Posted on Wednesday, May 09, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Amid all of the discussion surrounding the so-called Pence Rule and also the forthcoming book from my friend, Aimee Byrd, there is one lacuna that is slightly puzzling.



It is certainly the case that what the Rule seeks to achieve for Mike Pence are good and proper things, and the mockery to which it was subjected by the wider world was simply silly.   And it is also true that our highly sexualized culture means that the matter it addresses cannot be ignored by anyone.  But, given the nature of that culture, why is it that the Rule is only being applied to heterosexual temptations?   Two of the biggest evangelical scandals of the last twenty years -- that of Roy Clements in the UK and Ted Haggard in the US -- involved inappropriate relationships with men.  And men leave marriages for other men and women for other women every day of the week.  The polymorphous pansexuality of our highly pornified world means that it is simply naive to prioritize one particular form of sexual temptation over another.



Which would seem to leave those who regard the Pence Rule as a virtual Kantian imperative, and not simply as the wise and prudential strategy of one man which may or may not be useful for others, in a bit of a bind: Can they ever be alone or have a meeting or offer a lift in a car to anyone, regardless of gender, without a chaperone? And can anyone therefore be friends with anyone else?  

Posted on Saturday, March 03, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The second century is arguably the Cinderella of the early church, generally neglected in favor of other, apparently more exciting and accessible, periods.    It is populated by largely shadowy figures about whom we know enough to be tantalized, even impressed, but it lacks the giant intellects and the elaborate doctrinal disputes and formulations that emerge from the third century onwards.   Yet, as Michael Kruger argues in his new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, this period is critical for understanding the development of the post-apostolic church.    Issues of theology, authority, worship, ecclesiology, culture and canon all emerge at this time and directions of later discussions are established.  Further, the period also has a more immediate practical relevance for us:  there is much to be gained from reflecting on the analogies between the church in the West in our day and that of Christianity in a largely indifferent and at times overtly hostile Roman empire. 



The historian of Christianity in the second century faces numerous problems.  First, the primary evidence is often fragmentary and incomplete.  Second (and often taking full advantage of the first), the existing secondary scholarship is frequently tendentious, driven by the desire to justify later convictions, whether that be the primacy of the Roman see or the ineradicable and incoherent doctrinal pluralism of the post-apostolic church, to cite but two examples.   Kruger’s expertise is New Testament and he has done extensive work in the area of canon development and the emergence of orthodoxy.  He is therefore well qualified to guide the reader through this complicated territory.  If you teach patristics, this book should be on the bibliography.



In seven chapters, Kruger addresses the sociology of the early church, the political and intellectual context, the emerging ecclesiastical structures and their relation to worship and Christology, the vexed issue of Gnosticism and the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy, the nature of early Christian unity, the role of texts in a largely illiterate society, and the emergence of the New Testament canon.  That is a lot of ground to cover but Kruger writes with clarity, highlighting scholarly debates where necessary, and provides a helpful bibliography for further reading.  This is a very accessible book but not of that type which pretends that the answers to difficult questions are easier than they really are.



The book is too rich to analyze in detail in a brief review so here are a couple of particularly helpful sections from a pastoral perspective.  First, Kruger’s treatment of doctrinal pluralism in Chapter 4 deals concisely with the sort of questions that are raised by scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels and which have crossed over, via their very accessible popular works, to the pew.  Kruger handles the various matters well, offering no simplistic or naïve response but highlighting the numerous fallacies underlying their approach and also pointing to the coherence of the traditional narrative.  The discovery of the Gospel of Judas should not shipwreck anyone’s faith.  The second century church did have a clear understanding of the basics of the faith and orthodoxy was not simply the sum of the ideological convictions of those who ‘won.’



