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Modern Reformation Conversations – The Inventions of Rome

This month, we sat down with Dr. W. R. Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California and Teaching Fellow at Ligonier Ministries to talk about the ancient church, Roman supremacy, and the changing winds of Trent and Vatican II.

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How Much Is Paris Worth?

Reviews of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century classic Les Miserables shouldn’t be too miserable, right? Sadly, I may disappoint you in what follows—I do not provide much insight into the relationship between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, between the ex-con full of grace and the bulldog Law-man. For such discussions, please refer to the recent podcast with Dr. Horton and David Zahl.

Instead, I propose that we look at a somewhat underappreciated but enticing question raised by Hugo’s magnum opus: how do the micro-level interactions of individual characters (Valjean, Javert, the romantic revolutionary Marius, the street urchin Gavroche, etc.)  and the macro-level concerns of government, rebellion, and peace coalesce in Les Mis?

So, here’s the de rigueur plot summary (with little to no spoilers): Les Miserables is a sprawling epic of early 19th-century France and the post-Napoleon French monarchy, focusing on the life of Valjean, who is released from a 19-year prison sentence and resolves to reform his life, enriching the life and prosperity of a small French town. Unfortunately, the strong arm of the law pursues him in the form of Javert, a police inspector. Valjean rescues Cosette, a dying widow’s daughter, from servitude and the pair seek shelter in the metropolis of Paris. A decade passes and anti-royalist sentiment grows. Hugo then depicts the rise and fall of the 1832 Revolt—for the rest, you’ll have to read or watch the movie!

How then do these disparate characters come together as a whole? The answer lies in the omnipresence of Hugo as narrator. Hugo’s presence as narrator in Les Mis is more akin to the blatant power of a jackbooted thug than the subtle gossip of a Parisian salon: every other page reveals yet another authorial foray into historical, philosophical, social, or cultural analysis. On one level this is what you and I expect from a 19th century novelist—obvious and passionate social critique, coupled with rigorous descriptions of daily life. Hugo tries with all his detailed research and writing panache to force a revolution in the very hearts and minds of his readers—you and I are brought into the vivid story of Valjean, Marius, Gavroche, Mabeuf, and Cosette. Scene after scene evokes our compassion, breaks our hearts. We are compelled to see Hugo’s vision: the outcasts, sinners, widows and orphans of Paris and of France—along with a dollop of Progress and revolution, will fuse kindness and martyrdom to create a future heaven on earth. In a phrase, Hugo desperately seeks to instill the virtues, values, and mindset of “pure religion” (James 1:27) in his readers.

At another level, however, the Sisyphean efforts of Hugo to cause an internal insurrection evoke not the impassioned cry of disciples, but the sad image of an apocalypse gone bad. A picture of this desperation is found in Hugo’s revolutionaries (Marius et al): they allude constantly to ancient Rome and Greece, to Napoleon and Washington, to the past—yet they also speak of the oh-so-close future era when the July Monarchy will be destroyed and (republican) peace will reign forevermore. In other words, through these characters, Hugo narrows past, present, and future into one apocalyptic moment—the hopes and dreams of all the years. To speak theologically, Hugo is attempting to immanantize the eschaton, to bring about the consummate Utopia in the streets of Paris.

But the bloodstained cobblestones echo ghastly failure. The disappointment of the 1832 revolt ultimately speaks of deferred eschatology—Hugo himself knew that even the great revolutions of 1848 did not bring peace on earth. Yet he details the history of this Parisian riot, I believe, for one crucial reason—to spark not only passion, but also pity and virtue. And here is where the micro and macro levels combine, showing how Les Mis rends hearts asunder. For while Valjean’s grace-soaked success gives internal hope to all who read, the institutional failure of Marius and co. gives external pause. Hugo begs his readers to finish what he has started in their hearts, to complete the insurrection.
How best to respond to Hugo’s evocative plea? As we celebrate this Christmas Day, the answer should be clear. You and I are not les miserables in the story of a pillaging author, a tyrant whose rampaging words plunder our hearts and leave nothing but smoke and fire.

