My Favorite Books of 2017

My pick for book of the year…
Sanctification by Michael Allen
Michael Allen has contributed the third volume in the New Studies in Dogmatics series. It is a feast and my pick for book of the year. I won’t try to describe the book other than to say that Dr. Allen grounds holiness in the doctrine of God, Christology, and the covenant relationship between God and his people. Jesus saves his people not only from the condemnation of sin but from its power as well. This is a must read. You can listen to the Mortification of Spin interview with Dr. Allen HERE.
 

Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation by Robert Kolb and Carl Trueman
What an appropriate subject for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. These two scholars help the reader understand the distinctives of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. This book was a pure pleasure to read. Drs. Kolb and Trueman are at the top of their game. It is an irenic dialogue between two men who understand and are committed to their respective traditions.
 

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper
It was certainly appropriate to read at least one biography of Luther this year. When some of the world’s notable Luther scholars recommend a biography it’s a good idea to read it. Though described as a feminist historian by some, Roper is a first-rate scholar and her biography on Luther was a delight to read. This is both one of the most enjoyable biographies on Luther I have read and one of the best examinations of 16th century Europe.
 

Not Tragically Colored by Ismael Hernandez
Though published in 2016 I could not help but include it in this list. Hernandez gives us one of the most insightful, compassionate, and courageous books I have read in some time. A native of Puerto Rico and former Communist, Hernandez’ pilgrimage to the United States and rejection of Communism is deeply moving. But that is only the introductory material. The book is subtitled “Freedom, Personhood, and the Renewal of Black America.” I would suggest that if anyone desires to contribute something helpful to the current discussion of race and racial reconciliation they would be wise to read Mr. Hernandez’ outstanding book.
 

All That is in God by James Dolezal
The doctrine of God has received renewed attention in the last couple of years. Specifically, there seems to be renewed interest in those classic categories that many contemporary theologians have rejected, redefined, or not understood. This is an important book. You can listen to the Mortification of Spin interview with Dr. Dolezal HERE.
 

On Human Nature by Roger Scruton
For those not familiar with Scruton’s work, his latest book is a good introduction to the British philosopher. Here, Scruton argues for the uniqueness of humanity. He argues against philosophical and Darwinian materialists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
 

Retrieving Eternal Generation edited by Fred Sanders & Scott Swain
The debate over the Trinity which began in the summer of 2016 involved a discussion about the propriety of the translation of John 3:16 and the doctrine of eternal generation. This book removes all reasonable doubt that eternal generation is thoroughly biblical and ought therefore to be retained by the church. These series of essays establish the hermeneutical, historical, and dogmatic foundations of this vital doctrine.
 

How To Think by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs is a wonderful writer who I enjoy reading even when I don’t necessarily agree with him. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his latest which is subtitled “A survival guide for a world at odds.” If you get a chance listen to the interview with Dr. Jacobs on Mortification of Spin HERE.
 

Descriptions and Prescriptions by Michael Emlet
Every pastor and elder ought to read this wonderfully helpful book by Dr. Emlet. It is concise and yet highly informative. Emlet gives the reader a much needed tour through the challenges complexities of psychiatric diagnosis. Throughout the author tethers his counsel and conclusions to God’s Word. Watch for the upcoming Mortification of Spin interview with Dr. Emlet.
 

Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids by David Murray
The last several years have seen the production of many excellent books for children. David Murray has added a worthy volume to the list. Described as “52 expeditions through God’s Word” Exploring the Bible provides children ages 8-12 with daily Bible readings and brief meditations to guide them through the whole Bible. Parents, this is one you want.
 

Worth Mentioning…
These are books that are high on my “must read” list. Unfortunately I have not had time to get to them. But judging by the reviews and what I have read by these men previously I am looking forward to digging in…
 

Walking Through Twilight by Douglas Groothuis
As I write this list I am in the middle of reading Dr. Goothuis’ moving account of his beloved wife’s descent into dementia. If the second half of the book is like the first then it belongs on a best of 2017 list.
 

Christianity at the Crossroads by Michael Kruger
 

The Last Adam by Brandon Crowe

Mortification of Spin Year in Review

Another year has passed us by, and as always, the Mortification of Spin co-hosts have not disappointed us. These lapsed Baptists now proclaiming the wonders of Presbyterianism have managed to do it again, stoking the fires of controversy while managing to get a good word in now and then. Let’s take a look at what they accomplished in 2017…

