Forms of Faith

hip worship

Recently I was asked by Converge Magazine to write a piece for their website reflecting on my book Hipster Christianity four years after its release. I took them up on the offer but rather than reflecting on how the phenomenon has changed or who the new hip pastors and churches are, I decided to offer a summary of one of the main point’s of the book–that forms of faith matter and that we must think critically about how medium and message interact.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Perhaps more than anything the book is an invitation to consider the way form matters in the Christian life. Indeed, a common response from those who feel implicated by the questions of Hipster goes something like this: “What we’re doing is simply putting the gospel in different packaging and updating the style of its delivery as to be relevant to a particular audience. The medium may be different and new, but the message remains the same.”

But is this really true? Are the medium and the message really so detached that, no matter how an idea is packaged or presented, its meaning remains the same? With Hipster I wanted to challenge this notion and show how form matters: that perhaps the way Christianity is understood and appropriated is different when packaged in Helvetica, skinny jeans, and small batch whisky than when it’s packaged in robes, pews, and pleated khakis. Not that one is necessarily preferable to the other, mind you; just that they are different. 

The article is similar in spirit to one I wrote on this blog in October 2010, entitled Medium: Cool (yes that is a reference to Haskell Wexler’s film)

Many Christian hipsters would like to believe that their faith has mostly to do with their beliefs and their actions, but that it doesn’t have much at all to do with how they look. But I think we have to consider that our “look” does matter, because—for good or ill—it does communicate things…

What I’m suggesting is that we need to think more about what it means to be a Christian on both the form and content level. What does it mean to truly embody the call of Christ in our lives? Can we embody that selfless, humble, transcendent Gospel of Christ when we look the part of a self-focused, vain, trendy hipster?

What do you think? Is the medium of cool a neutral thing for our Christian gospel witness? And if form does indeed matter more than we think it does, how can we go about deciding which forms of faith are preferable over others?

Boyhood

boyhood

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

-From “Fern Hill” (Dylan Thomas)

“In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers… Time cannot vanish without a trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category; and the time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

-Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

I think it was Kierkegaard who said that while life is lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. Certainly most art proves the truth of this statement. While life presses on breathlessly and leaves nary a moment for sense-making, artists are the ones who press pause and rewind, arranging the pieces, plot-points and colors for us in such a way that the full (or fuller) picture is seen. Most artists spend a good amount of their career (if not the whole of it) exploring their own histories, searching their lived past and re-creating it or reckoning with it in a manner that proves at the very least personally therapeutic and at best profound and transcendent for wider audiences.

Terrence Malick’s films are good examples of this. His recent films (To the Wonder and The Tree of Life) have been intensely, almost indulgently personal; yet they capture essences of things, “universes in grains of sands” so to speak, in beautiful ways. The latter film is Malick’s exploration of his own Texas boyhood, standing in for all boyhoods and, at times, for all of life period.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does a similar thing, narrating a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story while at the same time evoking the universal. In both cases (Malick’s Life and Linklater’s Boyhood) the most resonant and transcendent moments arise from the most mundane and yet sharply perceived bits of minutia. These films are not metaphysically robust because they wax philosophical (though both do, at times) but because they pay attention to the little moments: hosing grass off the bottom of one’s foot on a summer day, reading Harry Potter books to children before bed, etc. Both films succeed because they focus less on a traditional plot structure than an episodic tableaux: capturing the overall picture and mood, impressionistically, through select scenes, glimpses, reminiscences of childhood. Given the huge amount of history to work with, and in both cases a huge amount of film from which to edit, both Malick and Linklater distill emotions and truth expertly from the mound of  “time” they have to work with. In this way they epitomize what Tarkovsky says is the essence of the film director’s work: “sculpting in time.”