Rather, we are this day in the presence of the author-turned-outcast. The Incarnation resounds like a sonic boom around the world—the Creator has become the creature. Hugo may have eaten zoo animals during the Paris Commune, but he remained a celebrity, never coming near to Cosette’s orphaned state. The Lord Jesus Christ took on flesh in a way that Hugo could only dream, utterly fulfilling the command to love God and love his neighbor, yet cast out from Jerusalem, left to die as a convicted criminal. Neither saintly bishop nor Romantic rebel was there to save him. Is the death of Christ merely another footnote to add to Hugo’s list of failures? If so, where is the vaunted Utopia?

Reflecting upon the nature of rebellions, Hugo places an insightful line in the middle of Les Mis: “An insurrection may become a resurrection”.  How right he is in his goal of new creation, yet Hugo’s resurrection would come about through internal swelling of virtue in our happy hearts, when the innate goodness of humanity rebelled against oppressive powers.

In sharp contrast, the insurrection of Christ does not speak of overthrowing political foes by barricades or sheer kindness, but of and by the vicarious death of the author. The revolution of Jesus does not advance through human grasping at heaven, but through the inbreaking of the Word into our sordid and miserable state. As brilliant as the story of Valjean is, we are plunged back into the miserable narratives of our own lives the moment we finish Les Mis. The true story of Christ is far more radical, imaginative, and effective—those who revolt against the Law are gunned down yet reborn by the Gospel. In short, Hugo’s vision is realized not in the Third, Fourth, or Fifth French Republics but ultimately in the church, in the king and citizenry of the New Jerusalem. At the end of the day, we are all royalists.

Paris is worth neither a Mass nor the masses. Paris, like New York or Los Angeles, like all that throbs with power, success, and privilege in our world, pales in comparison to the city whose builder and architect is God, whose king is neither impotent nor tyrannical, but who is gathering and will gather all his people, whether outcast or rebel, no matter their misery.

John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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A Review of The Hobbit (The book, not the movie)

Reviewing literature can be a daunting task—the interplay of author, characters, plot, motifs, and my own thoughts is a complex thing. And when the book under review is The Hobbit, a work both popular and well-studied, the tension is ratcheted up.

Nevertheless, in what follows, I give a brief overview of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first published entry into Middle-Earth and Bilbo Baggins—in case you’ve only just begun to read in anticipation of the cinematic experience later this week or have never ventured into a land flowing with hobbits and dragons. What you’ll encounter is not only the bare plotline of strange whimsy, but the conjunction of this present age and an age long past: the old and the new collide in the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

While many have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, a slightly different fantasy appears in The Hobbit. Written with an eye to children, it presents a tale of Bilbo, hobbit ordinaire. Pressed into service with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo embarks on a quest for lost treasure whose twists and turns have enthralled for decades.

I could go on about Smaug the dragon, Beorn, trolls, and wood-elves, but I trust that you will read or see them soon enough. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of subtle elements that lurk beneath and behind the scenes of Tolkien’s Hobbit.

First is the element of history. The world of The Hobbit, this Middle-Earth, is not quite the filled-out world with lurid and detailed maps that it will become when Frodo Baggins appears on the scene. Bilbo’s home is called “The Hill”, not Hobbiton; there is a noticeable lack of any description of Gondor or Mordor; the great evil Sauron is merely the “Necromancer”. Tolkien, in other words, is writing here for children, not adults—the rush and flood of names would bog down most young readers.

Despite this comparative lack of detail, there is still the inescapable sense that the history and world of The Hobbit is not simply window-dressing, not merely an artificial stage concocted for a one-off story. Middle-Earth pulses with history—the aura of the ancient is palpable. Tolkien’s world is not like so much of the fantasy literature you and I see nowadays—filled with names compiled by pushing consonants through a random-number generator—it has coherence and substance outside of The Hobbit. The world Bilbo inhabits, so we gather as we read, can exist without him: indeed, Middle-Earth is different from him. He (as the English are wont to do) may enjoy tea-time, butchers, and an efficient post office. Elves, dwarves, and dragons know little of such things.

