REVIEW OF PETER LEITHART’S THE END OF PROTESTANTISM: PURSUING UNITY IN A FRAGMENTED CHURCH

By Joshua Chestnut

The good people over at Brazos Press were generous enough to give us a free copy of Peter Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church in exchange for an honest review.  This is a fascinating book and certainly recommended for anyone interested in discussions around Christian ecumenism (i.e. the promoting of unity between churches).  That said, Leithart’s intended audience are those who are usually not interested in ecumenism (which includes Leithart’s own PCA denomination).  It is a provocative read with many helpful insights, but leaves me with some significant reservations.

I quite enjoy Leithart’s distinctly theological ways into this discussion.  First, he takes with utter seriousness Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where Jesus prays that all of his disciples would be one, as he and the Father are one — a prayer that Leithart repeatedly insists is one that the Father will not leave unanswered.  Second, in the book’s “intermezzo” entitled “From Glory to Glory” Leithart offers a rich and stimulating reflection on a Biblical pattern to history — briskly and capably moving through the Biblical story and summarizing the pattern as “God makes worlds, dismantles them, and rebuilds” (p. 101).  God creates and calls, his people fall away, he judges but doesn’t give up — after death there is resurrection.  Where this all gets somewhat provocative is when he insists that 1.) much (if not all) of our current denominational structure actively works to delay the fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer and 2.) that while the Reformers themselves are not to blame for the current fragmentation of the church (pp.38-51) it is still undeniably part of their legacy and part of the church’s “dismantling.”  Yet, Leithart insists — where God dismantles he always rebuilds, and so Leithart looks a future church.

This future church, which he calls a Reformational Catholicism would hopefully mean the “end” of Protestantism.  By this Leithart plays with the double meaning of the word “end” — it would be the end, as in the death, of the type of antagonism and tribalism which characterizes far too much of American denominationalism (i.e. to be a part of this tribe means to not be a part of some other tribe; my tribe has the best and only way to be, etc).  But it would also further us towards the end, as in purpose, of the reformers who longed for the reformation of the entire church, not the endless formation of entirely new and separate churches.  Here I must raise a complaint.  While I think there is some legitimacy in connecting the proliferation of schismatic, tribalistic churches to the unintended fall-out of the Reformation, it seems all together unfair to lay the origins of schismatics and tribal mentalities at the feet of the Reformation.  Schism and fragmentation were no doubt part of the church’s life long before the Reformation (See 1 Corinthians 1; see Galatians; see the Great Schism of 1054; see the Western Schism of 1378 to 1417 to start with).  I know Leithart is aware of all of this, but it is not mentioned and so I find the implied picture of the pre-Reformation church to be border-line irresponsible.  Leithart would have done well to acknowledge this more.

While much of Leithart’s agenda is driven by theological concerns, I appreciated when his criticism of denominationalism moved out of the theological and into the sociological — highlighting how denominational divisions often mirror divisions in our broader culture which do not necessarily arise out of theological commitments but rather out of what he calls Americanism.  While Leithart highlighted racial division and a pervasive distrust of Roman Catholicism (especially in early America), I was disappointed that he overlooked the way in which current day partisan political divisions in many parts of the American church simply mirror the polarization of our wider culture.  Seemed like the perfect place to address this.

So what then is the unity that Leithart is after?  If denominationalism’s tribalism is not the end to which the Protestant Reformation was after, what exactly then must come to an end?  Leithart”s answer is in some ways quite simple and beautiful.  It is not merely an organizational or bureaucratic unity (though that would be nice), nor is it an ecumenism which waters down the importance of theological distinctives.  Nor is he calling for anyone to simply transfer their membership to one church in particular.  For example, he strongly warns disenchanted evangelicals from jumping ship and simply joining the Roman Catholic Church just because it’s bigger and has an older tradition.  This would only increases the tribalistic mentality of denominationalism because it implies denying the legitimacy of one’s previous church’s existence.

For Leithart, this future church must be Catholic — i.e. “a recognition of our brotherhood in baptism and a practice of table fellowship” (p. 21), but it also must include continual Reformation and the commitment “to work through differences in a context of communion and prayerful friendship” (p. 181)  Leithart sees something inspiring (if not programmatic) for the churches of North America in the church of South India where “Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians in India stripped away their denominational identities to become the church of South India” (p. 25).

