an effective draw. But the mainstream acceptance of porn has no doubt influenced other media; content once considered too explicit is now regular fare on network television. And, while television networks may deal only in Porn Lite, it’s no less disruptive to our perception of women.

Don Jon captures this well in a family-dinner-table scene. With the large-screen TV playing in the background, a bikini-clad model suddenly steals the conversation. Jon and his father (a cringe-inducing and convincing performance by Tony Danza) are mesmerized by the suggestive ad, while Jon’s mother and sister (Glenne Headly and Brie Larson) avert their eyes and wait for it to be over. Within seconds, the tableside dynamic is shattered—something that could have been avoided with just a click of the TiVo-fast-forward button. But of course the boys are oblivious, both to how the ad affected them and to how it affected their female counterparts.

Later in the film, the television once again serves as the women’s antagonist in a climactic scene. Brie Larson’s character, who thus far hasn’t uttered a single line in the film, opens her mouth to share her feminine intuition about Jon and Barbara’s relationship. But no one can hear her over the television.

This is where Gordon-Levitt gets it. His nearly seamless script reveals remarkable acumen for a man of his generation. He’s done his homework on the porn issue, and he tackles it extremely well. He loosens up the audience with laughs, all the while sprinkling the film with digestible insights.MV5BMTQxNTc3NDM2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ5NTQ3OQ@@._V1._CR28,28.649993896484375,1271,1991.0000305175781._SX640_SY987_


Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Don Jon’s portrait of a porn user suggests at the very least that we might not be aware of its overall effects.

The Don, for example, never stops to consider the seeming strangeness of his behavior. Why does a man who has no trouble getting attractive women to sleep with him on a regular basis need to sneak out of bed after each encounter to follow it up with porn?

The answer is that porn-using men aren’t exactly feeling fulfilled in bed. In the Elle/ poll, 35 percent of men said real sex with a woman had become less arousing, and 20 percent admitted real sex just couldn’t compare to cybersex anymore. Porn, on the other hand, is exciting more men than ever.

As Gordon-Levitt’s character put it, “I lose myself. . . . Nothing else does it the same way.” Girls in porn will do things real girls won’t. And the shock-value element can be addictive.

Many young men today become porn junkies, making a daily habit of visiting porn sites, hiding it from their partners, and having trouble stopping. Those who try to stop as an exercise in self-control, as Jon does later in the film, often cite feelings of withdrawal and increased difficulty maintaining their resolution if they so much as have Internet access.

Jon’s quirky, middle-aged night-school classmate, played by Julianne Moore, aptly (and rather jarringly) captures the experience of the porn addict after listening to him describe his addiction: “So you like porn better than sex.”

When the imitation of a thing becomes more desirable than the thing itself, what does that mean? To put it lightly, it means that these men have been sold a bill of goods. To put it gravely, it means these men are facing the irrationality that is addiction. Sure, the experience porn offers may feel exciting while it lasts, but it’s often followed by feelings of guilt or disappointment. There’s something unsatisfying about being alone seconds after you just had a woman looking utterly enthralled by you. And there’s something universally depressing about seeing that hours of time have passed on a rewardless activity.

As one man interviewed for Pornified put it, “A man starts to feel like a computer himself when he realizes that he’s dependent on computer images to turn him on.”

Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, described in his best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself how pornography consumption can rewire men’s brains, restricting their free choice. As he put it, “Those who use [pornography] have no sense of the extent to which their brains are reshaped by it. . . . The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act.”

Doidge describes this pattern as a sort of urgent thrill-seeking. “Porn is more exciting than satisfying,” he explains, because of the “pleasure systems in our brains. . . . Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated.”

For many men, Internet porn is a gateway to strip clubs, escort services, and prostitutes—real, live women who are paid to feign enjoyment and perform acts similar to those in porn. Norma Ramos, head of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, finds this a disturbing trend. “Porn is corrupting male sexuality by moving it in the direction to buy prostituted sex,” she told me in an interview. “Johns are not born, they’re made.”

