Charles Finney is rightly targeted as the most illustrative figure of the American revivalist tradition — at least, in its most crass form. In certain respects, he was a fount for the ills that plague the church of today. His theology is terrible, but he at least knew theology and what he was rejecting, which is something that cannot be said for his current heirs. In fact, he actually wrote a systematic theology. Yet, given his anthropocentric focus, it is inevitable that doctrinal concerns (you know, God) would be sidelined in a short time, and the pietist form of faith is not exactly known for its theological interests.

A good concentration of his thinking can be found in the sermon, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” The title pretty much says it all. Here are some excerpts, illustrating his rejection of Reformation theology:

All holiness, in God, angels, or men, must be voluntary, or it is not holiness. …Holiness is virtue; it is something that is praiseworthy; it cannot therefore be a part of the created substance of body or mind, but must consist in voluntary obedience to the principles of eternal righteousness.

…moral character cannot be a subject of creation, but attaches to voluntary action.

[After discussing Adam’s “voluntary dedication of all his powers” before the Fall, he turns to God’s own holiness:] Indeed the continued holiness of God depends upon the same cause, and flows from the same fountain. His holiness does not consist in the substance of his nature, but in his preference of right.

[On the Fall:] It was not a change in the powers of moral agency themselves, but simply in the use of them; in consecrating their energies to a different end.

[After discussing the necessary “influence” of the Holy Spirit:] The fact is, that the actual turning, or change, is the sinner’s own act. The agent who induces him, is the Spirit of God.

…Now, in speaking of this change, it is perfectly proper to say, that the Spirit turned him, just as you would say of a man, who had persuaded another to change his mind on the subject of politics, that he had converted him, and brought him over.

(Charles G. Finney, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts,” in Issues in American Protestantism, ed. Robert L. Firm, pp. 158-166. Underlining is mine.)

The underlined portion is my favorite part! Finney then continues to specifically reject the Reformed doctrine of “physical depravity,” as he terms it. In its place, he upholds the “inconceivably great importance” of understanding that “God rightly converts souls by motives.” Interesting stuff. Luther and Calvin would barely recognize this as Christian.

How about this answer:

Because millennials are self-entitled, self-absorbed, whining, largely pathetic excuses for humans entrusted with the propagation of our species. (I speak as a member toward the beginning of the “millennial” demarcation…early 80’s.)

I might want to nuance that answer a bit, but there’s more truth than hyperbole.

By contrast, you can read Rachel Held Evans’ response. You will never hear me say, “I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation.” Of course you do — your blog has demonstrated that, time and again.

I was actually more annoyed by her apparent attraction to “high church” forms of the faith (Catholic, Orthodoxy, etc.) — because it appears more “authentic” — which is just another way of expressing the millennial obsession with the self’s “authenticity.” On that point, David Koyzis, at the First Things blog, hits the nail on the head.

Jimmie Rodgers by Linda Anderson

I am currently reading Richard Peterson’s Creating Country Music (University of Chicago Press, 1997). Peterson is a long-time professor of sociology at Vanderbilt, and this is the fruit of decades of archival research and interviews. His focus is on the critical formative period from 1923, when the first country record was pressed in Atlanta, to 1953 when Hank Williams died at the age of 29.

One of the most striking features of this thirty year period, albeit not too surprising, is how country music’s birth depended upon the ambitions of businessmen who thoroughly disliked country music (termed “hillbilly music” at the time), including Southern businessmen in cities like Atlanta who were intent on distancing themselves from their rustic past and embracing the urbane sophistication of Northern cities. But, country music sold, to the dismay of record executives, and the prejudice would continue for a long time. The most important figure at the birth of country music, as a commercial enterprise, was Polk Brockman of Atlanta. He hated country music, but he could profit from it.