Second, Chapter 7, on the canon, is marvelous.   Canonical questions come up with some frequency in both educational and pastoral contexts, and not simply because people have read the likes of Bart Ehrman and co.  The question of James arises for anyone who knows anything about Luther.  And a Christian who reads Jude with any degree of reflection is going to wonder about the inclusion of non-canonical material in such a work.  Kruger’s chapter is a great summary of the work he has elaborated elsewhere on the formation of the New Testament and should provide hard-pressed pastors with a straightforward and concise statement of the issues, one to recommend to confused Christians or to use, via the literature cited in the footnotes, as the basis for further study.



In the conclusion, Kruger highlights three specific ways in which the second century has lessons to teach Christians today.  The church then was marginal and therefore  had a prophetic role in a society where it had no access to conventional avenues of power and influence.  The church was clearly a ‘bookish’ religion.  And the church kept her focus on worshipping Jesus, whatever the external pressures were.   All three certainly apply to us today but I would add a fourth, with which I am sure Kruger would agree: the second century church was also wrestling with issues of authority, institutional, doctrinal, and canonical.   At a time when the Protestant church is losing some of its brightest young people to Rome because of precisely these type of questions and a perceived failure of Protestantism to address them, Kruger’s work on the second century provides a helpful foundation for offering a thoughtful response to those so tempted.



Christianity is deeply embedded in history and therefore one of our most important tasks is to pass on to the next generation that tradition of apostolic teaching which we inherited from our faithful forebears.   To be a thoughtful Christian today or to write theology with competence in the present one first needs to understand something of Christian history and competently to reflect upon the theology of the past.  Only then can one grasp what particular movements or theologians were actually saying and why they said it in the manner in which they did.  That simple point underpins the basic dogmatic task and also helps to keep today’s theologians humble.  The kind of principled diachronic dialogue which the Christian faith thus requires means that good contemporary theology always stands in positive relation to good historical theology, always first listens with humility and receptivity to the past before presuming to speak to the present. 



Given this, and given the general ignorance of the second century outside of specialist academic circles, Michael Kruger’s volume is a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature which makes the patristic era accessible to non-specialists; and that it focuses on the neglected but vital second century makes it an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to understand how to interpret the important shifts – theological and ecclesiastical – from the biblical to the post-biblical era of the church and thus onwards to our own day.

Posted on Friday, January 26, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Some years ago a student came to ask me if the Puritans had a theology of suffering.  Apparently he had been told by someone that they did not.


My response pointed to three basic facts. 


First, the Puritans lived in a time before the discovery of antibiotics, analgesics and flush toilets.  Disease and pain and filth were thus part of everyday life.  A good day. a really good day, for a seventeenth century person would have involved something akin to a low-level fever which today would involve time off work.  A bad day would be… Well, best not to dwell on that if you want to sleep at night.   Read Samuel Pepys's account of his bladder stone operation if you are truly curious.


Second, with catastrophically high infant mortality rates, scarcely a family would have been untouched by something that today would be regarded as exceptional and horrific.  John Owen buried all eleven of his children.  Imagine that.  And in all his voluminous writings, he never mentions these tragedies even once.


Third, the Clarendon Code of the early 1660s was legislation that led to loss of property and even liberty for many who held Puritan views in Restoration England. 


So the Puritans certainly suffered – physically, emotionally, politically.  But did they have a theology of suffering?


Well, few of them dwelt on their suffering in their writings so not really, no.  Not explicitly so anyway.  But implicitly even this silence indicated that yes, they did have a theology of suffering.  It was a theology that denied cosmic significance to the pain and injustice which they personally endured.   They simply did not consider themselves or their experiences to be that important.  They knew they lived in a fallen world.  That did not make them passive in the face of such.  But it did mean that they wasted little or no time complaining about it or seeing its as some major theodicy problem.  They and their lives were just not that significant in the grand scheme of things.


That is truly a bygone age. 


As Philip Rieff once commented, “Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church, so as to find the rationale of their misery; they did not expect to be happy.”  Or, to cite Paul: 2Corinthians 4:17.

Posted on Wednesday, January 24, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Many people outside of Scotland may be unfamiliar with the story of the Rev. Kenny Macdonald who died last weekend.  His story is well worth reading and pondering.


