I was delighted to see that Rod Dreher has used my article on the church in exile as the starting point for a discussion of which Christian tradition will prove most helpful to Christians in the U.S. in the coming years. It also triggered a twitter exchange between Ross Douthat and Alan Jacobs, both of whom are significant voices in the current religious climate and both of whose work has been a great stimulus to my own thinking over the years.
The exchange, and the connected article by Jacobs, have provoked a couple of further thoughts. On the matter of whether we are headed for a kind of spiritual or cultural exile in America, I have no vested interest in being proved right. I rather like the comfortable life of religious freedom I have enjoyed in the U.S. and hope it continues. I fear it will not; but, if proved wrong, the cigars and brandy will be on me.
Second, I leave it to the reader to decide if my original piece exhibited braggadocio as Jacobs claims. True, I did write about the beauty of Reformed tradition which I love with the same passion that I would write about the beauty of my wife; and, while that analogy is not perfect (I would not extol my wife’s virtues as a means of encouraging others to marry her, while I do extol the virtues of the Reformed faith with proselytizing intent), I hope it explains my zeal. I desired not to denigrate the traditions of others but simply to make a positive and passionate case for the Reformed. In a journal like First Things, I assumed the predominantly Catholic readership was well-enough read in its own tradition to find a robust expression of Reformed Protestantism neither intimidating nor offensive. I see no triumphalism in what I wrote, but simply a plea that the Reformed tradition has much to commend it at a time when state and cultural hostility to Christianity is growing.
Finally, I would also express a whole-hearted “Amen!” to Jacobs’s suggestion that it is at the local level, in specific churches and communities, that we will find the resources to survive. My friend, Scot McKnight, has made much the same criticism to me in private correspondence, and I would be happy to concede the point if it can be shown that I ever denied it. It may well be true that no church perfectly embodies all I have suggested (though, looking back at the article, I do not think I set the practical bar very high: decent liturgy shaped by theology, helpful catechisms, good preaching, baptism, Lord’s Supper, a basic grasp of history etc.). Yet the irony of the criticism is that I write not simply as an academic but also as the pastor of a church of ca. 160 people in a small town outside Philadelphia. Every week my primary duty is interacting with Christian people in a church context. Now, few of my congregants are Reformed in background. Perhaps few of them at all think of themselves as ‘Reformed’ or have much insight into precisely what that term implies. But what they participate in every Sunday is Reformed worship and what they live out during the week is life shaped by being part of a church community formed by precisely the tradition I outline in my original article.
I suspect that some of the discomfort with my article derives from it being read through a grid which takes ecumenism or historical divisions between Rome and Protestantism as the dominant concern. Certainly, these are not minor matters and need to be discussed, but they are less pressing for people in the pews. My congregation spends little or no time thinking about ecumenism because, quite frankly, it seems simply irrelevant to the kind of issues they face on a daily basis. Far from being driven by a desire to fight the old battles of the Reformation, they want—and I want—a church with resources which allow me to pastor them in this place at this time with the various pressing issues we all face. To repeat my basic thesis: I believe the rich resources of the Reformed faith help me to do that.