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Evangelicals, Art, And The Way To God

A friend and reader of my blog and I got to writing about yesterday’s Fundamentalism & Wonder [1] post, and he said a lot of that rings true to him, given the culture of his church. Knowing him to be the sort of Christian who appreciates aesthetic beauty, and a fellow Francophile, I asked him why he stayed. Here’s how he responded; I publish this with his permission:

When I lament that “my church culture” is suspicious of finding God in nature or in traditional Christian architecture or art, I’m referring more to the broad evangelical culture than to the church I attend.  Certainly there’s some of that attitude in my church and almost by definition in any “Bible church,” but it’s not often on display.  When it is, it’s usually from people who are recent converts from Catholicism, or those with unhappy Catholic pasts who vilify the whole institution and its entire theology.  Most of us have close relatives who are Catholic, so no one has the Bible-Belt luxury of condemning all Catholics.

I remain at my church because we have an exceptionally gifted and scholarly teaching pastor, who gives sermons every single week that are like good college lectures.  I do have some theological disagreements around the edges, but his points are always well thought-out and well-supported by the Bible and other texts he quotes.  I think the idea of seeking God in traditional Catholic architecture would make him cautious – more cautious than me – but not condemnatory.

If you mean more broadly, why am I in an evangelical Bible church, well I could go on for a long time.  My wife grew up in that church.  The pastor’s teaching is certainly a part of it, and I’ve grown in that direction over the 18-ish years we’ve attended the church.  So familiarity is a factor, whether it should be or not.

Theologically, I’m in the evangelical Bible church realm (despite being very uncomfortable evangelizing people who haven’t asked me about my faith) because I have faith in the Bible as by far the most reliable means of understanding God.  A corollary to the reliance on the Bible is a reluctance to rely on Tradition or anything experiential.  I think the “old” churches (Orthodox, Catholic) have much to commend them, especially 2000 years of interpretation and practice that can make for a very rich interaction with God.  I’m also suspicious of a lot of Tradition, because its origins are often murky, and – in my mind, at least – tainted by the often corrupt history of the church as a power in European history.

But to wind my way to an answer, I think the evangelical and Bible churches generally do a better job of getting the message across, though that’s clearly a broad generalization.  Growing up Catholic, attending catechism the whole way, we learned stunningly little about who Jesus was, why he came, what it means.  The focus was always on the doing – when to stand, sit, kneel, cross, confess, fast, pray, etc.  Verbatim recitation of prayers, responsorials, etc., was paramount.  Understanding the words was not only not a priority, it wasn’t even an issue.  Belief was either de-emphasized or taken for granted – it’s hard for me to say at this distance.  So whether they taught us or not, we thought the key to praying was getting all the words exactly right, that holy water had magical powers, that the same magic powers existed in a piece of something-or-other that came from Lourdes or Medjugorje, or that had been touched by or owned by a saint.  Why is that?  Well, it’s hard for young minds – especially young minds being taught by lay people who were trying to oversimplify or ignore complex theology – to grasp the distinction between a magic object and an object whose history gives you the potential to have a more concentrated focus on God.  Based on our Catechism teachers and many Catholic adults, it’s very clear that some people don’t get past that understanding.  I’m sure you’ve seen people who arrive to Mass 30 minutes late, take communion and leave immediately.  That kind of thing.

 So at age 20, baptized, communed and confirmed, I had very little idea what it meant to be Christian, even after making pilgrimages to Medjugorje and the Vatican hoping to be transformed by place or stuff.

 Looking back, it’s astonishing to think of the scales on my eyes, despite hearing about Jesus from before I can remember.  (Query whether that’s the Catholic church’s fault or mine, or if it’s the nature of faith.)  But whether they believe it or not, every 15-year-old at my church can explain – and not just through repetition – the theology of who Jesus was, why he came, how to approach him, and what it all means.  There’s a certain benefit to the tight focus on those things, but there’s a corresponding potential for that focus to blinker us to a broader experience of God.