Linklater, perhaps even more than Malick, has been particularly fascinated with cinema as “sculptor of time.” How can the moving image help us understand and appreciate the complexity of time? In films like his Before trilogy and now Boyhood, Linklater takes up the question in remarkable ways. These films don’t merely re-create times past (as most films do, including Malick’s) but rather document time as it passes. For Linklater, time itself is quite literally the biggest star in his movies. Sometimes this requires immense patience. His Before series has required the investment of Linklater and the series’ two actors (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) over the course of twenty years. Similarly, Boyhood required yearly commitments from its actors since 2002. But the results are profound. Part of what makes Boyhood and the Before series so significant (and I believe they will only rise in significance in decades to come) is that they evoke the passage of timeindeed, aging and growing up–without the magic of makeup or CGI but simply through turning on a camera after periods of time have gone by. Michael Apted’s astonishing Up series also does this.

Another way Linklater focuses in on the curiosity of time is by shooting in real-time. Several sequences in the Before series unfold in uninterrupted single takes and all of them occupy merely a few hours in their characters’ lives. Linklater’s 2001 film Tape unfolds entirely in real-time. His 1991 classic Slacker takes place entirely in one day in Austin. Linklater recognizes the powerful documentary aspect of film in that it can capture slices of life (or slices of time) like very little else can. Like a photographed image, a film transports us to another place and time. But a moving image can arguably immerse us in those long lost “sand between the fingers” moments more fully, capturing the unfolding in time aspect of life in a way static images cannot.

A third way Linklater’s films reflect on time is by having his characters wonder aloud about it. In the Before series, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) are always talking philosophically about time, musing about lost time on the Left Banke of Paris, quoting W.H. Auden in Vienna (“O let not Time deceive you”) or pondering impermanence as they watch the sun set in Greece. Characters in Slacker and Waking Life (2001) are similarly fascinating by time. The latter film’s discussion of André Bazin, cinema and “holy moments” seems particularly salient for Linklater himself, as the transcendent potential in capturing spontaneous existence seems to motivate much of his filmmaking.

Certainly Boyhood has its fair share of what may be called “holy moments.” It has a lot of tragic moments as well, to be sure, as does Malick’s Tree of Life. But both films favor the charged goodness of life’s “holy moments” as fortuitously recorded by the camera. Where the holiness Malick sees in cinematic moments speaks to something Other and transcendent, however, Linklater’s “holiness” inheres in the moments themselves. For him, the very act of capturing moments through a camera, thereby arresting the otherwise painfully indifferent onward march of time, is where transcendence is found. It’s worth noting that Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the “boy” of Boyhood, finds himself drawn to photography as the one consistent source of meaning in his life. In a life where no house, no father figure, no friend stays around for very long, Mason clings to the “pause” power of a photograph to stop time and preserve a fleeting moment for a bit longer.

This is exactly the power of cinema on display in Boyhood, and it’s why the film is such an magnificent achievement. As specific as it is to this one boy and his coming of age story (from age 7 to 18), and as relatively intimate and mundane as its storytelling may be, the film nevertheless feels epic and existentially resonant.

As I reflected on the film I thought of my experience a few weeks ago in Scotland, exploring the streets and hills in Motherwell, where my grandfather spent his boyhood–when he was “young and easy in the mercy of his means,” as Dylan Thomas would say. I thought of how inaccessible the reality of his childhood is to us now, apart from a few photographs and passed-down, half-forgotten memories. But then my own boyhood is the same way. More photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and my memories of it are still clear. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually my descendants will render my life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all.

The power of poetry like that of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” or films like Linklater’s Boyhood, is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. This is the power of narrative generally.

I’ve often wondered if in heaven we will have infinite access to re-constituted past: a sort of “on-demand, all you can watch” pass to travel back and watch any moment in history unfold, whether our own childhood or that of Christ. Perhaps eternity will bring all time and history into wholly manageable perspective. Perhaps Marilynne Robinson is right when she speculates, in Gilead, that “In eternity this world will be like Troy, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

Maybe so. But in the meantime, I’m thankful that God created us to be creative, so that Homers and Linklaters and Malicks can help us bridge the gaps in our experience and grab hold of time even as it slips away.

In Memory of Chris Mitchell

I recently saw Richard Linklater’s amazing film, Boyhood, which–filmed over twelve years, with the same actors–captures the passage of time and the process of growth like no other film I’ve seen. I’ve also recently been in Europe, where history and the links between what is and what was are impossible to miss.