Housewife theologian Aimee Byrd continued to bask in the glory of the release of No Little Women, which has promoted a good discussion about the importance of solid, biblically based literature for ladies in the church, as well as ways in which elders can help the women under their care. Aimee also got to work writing a new book about the importance of brother/sister relationships in the Body of Christ. We have great hopes that people will misunderstand it entirely when it is released sometime next year. Nevertheless, Aimee remains committed to increasing our appreciation of the “household” aspect of God’s Church.
Apart from writing books, Aimee spoke at numerous women’s conferences and even one or two that were attended by some men. (The horror!) She wrote many blog articles about what it means to be feminine from a biblical perspective and dove into the controversy surrounding the Pence Rule. On a personal level, she sent her firstborn child off to college, which marked an important transition for the family. She also invented the concept of the “book flight” and continued to bond with her son over their mutual love of martial arts.
Texan Todd Pruitt (for so we must always introduce him) continued in his primary role as teaching elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley (for so we must always introduce it). His church was proud to host the Blue Ridge Bible Conference, which focused on the importance of scripture and the fact that “God has spoken.” As part of this conference, he managed to get both Aimee and Carl in his home at the same time. He also joined a long line of dignitaries who have appeared on the Presbycast podcast.
Never one to shy away from a debate, Todd continued his efforts to call the PCA back to its biblical roots. He wrote about the need for racial reconciliation that is based on gospel truth rather than political ideology or social theory. This attracted some significant criticism, and Todd made efforts to engage with others in a gracious manner without surrendering on the main points. He came away from his visit to the PCA General Assembly somewhat encouraged and has every hope that the denomination can continue to be a strong defender of scriptural and confessional principles. On a personal level, Todd suffered the loss of his beloved father this year, but he was glad to preside over a funeral that was filled with gospel truth in addition to honoring his father’s life.
That brings us to Carl Trueman, token foreigner of the group. As usual, Carl was busier than any human being has a right to be. He celebrated the release of Grace Alone, his new book that is part of the 5 Solas series from Zondervan. As a church historian in a year celebrating the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, he was in high demand as a speaker. This allowed him to share with audiences the importance of the theological principles that drove the Reformation, as well as the remarkable lives of the men and women who participated in it. Perhaps the highlight in this regard was participating in a PBS documentary on the life of Martin Luther.
It wasn’t all about the Reformation for Carl, though. He continued writing for First Things, where he made the somewhat startling announcement mid-year that he had been declared “The Most Dangerous Man in Christendom”. For the most part, he restricted his writing there to addressing cultural issues of the day. For good measure, Carl also released a book with respected Lutheran scholar Robert Kolb called From Wittenberg to Geneva. It examines points of disagreement between the two traditions during the Reformation period. With the arrival of autumn, Carl took on a new role as a James Madison Fellow at Princeton University. He will use this fellowship to write a book on evolving notions of gender throughout history and how they have brought us to where we are today. He also pastors an OPC congregation, by the way. When he was not doing all of this, Carl celebrated his younger son’s college graduation with the rest of his family and spent a lot of time watching Swedish crime dramas. Oh, and he and his wife visited Rome. (Not to convert. Repeat, not to convert.)

On the Mortification of Spin podcast, the two amigos and one amiga managed to interview a number of awesome guests this year, including but not limited to Kelly Kapic, Darryl Hart, James White, Michael Allen, James Dolezal, Rosaria Butterfield, David Helm, and Timothy Witmer. They discussed lustful thoughts, loneliness, Catholicism, social justice, lament, Machen, the doctrine of God, evangelicalism, and perhaps most ironically for Carl and Todd, beauty. We also learned that Todd disapproves of yoga almost as strongly as Aimee likes it. A live show was recorded at the Westminster Preaching Conference, and another show was livestreamed to viewers on the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Here is how you can pray for the Spin co-hosts in the coming year:

– For Aimee…Pray for the editing process of her upcoming book and that the result would be both God honoring and helpful on a practical level. Pray for her efforts to encourage women in their pursuit of good theology. Pray that God will honor her desire to serve His Body in this way, and that He will prepare peoples’ hearts to hear the message. Pray for her transition to being the mother of a college kid and only having two birds left in the nest. 

– For Todd…Pray for his continued shepherding of Covenant Presbyterian Church, and that God would continue to protect and bless his ministry and the congregation as a whole. Pray for him to have wisdom as he seeks to address certain difficulties within the PCA. Pray for his family as they also have children in the transition phase from high school to college. Pray that Todd will be an encouragement to his mother at this time when they are mourning the loss of his father.

– For Carl…Pray for his ongoing research as part of the fellowship program at Princeton, and that he will produce a book that brings clarity to the present cultural situation. Pray for Westminster Philadelphia, as it continues to train the next generation of pastors. Pray that he will be able to focus his efforts on those projects where his talents are most needed for God’s kingdom. Pray also for his congregation at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, and that he will be encouraged in his role as a minister of God’s Word.

If there’s spin in 2018, you can be sure that these three will seek to mortify it. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

R.C. Sproul: An Appreciation

The first book I read from a Reformed scholar was The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. It was 1987 and I was a student at a Southern Baptist University. I had no idea what Reformed theology was or what Presbyterians believed. I picked up the book because the title struck me. Also, it was relatively brief. The other reason I decided to read The Holiness of God was because I had heard the name of the author on the radio (Christian radio was a constant presence in my home).
 

It was about 10 years later that I listened to a series of lectures by Dr. Sproul entitled “Chosen by God.” By that time I was wrestling with Reformed theology because as a youth pastor I studied and taught the Bible weekly. I was increasingly haunted by the doctrines of grace and the biblical vision of a God who works all things according to the counsel of his will. Here was a God who did not bow to my will but rather decreed all things which come to pass.
 

I did not consider myself “Reformed” or “Calvinistic” until I was the pastor of a church in the Midwest in the early 2000’s. I no longer had to explain away massive portions of Scripture. I was free to read it all and thrill in a God who sits above the heavens and does all that he pleases. You may not understand how revolutionary that was unless you were raised in the sort of tradition that makes the will of man the power to which God must adjust his purposes.
 