 There’s also the independent, unstructured, unsupervised nature of independent evangelical churches, which makes them rife with potential for error in a way that hierarchical churches are not.  When’s the last time a Catholic or Southern Baptist church protested a soldier’s funeral, or promoted a planned Koran-burning, or sold all their possessions to pay for advertising announcing the date and time of end of the world?  And farther back, see (St.) Paul’s letters to some of the earliest churches, who went astray almost immediately.  This is a major theme of my novel.

 Epilogue:

 I’m not much for emotional religious experiences, because I don’t trust them, but three years ago I had one – possibly my most recent one – in Notre Dame in Paris, as I walked around the altar and saw the Bible presented in stone bas-relief.  I welled up while contemplating the link across the centuries between myself and the illiterate French Christians of the Middle Ages who “read” the same images I was reading.  Most in my suburban drywall church would understand that experience, though they’d be spooked by visions of people kneeling in front of statues of Catholic saints.  The next day, we attended a church service at a Parisian evangelical church that was literally and figuratively underground.  The small space was bleak and unadorned, and yet the standing-room-only service was excellent and true.  That church had it right.  But then, so did Notre Dame, in a very different way.

The comments thread is open. I am not going to publish comments that insult Evangelicalism, Catholicism, or any other form of Christianity. Critical analysis and critical observations are welcome, but not insulting commentary.

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30 Comments To "Evangelicals, Art, And The Way To God"

#1 Comment By Orthodoxdj On December 6, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

I think the author’s experience is common and it explains why people go from being Catholic to Protestant and Protestant to Catholic. Look at many of the well-known Catholic converts of the last 20 or so years: they have generally been well-formed in theology and evangelism. They find something missing, namely ritual, history, sacraments, etc. Those who go from Catholic to Protestant are often poorly-formed in theology and practice, longing for Bible stories and doctrine.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have it all? I think we can. I think we should. But it’ll take time. The divisions amongst Christians run deep. Maybe our divisions partly (mostly?) explain the anti-Christian sentiment in the West.

#2 Comment By cecelia On December 6, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

Listening to Carols last night including some Gregorian chant – the Carols were also of the older – much older – variety sung by Choir of King’s Chapel. The music is – for me at least – so utterly exquisite, so full of beauty and of course – music that has an almost meditative quality in that it does stir one – but I do not think it is always about emotion – Gregorian Chant and Palestrina’s music supposedly – force one to breathe in a manner which promotes a meditative state – Palestrina is said to have believed that chant created a calmness and clarity of mind which opened one to the contemplation of the sacred and profound mystery of human existence.

I guess not everyone is sensitive to place – but I very much agree with the comment about feeling linked to those who have lived so long ago and worshipped in the same place we can (if in Europe) now worship. I too feel that and I do not think it is simply an emotional feeling that is not so trust worthy. I once was sitting in a churchyard of an 11th C church in Northumbria contemplating a 9th C celtic stone cross – and the simplicty,beauty and quiet of the place led me to yes that feeling of connection but also I actually finally understood what the Church means by the whole mystical Body of Christ- Communion of saints thing. And it was that emotional state which allowed me to come to that realization.

I do think in some ways that the distrust of feeling – and intuition – is a modern phenomenon – the ancients – or at least those folks who carved that wondrous cross some 1200 years ago – believed that we had two kinds of senses – our physical senses and also senses such as feeling, conscience, judgement, intuition and even prophecy. They valued the knowledge that came from both types of senses. They also recognized that quiet and stillness as well as the meditative state induced by repetitive prayer such as litanies and chant were necdessary to access deeper wisdom. Clearly not something us moderns value.

A side note – did you know allegedly Gregorian chant originated in a monastery in Turkey – some of the original buildings still stand but they are now part of a mosque.

#3 Comment By Paul Emmons On December 6, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

I’m not sure that we can give any single reason why Jesus came, especially why He died on the cross. Many of us absorb more than we might think by osmosis rather than the teaching of our own denomination. I was going to say “the specific teaching”, but Anglican teaching is deliberately not as specific as some. It sometimes maintains a discreet silence, allows mysteries to be mysteries, and does not claim to have the definitive answer to every question. One therefore risks maintaining assumptions imported half-baked from elsewhere, and not becoming aware of options. Practical unanimity, seen by what we do together, is probaby more important than all believing the same, which is bound to be an illusion in any case.