So just like us readers, Bilbo begins the tale as a modern hobbit living in an ancient world—the second element. He hears noises that sound like the rumble of steam engines—an anachronistic touch in fantasy, but perfectly normal in 20th century England. Whereas the Harry Potter series (for instance) solves the ancient-modern conundrum by positioning its wizarding world upon 21st century “Muggle” England, Tolkien takes a different tack. He places modern tastes, values, and phrases in the character of Bilbo, forcing an interaction and clash between the ‘old world’ of Middle-Earth and the new world of industry and individuality.

Yet as the story advances, the aura and enchantments of Middle-Earth begin to worm and work their ways into Bilbo’s modern soul. By the time he encounters the “small slimy creature Gollum”, Bilbo’s perception has changed:

“…his hand came upon the hilt of his little sword…somehow he was comforted. It was rather splendid to be wearing a blade made in Gondolin for the goblin-wars of which so many songs had sung…”

The young hobbit, originally pictured as a middle-class English type—a love of clocks, precision, and technology uppermost in his mind—is thus slowly transformed into a man with one (hairy) foot in both worlds. Look at, for instance, the “bravest thing” Bilbo does: it is not the clash of weapons or the fire of dragons he must ultimately conquer, but himself. The real battle, according to Tolkien, is braving the warren of dark tunnels close to the snoring dragon Smaug. This internal conflict between bravery and fear is not prominent in ancient literature, but pervades modern, angst-driven literature. Bilbo does not lose his modernity, he rather adds to it the positive qualities of Middle-Earth. Chief among these old-world characteristics are dignity in the face of crisis and loyalty to one’s friends (as seen through the interactions of the dwarves with each other).

Whether this theme of ancient pasture transmuting modern piston is a thinly veiled attempt to critique mid-20th century modernity is not my concern: Bilbo bridges the gap between the age of today and the age of yesterday, yet the seeming contradictions of old and new are not fully resolved in Bilbo’s life.

For you and me, though, does The Hobbit offer a similar experience? Can we read it and be shaped by its world or values, or is this fantasy literature merely a decent bedtime story for children? In a word, yes—Tolkien’s fictional and fantastical elements, though marketed widely today, should not obscure the richness of his characters nor the interplay between the two ages of Middle-Earth and our Earth. The emotional depth present in the short-temper of Gandalf or the animalistic ferocity of Beorn are not for children only, but are reminiscent of the unique peccadillos of your friends, neighbors, and even your very self. Seeing these emotions and these dual ages writ fantastic on the pages of The Hobbit should whet your appetite—not just for the movie or for more Tolkien, but for a quest which, ultimately, resolves.

John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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What Is Work?

As one of our faithful readers was perusing the current issue of Modern Reformation, he came across this sentence in the Geek Squad section:

Refracted by/through the Fall, the cultural mandate is no longer holy work.  It is profane though legitimate and common and valid for all creatures created in God’s image.

This raised a bit of concern among our other friends–what do we mean when we say that everyday work (whether it’s caring for a home and family or changing a transmission) is ‘profane though legitimate’?  Our Executive Editor responds below:

We very much appreciate thoughtful interaction with MR – that’s how good conversations develop, especially when helpful correction is offered. I’m afraid we made a poor choice of words, and this unfortunately slipped through our editing process. As new creatures in Christ, we are being “built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). We therefore lead joyful, worship-filled lives East of Eden, thankful for God’s mercy and for our new life in Christ. The whole of a Christian’s life is rendered as service unto God, as an expression of thanks; our work is “holy” in that sense, just as the questions and comments above imply.

What the abbreviated chart was intended to communicate is that our vocations are also common rather than distinctively sacred. We are all priests, in the sense 1 Peter implies, but we are not all specially called to be ministers of the Gospel, nor need we justify our work as contributing objectively to the building of the redemptive kingdom of God. Vocations are wonderful gifts given by God to all people; the cultural mandate continues, although it is refracted by the fall. Legitimate vocations contribute to the good of all people, though this good is creational and of a general usefulness as distinguished from a redemptive service to mankind (i.e., the ministry of Word and Sacrament). And one would certainly assume that legitimate vocations do not represent “profane” or evil work!

Thanks for reading with a keen eye and raising the issue in the comments.