Like so many around the world I was caused to be quiet and reflective by the news of Dr. Sproul’s death yesterday, December 14, 2017. There are men whose lives and works have an impact which is hard to quantify. I can say without hesitation that it was The Holiness of God, purchased on a whim, which planted the seeds of my current vocation as a Presbyterian pastor. It is unlikely that there is anyone in the 20th century more responsible than R.C. Sproul for so many embracing the beauties of the Reformed faith.
 

How grateful I am for the life and labors of R.C. Sproul. In every vital matter of evangelical conviction from defending the inerrancy of Scripture, life in the womb, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith alone, Dr. Sproul was on the leading edge. In these days of fading conviction may God give us many more who will do the same.

I would encourage you to watch or listen to the message from Dr. Sproul at the 2008 Together for the Gospel conference. It is entitled The Curse Motif of the Atonement and is the most powerful message I ever heard from Dr. Sproul. More than that, it is one the best proclamations of the atonement I have ever heard from any preacher in any venue. At a time when so many in my denomination are throwing overboard the unfathomable riches of the gospel for horrendous errors like the New Perspective on Paul, this message is medicine strong and sweet.
 

Why Saying “She’s Just a Friend” is an Insult

What does friendship mean to you? Is erotic love in marriage the only real valuable outlet for our affection? Does all affection lead to erotic love? Christians have another relationship to consider as well, one that will last to the new heavens and the new earth. We are siblings to one another in Christ. And just like siblingship is our longest lasting relationship on this earth, sacred siblingship is our longest lasting relationship, enduring on the new earth. That’s got to mean something, right? How do you value your friends? How do you value your siblings?

My upcoming book, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, emphasizes the great honor and responsibility that we have to promote one another’s holiness in friendship. How can that become an ordinary exercise in sibling friendship? Some would say that keeping our friends accountable by fencing our relationships between the sexes with extra biblical rules such as the infamous Mike Pence Rule or Billy Graham Rule are doing just that. But the pursuit of holiness and purity isn’t quite that easy, and we can actually stunt our growth with universal, extra biblical restrictions. We are called to love one another, not to be legalistic busybodies. And a discerning and God-glorifying sibling love wisely relates on a case-by-case basis. 

Promoting holiness in a sibling presupposes discernment of their strengths and weaknesses. Natural siblings are really good at this, aren’t they? Selfish siblings will capitalize on another sibling’s weakness and compete with his strengths. But we are called to love. That means that we will want to sharpen the strengths of our siblings, we will not put stumbling blocks in an area of weakness, and we will participate in their growth in holiness.

When Cain wittingly replies to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, he unwittingly reveals so much about siblingship. His retort reveals that while playing dumb and denying this basic truth, he actually does know what it means to be a sibling. It’s like saying, “Able is just my brother; that doesn’t mean anything.” His reply suggests that Able is on his own. There is no gratitude for this gift of a sibling, no commitment to him, no common mission, no connection whatsoever. No love. What he is really doing in his reply is rebelliously rejecting who he is as a sibling. But Cain isn’t God. And he can’t just declare the way things will be. He is a brother. And therefore, he is his brother’s keeper. Even murder does not change this truth. Abel’s blood still cried out to God. Likewise, the sacred siblingship relationship Christian brothers and sisters share is a gift that comes with responsibilities. 

Cain also reveals in this reply the minimum a brother should do—to be a keeper. As important and honorable as that is, sacred siblings are called to more than keeping; we are called to promoting. That is what our Elder Brother is doing for us, and what we are called to do for one another. We already know how we are supposed to do this, and yet it is often minimized in our actions. There are simple yet profound practices that affirm our gratitude and commitment to one another, further our common mission, and enhance our sibling connection. “Christian community begins in gratitude, is sustained by our promises and truthfulness, and is expressed in hospitality” (Christine Pohl, Living Into Community, 13). Centered on Christ’s person and work, these practices of gratitude, truth telling, promise making, and hospitality are foundational to promoting holiness in one another. 
We say that we are thankful for our brothers and sisters in Christ but often our responses reveal our ingratitude. Dan Brennan points out a common response that unwittingly reveals our hearts toward one another. Because we live in such a romanticized and sexualized age where every meaningful relationship with the opposite sex is expected to result in the bedroom, we often try to react by minimizing friendship. We set marriage up as the ultimate relationship in which all of our commitment, passion, and intimacy is shared and invested. So when asked about our affections for anyone who is not a spouse or who is not a romantic interest we respond, “He’s just a friend.”  What a brutal thing to say! What are we unwittingly revealing with this response? With the word just, we are denying the gift of friendship and instead “convey[ing] a distance from vows, commitments, passion—a peripheral existence to the heart of the family” (Brennan, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, 107). What a rebellious expression of ingratitude. 

You are your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper and promoter. And these practices of gratitude, promise making, truth telling, and hospitality are responses to the household we have been brought into and the God that we have. He is full of grace, giving his people what they do not deserve and could never dream of. We aren’t entitled to his affection and all that comes with it—he chose us in Christ. He doesn’t just invite us in; he makes us part of the family. He does this by revealing the truth of who we are and who he is. And our Lord doesn’t shirk from commitment; he makes covenantal promises and faithfully carries them through all the way. I’m not “just a daughter.”

Let’s not be ungrateful for the friendships that we have been given and the esteem of carrying out those responsibilities. Friendship is not a downgrade from erotic love. Unlike our marriages, friendship will last to the new heavens and the new earth. I would never call Matt, “just my husband.” I would never say Luke, Brooke, Eli, and Brody are “just my brothers and sister.” Likewise, it’s a great honor to be called a friend.