For instance, it was a long time before I realized that penal substitutionary atonement was not the only well-developed explanation for the Crucifixion. It was a relief to discover some of the others.

#4 Comment By PDGM On December 6, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

Rod,
I hope that you will not read this as a criticism in the negative sense of that term.

Your correspondent wrote: “But whether they believe it or not, every 15-year-old at my church can explain – and not just through repetition – the theology of who Jesus was, why he came, how to approach him, and what it all means. There’s a certain benefit to the tight focus on those things, but there’s a corresponding potential for that focus to blinker us to a broader experience of God.”

To which I reply: I find this simultaneously a sign of a certain (very limited) strength, and also of a great weakness.
As a strength: that the 15 yo can enunciate it; because your correspondent is right, some Catholic schools and catechism classes do not in my limited experience, vicarious (a son who went through Catholic schooling from K through 8) offer a lot of theological sense to the children.

As a weakness though: if a 15 yo can answer this, isn’t it possible that the answer is a little formulaic, a little pat, a little too simple? As your correspondent points out, the richness of the tradition oriented churches (Catholic and Orthodox especially) is in the rich topsoil that has accumulated over millenia on understanding the complexity of the divine revelation and saving kenosis (self-emptying) of God.

The Catholic church has an advantage/disadvantage that it tied this into a specific form of Greek philosophy, that of Aristotle. This is a strength in that it can give believers a nuanced relationship between nature and grace, between the world around us and the world we believe is ultimate reality, which subsumes and contains this one.

The Orthodox advantage is in a more nuanced understanding of what salvation means: of theosis, divinization, which is really more complete that the Catholic understanding of human salvation, which has more in common in some ways with the individualistic understandings of your correspondent’s form of theology. In order to have this understanding, the Orthodox have also a nuanced understanding of the incarnation, and of what exactly it means to be human: a Christian spiritual anthropology, which interacts and interpenetrates the theology of the incarnation.

Neither of these strengths are accessible to most 15 year olds, no matter how precocious. Hence my wariness of your correspondent’s claim of said 15 yo’s enunciation being in any way sufficient for a fully adult understanding of faith.

Finally, there’s the question of God’s mystery. Neither the Catholic (except for in its mystics, its Meister Eckharts, for example) nor the evangelical Protestant do justice to this, though even mainstream Scholastic theology–Aquinas– goes further than much of Protestantism. God is instead limited to his anthropomorphic forms, which while necessary are profoundly limited and limiting, and simply insufficient for some people who are a minority. But it is this form of understanding God that the idiot atheists find easier to attack. While their attacks are even more limited than the anthropomorphic understandings of God (by far), this type of theology makes for an easier target.

#5 Comment By mike On December 6, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

Although I, too, want it all, marked by modernity it seems that we can at best adopt a bureaucratic approach to faith; get something here, something else there, thereby reaffirming the schisms we are wanting to overcome via art, via tradition, via place, via systematic presentation of our beliefs.

#6 Comment By Ottaviani On December 6, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

“Verbatim recitation of prayers, responsorials, etc., was paramount. Understanding the words was not only not a priority, it wasn’t even an issue. Belief was either de-emphasized or taken for granted – it’s hard for me to say at this distance. So whether they taught us or not, we thought the key to praying was getting all the words exactly right, that holy water had magical powers, that the same magic powers existed in a piece of something-or-other that came from Lourdes or Medjugorje, or that had been touched by or owned by a saint.”

***

The fact that people are poorly catechized is not a comment on the merits or demerits of the Church’s theology. There is a rich sacramental theology behind reverence for relics, icons, and liturgical prayer rooted in the nature of God’s encounter with the world via the Incarnation.

That is how we arrive at the idea that we can perceive God in beauty — God entered the world and sanctified it.

#7 Comment By Elijah On December 6, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

An outstanding read. But “There’s also the independent, unstructured, unsupervised nature of independent evangelical churches, which makes them rife with potential for error in a way that hierarchical churches are not.”