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Review of A Hole in Our Holiness

The following is by Rev. Andrew Compton, associate pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA. Rev. Compton is one of the bloggers at The Reformed Reader

I recently read Kevin DeYoung’s latest book, The Hole in our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. I had two reasons for doing so. First, I like DeYoung’s writing. His is a popular writing style that embodies a winsome presentation of the Reformed tradition. Second, I have been reading and studying piety and the pursuit of godliness for the past year or so. In addition to various Puritan works and books by Jerry Bridges, DeYoung’s book was a logical addition to my growing shelf of books focusing on Christian piety.

In general, I really enjoyed this book. I share DeYoung’s belief that the gospel as described in the Reformed confessions not only supports training oneself for godliness (1 Tim 4:7) and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Pet 3:18), it is the only gospel that can lead people to a true and noble pursuit of godliness. Apart from the careful distinction between justification and sanctification, a firm affirmation of the imputation of Christ righteousness, and a confident embracing of sola fide, any so-called pursuit of godliness will be only a pursuit of civil decency (at best) or a pursuit of salvation-by-works (at worst).

DeYoung seems on track in noticing that there is a younger generation of Christians who have been liberated from the shackles of legalism and isolationism when they encounter the Reformation’s recovery of the biblical gospel. They find freedom in the Reformation’s bold assertion that vocation and cultural engagement (e.g., the arts, music, sport, etc.) are things that bring great glory to God. And yet they wind up pursuing any and all cultural endeavors with little to no critical reflection about whether the “lawfulness” of their actions overrides their “helpfulness” (1 Cor 10:23). This new-found liberty slips from its moorings in Christian gratitude and becomes a perceived liberty to neglect worship, prayer, sexual purity, humility and the like.


In a book that could easily become an overly prescriptive list of do’s and don’ts, DeYoung is modest and careful with what the pursuit of godliness will look like. He reminds us that God is a loving father to his children, delighting in even our most crude and remedial steps of godliness. He draws a nice parallel between the love a father has for the homemade birthday card his daughter makes, and the love our heavenly father has for our far-from-perfect good works (pg. 70). He notes that there are numerous “cheap imitations” of godliness (e.g., rule keeping and generational imitation; pgs. 33-38) which do not begin to plumb the beauty and delights of true godliness.

DeYoung does an exceptional job of expounding the difference between our union with Christ and our communion with him. He shows that our union with him, whereby we receive all the blessings of salvation, is infallible and unbreakable (pgs. 73-74). Our communion or fellowship with him, however, can ebb and flow, sometimes due to misplaced priorities, other times due to outright sinful behavior which is not befitting of God’s children and brings about his fatherly frown (cf. Heb 12:7-11). This distinction provides the categories for Christians to cultivate a closeness with God without seeing their works as gaining or sustaining their right standing before him. His “four practices for oneness with Christ” (pgs. 128-133) avoids the individualism that the spiritual disciplines usually breed and focus on several very corporate activities: prayer, reading/hearing the word, the fellowship of believers, and the Lord’s Supper.

Finally, DeYoung drives a stake in the heart of holiness and perfectionist movements, reminding believers that their growth in the grace of Christ happens over the long haul. He explains, “when it comes to sanctification, it’s more important where you’re going than where you are. Direction matters more than position…. So cheer up: if you aren’t as holy as you want to be now, God may still be pleased with you because you are heading in the right direction” (pg. 138).

Once the book got rolling, it steamed along delightfully. Chapters 5-10 were wonderful. They were pastoral, sensitive and encouraging, even as they exhorted Christians to strive against the world, the flesh, and the Devil in their pursuit of godliness. Their concrete suggestions for the exercise of godliness were reasoned and biblical. And what was most refreshing was the reminder that God intends the pursuit of godliness to be a joyful goal of our Christian life, not
a chore for us to slog through grudgingly. God has not only saved us from something, he has saved us to something and he is in the business of conforming us to the likeness of our glorious savior Jesus Christ even now!


Though as a whole I recommend this book, I am not wholly pleased with how DeYoung navigated these shoals. The ship did not run aground, but it did scrape bottom on a couple of occasions.

The first four chapters did not strike me as being as careful and nuanced as they ought to have been for a topic as easily misunderstood as this. Though my copy does have marginal notes reading “yes,” “n.b.,” and “nice!” in these chapters, I found myself writing “hmmm,” “yes & no,” and “needs nuance” more often than I would have liked.