While there are certainly details of Leithart’s own presentation that are less than satisfying, on the whole this is a well-informed, thoughtful and theologically rich book even where one disagrees.  I closed the book scandalized by how un-scandalized I am by the fragmentation and tribalism which often characterizes my own tribe.  Though not convinced that Leithart has given us a real way forward,  his directness and candor pricked my own conscious in unexpected ways, and has spurred me to pray for God’s church to be one as the Father and the Son are.  That said, on the whole this book reads more like the beautiful and admirable hopes of a pastor/theologian than an actual plan on how to join God in how he create his future church.

 

 

 

 

“DRINK TEA AND READ BOOKS”

by Liz Snell

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A package recently arrived for me from a L’Abri friend in London. Inside, a wooden pin instructed: “Drink tea and read books”. She understands. We drink so much tea around here I had to give up taking sugar in it. We drink tea and we read books, often at the same time. Students have three hours a day to read; they settle on couches by the Tile Room’s French doors or bend their heads over tables in the wood-paneled library or, as the air cools, sit around the wood stoves toasting their backs. I get to my own bulging stack of books when I can.

My lit major parents gifted their children with a love of reading early on. My mom read aloud every afternoon, slurring her words as she dozed off and slipped away from Narnia or Middle Earth. My dad introduced us to To Kill a Mockingbird, assigned us parts in Romeo and Juliet, and read us Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” on a road trip. We ransacked the library, weekly filling three laundry baskets with books. As an adult I followed the paper trail into my own lit and writing classes. But it seemed so rare to find Christians who also liked books with beautiful language and believable characters, poems and novels that don’t slash the obvious across their pages. Then I stepped into L’Abri.

At L’Abri, we read theology and Christian living books – nothing wrong with a clear message per se. But we also love good literature. Sometimes, a novel or a poem arrives at just the right time and does more to draw us to God’s truth than all the well-intentioned theology we could burrow inside. It makes room for mystery and for the “faint whisper” of God, who gives us the ability to communicate and create. When we read literature, we must be willing to walk into a new world with our pockets full of both wonder and wits. Things aren’t so obvious here, but they ring with the unseen.

A parent can tell a child what to do, but this is hollow if they don’t also show a child how to live. Literature shows us how to live, and often, how not to live. It shows, not tells, the beauty of goodness and the ugliness of evil. My mind returns to Atticus Finch or Frodo as I try to act rightly; more than I want of me reflects Bob Ewell’s prejudice and Saruman’s temptation to control. Darkness is real in these books, but so is hope.

So at L’Abri, we pass around our favorite stories, pressing them into each others’ hands, saying, “You’ll love this.” Ben reads aloud from The Magician’s Nephew; we cozy up to laugh at Diggory and Polly’s bickering and gasp at the mysterious ruins of Charn. We’re not too old for this. Never too old. We even write our own stories, poems, raps, and nonfiction: we invite each other into our lives. We warm our hands around mugs of fragrant tea, we drink in warm and fragrant words, and we share what we find at the bottom of the cup that’s beautiful, good, and true.

CONSIDERING THE LEGACY OF THE REFORMATION: TWO NEW BOOKS ON BEING A PROTESTANT 500 YEARS AFTER THE REFORMATION

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Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Now, many evangelicals might assume this would be the perfect time to grab a bottle of champagne and in gratitude toast the legacy of our spiritual forefathers.  Yet before the party has even begun there has been a steady stream of publications by both Protestant and Catholic authors who have in fact lamented the Reformation — asserting that some of the biggest problems we face in the world today (secularism, church schism, pervasive skepticism, etc) are all the “unintended” but nonetheless necessary outworkings of the Reformation.

While the literature on this subject is vast and beyond the scope of being worked out on any blog (especially this one!), we will be considering two soon-to-be released works by two of North America’s leading Reformed theologians — Peter Leithart and Kevin Vanhoozer — both of which have come to us  here in Southborough courtesy of the good people at Brazos Press.

Leithart, who runs the Theopolis Institute, has an astounding range of interests and expertise, having published on 1 & 2 Kings, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Constantine, the Atonement, Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, and the intellectual history of Gratitude, just to name a few.  In his new book provocatively titled The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, Leithart directly confronts the reality of Protestant denominationalism in North America by playing on the dual meaning of “end” — both something’s conclusion, but also its original purpose.  Here’s a quote:

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Vanhoozer, who teaches systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is a fascinating theologian.  I was recently told a story that in the not too distant past an academic publishing house put out “Theologian” trading cards as a bit of a joke for theology nerds.  In the pack among such giants of church history as Augustine, Irenaeus, John Calvin and Karl Barth was Kevin Vanhoozer — the only living theologian for whom they made a card.  Now, I’m not exactly sure what kind of compliment that is, but it must have been flattering.  Vanhoozer’s new book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity is a fresh articulation and defense of the Reformation’s five solas (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, in Christ alone & for the glory of God alone).  In particular Vanhoozer spends a significant time defending the Reformation principle of scripture alone as it has come under heavy criticism in the last few decades as promoting “interpretive chaos” in the church.  Here’s a video clip of Vanhoozer talking about this book (if you are reading this on email you might have to click to our blog to watch it):

Be on the look out for more extended engagement here on the blog with both of these significant works on the legacy of the protestant reformation in the coming weeks.   