Actually, that’s what attracted to me one: a church that wouldn’t give up core beliefs when they became inconvenient or difficult, a church that held its officials accountable, a church that ensured its pastors taught what the church believes, not what’s happening today.

Westboro Baptist is better labeled Fred Phelps Inc. – nobody outside of family even belongs to it. He’s no different from WomenPriests or the Nuns on the Bus. At core, I doubt he’s even a Christian, since he thinks man can do something beyond God’s power to forgive.

I just don’t think that statement is true by a longshot.

#8 Comment By Theophilus On December 6, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

My faith tradition (Mennonite Brethren, a kind of evangelical Mennonite with roots in Russia) has been creeping back to acknowledging meeting God in beauty and art and ritual and whatnot, but it’s been a slow and halting process. It started with music for several reasons. One of these is that, as an action rather than an object, it is more resistant than the plastic arts to charges of idolatry. It is also portable, which is important given our tradition’s history of persecution and displacement in which we generally lose our churches, land, and most possessions every 150 years or so. It’s been rather helpful for us to hear Catholics and mainline Protestants apologize in the twentieth century for violently oppressing our forbears in the sixteenth century, as well as to see interest in our centuries-old Christian pacifism from people within these traditions. It really helped to build trust, and with that came greater openness and interest in these traditions that has broken down some of our traditionally iconoclastic, austere ways.

#9 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 6, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

“There’s also the independent, unstructured, unsupervised nature of independent evangelical churches, which makes them rife with potential for error in a way that hierarchical churches are not. When’s the last time a Catholic or Southern Baptist church protested a soldier’s funeral, or promoted a planned Koran-burning, or sold all their possessions to pay for advertising announcing the date and time of end of the world? And farther back, see (St.) Paul’s letters to some of the earliest churches, who went astray almost immediately. This is a major theme of my novel”

Ok, I can’t let that one go by. First, what is error? Seriously, what is error? Is it not merely thinking something that the somebody else disagrees with? There is no such thing. Now about the silliness.

No, Southern Baptists are not likely to protest at a soldier’s funeral. But they are likely to burn cds of someone whose work they don’t like. Selling possessions to pay for advertising the end of the world seems nuts, but a lot of early Christians did just that in anticipation of an end that never came. And burning the Koran is not an error. It is an expression of freedom, a political statement and hiearchical churches do have a history of burning other things, like people they thought were in error. And they stopped because the armies, literally, of the Enlightement made them stop at gunpoint.

#10 Comment By Turmarion On December 6, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

PDGM: God is instead limited to his anthropomorphic forms, which while necessary are profoundly limited and limiting, and simply insufficient for some people who are a minority. But it is this form of understanding God that the idiot atheists find easier to attack. While their attacks are even more limited than the anthropomorphic understandings of God (by far), this type of theology makes for an easier target.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people hold to just such anthropomorphic views, and in an astoundingly literal way. I was helping lead an RCIA class a few years back, and in passing (I forget the context) noted the poetic symbolism of Biblical statements to the effect that “heaven is God’s throne” and “Earth is His footstool”. A woman in the class looked at me and said in total seriousness, “But I always looked forward to seeing God on His throne when I get to heaven!” I was totally thrown for a loop, and said something to the effect that God may manifest to different people in different ways; but I was dumbfounded that someone in the 21st Century believes that there’s actually a throne up in the sky that God sits on. I wish the atheists would pick more serious targets, but on the other hand we’re somehow dropping the ball if apparently substantial numbers of people have such crude, literalistic beliefs.

#11 Comment By Anthony On December 6, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

PDGM said, “if a 15 yo can answer this, isn’t it possible that the answer is a little formulaic, a little pat, a little too simple?” Possibly, but you have to start somewhere. A professor in a university only got there by going to elementary school and then high school followed by college. Also, classic Protestant theology is cataphatic, not apophatic like Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholic mysticism; therefore it is more confident that the Bible or doctrine drawn from the Bible gives us true knowledge of God and less inclined to rely on subjective feelings that may or may not be veridical.