One man revealed in Pornified that he too developed interests he previously didn’t have, like the day he stumbled on child porn. “It was scary for me because I was turned on and also because it obviously depicted kids who had been abused and tricked.” Another man said, “I would see some young girl in porn and then read a horror story in the newspaper about sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, but I just mentally discarded the connection. . . . I couldn’t let myself feel anything toward these women other than the means to satisfy my desires.”

All of this can further a false sense of what is pleasurable for women. As one sex therapist in Paul’s book explains, “In pornography all a man does is touch a woman and she’s howling in delight in two minutes. If men think this is how real women respond, they’re going to be horrible lovers.”


In 2009, I attended a conference at Princeton University, sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The findings, later compiled in the bookThe Social Costs of Pornography (2010), include papers from nearly a dozen experts. But the words that have stuck with me most are Roger Scruton’s concluding remarks: “Psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by pornography, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. . . . This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.”

And there’s the rub. If porn affects individual men and women, then it affects relationships. It prevents the possibility of an us. Porn sells the idea that you can, literally, put a person on pause, fast-forward through the messiness of human feelings and foibles to the “good parts,” and, when you are through, discard him or her for another. The tragedy, Scruton recognizes, is that while glutting a person’s sexual appetites, porn risks thwarting another human desire: to give love.

This is what is captured in the poignant line from Moore’s character in Don Jon: “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.”

This line comes just moments before the most awkward sex scene in the movie. While the rest of the film’s slapstick sex references filled the theater with uproarious laughter and crack-ups, at this moment you could’ve heard a pin drop. It was the kind of encounter that was as special as it was private—the kind that makes you feel as if you shouldn’t be watching, as if it was just for the two of them, as if they are just for each other. Despite the film’s many porn-infused snippets, this one offers something much more powerful: intimacy.


Does the prevalence of porn use among today’s young men mean we’re all doomed to pornified love lives where intimacy is dead? No. If there’s a lesson to the fable of Don Jon, it’s that it’s possible to get beyond this.

Porn is not the only way in which we can poison our relationships—a point that Gordon-Levitt expertly weaves into Don Jon. One could easily add possessiveness and jealousy to the list, or impatience with others’ flaws, or the all-too-common temptation to try to manipulate and change the other to our liking. The popularity of pornography has been fostered, perhaps, in part by a larger cultural tendency toward individualism, a perception that relationships are primarily tools used by an individual on his or her solo journey of self-understanding and satisfaction.

Don Jon responds to the question of pornography not through statistics (although, as we have seen, they’re there) but, ultimately, through a simple assertion, powerfully made through the stories of the characters: Like it or not, authentic relationships are not one-sided. “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.”

Mary Rose Somarriba, culture editor of Verily Magazine, is completing a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship on the connections between sex trafficking and pornography.

Mary Rose is the Culture Editor for Verily Magazine with over 7 years of experience in magazine publishing. She has written articles and organized events on women’s issues for several publications and organizations. Among her favorite things in life are Latin dancing, karaoke, and a Woodford Reserve manhattan on the rocks.

Preaching Gospel as Gospel, or Why the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches Need the Reformation


Father Aidan Kimel is doing a fantastic little series right now. He has given me permission to repost his series on my blog. I really think this is some delightful stuff he is sharing. Make sure to check out his blog “Eclectic Orthodoxy“!

Preaching Gospel as Gospel, or Why the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches Need the Reformation

We are all acquainted with the saying attributed to Martin Luther: “Justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.” Although this saying does not appear in Luther’s extant writings, it accurately states his understanding of the matter. As Luther wrote to Johannes Brenz: “For this article is the head and cornerstone that alone begets, nurtures, builds, preserves, and defends the Church of God. Without it, the Church cannot remain standing for a single hour.” It’s an odd assertion on the face of it, because the Reformation formulation of justification is difficult, if not impossible, to find in the writings of the Church Fathers. St Augustine employed the language of justification, but he clearly understood it in transformative terms: grace is imparted, not imputed. And at the Council of Trent the Latin Church basically reaffirmed the Augustinian position. As Alistair McGrath writes: “In brief, then, Trent maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process—the event of being declared to be righteous through the work of Christ and the process of being made righteous through the internal work of the Holy Spirit” (Reformation Thought, p. 115). The key notes of alien righteousness and imputation are absent in the Latin tradition. McGrath was finally forced to conclude that the Reformation doctrine represents something new in the history of Western theology:

