The 19th annual Erasmus Lecture, with Dr. Timothy George holding forth on the men who shaped modern evangelicalism, was a splendid affair. He held the close attention of the mostly Catholic audience of more than 500 people at the Union League Club, many of whom readily acknowledged that they were hearing this story for the first time. Of course everybody is aware of “the evangelicals,” usually mentioned in connection with “the religious right,” and everybody can name Billy Graham, but few know much about the religious and cultural churnings that produced this remarkable phenomenon. George’s lecture will soon appear in article form in FIRST THINGS.
The Tuesday following the public lecture was, as is our custom, a scholars’ conference. I don’t know if any big questions were resolved, but important things were said. Historian Mark Noll, for instance, thinks that George gives too much attention to J. Gresham Machen and not enough to William Jennings Bryan in the shaping of the fundamentalist-evangelical story. I expect George will take that into account in his revising of the lecture for publication. Douglas Farrow of McGill University suggested that evangelicals¯of whom he was once one¯have a basic difficulty in understanding the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. In the absence of a tradition of social doctrine based on natural law, said Farrow, evangelicals are prone to asserting the kingship of Christ in public matters in a way that tends toward something like theocracy. (The “Reconstructionism” associated with the late R.J. Rushdoony is a striking instance of this.) Anthony Lombardy, scholar and poetry editor of FIRST THINGS, underscored the very different ways in which Catholics and evangelicals use the word “personal” when speaking of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For evangelicals, “personal” tends to mean immediate and individual, whereas for Catholics the personal is mediated by tradition and sacramental order. Not surprisingly, this way of putting the matter met with sharp challenges. It was altogether a day of lively exchanges, and I do think new avenues of reflection were opened up, if not always thoroughly explored.
Over my many years of presiding at such scholarly confabs, the question is regularly raised about what results they produce. It is, one gently suggests, a dumb question. Nonetheless, it is asked and, in response, many fall back on Richard Weaver’s maxim that “ideas have consequences.” Those who have to be told that ideas have consequences are living with the sad consequence of minds dominated by ideas that are not their own.
The subject of Timothy George’s Erasmus Lecture is, of course, closely related to the ongoing project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). The ECT group is currently addressing the diverse understandings of holiness in the Christian life and, in preparation for a November meeting, is working through some of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the 1995 encyclical of John Paul the Great, Evangelium Vitae . If all goes well, there will be a statement for publication within the next year.
Penn Kemble died the other day at age 64, after a long bout with cancer. He was a notable representative of the last generation that is part of the story of the “Old Left” of the 1930s in which Marxists split between Stalin and Trotsky, and also between totalitarian and democratic socialism. Penn was among the young protégés of Max Shachtman, once the American secretary to Leon Trotsky who broke with Trotsky over the necessity of democracy. Penn and others found a home with the AFL-CIO under the leadership of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, and worked heroically for the democratic cause and human rights around the world. He played an important part in supporting the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua. I first got to know him when, in the early 1980s, we were putting together the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). As a veteran of political factionalisms, especially on the left, he was of invaluable assistance, and IRD, which is still flourishing today, is among the organizations that owe him a great debt. Requiescat in pace .
And yesterday Msgr. Bryan Karvelis died. In my early days at St. John the Evangelist, in the inner city of Brooklyn, he was a model of faithful priesthood, and remained that the rest of his life. He is often called “the dean of inner-city ministries” in the Brooklyn Diocese, and pioneered the Church’s work among Hispanic immigrants. We were both in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was then one of the roughest and toughest in the city. My part of Williamsburg has in recent years been “gentrified” by the overflow of artist and writer types from the East Village. Bryan stayed with his work among the poor until the end, gathering around him other clergy with a deep devotion to Blessed Charles de Foucauld (definitely not to be confused with Michel Foucault, France’s intellectual romancer of pain and death). I left St. John the Evangelist¯which we called St. John the Mundane in distinction from St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral up in Morningside Heights¯in 1979. When I have had second thoughts about that, and I have had second thoughts, they have always been accompanied by the awareness of Bryan Karvelis who lived with and for the poor until the end. May choirs of angels welcome him on the far side of Jordan.