#12 Comment By Evan On December 6, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

Thanks for publishing this. It explains many of the reasons why I remain in my evangelical Presbyterian church.

That being said, it disheartens me that too many of my fellow congregants have little interest in moving beyond a 15-year-old’s cut-and-dried view of faith and life. It strikes me that this explains why so many of our kids struggle when they leave the nest, and often end up leaving the church for a few years. When they are suddenly confronted with cogent explanations for opposing views, they have no idea how to respond, as they’ve only learned how to fight against straw men.

I wish that we did a better job of training our kids how to move beyond formulaic answers.

#13 Comment By PM On December 6, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

Very nice post; your friend is an excellent writer.

I know lots of evangelicals like this, and am always amazed at their vision…I keep thinking about the famous quote: to be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant. It really takes a narrow view to accept the evangelical worldview…each man is a pope, each church is tiny, personality-driven group of Christians who seem ok with this concept. But this cheerful acceptance of disunity is fairly successful in America, and seems to work.

To me, the challenge is: how to combine the universal church that tends to institutional decay with the fire of the evangelical who is all alone and who’s doctrine is a floating mess? Cause neither are doing it right these days, to my mind. Both are more Modern than Christian, both in their own way…

#14 Comment By PDGM On December 6, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

Theophilus, I like the Northern European separatist Protestants of the somewhat isolationist bent, of whom the Mennonites are perhaps a leftward example, the more conservative of the Amish the rightward. There strikes me a real lived truth in their standoffishness from power, something that acts as a corrective to the whole post Constantine church of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, as well as Lutheranism and Anglicanism. This liking is helped by the fact that I was educated for six years in an East African Mennonite missionary school, though not a Mennonite.

Anthony, you are right; the difference is b/c Orthodoxy is largely apophatic, and Catholicism contains some apophatic elements. Also, I’m aware that one starts somewhere; but too often it seems to me that evangelical churches both begin and end with assertion of a truth, which of course fits well with a sola fidei belief. That’s why the basic evangelical question is “have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior” whereas such an approach would never, ever happen for Catholics or Orthodox; Catholics dazzle with intellectual sophistication (in both good and bad senses), while in some ways the Orthodox depend on the power of beauty, paradoxical for a church whose theology is substantially apophatic.

PM, at the risk of being thought syncretic, in answer to your last question, perhaps God allows his body to be broken (in a continuing kenosis) by having both the evangelical and tradition oriented churches precisely so that there will be both strengths.

#15 Comment By pj On December 6, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

I missed the post the other day and don’t have time to go through it and the comments now. But every time I see someone discussing evangelicals I have to point out that there is way more diversity in evangelical and bible believing churches than one term indicates. The media uses the term to mean any politically active Christians they don’t like; I know you don’t use it that way Rod, but I think it gets basically to the point that the term has lost all meaning.

Rest assured you can find evangelical churches that do find God in nature and traditional art, among other things. Well, maybe not the architecture…

But I think your friend hits on a number of the reasons why many of us prefer independent churches to the traditional church cultures especially hierarchical ones.

#16 Comment By Raskolnik On December 7, 2012 @ 3:50 am

@Anthony

Also, classic Protestant theology is cataphatic, not apophatic like Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholic mysticism; therefore it is more confident that the Bible or doctrine drawn from the Bible gives us true knowledge of God and less inclined to rely on subjective feelings that may or may not be veridical.

Couple of things.

1) The idea that apophatic theology in any sense relies on “subjective feelings” is completely wrong. Apophasis is an epistemological stance, it has nothing to do with emotional affect.

2) That said, I think you neatly express the basic problem with Protestant theology, and why Protestantism generally tends either toward the production of schlocky/kitschy art, or else dismisses the production of any type of art at all as godless heathenry. Namely, the notion that the Bible is somehow a monolith or that “doctrine drawn from the Bible” is somehow able to be “drawn” in a nice, neat line from the source text. Catholics and Orthodox have historically understood that there is no 1:1 relationship between Biblical truth and the Bible as a text; this makes their Churches inherently more able to process and produce art, since the question of interpreting art and the question of interpreting Scripture (in the C/O model) are quite similar; compare Michaelangelo–or even classical Orthodox iconography–and Thomas Kincade.

