Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Our Town

A few years ago, an Evangelical Anglican pastor of my acquaintance asked me if I'd write a reply to an article by John Chane, Now Bishop of D.C., then dean of the Cathedral in San Diego. Since the underlying issues haven't changed any, and are hardly limited to the Anglican Communion, my letter bears reprinting.


Dean John (may I call you John?),

It was with some interest that I read your recent article on Scripture. One thing that caught my eye was the mission statement at the bottom: "St. Paul's Cathedral is a place where diversity is respected, encouraged, and protected."

I was naturally curious, therefore, to see how you would develop this motto in the body of the text. And I must say that your comments were quite instructive. You strongly suggest that fundamentalism is the product of social conditioning. But then you also treat fundamentalism as a reactionary, retrograde movement that is out of step with modernity. But how can fundamentalism be both the product of social conditioning and also a countercultural movement?

Conversely, your own values seem to be a playback of MTV and the Hollywood establishment. So, tell me again, who is the product of social conditioning?

I would just add that the doctrines you freely defame (the Virgin Birth, Resurrection and return of Christ, inerrancy of Scripture) were held by about 99.9% of professed Christians until, say, the mid-19C. You also insinuate that only ignorant Christians still cling to these dogmas. It should be unnecessary to point out that many conservative theologians and Bible scholars hold advanced degrees from liberal Ivy League institutions both on the Continent and in the US. Or are you the one who is ignorant on this point?

Without naming names, you suggest that the more traditional brand of Anglican theology on display in Africa and Asia is a reflection of their comparative cultural deprivation vis-à-vis the West. With Kipling, you evidently feel the white man's burden to uplift these backward black, brown and sallow-skinned races by exporting the Gospel of postmodernism. If a Neo-Nazi said what you said he would be labeled a racist, but if it comes from the lips of a leftist Episcopal Dean this must be an expression of superior enlightenment.

You apparently regard every form of discrimination against women and homosexuals as wrong. Yet you also appear to endorse the view that "absolute knowledge is constantly challenged or resisted". But if there are no absolutes, then women and homosexuals don't have any rights, do they? If, indeed, there are no absolutes, then why should we take anything you say seriously?

Throughout your article you denigrate the past. I can, of course, appreciate that in dealing with someone for whom Harvey Cox and "Yo Mama's Last Supper" supply the high-water mark of aesthetic and spiritual excellence, the vapid fineries of Botticelli, Da Vinci, El Greco and Rembrandt cannot compare with Warhol or Mappelthorpe; nor could Bach, Handel, Telemann or Mendelssohn stack up against Rap or Rock. Set against the immortal prose of Altizer, Fletcher, Fosdick, Jowett, Maurice, Robinson, Spong, van Buren or Russell Conwell, the scribblings of Anselm and Augustine, Calvin and Cranmer are terribly retro and passé, are they not? Why waste time on Bernanos, Bunyan, Dante, Eliot, Racine, Rossetti or Vaughan in the age of Seinfeld, Survivor, Ally McBeal, Jerry Springer, Undressed, or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The Dark Ages had Gothic arches, but we have the golden arches. Progress is a wonderful thing, ain't it?

I am curious one thing, which is about how you can oppose discrimination when you proceed to demonize everyone who disagrees with you? Have you ever read a book by a major conservative scholar, philosopher, or theologian defending the doctrines you sneer at and hold up to scorn? What have you read by Allis, Archer, Beckwith, Blomberg, Bruce, Carson, Guthrie, Hasel, Helm, Hemer, Hengel, Kaiser, Kitchen, Lightfoot, Machen, Motyer, Thomas Schmidt, Warfield, John Wenham, David Wenham, Wiseman, Yamauchi, or E.J. Young? How many of these names do you even recognize? Have you bothered to engage any of their arguments?

No, you dismiss your opponents without argument. You stereotype them. No doubt it's easy for you to caricature people who disagree with you by remaining in willful ignorance of their reasoned opposition, and so to judge them unread and unrebutted. What is this if not the paradigm of prejudice? You're Bull Connor in love beads.

You go on to defend the photomural "Yo Mama's Last Supper". But the problem with this work is twofold. To begin with, why should an artist expect the establishment to foot the bill for antiestablishment art? Isn't this hypocritical on the part of the artist?

Moreover, and like so much modern art, or what passes for art among the chattering classes, it's just an obvious piece of protest art. It doesn't have any positive identity of its own. It stands for nothing. It can only stand at all by standing against something. No wonder you like it.

Throughout this article you suggest that the traditional interpretation of the Bible is culture-bound. Yet you then take issue with the Bible's teaching on the role of women. But in that event, how does your postmodern interpretation of these verses differ from, say, the president of the SBC? You and he seem to construe them exactly the same way. The only difference is that the SBC is prepared to act on what it believes to be the teaching of Scripture.

You go so far as to claim that no one who has really read the Bible could still believe it to be inerrant. But in the very next paragraph you attribute the authorship of 1 Timothy to Timothy himself. Here's a news-flash for you. Timothy was the addressee of the letter bearing his name. Should I take so elementary blunder to mean that you never really read it? It isn't hard to miss: "Paul...to Timothy" (1 Tim 1:1-2).

I would just add that attacks on the Bible been around since the days of Celsus (2C) and Porphyry (3C). There is nothing the least bit modern, much less postmodern, about these sorts of objections. Christians in times past didn't subscribe to inerrancy out of blissful ignorance of a contrary viewpoint. Indeed, we wouldn't even have a record of Celsus and Porphyry if the Church Fathers hadn't offered a point-by-point rebuttal of these objections. Don't you know your church history?

You constantly berate and belittle the OT law. You know—or do you? —that it isn't just conservative Christians who honor God's law. What about the Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox Jews—not to mention Messianic Jews? If a Klansman said what you said, he'd be branded as an anti-Semite, but coming from a leftist Episcopal Dean, this is a mark of tolerance.

You then set this in contrast with the teaching of Jesus. Are we to take that to mean that you believe in the authority of Christ? Do you also believe in what Jesus taught about hellfire?

You also make ominous noises about the "frightening implications" of empowering a certain class of people to interpret the Bible and impose their views on others. I could better appreciate this if you were a member of the Plymouth Brethren. But doesn't the Episcopal Church have a command structure? By definition, isn't episcopacy a hierarchical form of government? And aren't you a member of the upper clergy? Don't you covet your ascribed status. You seem to be very fond of titles. You flaunt no fewer than three: "The Very Revered...Dean." So where is all this populist rhetoric coming from? March with the Whigs. but dine with the Tories—that seems to be your policy.

You tell the reader that there is only one sin which separates the Creator from the creature. How do you know that? What is your source of information? You don't believe that the Bible is divine revelation. You think it's a record of man speaking to God rather than a record of God speaking to man. Having denied the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture, you turn around and deify your own word.

You say you believe in God, but what God is that? To judge by your two-faced pronouncements, I would have to conclude that you worship the Roman god Janus.

What becomes clear after reading your article is that St. Paul's Cathedral is just a postmodern version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Far from respecting diversity, you have turned the Cathedral into a gated-community, with yourself as the chief gatekeeper. In John Chane's version of Our Town, no one born before the 20C, no one born beyond the Occident, no Bible-believer or Messianic Jew is welcome. Admission is limited to an elite clique of Waspish, like-minded and little-minded snobs and nabobs. No one is more illiberal than a liberal.

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