Jones Reviews Frame’s Review

Mark Jones has written a review of John Frame’s review of James Dolezal’s fine book entitled All That Is In God.

For good reason, Jones is puzzled by some of the statements in Frame’s review. Jones points out the rather uncomfortable fact that some of what Frame writes simply does not make sense. For instance:
 

I may be missing something, but this by Frame makes no sense to me:
 

“But if we say that God only appears to change in these contexts, must we also say that God only appears to enter time, that the Son of God only appeared to become man (that is the textbook definition of Docetism), that he only appeared to die on the cross and rise again?” Frame also says, “Why should we believe literally that God is changeless, but not that God literally became flesh in Jesus?”
 

It seems Frame is putting Dolezal on the horns of a false dilemma. Why can we not, with pretty much every Reformed theologian in the 16th-18th centuries, say that both are true? God does not change in his essence and the Son literally did become flesh. There is essence-appropriate language and persons-appropriate language. These are not mutually exclusive positions, but actually prove that you can hold to divine immutability and also speak of “God” (i.e., the God-man, Jesus Christ) in ways that are truly/literally anthropomorphic.
 

Jones includes this sobering, but I believe, entirely called-for assessment of theology in the 20th century:
 

Theology in the 20th century was, in my estimation, a dunghill upon which there are occasional diamonds peeking out of the manure. Liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, and a bastardization of Reformed theology have brought us full circle to the problems that plagued the Reformers and their heirs hundreds of years ago.
 

More specifically, the recent ESS/ERAS doctrine is one offspring of this revisionist approach to the doctrine of God, and it is not only a doctrine of God and a Trinitarian error, but also a Christological error. Quite frankly, I don’t care about what consensus someone can build in favor of the ESS theology; it needs to be called out for what it is: a theological aberration where the tail (complementarian fancies) is clearly wagging the dog (the Trinity).
 

Theological mutabilism, as advanced by some, is closer to Socinianism than Reformed orthodoxy. It is hard not to be sympathetic to a large number of Dolezal’s critiques when you consider that many of the theologians he critiques adopt a Socinian method and approach to theology that masquerades under the guise of being biblical.
 

I would be remiss if I did not include Jones’ final statement which left me unsure if I should laugh or cry. So I did a bit of both:
 

In the end, I am glad to see this debate happening. The Reformed Baptists are debating the doctrine of God; the OPC is debating Republicationism; and the PCA is debating the legitimacy of men dancing in tights during a worship service. Well done to all.
 

You can read the entire review HERE.
 

No Cross, No Gospel

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).
 

I have noticed a trend which ought to concern any member of a PCA church. There seems to be an increasing number of PCA church plants whose stated definition of the gospel is void of any mention of the cross or atonement. In other words, there seems to be a growing number of PCA churches and/or pastors who do not properly define the gospel.
 

The following example from the front page of a PCA church’s website was sent to me from a concerned member of one of our churches. Notice that they are answering the question, “What is the gospel?”:

What is the Gospel? It is the announcement (literally “good news”) that Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of salvation for the entire cosmos and will be completed when he returns. God is restoring the peace (shalom) of his creation through the work of Christ and is renewing people, families, neighborhoods, cities and nations, as people trust and follow him.
 

I have read a number of other definitions of the gospel on other PCA church websites that define the gospel in essentially the same way.

I have no reason to believe that the writers of statements such as the one above are anything other than fine brothers in Christ. It may be that they are pastors who preach Christ crucified every Lord’s Day. I certainly hope that is the case. The fact remains however that the answer given above to the question “What is the gospel?” is so incomplete as to be wrong. It is not possible to explain the gospel without placing Christ’s death for sinners at the center.
 

Certainly the resurrection of Jesus is essential to the gospel. If we are not proclaiming Christ as risen then we are not proclaiming the gospel. Jesus’ resurrection is necessary for our salvation. Likewise, it is true that the salvation Jesus accomplished is cosmic in scope. That is, there will be a new heaven and earth in the age to come. Sin has ruined everything so the new creation will include both redeemed persons as well as a redeemed creation. I also understand that it is not possible to include everything about the gospel in a single statement. Certainly a statement that addresses the gospel in all its fullness and implications could not fit in a simple statement.
 

But there is simply no gospel apart from the cross. There is no proper explanation or proclamation of the gospel apart from the fact that “Christ died for our sins.”
 

So how can it be that there are PCA churches which define the gospel in such a way as to leave out the heartbeat of the gospel itself?
 

One of the standard features of progressive or liberal theology is a disdain for the atonement. You will hear talk about the various “theories of the atonement.” It will be said that while some accept the “theory” of penal substitutionary atonement others prefer another theory like Christus Victor. Of course they fail to understand that Christ’s victory is grounded in part in his death as our vicarious substitute; our propitiation.

Incidentally, I am making no claim about the intentions of those pastors who neglect to mention the cross or atonement in their definitions of the gospel. They may well be wonderful folks. But if we can’t be “sticklers” about getting the gospel right then what are we?
 

So, what are we to think about pastors in the PCA who, when asked to explain the gospel, make no reference to sin, the cross, or the atonement? If it were a one-off we could explain it as a probable oversight; a mental speed bump. But I am concerned that this problem is way beyond anecdote. It seems to be a trend.