#17 Comment By Carl On December 7, 2012 @ 4:06 am

“PM, at the risk of being thought syncretic, in answer to your last question, perhaps God allows his body to be broken (in a continuing kenosis) by having both the evangelical and tradition oriented churches precisely so that there will be both strengths.”

I wonder if we aren’t just recapitulating the history of Israel. We just split East-West instead of North-South.

#18 Comment By Alex M. On December 7, 2012 @ 4:37 am

I’ll bet that Dreher’s Evangelical friend can’t read a word of Hebrew or Greek, and that neither can his preacher. Thus the statement that the Bible is his best way to understand God is absurd and ridiculous, since he can’t even really read the Bible.

All the English translations, without exception, are severely limited, and most are also ideological. For example, the New Testament contains 686 Greek hapax logomena (words that appear only once in a text) so that their meaning is completely unstable. Hebrew Bible contains several hapax logomena whose meaning is unclear even to Talmudists who are certainly able to read Hebrew. Yet every English translation gives these words stable and fixed meaning as authority that is absent in the original.

#19 Comment By David P On December 7, 2012 @ 7:01 am

“There’s also the independent, unstructured, unsupervised nature of independent evangelical churches, which makes them rife with potential for error in a way that hierarchical churches are not.”

Very true statement above. I have been a follower of Christ for 25 years now and up until 4 years ago, attended non-denominational churches. All were started by someone who felt a calling to start a church and all had grown and done fairly well if you use attendance as a measure. Being a musician, I’ve used the gifts that God has given to lead worship and was ordained actually in one of these churches. What you have in all of them in the Senior Pastor is a little dictator. It’s their way or you can leave. Some were fairly benevolent though.

Four years ago, I discovered that I had been lied to about the history of the church. I was taught that right after the Apostles died, the church fell into immediate error. I discovered the rich history of the church and the problems it had. I became an Anglican although I would have become Eastern Orthodox if there was a church or mission near by.

#20 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On December 7, 2012 @ 7:08 am

PDGM, I think your comments are really interesting and helpful. Thank you.

#21 Comment By Tony On December 7, 2012 @ 9:44 am

That was almost my experience exactly, converted by evangelicals, but I came back when I realized that what I was taught was a dumbed down Catholic faith, that Catholiscm was only a small tip of the ice berg, when I dug deeper, I was amazed at the richness of the Catholic faith. But I do owe a lot to evagelicals who made following Christ very appealing

#22 Comment By sdb On December 7, 2012 @ 11:14 am

@Raskolnik Why compare Michaelangelo or classical Orthodox iconography with a modern “artist” like Kincade? Why not Rembrandt? Or why isn’t modern [2] a better comparison to Kincade?

I don’t mean to imply that we are equally great or terrible when it come to art. But I do think these sweeping pronouncements about why protestants are like this and catholics like that are a lot more complicated than these comments imply. The notion that there is a simple causal link from theology to the layman’s approach to art (or in other contexts work ethic, politics, or scientific inquiry) is hopelessly misguided.

It is worth noting that while post-WWII evangelicals (NAE members) have a pretty poor track record when it comes to the arts, things are changing. Southern Baptist theological seminary now offers a Ph.D. in [3] [4]. Evangelical [5] are popping up all over the country. Conservative presbyterian churches are adding [6] dedicated to the arts. Evangelicals have a long way to go in this regard, but the changes over the past 20 years or so have been encouraging. Particularly in light of the general disdain our culture seems to have for the fine arts.

@Alex M. Most evangelical pastors have an MDiv from an evangelical seminary. Typical course requirements include two semesters each of Greek and Hebrew. While his pastor is likely not a biblical scholar, it is unlikely that he cannot read a word of Greek or Hebrew as you suggest.