However, this disdain for country music actually served to benefit its development as a creative expression of rustic scenes, its joys and sorrows, and with its hard edges. From Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams, you have yodels and nasally voices that grated the sophisticated, classically-attuned ear. Here is Peterson discussing the A&R men (the scouts and promoters for the record companies):

…this first generation of A&R men did not try to impose their own aesthetic standards, either during the recording process or in the process of selecting which of the cuts to release. It is not that they were enlightened or that they were lazy. Their reason for not interfering was much more basic. In most instances they didn’t like the music, didn’t understand it, and had no respect for its audience. Ralph Peer, for example, was circumspect in public while he was active, but in later life he voiced great contempt for the blues and country artists he recorded and for the music they produced. …In effect then, because of the snobbish attitudes of A&R men like Peer and others, Jimmie Rodgers and the generation of artists who began to record in the 1920’s had great artistic freedom, greater freedom, in fact, than has been enjoyed by any later generation of beginners in country music.

[Creating Country Music, pp. 46-47]

Speaking of Jimmie Rodgers, here is a great recording of him from 1930 by Columbia Pictures:


July 19, 2013

These guys have perfectly captured circa 1970’s Southern rock — I love it:

“Virginia” by Whiskey Myers. Increase the video quality in the lower right corner.

The tone on his Les Paul is perfect.

Here are their other official videos:

“Ballad of a Southern Man”

“Anna Marie”

All of these songs are from their second album, Firewater.

St Michael's - Charleston

Our church is fortunate to have attracted a good number of thirty-somethings with little kids. We have a large children’s ministry and a modest youth ministry, which will only expand significantly once all of these kids grow-up. We are a traditional-style Presbyterian church — organ, vaulted ceiling, hymns, written prayers, doctrinal sermons, and a small dose of well-chosen praise songs.

What is missing? The twenty-somethings. This is the demographic from which I departed just last year. We have a handful of guys and gals in their late twenties, and virtually none in their early to mid twenties, except for the occasional college kid visiting family.

So, not surprisingly, we have some members who advocate — or strongly hint in the direction of — changing our worship and adopting various strategies and programs to attract the twenty-somethings (and those who remain in perpetual adolescence well into their thirties and forties). In our city of Charlotte, the big, super-cool church is Elevation. Every city and town has one (or several) — popular names include “Abundant Life Fellowship” or “Freedom House” and so on. Apparently, they really want you to know, in the name of their church, how awesome an experience you will receive upon visiting. (We have, by the way, the super-uncool name of “Westminster Presbyterian Church.”)

I have innumerable problems with adopting an obvious consumer-driven, market-based modus operandi. It is not surprising that these churches do well. I do not discount that the Holy Spirit is present and active. But, you do not need the Holy Spirit to gather young, healthy, attractive folk to a stimulating rock concert / exalted therapy session. Many will indeed discover Christ in these settings, but some will also eventually discover the severe limitations of this “stimulating” worship experience week after week. The very reason that our church has done so well with the thirty-something and forty-something demographic is precisely because we are not Freedom House or Abundant Life or whatever. To put it bluntly, we attract the mature Christian, many of whom have been through their rock-n-roll worship phase and now want something of substance. It is hard to say that without sounding like an asshole. But it’s true.

I was prompted to write this post after reading these reflections from Andrea Dilley at Faith and Leadership (sponsored by Duke Divinity School): “Change Wisely, Dude.” Andrea traces her own path out of the traditional church of her youth, into the hip and modern worship of her twenties, only to find herself longing for the depth and substance of a more traditional liturgy (Anglican in her case). Here is an excerpt:

For some, the instinct [to attract young people] is to radically alter the old model: out with the organ, in with the Fender. But as someone who left the mainstream church and eventually returned, I’d like to offer a word of advice to those who are so inclined: Don’t. Or at least proceed with caution. Change carefully; change wisely, with thoughtfulness and deliberation. What young people say we want in our 20s is not necessarily what we want 10 years later.