While I do not believe that DeYoung is a biblicist (one who uses explicit language of scripture even though such language can be misunderstood apart from careful distinctions ) the way he articulates several points in chapters 1-4 sound biblicistic. In chapter 2, for example, DeYoung emphasizes that good works are “necessary” for salvation. He does not, however, parse out the different kinds of “necessity” that exist and the different ways in which we can speak of good works as being “necessary” for salvation. (E.g., our good works are a necessary fruit of our salvation, but not necessary as the ground for our salvation.) While he is careful to note that the “necessity” of personal holiness should not undermine our confidence in our justification (pg. 28), he still plays a bit fast and loose with expressions that have a long history of misunderstanding.

A few other topics have a biblicistic ring to them. When DeYoung says that “holiness is a possibility for God’s people” (pg. 65), he relies on the bare biblical assertion that Zechariah, Elizabeth and Job could be called this even though we know they weren’t sinless. And yet scholars in the past have written carefully of these three figures, noting in what sense they can be called “holy.” (Francis Turretin notes four kinds of “perfection” that are predicated of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Job. See his Institutes of Elenctic Theology 17.II.IV.)

Likewise, chapter 4, “The Impetus for the Imperatives” does not, in my opinion, tread carefully enough when using expressions like “there is grace in getting law” (pg. 53). Again, older theologians often used grace both to mean “unmerited favor” and “demerited favor,” but they were careful in doing so not to confuse the “grace” that God shows when giving good things to unfallen man (better described as benevolence) and the grace that God shows to fallen man when he gives them the opposite of what they have merited. And though DeYoung is right that as Christians, we begin to view God’s law as a precious gift to his children, calling the law “gracious” begins to muddy the categorical waters.


In spite of these criticisms, after reading The Hole in our Holiness, I was quite pleased with the book. I believe that DeYoung has written a fine book on the topic of the Christian pursuit of Godliness, though I don’t think that he has written the final word. To be fair, I’m pretty sure he didn’t intend to. And though I would recommend it to people interested in studying the topic, I’d be quicker to recommend Jerry Bridges’ books Growing Your Faith and Respectable Sins for a popular and gospel-centered approach to godliness and piety.

Lest this review sound too tepid, let me conclude by expressing my gratitude to Kevin DeYoung for his efforts on behalf of an oft neglected topic. He’s absolutely right; in many circles, holiness is the new camping: “It’s fine for other people. You sort of respect those who make their lives harder than they have to be. But it’s not really your thing” (pg. 10). What is sad is that a good many Christians enjoy the benefits of their union with Christ, all the while bearing the misery and discomfort of a sickly communion with him. They neglect to strive against besetting sin. They are inconsistent in availing themselves of the means of the grace. They wallow in their desires or frustrations, all the while missing out on the glorious gift of comfort and contentment that God is holding out to them in Christ.

In The Hole in our Holiness, DeYoung reminds us that justification and sanctifications are not two extremes in need of balance, but two equally wonderful truths – two equally exciting parts of our salvation. He is in good company. The Apostle Paul certainly seemed to think this too: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that on one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-10).

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Horton! Get Your Horton Here!

Zondervan is celebrating Reformation Week with an e-book sale (which is an arguably better way to do it than the let’s-get-bombed-on-six-kinds-of-sugars-and-additives tradition).  We think it’s a pretty sweet deal (pun totally intended) – $20 for The Christian Faith!


Go to www.amazon.com (or any other major e-book retailer) and stock up – just make sure you do it before November 5th.  


Happy Reformation Day!