Pickpocketing Purity

While Beaty gives a nod to the motives of many who promote and adhere to the Pence Rule in one form or another, she denies it’s effectiveness:  “The Pence rule is inadequate to stop Weinstein-ian behavior. In fact, it might be its sanctified cousin. It’s time for men in power to believe their female peers when they say that the rule hurts more than helps.” Abusers are always going to find ways to abuse, but Christians are called to something higher than these extra-biblical rules. We are called to uphold godly behavior and promotion of holiness with everyone we interact with. We are called to a holy communion with God that also overflows into a holy communion with one another. We do this as sexual beings, but our sexuality doesn’t merely express itself in the physical love making that a wedded couple exclusively shares. Our sexuality also expresses itself in brother and sisterhood as we relate to everyone.

 

What does this say about a woman such as myself? It insinuates that I’m such a threat to a man’s faithfulness and a pastor’s reputation that I’m barely worth the risk of a ride to the hospital. I am in need of some good Samaritans! This parable particularly comes to mind because the religious people in it didn’t want to get polluted by the dying man. Comments like this tweet insinuate this same kind of pollution in association with women. As pastor Sam Powell put it, such harsh boundaries pretend like “fornication is like the flu, and you accidently catch it if you happen to be close to a woman.”  Or maybe it is a Christian’s reputation that is polluted. (Sam also has a great article debunking the “appearance of evil” here.) Either way, Jesus calls us to be like the Samaritan, whom had nothing to lose because he was already considered polluted, or ceremonially defiled, so he was free to properly care for another human being in need. This is how Christ loved us. This is how we should love one another. Powell bids us, “Take up your cross with him; despise the shame. Make yourself of no reputation. ‘Let this mind be in you, that was also in Christ Jesus.’

“Perhaps it is time that we start thinking about love, rather than reputation.”   

Stealing Unearned Virtue

Some of the comments defending the Pence Rule under the link I shared are emotionally charged and hurtful, resorting to the conversation-closer of name-calling. This is what Alan Jacobs calls commitment to non-thinking. In them, Beaty is called brain dead and her article is referred to as a moronic idea, full of lies, which like the New York Times, should be ignored. Those who defend the Pence Rule imagine that those who critique it are either extremely naïve or don’t value faithfulness in marriage. I would like to suggest that those who viscerally defend the Pence Rule are falling under what Dietrich von Hildebrand, in his book In Defense of Purity, calls the spell of negative sexuality and are falling short of apprehending purity. After all, one can avoid having an affair and not truly embrace purity. While faithfulness in marriage is expected, it is not necessarily virtuous if it’s a response to a perceived self-importance, the result of an unsensuous temperament, or due to lack of opportunity. As von Hildebrand teaches, purity is a virtue as it treasures “free coopera[tion] in its production,” and as it “involves a habitual response to some value.” 

So the question to ask is what is your perception of value? Is it your career or ministry, therefore you must guard any appearance that may give people ammunition against your image? Is your value the perfect marriage, even at the expense of valuing others? (And what kind of marriage is it when you have to reduce all others of the opposite sex to value your spouse?) Or is your value to “live, so to speak, in the sight (in conspectu) of God’s purity, the fountainhead of all purity, and [to] respond to it with the permanent and habitual assent of his will” (43)? Because purity is supernatural. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

Von Hildebrand insists on purity as a positive virtue that “always lives in an attitude of reverence for God and his creation, and therefore reveres sex, its profundity, and its sublime and divinely ordained meaning” (40). The sexual gift in marriage is therefore positively embraced and treasured so as not to be reduced to a base instinct. “The moment I treat physical sex as something complete in itself and take no account of its profoundest function, namely in wedded love, I falsify its ultimate significance and become blind to the mystery it contains” (7). This reverence for God and high view of sex also promotes a corresponding response to value others in their dignity as people made in the image of God. 

So the pure person does not behave prudishly in producing an “oppressive atmosphere” toward others, but “is distinguished by a limpid radiance of the soul” (41). Rejecting the negative value of impurity or sexual transgression should never lead to rejecting the value of another person. The virtue of purity rightly orients sensuality before God and others. Those who are oppressive to this beauty “miss the peculiar freedom of the pure; the unconfined spirituality, the transparence, the radiance which is theirs alone. On the contrary, they are in bondage, their spirit is opaque and transmits no clear light, and the hang about every hole and corner in which sexuality lurks unbeknown…Since they have never uprooted and overcome this attraction, nor even struggled against it in open combat, every other department of their life is infected and poisoned by this disposition” (24).

So while it may seem safe to impose rules that separate ordinary encounters with the opposite sex, it isn’t the virtue of purity. It is actually over-sexualization, or as Beaty calls it, the sanctified cousin of Weinstein-ian behavior. No, the virtue of purity perceives and responds to the holistic value in human beings.

We are called to Christian love and fellowship as brothers and sisters. That means we promote one another’s holiness. It also means that we take sin seriously as well as our own ability to fall into it. This doesn’t call us to “the false modesty of the prude” but to a “sincere humility” (42). Therefore, rather than extra-biblical rules, we are to do the hard work of rightly orienting our affections and exercising wisdom and discernment with others.  We don’t think of a bunch of reasons to be alone with the opposite sex, we don’t’ naively assume everyone is safe, and we don’t overestimate our own virtue. We live before God in every situation. And in this manner, we won’t scandalize ordinary acts of kindness and business such as serving someone by giving them a ride or coworkers sharing a meal in a public place.