Consider the changes that people go through between age 22 and 32. Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

Some of us want to walk into a cathedral space that reminds us of the small place we inhabit in the great arc of salvation history. We want to meet the Unmoved Mover in an unmoved sanctuary.

So as you change — or as change is imposed upon you — keep your historic identity and your ecclesial soul. Fight the urge for perpetual reinvention, and don’t watch the roll book for young adults.

Do read the whole thing.


Image: St. Michael’s Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photograph is mine.


The popular expression of “Christian worldview” or “biblical worldview” can be serviceable as a shorthand for “how I view the world in the light of Christ and his gospel.” However, more often than not, “worldview” is a convenient circumvention of responsible intellectual inquiry and dialogue. It is in this sense that I have criticized worldview-ism on this blog. It is a cover for the anti-intellectualism that lingers in evangelical circles. Furthermore, it underwrites the doctrinal laziness that invariably accompanies such worldview amaurosis. Thereby, dogmatics becomes a mere repristination of past accomplishments when a supposedly Christian worldview dominated.

In its more extravagant forms, “worldview” can service a wide array of Christian foundations, as Vern Poythress (of WTS) has done for both logic and the authority of Scripture, as well as a book on science with no science.

So, I was happy to read Paul McGlasson’s insights on the phenomenon of worldview-ism in the church today. This is from the soon-to-be-published first volume of his projected five-volume systematic theology (from Wipf & Stock):

The Bible may not say what we at first expect, whether our inclinations are conservative or liberal; but it is our expectations which must give way to something infinitely more valuable than yet one more liberal or conservative platitude. The Bible may not proclaim what we first desire; but it is our desire which is ultimately absorbed by a divine satisfaction qualitatively greater than all possible human fulfillment.

On the other hand, the logic of Scriptural freedom in the church has eroded considerably on the religious right. The culprit is the now almost universal notion within conservative evangelical circles of a “Christian worldview” into which the Bible itself is inserted. Though often portrayed as a traditional idea, the fact is clear that the very notion of a “worldview” did not come about until the Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Only on the condition of the possibility of a transcendental Self is the idea of a worldview even meaningful; nor was it ever asserted before Kant. The first observation therefore that needs to be made — contrary to expectation, certainly — is that the use of “worldview” language among Christian conservatives is an embrace of the Enlightenment, certainly not traditional church doctrine.

[Paul C. McGlasson, Church Doctrine: Volume 1: Canon, Cascade Books, pp. 34-35.]

This is just a small excerpt from a larger discussion. My own inclinations are definitely conservative, as should be no surprise to readers of this blog, and therefore this challenge from McGlasson is worth heeding, lest cultural values displace the ability of Scripture to challenge us to obedience. To be sure, McGlasson is equally dissatisfied by the left’s own unique form of cultural pandering.

Yet, I am not certain that we can actually transcend entirely the “conservative” and “liberal” ideologies, as McGlasson repeatedly contends (with the help of Barth’s rejection of natural theology). To my mind, it is not likely that both are equally offensive to God’s law, even if both have an abundance of cultural idols. Thus, it may be that obedience to God requires a certain identification with one or the other, or a mix, of cultural ideological positions.

For some of us, this would be “conservative” more than “liberal.” For others (including many other “Barthian” bloggers!) this would be more liberal than conservative, while remaining cognizant of the temptress of cultural idolatry.

Daybreak in Dixie

July 8, 2013

I spent the last week at a bluegrass festival here in North Carolina. One of the advantages of living near Appalachia is the easy access to such festivals. More than just the music, a bluegrass festival is a holistic cultural experience, an expression of Southern folkways and values. I like what the dean of our seminary (Union-Charlotte) told me, “What I love about bluegrass festivals, even more than the music, is the people who attend bluegrass festivals.”

Here is a little dose of bluegrass from Sierra Hull, the most acclaimed mandolin player to emerge in the last decade:

Be sure to increase the video/audio quality in the lower right corner of the video.