Bags of Bran


Three Days among the Evangelicals, Part One
February 11, 2014, 11:39 pm
Filed under: Biography, Destined to get me in trouble, Personal Adventures

I recently lost an argument with my wife and went with a friend to the Desiring God Pastor’s Conference. I hated the thought of squandering $150 in such a manner, but she prevailed, noting that a friend was going, and “he needs you.” How do you argue with the wife of your youth when she is making such plain, clear sense? This was a clarion call: my friend did need me, and boy howdy, I was gonna go, even if it killed me off.

Dear reader, have I ever told you that I am a recovering charismatic by way of an Evangelical Free church? That is an important tidbit to squirrel away if you plan on reading the rest of this piece. I harbor no soft spot for evangelicalism as a religious movement, even though one could metaphorically call it my boyhood home. Contrary to popular conceit, they are not the Kingdom of God, and their claims to being heirs of the Reformation largely consist of being bipeds and having weird haircuts. As a rare prophet among them once pleaded, “How can you be so dead, when you’ve been so well fed?”

Over the last couple of years I have been hearing a lot of things about conservative evangelicals, under which heading I would include the good sort of Presbyterians. I heard a good deal about how they were a lot like “us,” which depending on the particular context of the “us,” I may or not have included myself. However, my intrigue was piqued. I have certainly gained some knowledge from their writings, but on many occasions have felt those writings to be a little watery where works by (for example) Tozer and Machen were rich. I’ll not deny that Sinclair Ferguson’s book The Holy Spirit in the Contours of Christian Theology series is pretty good. Nor will I deny that Michael Horton’s chapters in Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church? and The Coming Evangelical Crisis were necessary stepping stones on my way out of the pasty, white ghettoes of bookstore religion.

Ferguson and Horton are definitely adult males among the evangelical herd. When my friend advertised the Desiring God conference as featuring these two gentlemen, I thought “OK, this could be pretty good.”

You know how some art museums make you go through the dadaist school, cubism, and brutalist architecture displays on your way to the Flemish masters? By the time you get to the good stuff, you’ve either got a nasty chafe from your blindfold or your sense of sight has been so dulled by the visual yowls of a generation of cultural blackguards that you’re kind of rattled when it’s time to settle in and breathe the rarified air of beauty preserved. That’s how it felt waiting for Horton and Ferguson to speak.

The only session I went to on day one was with the legendary Paul Tripp. Yes, that Paul Tripp. You know, Paul Tripp! I have to say up front that his singular appearance was singularly distracting: perhaps it’s me, being unused to evangelical pulpit garb for lo these seventeen years. He was wearing a somewhat garish red and black checked shirt, buttoned aaaalllllll the way up, with a black cardigan, black semi-skinny jeans, and what looked to be bowling shoes. His trademark mustache and trendy glasses rounded out a look that definitely waved red flags for me. It got me thinking, “what is a suit? what is a tie? what are skinny jeans? what do these things symbolize?” Why would he dress that way? I’m sure he owns suits, but he deliberately dressed this way instead of in a suit, like the other speakers. My theory is that he’s trying to get around the first line of defense of people who have a difficult time accepting “hard truth” from people in suits, but it’s only a theory. I’ve been told it’s not best to try to crawl into people’s motives.

The substance of Tripp’s session, “Preaching the Gospel to Yourself,” was that God sometimes lets bad things happen in your life, and that you need to remind yourself that God is in control. It was curious that he chose a passage where the disciples mistook Jesus for a ghost as he walked on the sea in a storm rather than, say, the book of Job, or perhaps 2 Corinthians. Tripp, at a rhetorical apex in his presentation, noted that many evangelicals have lost their sense of awe at the fact that Jesus was able to walk on water. Jesus was able to walk on water. Jesus was able to walk on water. Jesus was able to walk on water. He repeated it four times in a kind of crescendo, evidently knowing no other way to evoke awe in the aweless horde in front of him.

The aweless horde does not have the intellectual or affectual furniture of the metaphysical poets. Neither does Tripp. He has singular clothes and mannerisms, a mustache, and a fourfold “Jesus walked on water!” He does not plot his chart along the traces marked before by John Donne and George Herbert, where awe is thick and vivid: he tries to impress people by reminding them that the Bible does indeed contain the fact that “Jesus walked on water!” C. S. Lewis wrote about such things in The Abolition of Man when he spoke of “men without chests,” or those whose ability to value things according to their worth has been stunted, stifled, atrophied, or deformed to the extent that they simply are unable to love things according to their relative worth. These are those men, and this is their prophet, sneaking around the stage like he is hunting wabbits.

Tripp wants these poor people to feel “fireworks-awe” toward mountain ranges, as my friend put it. That’s a disservice, especially when one considers that these are pastors.

This was only Day One, and only one session.

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