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Interview with Steve Bruce

Modern Reformation editor-in-chief Michael Horton asked Steve Bruce, University of Aberdeen sociologist and leading international authority on secularization, to discuss some of the major issues he raises in his new book, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

MR: What is the “secularization paradigm” and why has it come under fire in recent decades?
SB: The SP is often taken to be the prediction that, with the passage of time, religion will die out. This is wrong. I take the SP to be an attempt to explain the changes in the nature and social position of religion in western industrial democracies that have accompanied modernization (say, from the end of the eighteenth century). Those changes are complex but they do form a common pattern. At the level of social structure we see the removal of the economy and polity from religious control (for example, religious precepts no longer hinder economic rationality and we allow unbelievers the vote), the gradual marginalization of religion, and the rise of toleration. At the level of culture, religion loses the power to provide the most convincing explanations and the best remedies. For the individual, the key changes are religion’s shift from necessity to choice and the decline of dogmatism. Modern societies have ‘fundamentalist’ enclaves but most of us now accept that religion is a matter of private preference. Those changes are accompanied by a decline in the proportion of the population that takes religion seriously. Note that despite changes in intellectual fashion, the decline in religious adherence continues apace.

There are very many reasons why the SP has lost status in the academy. One is that the social sciences are driven by fashion: revisionism is always more popular than accepting that by and large one’s predecessors got it right. One oddity is that many avowed critics of the SP actually support key elements of it. For example, I cannot think of anyone who doubts that modernization has been accompanied by a social-structural differentiation that sees the economy and polity becoming free from religious precepts. What Western polity now denies Catholics the vote or prevents unbelievers from holding government office? And it is widely accepted that in most states religious pluralism produces increasing toleration and a gradual shift from religion as necessity to religion as choice.

MR: Critics of the secularization thesis often emphasize the intentional factors in the process—whether of secularists with a program to marginalize religion or believers with a program to choose their spiritual “products” in the marketplace. On the other hand, you underscore ways in which the process is driven largely by unintended consequences that make further development of modernization inevitable and secularization therefore plausible. Could you give some examples of how that works?
SB: The largely secular state long predates ‘secularists’, whose main role is generally to articulate what everyone else has intuitively grasped long before. One of the greatest unintended consequences is the rise of toleration. Most Protestant sects (the Quakers are the exception) were not initially in favour of toleration. They split from national churches because the state church was not pure enough to justify being imposed on everyone. They initially wanted to do the imposing themselves (consider the New England Puritans!). Only when they failed to win over enough people did they start to think that toleration might just be to their advantage. And gradually they persuaded themselves it was also virtuous. When urbanization and industrialization created an obvious need for better education and social welfare, the British state initially wanted to channel tax funding through the state churches but that did not work because the state churches faced too much opposition from Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists etc. So the state gradually had to make secular provision. That is, the rise of secular provision was a consequence, not of aggressive secularism, but of the internal divisions of the churches.

For another example consider the US Constitution. If the 13 colonies had all had the same established church, the USA could have had a state church. It was the fact of religious diversity and the fears of the minority sects that created neutrality, not the campaigns of secularists.

MR: One of the compelling arguments in your book is that even the type of religion or spirituality that remains personally engaging in the US, for example, is privatized and subjectivized. Could you explain how this fits rather than counts against the secularization paradigm?
SB: Privatized and subjectized religion is evidence of secularization. In the Christian West, traditionally religious people supposed that there was one God and it was our job to obey him and that usually meant trying to impose our vision on everybody else. We no longer expect that everyone will worship the same God in the same way and we lack the certainty and the power to impose our views on others. In turn we fail to pass on what faith we have intact to our children. Instead we encourage them to think for themselves. We solve the problem of competing visions by allowing that apparent contradictory things can all somehow be ‘true’. There is what is true for you and what is true for me. That sort of religion is inherently weaker than the traditional kind because there is no longer a strong psychological dynamic to ensure our children share our perspective.

MR: Some have attributed decline in church attendance in Western countries as “believing without belonging.” What do you make of that interpretation?
SB: ‘Believing without belonging’ is a fairy story church people tell themselves so they don’t get too depressed. There is no evidence for it. We have good longitudinal measures of religious activity, popularity of religious beliefs, and sense of religious identity. The three measures start from different heights: claiming a religious identity is more common than holding some religious beliefs which in turn is more common than engaging in religious activities. But – and this is the crucial point — all three measures decline pretty much in tandem.