#23 Comment By sdb On December 7, 2012 @ 11:33 am

Here and in the earlier threads on fundamentalism, creationism, etc… I sense that many commenters would like to draw a line from the protestant understanding of scripture to various characteristics of modern day evangelicals. While protestant reformers are one important influence on modern day evangelicals, they are by no means the only. Wesleyans (and subsequent holiness movements) are also a significant influence, and they have a different doctrine of revelation than the so-called “Calvinists”.

Secondly, many seem to misunderstand what Sola Scripture means. It does not mean that the bible is the only place where knowledge of God is revealed nor that everything that can be known is solely revealed in scripture. It is more a statement about sufficiency (all we need to know for our salvation…including sanctification…is sufficiently clear in the scriptures) and authority (while some passages may not be clear and we disagree on their meaning, we don’t get to dismiss the elements we don’t like nor can the church add requirements for her members beyond what is required in scripture). It is worth noting that the Belgic Confession, still binding in most confessional reformed churches, notes that God is revealed in both nature and scripture:

We know him by two means: first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith, Romans 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

I certainly don’t expect this clarification to convince Catholic or Orthodox believers to adopt the protestant doctrine of scripture. Rather I hope it provides some nuance to the discussion. The fact that the protestant laity (and clergy!) do not full appreciate the book of nature or understand how it should guide our exegesis of special revelation is unfortunate and common. But is it hardly unique to protestants.

#24 Comment By PDGM On December 7, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

sdb,
Interesting: the Belgic Confession you quote simply restates the ancient, common-in-medieval Catholicism idea of the book of nature and the book of revelation, both leading to God.

It’s interesting to note that for the narrow evolutionists (those who a priori define an intelligence out of the equation) natural selection takes the place of a transcendent intelligence; yet this is always believed a priori so as to prevent the book of nature from showing any kind of teleology, and hence any intelligence or booklike status. Instead of a book, a bunch of windblown pages!

Thanks for this clarifying tidbit!

#25 Comment By Friend of Dreher On December 7, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

I’m Rod’s friend who wrote the quote in this post, and I appreciate most of the comments. Most of my thoughts in response have already been well-said in other readers’ responses.

One clarifying point about independent churches being prone to fall into error is that hierarchical churches can surely do the same, albeit less often and more slowly. But like big ships, once the older churches do get off course, it takes them a lot longer to correct.

In regards to my example of a 15-year-old who can understand and explain the who, why, how and what of Jesus, I mean with regard to standard evangelical Christian theology. Of course he won’t be able to make a statement that everyone here agrees is theologically correct, and he won’t have the depth of understanding of someone with a lifetime of study and experience, but the basic watertight structure of his spiritual house is there.

In response to Alex M’s bet that my pastor and I “can’t read a word of Hebrew or Greek,” Alex loses most of his bet — I can read some modern Greek, though very poorly, and I am fluent in neither language, so Alex loses the bet on a technicality but is right about me in the big picture. By contrast, our pastor is a legit Bible scholar and is well-versed in ancient Greek. He takes great care to explain certain words when there’s not a satisfactory direct translation. I can’t think of a week that I haven’t heard him explain a passage without reference to the original Greek or Hebrew. Remember, too, that the people who translated the good Bibles into English are well-versed in the ancient forms of Hebrew and Greek.

It’s true that reading a translation presents obstacles, but it’s not as if we have to throw our arms up in the air. I have several widely used English translations of the Bible. When I hit a really tough passage, I cross-reference the other translations for assistance. In more serious study, I’ve used a Bible that has four columns across two pages, with a different translation of the same passage in each column (NIV, NAS, KJV and ancient Greek for those who know it).

Also, a good study Bible will have explanatory footnotes that can be helpful, and better yet, you’ll see in the text itself that there are all kinds of faint superscripted letters and numbers that cross-reference the use of the same word or phrase in other passages. So you can jump to the other book or chapter to see an alternate usage or alternate translation, or the same word in a different context. And some translations will include occasional italicized words in the text, signifying that the word is not a translation of a word in the original, but is added to help an English reader understand an adjacent word or phrase. You still won’t grok everything the word the way you would if you were a native speaker of ancient Hebrew or ancient Greek — not many of those around — but you can almost always get a satisfactory understanding with a bit of effort.