The medieval theological tradition was unanimous in its understanding of justification as both an act and a process, by which both the status of humanscoram Deo and their essential nature underwent alteration. Although Luther regarded justification as an essentially unitary process, he nevertheless introduced a decisive break with the western theological tradition as a whole by insisting that, through their justification, humans are intrinsically sinful yet extrinsicallyrighteous. … The significance of the Protestant distinction between iustificatioand regeneratio is that a fundamental intellectual discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition through the recognition of a difference, where none had previously been acknowledged to exist. There is no doubt that a small number of medieval writers, such as Duns Scotus, explored the conceptual possibilities of separating these notions; yet despite such notional analysis, justification was not conceptually detached from the process of regeneration. Despite the astonishing theological diversity of the late medieval period, a consensus relating to the nature of justification was maintained throughout. The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum, whereas its understanding of its mode does not. (Iustita Dei, 3rd ed., pp. 213, 215)

And the Eastern tradition fares no better for the 16th century Reformers. One can search far and wide in the writings of the Eastern Fathers for discussion of justification by faith, and the few times one finds it discussed (as in the homilies of St John Chrysostom) it is clear that the divine justifying act is understood as effective and transformative. What one does not find in the Eastern Fathers is a forensic imputation of righteousness. The Orthodox Church is consumed by theosis. Ask an Orthodox priest about justification by faith alone, and you will most likely receive a quizzical look, if not a shake of the head. When one reads the correspondence between Patriarch Jeremiah II and the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen, for example, it’s clear that the Patriarch could only hear the Lutheran formulations as asserting the non-necessity of repentance and good works. “The Church demands a living faith, which is made evident by good works,” he pointedly writes; “for as Paul says, faith without works is dead [Jas 2:17]. … If then, we have sinned in some thing, let us approach the Sinless One through sincere repentance and confession, and let us demonstrate complete abstinence from evil things. Let us openly come to repentance in order to receive mercy and anything else we ask. There is no sin which has overcome God’s love for mankind” (Augsburg and Constantinople, p. 37). Everything Jeremiah writes is true, yet he misses the point of the Reformation doctrine … yet if he misses the point, it must be said that a lot of people have missed the point over the past five hundred years, including a lot of Protestants.

If the forensic imputation of the righteousness of Christ is the article on which the Church stands or falls, why is it absent in the tradition of the Church?

N. T. Wright argues that the doctrine of justification as historically elaborated in the Western Church has little to do with the doctrine of justification as taught by the Apostle Paul. Since Augustine, Western theologians, with the intent of warding off the self-help heresy of Pelagius, have employed the language of justification to address the question of what the sinner must do to enter into a living relationship with Jesus Christ and thus appropriate the salvation of God. But this, says Wright, was not what Paul was up to. “Paul does indeed discuss the subject-matter which the church has referred to as ‘justification,’” he writes, “but he does not use ‘justification’ language for it. … Paul may or may not agree with Augustine, Luther or anyone else about how people come to a personal knowledge of God in Christ; buthe does not use the language of ‘justification’ to denote this event or process” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 117). Wright’s own covenantal interpretation of justification has not met with universal approbation; but he is probably correct in his diagnosis: the questions Paul is asking and answering are not identical to the questions posed and answered by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and all the others (see “The Wrights and Wrongs of Justification“). So what were the questions?

In his book Unbaptized God Robert W. Jenson identifies three loci of reflection that have gone under the label “justification.”

First, there is the teaching of St Paul himself: How is God’s righteousness established amongst us? We’ll leave this question for the biblical exegetes and commentators.

Second, there is the effort of Western theology, beginning with St Augustine and continued in the work of Latin and Protestant scholasticism, “to describe the process of individual salvation, to lay out the factors and steps of the soul’s movement from the state of sin to the state of justice” (p. 22). How do sinners become righteous? How do divine and human agency interact in the process of salvation? Theologians who attempt to describe the process inevitably produce schemas of the ordo salutis. If one studies the Protestant/Catholic and Protestant/Protestant debates on justification, one will be excused for thinking that theologians have believed and continue to believe that if only we could get the ordo right, all would be well with the Church. They love to identify and debate the precise steps in the process of salvation. No doubt such reflection is important; but it’s hard to accept the claim that the Church stands or falls upon it. When did the the kingdom become an ordo?