Because of this I’ve been reflecting on my own personal history: How I’ve come to be who I am, planted where I am. The thought experiment of backwards-tracking the dominoes of one’s trajectory inevitably leads to rabbit trails and spider webs of limitless complexity. But isolating certain threads can make the process more manageable.

In Oxford last week, I reflected on one such thread: my fondness for C.S. Lewis and the important role he’s played in my life. As my family and I toured Magdalen College, walked along Addison’s Walk, sat down in the Eagle & Child, snapped pictures in front of the Kilns and and marveled at the beauty of St. Mary’s church, I thought of the profoundly shaping times I spent in each place as part of C.S. Lewis Foundation events. But I would never have gotten involved with the C.S. Lewis Foundation, and probably never have come to adore Oxford and Cambridge (and England generally), had I not worked for four years as a student worker at the Marion E. Wade Center while an undergraduate at Wheaton College. And my experience at the Wade–a place where my love of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton and others blossomed–would not have been what it was without the friendship of its director, Dr. Chris Mitchell.Chris-Mitchell_faculty_square_300

Perhaps it is fitting that it was in a London hotel room on July 11 that I first received the news of Chris’s passing. I couldn’t believe the e-mail I was reading. I couldn’t believe that I would never see Chris again. Just a few weeks earlier I had passed Chris on the campus of Biola and we’d made plans to get dinner this summer with our wives, as we’d done once before since he and Julie moved out to California last year. I couldn’t believe that, just like that, he was gone.

The shocking e-mail on July 11 reminded me of another rather shocking e-mail that I’d received in January 2013. It was from Chris Mitchell and the subject heading read “Coming Your Way.” In the e-mail he broke the news that he was stepping down as director of the Wade Center and accepting a teaching position at the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola, where I’ve worked for the past six years (!!). I was elated. I hadn’t seen Chris for several years but was excited by the possibility of re-connecting with him in California. And when he arrived on campus, we did.

Now that Chris was a Biolan, I immediately asked him to write a cover story on C.S. Lewis for the Biola Magazine in honor of the 50th anniversary of his death. In spite of being crazy busy winding up at Wheaton and moving across the country, Chris agreed. You can read the excellent piece he wrote here.

Chris was a man I respected deeply: A faithful Christian, a top-notch scholar, a family man, a lover of life. He’s the type of man I aspire to be.

You could talk to Chris about anything. Literature, theology, relationships, scotch. When I worked as a student at the Wade Center in Wheaton, he’d often chat with me about movies because he knew that was one of my passions. Even though he was the director and I was merely a student working just a few hours a day, Chris always made me feel more like a colleague than an underling. One time he asked me to do some primary research in the letters of Lewis and Tolkien to help him with a paper he was writing about the relationship between the two authors. I remember feeling so honored by that, so respected. Chris always cared for people in a way that encouraged and valued them. It’s one of the reasons why he’s such a natural and beloved teacher, and why it’s so sad that he only got to bless the students of the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola for one year.

I’m grieved by the loss of Chris Mitchell, as everyone is who knew him. He had much life still to live. And yet I know that his joy, frivolity and energy for life is infinitely amplified in his present state.

On the night I heard of Chris’s death, I thought of the line from Lewis’s Till We Have Faces when Psyche says that “the sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.” As much as I’ll miss him, I’m comforted by the fact that Chris has reached the Mountain and is now in the presence of Beauty’s true source.

Best Films of the First Half

locke

We’re midway through 2014 and so, as I do every summer, I’ve compiled my list of favorite films so far this year. I have yet to see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which doesn’t come out until July 11 anyway), which I assume will make my year-end list.  I love Linklater and last year at this time I already knew his Before Midnight would be one of my top films of the year.  In general it’s been a fairly standard first half of the cinematic year: a few great films but not a lot of memorable ones. I’m excited to see what’s to come this fall. Here’s what’s stayed with me so far in 2014:

1) Locke: The more I think about this film, a one-man-in-a-car-for-90-minutes tour de force from Tom Hardy, the more I find it impressive. Not only is it another fine entry into the growing genre of “minimalist actor showcase” films (see also: Robert Redford in the criminally under seen All is Lost), but it’s also a master class in filmmaking. Only after the film is over, and just as you’re getting used to Hardy’s peculiar Welsh accent, does the force of its power start to hit you. It’s a film that doesn’t tell you what it’s about but reveals itself over time (days, weeks, months in my case) and after much reflection to be a film that is about nearly everything. Countless times over the last few months, whether reading Genesis, watching the news, dealing with relational stress or driving the L.A. freeways, my thoughts have returned to Locke. That’s the mark of a great film. (my full review)

2) Noah: I’ve been unabashed in my acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and my insistence that, in spite of all the controversy surrounding the ROCK MONSTERS, “liberties taken with the story” and accusations of Gnosticism, it’s actually a pretty excellent film–one of Aronofsky’s best. Not only is it a great film but it’s a rather reverential one too, taking faith in God more seriously (ironically) than some of the more on-the-nose God films that came out this year (I’m looking at you, God’s Not Dead). Yes, its an unfamiliar take on the story. Yes, it’s environmentalist (so is the Bible). Yes, it draws from more than just the Bible in its telling of a biblical story (so did The Passion of the Christ). Whatever. I loved it, I’m a Christian and my faith is richer because of this film. (my full review)

3) True Detective: OK, I know this isn’t a film per se. It’s TV (well, HBO). But who can tell movies and TV apart anymore? This eight-part epic takes the police procedural to the next level, mixing the ominous tone of Zodiac with the potboiler plots of C.S.I., but with far more grit and misanthropy. Though at times a bit too bleak for me, the show’s finale (“Form and Void”) puts the whole thing in a new perspective and adds major theological gravitas to an already philosophically bent show.

4) Under the Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his stylish enigma Birth (2004), Under the Skin is a similarly provocative exploration of what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be embodied. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her second non-human role in a row (see also: Her), Under the Skin is quite literally about skin: the phenomenon of a soul clothed in a body, of our bodily substance, of what an alien’s gaze at the awkwardness of humanity might look like if it spent some time in our shoes. It’s also about incarnation, which is also a theme in Her. In the midst of our disembodying, digital age, films like these help remind us of the complexity and wonder of what it means to be human.

5) The Immigrant: The latest from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), The Immigrant is a glorious and deceptively simple throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama. Featuring exceptional work from the always terrific Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant explores the very American mingling of God and mammon, as well as grace and work, as it tells the tale of America’s messy dream. (my full review)

Honorable mention: Cold in July, Ida, Night Moves, Mad Men, Mitt

Note: THE IMMIGRANT, TRUE DETECTIVE and especially UNDER THE SKIN  contain sexual material and nudity and should be approached with caution for those sensitive to this type of content. 

Carl Lentz, CNN and Hipster Christianity

Earlier this week a segment aired on CNN about “hipster pastor” Carl Lentz, the heavily tattooed, dynamic personality who has helped make Hillsong Church in NYC the sort of place that piques mainstream journalists’ interest and occasionally draws paparazzi (celebrities sometimes attend). Back in March, CNN sent its correspondent, Poppy Harlow, to L.A. to interview me for the story. They filmed about 45 minutes of her interview with me, in which I spoke mostly about the general topic of “hipster Christianity” since I wrote the book on the subject. Only a few lines from my interview made it into the final segment. Watch it below (my part comes in about 5 minutes into the segment) and then I’ll share a few further reflections on the matter:

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/living/2014/06/02/ac-harlow-pastor-carl-lentz-long.cnn.html

photo-15

A few brief reflections:

  • I have nothing personal against Carl Lentz or Hillsong NYC. I’ve never met him and never attended his church. When CNN interviewed me for the story I made it clear to them that I was speaking about the broad trend of hipster Christianity and hipster pastors, but that I knew little if anything about Lentz specifically. Naturally the way the piece is edited it seems like I’m being pit against Lentz as a skeptic or critic, but really I’m just skeptical of the broad trends of churches trying so hard to be cool and pastors aspiring to be hip.
  • In general I am a fan of the Hillsong movement. Hillsong has planted thriving churches all over the globe and that is something I absolutely applaud. I’ve visited two Hillsong churches (London and Paris) and in Hipster Christianity I wrote very nice things about my experience at Hillsong Paris.
  • It’s interesting to me that the media is so fascinated by Lentz and Hillsong NYC, as if Lentz is the first hipster celebrity pastor and Hillsong NYC is the first megachurch to succeed in NYC. During my interview with Poppy Harlow I tried to emphasize that this was not a new trend, that hipster pastors are a dime a dozen and that “cool” has been the holy grail of American evangelicalism for quite some time now; Lentz is just the latest example. I suspect proximity has something to do with why Lentz is such a darling of the media (here’s a Details profile of him that also features quotes from me). The media is in NYC. So is Carl Lentz. But so are many other well-known pastors, many of whom are arguably more widely respected and influential (I’m looking at you Tim Keller). For the media, though, a bearded Bieber friend is a more compelling story than a balding Bible scholar.
  • In response to my comments in the CNN piece, some people tweeted things like “Don’t you see that it’s just a different medium? The message is what matters.” I would agree that the message is crucial, but I would also say the message cannot be divorced from the way it is communicated. Marshall McLuhan was on to something when he said the medium IS the message. The form matters. We can’t pretend that the gospel presented via tweet is the exact same thing as the gospel preached from a pulpit, or face to face around a dinner table. Likewise, we are foolish to think that a church that looks and feels like a nightclub, with a pastor who struts around like a runway model, in no way changes the “message” of what is being communicated about the gospel. Likewise, an Anglican church with pews and robes and hymns, with no screens or smoke machines, colors the message in a totally different (not necessarily better) way. The gospel is not just an ethereal set of words and ideas; it’s something incarnate, living, embodied. The look, feel, touch and sound of it is inextricably linked to (if not the substance of) its meaning. The message inheres in the medium. That is one of the biggest points I wanted to make in Hipster Christianity

Films About Faith That Are Actually Good

There have been quite a few “faith” oriented films to come out this year, including the excellent Noah but also quite a few terrible Christian films: God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, Mom’s Night Out, Son of God. And coming this fall: Left Behind, Nicolas Cage style.

Thankfully there have been several really excellent “secular” films that have either directly or indirectly explored Christianity, God, faith and morality, and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of them for Christianity Today:

Locke (dir. Steven Knight): Full review. Excerpt:

As the film progresses we realize, as Locke does, that as much as we desire full control, there will always be things outside of our power. Men want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They want to earn it. But sometimes being a man means embracing one’s limits, humbling yourself, and accepting the reality of a higher sovereignty.

The best moments in Locke are the brief glimpses we get of the man’s vulnerability. They are few and far between, but thanks to the film’s close-up camerawork and Hardy’s astonishing performance, we can’t miss them. They reminded me of epiphanies in other films where the “I’ve got it all under control” man comes to a humble awareness of his own limitation: the final moments of All is Lost; the “I wanted to be loved because I’m great” moment in The Tree of Life when Brad Pitt concludes, “I’m nothing.”

These are moments of grace. They are moments when the reality becomes clear that “self-made” can only go so far, that we can never truly survive on our own, and that that’s a good thing. We need grace. And while grace cannot be earned and must accepted from a humble posture, grace is not opposed to effort, as Dallas Willard says

The Immigrant (dir. James Gray). Full review. Excerpt:

immigrantWhen Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) gets arrested and briefly jailed midway through the film, one of his other prostitutes laments to Ewa that “we are nothing without him.” Ewa (Marion Cotillard) emphatically replies, “I am not nothing.” Even the most depraved and lowly creatures have dignity, Ewa’s faith leads her to believe, and she sees this in people even when they themselves do not. When Bruno is at his lowest moment and says “I’m nothing,” Ewa repeats her earlier comment, but this time to him: “You are not nothing.”

Both Emil (Jeremy Renner) and (in the film’s closing moments) Bruno appear at times to be Christ figures of sorts. Yet it is Ewa herself who ultimately presents the film’s best picture of Christ-like love and sacrifice. Everything she does in the film is not for herself, but for the sake of her sister. She lays aside her innocence and opens herself to the profoundest humiliation, so as to liberate her imprisoned sister. It’s an imperfect parallel to be sure, but Ewa’s journey reminds me a bit of what Paul says of Christ in Galatians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.”