#26 Comment By Paul Emmons On December 7, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

Cecelia wrote:

>Palestrina is said to have believed that chant created a calmness and clarity of mind which opened one to the contemplation of the sacred and profound mystery of human existence.

Brava to your entire post. I also find what you speak of to be the most beautiful sounds in the world.

You would be interested (if you aren’t familiar with it already) in the work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis. He believed that Gregorian chant is actually energizing. We might wonder how those medieval monastics who spent so many hours every day and night chanting (they went through the entire psalter weekly) could accomplish so much else as well. His answer was that the singing did not sap their energy, but built it up.

#27 Comment By Laura On December 7, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

“Growing up Catholic, attending catechism the whole way, we learned stunningly little about who Jesus was, why he came, what it means. The focus was always on the doing – when to stand, sit, kneel, cross, confess, fast, pray, etc. ”

This portion really struck a cord with me. I grew up in Oklahoma and went to a evangelical Christian school. I was enmeshed in this conservative Christian way of life, and my experience was very similar to this. “The focus was always on the doing…” Yes. It was always about converting more people, memorizing more Bible verses, and praying more often than your peers. “…we learned stunningly little about who Jesus was, why he came, what it means.” Yes. It was theological cotton candy; all you have to do is accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and everything will be all better.

I really appreciated Orthodoxdj’s comment that Protestant’s are looking for well-formed theology, and Catholics long for Bible stories. I don’t share his or her optimism that we can have it all, though. Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic church in the 16th century, and if we can’t get it together in the following 500 years, it seems unlikely that we ever will.

#28 Comment By Anand On December 7, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

Rod and Friend,

An observation about passing on faith to kids. I certainly understand the desire to build a spiritual foundation, it was one reason that I spent years in my old church leading confirmation class for teens.

It’s worth remembering the Puritans. They came to the New World because they wanted their children to be brought up in a pure society where they wouldn’t be contaminated by secular messages and experience God with the power that their parents had. But *even so* the kids by and large did not- leading to first the “halfway covenant” and finally to churches that needed to be re-evangelized in the Great Awakening.

What I tried to do with my daughter and her cohort was to say- this is how I read the Bible and try to follow Christ. It is vastly more important to me that they try to follow Christ than follow me. I have seen this modeled by pastors across the theological spectrum. And I’ve seen the reverse, as well- in churches which end up preaching a narrow, brittle faith that doesn’t stand up to real life well. Though I admit that I haven’t seen much of it, because when looking for a new church in moving to a new area those are the ones we generally run from!

-Anand

#29 Comment By Anand On December 7, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

To follow up on what I said above in simpler words- I sometimes think it is the orthopraxy, the modeling of following Jesus, that is more powerful than the orthodoxy, and that it is dangerous to confuse the two.

#30 Comment By kb On December 8, 2012 @ 8:55 am

Ascetic type of spirituality has often been a response rather than an attempted method. After one has “heard”, “seen”, “tasted” GOD, the things that remain in this world are inferior or become irrelevant. It no longer matters what one eats, where one worships, what music one hears, because the Source of all these has been encountered, Who is so much greater.

I think then there has been mimicry, and the misunderstanding that the senses are not to be enjoyed, because people have seen the naturally resulting “asceticism” of many holy people and saints, and wish to attain it.
The senses are wonderful tutors and a path for many people of approaching and meeting God; it’s unfortunate to sometimes see those who continue filling their senses to misunderstand the pleasures of those to whom the senses have blessedly been put to rest and the interior spirit touched and sated in its indescribable ways instead.

I am one who could not find place in a church tradition so heavy with art and music and architecture, creations of men even to near exclusion of nature, because all these attempts were so inferior to the beauty I knew of God Himself, and seemed tragically wasteful towards me. Having been a musician and artist from a family of the same, it was not loss but utter delight for God to not remain in that “box”of human creative expression but to have so overwhelmed me with Himself that there was no longer anything I could create, or anything I could enjoy of others’ creations, only Him. I understand and appreciate the more “plain” religious traditions, and am so thankful they are here for us.