Finally, there is the reforming doctrine of justification. In modern Lutheran theology this reforming doctrine goes under the names hermeneutic (Ebeling), metatheological (Lindbeck), and metalinguistic (Jenson). How does one proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ so that it will be heard as gospel? “This doctrine,” explains Jenson, “describes nothing at all, neither God’s justice nor the process of our becoming just. It is instead an instruction to those who would audibly or visibly speak the gospel, a rule for preachers, teachers, liturgists, and confessors. This instruction may be formulated: So speak of Christ and of hearers’ actual and promised righteousness, whether in audible or visible words, whether by discourse or practice, that what you say solicits no lesser response than faith—or offense” (pp. 22-23). What the Reformers were struggling to formulate was a hermeneutical norm: preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that it produces faith in the hearer, rather than works directed toward self-justification.

George Lindbeck describes the reforming doctrine as a grammatical rule. Justification is not a matter of formulating a superior description of the process of salvation. It is akin to a rule of grammar: it tutors the Church on how to properly speak gospel.

It is the rule that all church teachings and practices should function to promote reliance or trust in the God of Jesus Christ alone for salvation. This rule, taken by itself, does not contain any theories or affirmation about justification. It does not even assert that justification is sola fide, but rather ‘for Christ’s sake alone (propter Christum solum‘, although it may be hard to see how any theology which adhered to the rule could deny the sola fide. As is characteristic of statements in the imperative mood, it does not make affirmations about what is true or false, but simply prescribes: and what it prescribes is a certain form of human behaviour (which includes attitudes and ways of thinking). We should not trust anything for justification except God’s unconditional promises in Jesus Christ, not even the faith, virtues and merits, if there be any, which God works in us sola gratia. (“Article IV and Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue,” The Church in a Postliberal Age, p. 42)

If the reforming doctrine of justification is appropriately described as the article upon which the Church stands or falls, it is not because it is a doctrine superior, say, to the Nicene dogma of the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Chalcedonian dogma of the two natures of Christ. As metalinguistic rule it “does not stipulate subject matters or propositions about subject matters; it stipulates how the church must speak, about whatever. Just, and only, so its critical work is unique. The reforming doctrine of justification does not stipulate ‘say such-and-such about justification.’ It stipulates, ‘If your subject is, for example, oppression, so speak of Christ and of your hearers’ oppression that the only response opened is faith in Christ, or offense’” (Jenson, p. 24). But what kind of discourse provokes faith or offense? Unconditional promise! The gospel is proclamation of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, inthe performative mode of promise. “The whole point of the Reformation,” declares Jenson, “was that the gospel promise is unconditional; ‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (Lutheranism, p. 37).

Thus understood, the 16th century debates on justification by faith are of profound relevance to every ecclesial community—be it Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant—that seeks to preach, enact, celebrate, and live the gospel of Christ Jesus. Only when proclaimed as unconditional promise does the gospel become good, transformative, redeeming news.

Articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.

Preaching as Pointillism: Homiletical Preferences, Principles & Aspirations

ImageAs many of my readers already know, I’m a passionate young preacher. I have a degree in preaching and take seriously the call of preaching for both laity and clergy alike. I have written several pieces on my own blog concerning preaching ranging from how to do a preaching calendar, how to do a sermon series, or how to do a sermon outline. I also run the Facebook page for Father John Peck’s website, The Preachers Institute.

My friend Carson Clark over at “Musings of a Hardlining Moderate” has written this delightful little piece on his own approach to homiletics, which I quite enjoy and agree with. So for all those wishing to improve their preaching and learn from other preachers then please give this a read:

Preaching as Pointillism: Homiletical Preferences, Principles & Aspirations

What is the purpose of a sermon? Or, perhaps better, ideally what should be the purpose of a sermon? For centuries this question has been vigorously discussed by laity and clergy alike, and the nature of the discourse has ranged from intensely academic to unflinchingly practical. Far be it for me to try to answer the question in a single blog post. Such an attempt would be not only ludicrous, but would almost innately smack of arrogance. What I can share is my own homiletical philosophy, flawed as it may be. So readers don’t misunderstand my intentions here, let me state it plainly that I’m not arguing what I think are the objectively superior preaching principles in every conceivable context. As the sub-title suggests, I am explaining my own preferences and principles–all things being equal.