Wikipedia defines pickpocketing as “a form of larceny that involves the stealing of money or other valuables from the person of a victim without them noticing the theft at the time. It may involve considerable dexterity and a knack for misdirection.” I see the Pence Rule as pickpocketing purity, stealing unearned virtue at the expense of another’s dignity. Although I think that many who uphold the Rule are the ones misdirected, wanting to exercise a virtue without noticing that positive work they need to put in.

Thinking About Mental Purity

Jacobs spends a lot of time building on C.S. Lewis’ teaching about the Inner Ring, or “’moral matrix’ that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged,” reasoning that if we are so caught up in our own Inner Rings, we begin to look at outsiders to our Ring as Repugnant Cultural Others (55). Jacobs calls these Inner Ring zealots “true believers.” This kind of tribalism really doesn’t sharpen our thinking or properly love our neighbors. When this happens, we are not truly being loyal to our group or our belief systems that we hold dear because we bind one another to strict orthodoxy of the Inner Ring rather than to the truth and rather than freedom to learn more, love well, and be sharpened. Inner Ring tribalism also produces pretenders who never really grasp the truths we hold dear. Finding common ground with those who hold different convictions than us, even politically or religiously, does not necessarily weaken our own convictions. If they are in truth, they will be strengthened as we are stretched in our thinking.

How can we be healthier in our affiliations with one another? How can we have loving hearts and healthy minds? There are so many Inner Rings even in the Christian evangelical subculture. I know I have participated in Inner Ringmanship to my own regret. We also see polarizing Inner Rings with political affiliations, race, diets, social issues, and education. There are Inner Rings in church, at school, at work, and in our neighborhoods. Social media has become quite the Inner Ring facilitator. One of the toughest exercises in self-examination is to “distinguish between ‘genuine solidarity’ and participation in an Inner Ring.” (63) It’s the difference between true community and false belonging.

This was all going through my mind when I stumbled upon Jacobs’ use of the term “mental purity”:

You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup. If you quote some unapproved figure, or have the “wrong” website open on your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap”—generally, not a good sign. Even if what you’re reading is Mein Kampf, because there are actually good reasons to read Mein Kampf. The true believer is always concerned, both on her behalf and on that of the other members of her ingroup, for mental purity. (138)

Mental purity sounds like a really good thing, doesn’t it? And it definitely sounds like something that I want for my children. But we have another term for this, which exposes the negative effects: living in a bubble. It’s funny that Jesus didn’t separate the church from the rest of the world after his resurrection so that we wouldn’t be so exposed to corrupting ideas and teaching. It’s funny how he has made many unbelievers smarter and more gifted than his people, so that we will benefit from, learn from, and serve with them. It’s funny how the church has never had mental purity. But we do have Christ, who is both good and omniscient. And we have his word, which is living and active. God calls his people to discernment which requires critical thinking, not to mental purity.

Even so, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just have to say, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap!” Sometimes crap is just crap. There are many books out there that will not engage us to be good thinkers and may actually make us dumber after having read them. You can’t engage much with fluff. And when it comes to something like 50 Shades of Grey, for example, we really don’t have any business reading it. It’s not only junk, and really bad writing, but it easily leads to sinful thoughts and actions. Discernment knows that there is such a thing as a junk pile. But this isn’t what Jacobs is talking about. He’s addressing this sense of tribalism that puts all outsider views in the junk pile and refuses to read those we even strongly disagree with for critical thinking. (I should also note, because I come across this quite often, absorbing everything you read is not critical thinking.)

While reading about mental purity, I couldn’t help but think about Inner Ring convictions on education. Within the church, homeschoolers, private schoolers, and public schoolers can encounter Inner Rings—especially among the parents. And our own convictions in these areas are often criticized as moral choices. I have friends whom I deeply care about in all three of these categories and I know that all three of these choices are susceptible to judgment as outsiders. As a parent who sends her kids to public school, I have felt the sting of RCO comments aimed at our education choices. And yet one reason my husband and I have made this choice is because of the mental purity fallacy. I struggle with balancing this all the time though. There is an important case to be made for stages of mental innocence in our children. They need to reach certain levels of maturity before they can even exercise discernment in separating truth from error and lies. And yet, as they grow, it is important for them to learn how to do this. 

Parents are responsible for what we teach our children. We need to make sure that the good stuff is being put in. And there are evils that they should not be exposed to. It’s tempting for me just to teach my kids what to think. It seems a lot safer anyway. But in order to learn how to think, they have to interact with worldviews, belief systems, and other convictions that are different from our own. The fear is corruption. And this is a real concern—very real. I don’t want to downplay it. Although, on the other hand, I also don’t want to shield my kids so much from the outside word that they begin to think sin is what’s “out there” only later in life to fall into despair when they realize sin is saturated in their very own hearts.

In public school my kids have to wrestle with Inner Rings all the time. And they can be the RCO to many of their unbelieving friends and sometimes teachers. Sometimes they take solid stand and others they fall into being a pretender to an Inner Ring in which they do not belong. But in this, they learn about themselves and others. They’re also learning how to learn from others even while holding strong differences in other areas. They are learning about finding common ground. They still have a long way to go—so do I—but they are exercising these very principles that Jacobs teaches on the art of thinking. 