Again, both of these books were given to us for free from Brazos Press in exchange for an honest engagement and review.

WHAT WE’RE COOKING: THE CHESTNUT’S QUINOA CANNELLINI BURGERS

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Our six year old is a self-proclaimed vegetarian, and has more or less been since birth.  As omnivores who love a good burger we both vividly recall cooking him his first burger when he was around 18 months old.  We were excited to share some more ‘grown up’ food with him – something we could all eat together – and knowing the type of genes he came from we were confident he’d love it.  Well, long story short – he devoured the bun, loved the ketchup and ate the whole pickle but spit out the only bite of meat that made it past his lips.

From that heartbreaking day till now we have been on the hunt for good veggie-burger recipes and we recently came across one that we all liked and also received good reviews from a table of students who were mostly meat-eaters.

 

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 Cups cooked quinoa (make sure you rinse the quinoa well before you cook it)
  • 1 cup cannellini beans, mashed
  • 1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten (or you can use a flax seed substitute)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 3/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • chopped parsley
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

Pre-heat your oven to 425 F.  Mash your beans with a fork separately and then combine everything in a bowl.  Mix it all together and then form into patties.  We cook them on an oiled cask-iron skillet but a baking sheet would also work well.  We cook them for about 25 minutes flipping them part way through.

Cook them until they are as crispy as you like them and serve with regular burger stuff or on top of salad.

 

RECENT L’ABRI LECTURES AT COVENANT COLLEGE…

Hello again dear blogreaders!  Even though things have been as quiet as a church mouse on this blog for the last few months please don’t think things here in Southborough have been!   In the business of the last few months this blog has sadly fallen by the wayside – though we do hope we can start posting more regularly again.

To start back into things, it seemed only appropriate to post the audio from a recent day of lectures hosted Covenant College called the L’Abri lectures.  The line-up included a current L’Abri worker (our own Mary Frances Giles), a former worker with the British branch (Andrew Fellows) as well as philosophy prof from Covenant (Bill Davis) who is an admirer of L’Abri.

Mary Frances’ lecture is a wonderful weaving together of themes, ideas and practices which characterize much of our work here in Southborough and serves as a great introduction as to what L’Abri is.

 

“ART AND HOMEMAKING” with Dot Vile

Dot Vile is a sculpture/installation artist from Philadelphia who recently spent a few weeks here with us in Southborough and was kind enough to share some photos of her work as well as a short reflection on her time at L’Abri.

I read Edith Schaeffer’s book Hidden Art on whim in art school.  I knew the book was about homemaking but didn’t foresee it to have any impact on my work.  At the time, I had already been thinking about the relation between a human body and a house.  I was looking for physical similarities in their inwardness, outwardness, strengths and weaknesses.  My suspicions were affirmed when I read the last chapter titled Environment.  Edith says, “We are an environment, each one of us … People who come across us or walk into our presence become involved.”  That stopped me in my tracks and pin-pointed what I began to believe about homemaking.  It goes beyond physical walls.  A relationship can become a home.  I had no idea what L’Abri was while I read the book and was pretty stunned when I found out the word meant shelter.

In much of my work, I play with both construction site and homemaking material – like cement, curtains and steel nails.  I set up interactions between the material to show their strengths and weaknesses.  Human interactions are so alike in that way too.  Direct interactions, especially through tension, can quickly show how strong or weak a relationship is.  Many of the pieces I make become physical metaphors for this idea.

While I was at L’Abri for the beginning of the summer term, I learned “hospitality” means loving the stranger.  Upon hearing that, the environment I give off suddenly became more of a responsibility and something to hone.  The more I believe that I am an environment, a temple and a dwelling place, the more empathetic I feel towards both people and run-down houses.  I observe and enter construction and demolition sites wherever I can.  If we really are “glorious ruins” (as Francis Schaeffer says) than that empathy does not seem strange but somehow inborn.

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You can find more of Dot’s work on her website or Tumblr page.