Christ, of course, went further. Unlike Ewa, who grasps on to her belief that “I am not nothing,” Christ relinquished all claim to pride and status (Philippians 2:6-8) and became “nothing” on a cross, for our sake. God vindicated Christ’s humility by exalting him to the highest place (Philippians 2:9-11).

Other recent films I recommend that deal with matters of faith, God, and morality: Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) and Night Moves (dir. Kelley Reichardt).

 

Visions of Ecumenism

IMG_5035

In the Spring of 2010 I attended two conferences in the span of a week–Louisville’s “Together for the Gospel” and Wheaton College’s Theology Conference with N.T. Wright. The juxtaposition of the two gatherings–each fruitful and rich in their own right–gave me much to ponder. I was inspired to write an article for Christianity Today about the two events and the challenge of unity within the body of Christ.

The question of unity is again on my mind after attending another two conferences in a week’s span: last week’s Q Nashville and Tuesday night’s “Future of Protestantism” event at Biola. The latter event, which featured Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman discussing ecumenism and the question of whether Protestantism should give way to “Reformational Catholics,” can be viewed in its entirety here.

Q Nashville, a gathering of more than 1,000 Christian leaders (though you’re hard pressed to find the word “Christian” on the event’s website), is a fascinating artifact of “post-evangelical” evangelicalism of the tech-savvy, coffee-guzzling, pristinely branded sort. It was my first time at a Q event, though I’ve written occasionally for Q Ideas over the years. Despite a surfeit of M83, open bar tipsiness and TOMS paraphernalia (all of which makes me a bit uneasy given my history of critiquing style-centered Christianity), I quite admire Q’s vision to collectively “advance the common good.”

Q’s visionary leader, Gabe Lyons, was shaped by the late Chuck Colson, one of the original signatories of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. It’s not surprising that Lyons has picked up his mentor’s ecumenism and re-packaged it in the form of Q, the very name of which reflects the second syllable’s sound of eCUmenism.

Q espouses an ecumenism that is manifest primarily in its form: The events deliberately shirk labels (“Christian,” “evangelical,” etc.) and favor “common good” language, purposefully amassing diverse speaker lineups (in Ted Talk bursts of 3, 9 and 18-minute talks) that represent a wide swath of Christendom and even some allies-for-the-good from outside the faith. I don’t think I’ve been to a Christian conference with as much variety in terms of content (everything from peaches to Avatar to neuroscience and puppetry) and background of presenters. At Q Nashville there were liberals, conservatives, Israelis, Palestinians, nuns, priests, Southern Baptists, Episcopalians, Canadians, Australians, comedians, feminists, complementarians, activists, educators, Carrie Underwood, Rachel Held Evans, Russell Moore and so on.

It was nice to see. Though the Q audience was by no means a representative sampling of Christianity today (non-white, non-western and non-iPhone Christians were underrepresented), the ethos of it all was decidedly striving toward a more unified and ecumenical Christianity, reflected in an “Evangelicals and Catholics” together panel discussion, an interview with a nun (one of my personal highlights) and a generally positive attitude toward our friends in Constantinople and Rome (though in a pre-conference poll, 16% of the Q attendees said they don’t consider Catholics to be Christians in any sense of the word).

Enter Peter Leithart, whose provocative essay last November on “The End of Protestantism” launched a conversation that culminated in this week’s happier-sounding “Future of Protestantism” event at Biola University.

Leithart shares the ecumenical optimism of Q, albeit more rigorously ecclesiological in nature.

“Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church,” he said in his talk at Biola. “Jesus prayed that we would be one, and this unity that he prayed for must be visible enough for the world to notice… The promise of unity is internal to the Good News.”

Leithart spent some time explaining why “swimming the Tiber has become a popular evangelical pastime.” He noted the “fox-hole ecumenism” of the culture wars, uniting Catholics and Protestants around issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as a growing openness to learning from each other’s traditions (e.g. “Protestant pastors reading papal encyclicals for edification.”) All of this was  present at Q Nashville, for example.

Leithart noted a “growing revulsion at the divisiveness of Protestantism,” a revulsion that he says is not war weariness or relativism but rather, at its best, a recovery of the New Testament. “Evangelicals are increasingly convinced that unity is a demand of the gospel and that we are complicit in a profound unfaithfulness if we acquiesce in permanent division,” he said.