I’m not against homeschooling or private schooling. And there are all sorts of other reasons one may choose that route, such as the methods used in educating, the curriculum, or the teaching itself. You can certainly teach the art of thinking at home and in private school as well. Each parent is responsible to make these decisions in humility. We should support one another in the church as we make these critical decisions, not divide over them. I love that my kids get to have good friends who are educated differently. Some of their homeschooled friends and private schooled friends share the most common ground with them, as they go to the same church. On Sunday, God calls all his people to his household to learn about him, to worship him, and to be blessed in him. This is sacred time and sacred space, as Michael Horton calls it. No one in God’s household is repugnant, “For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15). And Christ isn’t an Inner Ringer; he creates a genuine community—one that honestly and humbly engages with the world around it. He hasn’t given us mental purity, but he has given us the art of thinking.

Reconciled in Christ?

The dreadful condition of the conversation regarding racial reconciliation among evangelicals is a cause for sadness. Within the denomination to which I belong it has become rather toxic. Dissent from the approved narrative is met either with venom or dismissal. For instance I witnessed a black sister in Christ referred to as “ignorant” by a white Teaching Elder because she challenged some of the assumptions of those driving the race conversation in the PCA. As a consequence of this sort of thing many have absented themselves entirely from the conversation. There are some, however, who are still willing to be treated shabbily for suggesting an alternative to that which we are allowed to think and say.
 

Samuel Sey, a brother in Christ who happens to be black wrote a courageous reflection on the state of racial reconciliation among Christians. He concludes his post by writing:

Racial reconciliation happened on the cross when Jesus reconciled Jewish and Gentile sinners to God. Racial reconciliation happened when Jesus made Jews and Gentiles, Black people and White people, and all other racial groups one in himself when he became our representative and identity on the cross. What Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. could not do for Americans, Christ did for the world 2,000 years ago. Jesus has already accomplished racial reconciliation, and it’s even better than we could have ever hoped for. Those of us who trust in him are not merely reconciled to each other, we are also reconciled to God.
 

We should hate injustice, love good, and establish justice. Like William Wilberforce and Francis J. Grimké, we must do whatever is in our capacity to establish justice. However, we must not lose sight of the gospel. Real racial reconciliation isn’t political, it’s theological. We evangelicals are already reconciled to each other in Christ. We just have to remember that and live like it.
 

Our reconciliation to each other will be perfected in Heaven when a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, stand before our Lord Jesus Christ. But until then, we must live in light of our reconciliation to each other in all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Please take time to read the entire piece HERE.
 

The Death of a Coward

We all have some memories that burn into us like a branding. It may seem random, but some moments leave an impression that will always imprint our minds. One of those for me happened at a slumber party one of the girls on my cheerleading squad hosted for us in high school. She was a better kid than me, what we would think of as the Goody Two-Shoes of the squad. She pleased everyone, never got into trouble, and was always smiling—which was a total yawn for me at the time. But, you go to these team-bonding things, and there I was in the Two-Shoes household with the squad. 

We ventured off into the basement as all teenagers do. I recall nothing about what we did there. All I remember is this branding moment. For some reason, we went into the storage room in the basement and against the wall was one of those metal muscle racks filled with Playboy magazines from floor to ceiling. I can’t remember the reactions of the other girls but I asked the question that only Captain Obvious could answer, Whose are these? This was all so outside of my reality of what a father would do that I totally would have believed the We’re holding them for a friend excuse. But Goody very matter-of-factly said they were her dad’s. I never wanted to look at her dad again. I suddenly felt reduced as a young woman.

The title Playboy says it all. It’s not for men. This dad is no real man, I thought.

And this mom, Mrs. Two Shoes—how was she going along with all this? Where was her dignity, I wondered. This open display was a public humiliation of his wife and children. And me.

What a boy does when his wife sins:

And yet that collection of magazines has nothing on what many so easily access in secret on the internet these days. I remember all the talk with the rise of Internet porn about Playboy being outdated and whether or not Hugh Hefner’s empire will survive. So it all seems kind of cliché now as everyone is talking about his recent death and the legacy he left behind.

Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo nails it in her excellent Public Discourse article, The Playboy Lifestyle and the Death of Complementarity. She opens sharing Hefner’s history before Playboy. A picture of virtue, at 27 he married his longtime sweetheart as a virgin who had saved himself for matrimony. Only this virtue all came crashing down when he discovers that his wife cheated on him before marriage. He describes, “I had literally saved myself for my wife, but after we had sex she told me that she’d had an affair …  My wife was more sexually experienced than I was. After that, I always felt in a sense that the other guy was in bed with us, too.”
This is the moment of integrity. Hefner did not get the reward he felt he deserved for his chastity. His reaction to this devastation of betrayal and unfaithfulness will reveal the man he really is. How does Hefner react when he doesn’t get what he wants? Well, we all know the answer: he becomes a coward who reduces women into soft bunnies, playthings that will be harmed by thousands of Lennies, only they already believe they are “living off the fatta’ the lan’.” All the Lennies buy into the dream; they can pet all the soft things they want with the right manners. And so a gentleman spin is put on vulgarity. In fact, Ben Domenech, writing for The Federalist, calls it “positively quaint” vulgarity, promoting a complementarity that the progressives of the sexual revolution deny.