It may be helpful to begin by acknowledging my influences and perspectives, which some might see as biases and prepositions. My dad likes to joke about the Bob Uecker school of baseball. Its tagline is, “See what I did? Don’t do that.” That pretty well describes how I approach my Pentecostal background’s preaching. Sermons were the pinnacle of the service. Despite routinely going at least an hour and a half, they rarely delved deep into the biblical text. There was an awful lot of eisegesis. That is, projecting foreign concepts onto the text rather than drawing meaning out. There were way too many tangential anecdotes, punny jokes, sports analogies, half-baked ideas, self-referential musings, embarrassing stories about the pastor’s family, and emotionally manipulative rhetorical techniques. Little wonder I’m Anglican and am strongly influenced by the Reformed homiletics.

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of overt topical sermons. Whether they’re about justification or parenting, worship or abortion, racial equality or social justice, I’m usually disinclined toward a thematic approach. I’m also not big on sermons that start with a biblical passage, but end up just using it as a launching pad to a topic. I call them exopical because they’re half exegetical, half topical. So-called “Gospel-centered” sermons aren’t high on my priority list, either. You know the ones. They try to make every passage explicitly about the Gospel and every sermon tries to convey the totality of the Gospel, which is usually confined to Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of a sin rather than the full redemptive narrative from creation to consummation. *rubs temples*

My hope and aspiration for any sermon is that the listener will be saturated by Holy Scripture, not the assorted musings of the preacher. God’s Word is life-giving. It speaks with greater wisdom and illumines the human condition far better than anyone else can. That’s why I want people walking away feeling like they know Scripture better. What I love, then, are sermons that are thoroughly and unapolgetically exegetical. That is, a sermon that centers on the biblical text and tries, insofar as one is reasonably able, to draw out the original intent of its authors and redactors. Such an approach digs deep, exploring a text’s context. It distinguishes between interpretation and application, insisting that we must first make a concerted to rightly understand the biblical text before we can possibly rightly apply it.

The pastor who for me exemplified exegetical sermons was Dan Orme. I’m thankful to have caught the final couple years of his lucidity before the dementia really set in. During one of University Church’s weekly Sunday lunches I sat down with Dan and asked about his homiletical philosophy. From that conversation came my four-part methodology. First and foremost, I endeavor to explain the biblical text in light of its literary and original cultural-historical. Second, when helpful and appropriate I explain how the Church Fathers or major theologians have understand the text. Third, I try to extrapolate transcendent principles and facts. Finally, I strive to explain how those principles and facts might be discerningly applied in our own complicated cultural-historical context. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.

A good analogy for my overall homiletical philosophy may be Pointillism. When you look from up close each dot of pure color is distinct, and can look kind of messy. Yet when you take a step back something emerges. The dots somehow blur together to form a beautiful picture. The sum is greater than the parts. In much the same way, I don’t like when a sermon tries to accomplish everything or neatly tries to knock out a whole issue. I just want it to contribute a few dots here and there. Over the course of several years a larger picture emerges. With such an approach, a church’s sermons will portray the full breadth of Scripture’s redemptive narrative and the full depth of the christian life. It’s a much more subtle and long-term outlook, but one I think is deeply formative.

What do I mean by the full breadth of Scripture’s redemptive narrative? Well, you know how in some churches every single sermon is somehow about the cross? I mean the opposite of that. The cross is great but it literally isn’t everything. What about the incarnate Word’s birth? Surely the cross is no more important than Jesus’ life and ministry. Doesn’t everything hinge on Christ’s resurrection? Don’t forget His sending of the Holy Spirit or His coming again. Once you’ve gotten there, what about the covenants He fulfilled, the Law, and the prophets? What about the poetry and wisdom literature, laments and epistles? And we’ve still not even touched basic framing issues like creation and the fall. In my opinion, far too many preachers are one-trick ponies who try to make everything about one event, motif, attribute, or doctrine, thereby ignoring the fullness of Scripture.