I’m not sure I know who the evangelicals are he is referring to here: the ones who are increasingly repulsed by Protestantism’s divisiveness. Perhaps the Q crowd?  Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman both seemed to suggest that many everyday evangelicals aren’t familiar enough with Protestant history to self-identify as such, let alone participate in these “is the protest over?” discussions.

Do the “grand gestures of intellectual ecumenism” really help the evangelical who “may have never heard of Aquinas but needs to be able to give an answer for the hope that they have to the people working next to them on the factory floor”? Carl Trueman pondered this at the Biola event, suggesting that unity is vital first and foremost on the local level (let’s start with unity among the growing throngs of Presbyterian sects!) as worked out in practical pastoral ministry. And it begins with a more robust historical rootedness and grasp of our own tradition, understanding what we believe and why.

Sanders–self-described “content provider for Trinitarian evangelicalism”–concurs, both in the necessity of evangelical awareness of our “Protestant heritage of creed and confession and catechism” and in the “first-things-first” need to get our own house in order on a whole host of issues, beginning with Trinity 101. A family reunion between Protestants and Catholics would be nice, but it’s not a priority given all of our other issues, Sanders believes. In his list of “things to worry about among evangelical Protestants,” bad attitudes toward Roman Catholics doesn’t make the top 10. And even if it did eventually move up the list, could Catholics and Protestants really sufficiently agree on things like Scriptural authority and salvation by faith to warrant the forming of one unified, post-Protestant body? 

Sanders thinks not. In theory Catholics affirm, with Protestants, the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith. But they “affirm them badly,” says Sanders. “[Catholics] can dialectically juggle away the authority of Scripture into a wider manifold of authorities… They can mix salvation by faith with all sorts of badly ordered distractions.”

But questions of whether a Protestant-Catholic reunion is feasible or necessary aside (important questions, to be sure), Leithart’s passion for ridding Christianity of tribalism (both Protestant and Catholic varieties) is admirable, if a bit naive. As Doug Wilson noted in his comments on the “Future of Protestantism event, “if you take tribalism out of Protestantism, you are removing something accidental to it, but if you do the same to Roman Catholicism, you are removing something essential to their central claims.” Nevertheless, Leithart’s vision for “Reformational Catholicism” is inspiring, at least to me.

When I think about the times in my own Christian life when I felt the Spirit of God most powerfully, loved the Bride of Christ most profoundly and glimpsed the “city yet to come” most clearly, I recall most readily the moments where I worshipped and fellowshipped alongside believers who were very different from me and yet were clearly family.

I think of some of the conversations I had last week at Q, like with a young pastor in Nashville whose church is Pentecostal liturgical, where hand-raising and creed-reciting are not at odds.

I think of the time I served at a Presbyterian church plant in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo and experienced the challenging beauty of urban ministry in a multi-cultural context.

I think of late nights in Oxford pubs with Christians from Vineyard, Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Orthodox backgrounds, and sharing communion with the same group in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, all as part of a conference inspired by Mr. “Mere Christian” himself.

I think of the awkward-but-wonderful experience of worshipping in Spanish-language churches in Buenos Aires and French-language communities in Paris, singing familiar hymns in different languages.

I think of the church where my wife and I are currently members, a suburban warehouse non-denom congregation pastored by South Africans and heavy on the Word, the Spirit and global church partnership.

Or I think of the surrealist oddity that is the “Pope Francis sends message to Kenneth Copeland” YouTube video (you must see to believe), a stranger-than-fiction artifact of a “now and not yet” church unity.

These moments are not without the awkwardness and difficulty that inevitably accompanies the convergence of vastly different people and perspectives. And yet they are all beautiful. There’s something about the coming-together of diverse people around the cross, for the sake of the gospel, that is incredibly powerful, fundamental and formative. As Leithart says, “the promise of unity is internal to the Good News.”

Whenever I can participate in or even just glimpse this sort of unity–this Gal. 3, Eph. 2, Rev. 5  gift of unlikely and in process family–I am thankful.