MR: Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are growing in many parts of the developing world. How can the secularization paradigm account for this?
SB: The secularization thesis argues that a series of specific changes (not the passage of time) undermines religion. Large parts of the world are not yet experiencing those changes. So why expect those societies to secularize? For example, religious diversity only weakens commitment when it is underpinned by an essentially egalitarian ethos that puts a high premium of personal liberty. Societies have to first work through the alternative of trying to re-impose a single religious culture through extermination, expulsion, and forced conversion. In Europe we tried that for two centuries before we gave it up.

Actually, far from being a surprise, the shift of many cultures from an organic communal Catholicism to an individualistic Protestantism is largely a repeat of what happened in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are many parallels between the current appeal of Pentecostalism in Latin America and the appeal of Methodism in England in nineteenth century.

MR: Is it really secularization that we’re seeing across Europe or the march of militant Islam through the vacant ruins of Christendom?
SB: Your question does not actually pose competing alternatives. The ruination of Christendom is what we mean by secularization. And the suggestion that we are being over-run by jihadis is the paranoid fantasy of a few right-wing newspapers and muppet political parties. Four bearded men and a dog with a bomb is still four men and a dog. Muslims are a very small part of the population of most European societies. Militants are a very small pat of the Muslim population. They are easily out-numbered by liberal and ‘secular’ or ‘heritage’ Muslims. The Muslim influx has made religion more controversial because some Muslims wish their faith to enjoy the public presence and prestige it had in their home country but the net effect has been to make Europe even more secular. For example, the UK had blasphemy laws that had long fallen into disuse (last Scottish case in the 1830s) but we left them on the statute book rather than bother to argue about their repeal. When Muslims claimed that parity required that Islam also be protected against insult, we levelled the playing field by repealing the blasphemy laws.

MR: From a sociological perspective, what would have to happen if secularization were to be reversed?
I am not sure I understand this question. If you mean, what would we make of the UK or France becoming more religious, then the answer would depend on what changes brought that about. If religion became more popular while the social forces that we believe weakened it were still in play, then that would suggest the SP was mistaken. If some of the causal secularizing forces changed, that would just tell us that the social world is understandable but not (in the physics sense) predictable. If you mean ‘Can secularization be reversed?’, I would have to say it is as unlikely as the reversal of the slow road to gender or racial equality. Precisely because we now lay such store by personal liberty I cannot see the degree of religious diversity being reduced, I cannot see state imposition of religious uniformity being accepted, and I cannot see economic rationality giving way to religious precepts. Show me the advanced industrial economy that will shut down continuous production machines to respect the sabbath or the democratic polity that will deny the vote to heretics!

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Modern Reformation Conversations – Dr. Rod Rosenbladt

We sat down to chat with Dr. Rosenbladt about his article in this month’s issue of Modern Reformation, ‘What Drove Luther’s Hammer’, and learned about sleeping on concrete floors, a ruined gastrointestinal tract, and the stupidest decision ever made in Western Christianity.  If you know of anyone who thinks they can earn their way to heaven with good behavior, share the video.

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Horton Reviews Kingdom Through Covenant

Dr. Horton was asked to review the new book by Gentry and Stephen Wellum titled Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2012) over at The Gospel Coalition. Here is an excerpt of the review:

However, their argument assumes that the mere presence of commands indicates a mixture of unconditional-conditional aspects in the basis of the covenant itself. At this point, Reformed theology has traditionally appealed to a distinction between basis and administration. The mere presence of commands says nothing about the basis of a covenant itself. Circumcision (like baptism) identifies the members of the covenant, so if one is not circumcised, he is “cut off.” Nevertheless, one is not justified because he is circumcised, as Paul indicates in Romans 4:11. That would turn conditions into the basis rather than the administration of the covenant. Commands function in a law-covenant as the basis for blessing or curse: the swearer’s perfect, personal, perpetual obedience is the ground, ratified by a public assumption of the covenant obligations on one’s own head. In the covenant of grace, however, commands function as the “reasonable service” that we offer “in view of God’s mercies.”

Click here to read the rest of the review

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Modern Reformation Conversations – Dr. Adam Francisco

We’re sending off the summer with two great interviews with Dr. Adam Francisco of Concordia University.  In this interviews, Dr. Francisco gives us great insight into the historical development and theological influences on the Koran, the Islam PR re-vamp, and the difference between Muslims and Islam.  Watch, learn, and be edified.

Happy Viewing!

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