What do I mean by the full depth of the christian life? It’s quite simple. We live during an era of Christ’s already-not yet Kingdom. As such Christians will inevitably encounter the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences. Over time sermons should prepare the covenantal people for life and death, love and hate, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, renewal and corruption, tranquility and anxiety, clarity and confusion, grace and judgment, thanksgiving and lament, rest and fatigue, relief and agony, growth and stagnation, faithfulness and disobedience, peace and conflict, invigoration and apathy, truth and lies, humility and arrogance, creation and destruction, blessing and curse, success and failure, delight and disappointment, praise and slander, commendation and rebuke, kindness and wrath, acceptance and rejection, trust and doubt… All of it.

OK, but what about the practical nuts and bolts of duration and rhetorical strategy? I see no need for it to exceed 30 minutes. Let’s be honest. When a sermon goes upwards of an hour it’s usually because the pastor is a) trying to cram in way too much, b) unnecessarily repeating things, c) using way too many jokes, anecdotes, and analogies, or d) didn’t adequately think through things beforehand. As Dan once put it,

I value the preaching of Scripture, but there’s nothing sacred about an extended sermon. Most pastors go half again as long as they need to simply because they’re lazy. They’re making it up or figuring it out on the spot and forcing their congregations to suffer through the process. It’s poor spiritual leadership.

Following in Dan’s footsteps, I love manuscript sermons. Just reading what has already been written. It doesn’t have to come off as academic, dry, or impersonal. In fact, if done well it can be quite accessible–even conversational. Plus it saves a lot of time and requires the prep work of study and prayer be done beforehand. It’s more difficult, and that’s precisely why I like it. It requires the preacher to step up.

Lastly, I’m serious when I talk about sticking to the biblical text. As well-intended as they may be, I don’t particularly care for sermons that end up being something of a weekly, public diary. The same holds true of systematic and historical treatises coming from the pulpit. I don’t want to hear about Federal Headship vs. Seminalism or arguments for and against the Filioque clause, let alone the battle royale between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism. Shoot, I wouldn’t even like a sermon about the Trinity. Those issues can and should be explored with vigor, but my preference is that would happen in another context such as Sunday School or small groups. It’s really quite simple but I’ll say it again: My hope and aspiration for any sermon is that the listener will be saturated not by the assorted musings of the preacher but by Holy Scripture.

Gerhard Forde on Descriptive and Declarative Language

Eclectic Orthodoxy

Shortly after seminary I began devouring the writings on Lutheran theologians on the topic of justification by faith. I was particularly intrigued by the Jenson-Lindbeck proposal that the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith” should be understood as a metalinguistic or metatheological rule governing churchly proclamation of the gospel.

But I still struggled with the question “But isn’t faith a condition of salvation?” So I wrote to the late Dr Gerhard Forde, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther-Northwestern Theological Seminary. He was kind enough to reply to my letter. I found it then, and find it still today, very helpful.

I thought I would publish this letter here. It is germane to the topic I am addressing in my present blog series on preaching the gospel. And I just want the letter to be preserved on the net. I suspect that others will find it as helpful as I…

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Preaching Gospel as Gospel: The Good News of the Resurrection

Eclectic Orthodoxy

Since my first encounter with Robert Jenson’s construal of justification as metalinguistic rule back in the 1980s, I have sought to proclaim the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise. I have often not been successful nor consistent—it’s harder to do than one might imagine—but this at least has been my goal. My conviction that all properly Christian preaching should conform to the metalinguistic rule did not change when I became Orthodox. How could it? Precisely at this point we are touching on something that goes to the core of the faith or at least to the core of my faith.

But the metalinguistic rule is controversial. So many passages in Scripture and the Church Fathers seem to argue against it, and so many contemporary sermons do argue against it. Surely, we say, there are conditions for salvation—faith, repentance, love, virtue, good works, prayer, self-denial immediately come to mind. Given…

View original post 2,407 more words