This gentleman Playboy image that our culture likes to spin is all a mirage anyway, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.” Menchaca-Bagnulo gives us a snap shot of what many of us have already heard went on in the Playboy mansion:

According to Bunnies Carla and Melissa Howe, the mansion’s male visitors “were really pervy; all the girls were fighting to run away.” Hefner was no better than his visitors. Holly Madison claims life in the Playboy mansion was “a living hell,” where Hef forcefully offered her Quaaludes. Izabella St. James said that, while very few women actually wanted to have sex with Hefner, “in his eyes it was the only way we had of showing gratitude for all that he did for us.”

Perhaps most tellingly, Jennifer Saginor, whose father was Hugh Hefner’s doctor, recalls her experience of life at the Playboy Mansion through the eyes of a female child. At a Playboy Party at the age of six, she saw John Belushi and a Playboy Bunny having sex in a Jacuzzi, a kind of decadence that was commonplace at the mansion. “It was so bizarre. If I was not seeing other people having sex, I was seeing my father walking around naked. I would see naked girls around the pool and people openly having sex in the games room. There were just no boundaries.” Unsurprisingly, she drew seriously distorted lessons about masculinity and femininity from these experiences. “I started to identify more with the guys,” she says. “The men were always presented to me as the intelligent and powerful ones, so I wanted to be more like them.”

While some are championing a nostalgic so-called complementarity that Hefner promoted between the sexes, Menchaca-Bagnulo mortifies the spin:

In his Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II writes of the “mystery of complementarity” known most profoundly in the conjugal act, in which man and woman “become one flesh . . . to rediscover, so to speak, every time and in a special way the mystery of creation.” For John Paul II, sexual complementarity is a kind of union that draws the man out of himself, compelling him to leave behind his former life and to “cleave” to his wife as the principle of his new life. The man and the woman’s desire for each other leads to the conception of new life in the form of their children. According to John Paul II, man’s sexual discovery of woman is not one of use, but one of self-giving. This is precisely the kind of self-gift that devastated Hefner when his first wife was unfaithful to him—causing him the kind of pain that only a person, and not an object, can inflict on you.

The only alternative account of human sexuality, John Paul II claims, is one in which “one of the two persons exists only as the subject of the satisfaction of the sexual need, and the other becomes exclusively the object of this satisfaction.” This is the path that Hefner inevitably leads us down.

I just want to add that although Hefner did experience the pain of betrayal by the woman he loved, his chastity before marriage was never virtuous. His own description reveals this. He couldn’t take it that his wife was more sexually experienced than he was. He was supposed to be the one to dominate in the bedroom. But she was no bunny. And his reaction was to hyper-dominate with a sex empire of women at his beck and call. Playthings for boys. Because manhood wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. What does a man do when he discovers his wife’s sin?

How this Playboy image has affected the church:

So in the Two-Shoes home, full of smiles and Goody children, the father had a mass collection of Playboys in the basement that wasn’t difficult to discover. It wasn’t even a stash under the bed. I realized in that basement that all these Goody smiles were like Bunny ears. This is what they thought they were supposed to be: happy and docile with perfect report cards. 

Most churches would never endorse Hefner’s lifestyle. We are disgusted by the sexual revolution and the damage it has done. And yet, some echo this nostalgic brand of complementarity. Menchaca-Bagnulo turns to churches promoting the same view of complementarity as Hefner, which she calls an “intellectualization of domination and dehumanization.” I’ve seen this polished, Christianized version of complementarity with all its hyper-masculine teaching for men and “complementary” femininity taught as subordination. It’s all so one-dimensional and dangerous. 

Only the church is even more mannered than Hefner, so they produce more Georges than Lennies. Many Lennies in the church have been shot to protect its image, and yet they seem to resurrect again. The Georges share sermon after sermon, article after article, retelling the story of masculine bravado, encouraging men to step up into their authoritative position of so-called godly leadership. They are encouraged to play into this stereotypical role of what they call biblical manhood. Abuse is covered up because they believe these are exceptions that tarnish their image. Women are told to consider whether they are being submissive enough and whether they are fulfilling their husbands’ needs. These women have no voice. “They cannot speak, and so can make no demands or critiques, nor can they express their own desire.” And they call this hyper-masculinity “servant-leadership.” This is not biblical headship. This is not the filter that distinguishes manhood from womanhood. This is not complementarity. This is not leadership.

Menchaca-Bagnulo says that “many women run from churches screaming,” and I would add that they run from Christianity screaming too. They found the basement and they want nothing to do with it. 

Boys in their immaturity often exercise hyper-masculinity. Grown boys who never become men put manners on it. In the church we need to call it what it is. Hyper-authoritarianism and subordination is anti-complementarity, just as much as “the act of onanism carried out to mass-distributed pictures of reified women who are deprived of voice, action, and thought.” No one is authorized to look at women or treat them this way. No one is to submit to unbiblical teachings of sexuality.

And so Menchaca-Bagnulo concludes:

Though some on the right may view Hefner as a martini-drinking gentleman surrounded by beautiful women, it is better to think of him as a coward. Instead of viewing women as persons (who are capable of deeply hurting men), Hefner’s account of human sexuality made us symbols. Rather than dealing with the challenges of the vulnerability demanded by authentic eros, Hefner hides, and he teaches American men to hide. Without question, what he left in his magazine’s pages is a history of cowardice that is irreconcilable with any healthy philosophical or theological position on sexual complementarity or masculine strength.

Let his death be an eye-opener to us all: it’s time to clean out the basement.