I met him only once -- when we both happened to be visiting my soon-to-be father-in-law in hospital in Inverness in 1989.  A most remarkable man.

Posted on Wednesday, January 17, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

While thinking about the #MeToo movement, and the prominent place being played in it by members of the Hollywood establishment, I have asked myself a couple of times, ‘Is this a root-and-branch reformation of the structure of modern morality or merely something superficial?’  To be more specific, given the way that figures such as Meryl Streep and Whoopi Goldberg have in the past advocated (advocated passionately!) for the convicted child rapist, Roman Polanski, and the manner in which Woody Allen’s many –ahem – “issues” have been ignored or trivialized, I wonder if what we are witnessing is a truly significant moment or not.  This is not to belittle many of those who have been strengthened and encouraged to speak out because of the movement.  That is something for which we can all be grateful.  It is rather to ask whether those who have played a large part in creating this sexually abusive culture are now truly repentant or simply doing what they always do: Carefully marketing their images to an adoring public.



I am not sure we are actually seeing anything other than a shift in taste.  Suddenly Hollywood has woken up to the fact that sexual abuse is bad and has been part and parcel of the way Tinseltown has operated since the couch was first used for a casting call. Many of the knew the way it was, of course, and chose to keep silent or to play along.  And the day of moral reckoning is always delayed, if not deferred indefinitely, for the world of the creative. Artists have always enjoyed what George Orwell compared to the old benefit of clergy, whereby their sins were forgiven or treated less seriously, simply because they produced works of beauty. Those who entertain us tend to be treated as a breed apart, even when it comes to basic canons of moral decency.  But now the weight of public distaste for abuse has tipped the scales to such an extent that this benefit of clergy is, at least for a time and on this precise issue, being withdrawn. 



So are we seeing a fundamental, radical moral rethink?  Well, that will only be the case if we see a fundamental, radical rethink of the philosophy of sex which underpins the modern entertainment industry and which is promoted by the same in somany of its products.  If sex continues to be presented as a recreational activity of no significance beyond the immediate pleasure it provides, then the #MeToo celebrities really have no more credibility than someone who campaigns against drunk driving while making endless movies about the fun to be had getting hammered and driving at high speed through a crowded street as the clubs are closing.



I am a cynic, especially when it comes to Hollywood.  I do not think we are seeing a root-and-branch reformation of the morality which has tacitly enabled sexual abuse and even, in the form of those dreadful Polanski apologists, gloried in excusing it in its most criminal form.  I suspect rather that we are seeing a shift merely in matters of cultural taste which Hollywood is superficially appropriating in order to maintain its status as the moral guardian of the modern world.   Which makes #MeToo not so much a moment of seismic significance but of wasted opportunity.

Posted on Friday, January 12, 2018 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

I am grateful to Todd for mentioning my upcoming DC lectures and also to RTS DC for their kindness in asking me to present some of the firstfruits of my Princeton work in a public forum.  The two lectures are entitled as follows:


Lecture 1: Acknowledging the Unacknowledged Legislators: From William Wordsworth to Kim Kardashian


Lecture 2: True Life among the Death Works: Christians and Contemporary Identity Culture


I have always wanted to lecture on William Wordsworth and also publicly to express my withering disdain for the world of Mrs West.  Never dreamed I would be able to do both at the same time.

Posted on Monday, October 02, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Over at Marginalia, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, my old pal Bruce Gordon of Yale Divinity School has put together a panel of scholars to offer reflections on the Reformation.  Bruce's Introduction and Joseph Koerner's Art in a State of Siege are already available.  My contribution, on the vexed question of whether Luther is more a figure of the Middle Ages or a harbinger of modernity, will be up at some point in the next few weeks.

Posted on Monday, October 02, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Such is the technological and moral temper of our times that a serious report with the bizarre title Our Sexual Future with Robots might scarcely raise an eyebrow in a world where the scientifically possible is fast becoming the only judge of the ethical and where celibate friendship is now the only love that dare not speak its name.


The report is notable for a number of reasons.  It is predicated throughout on the modern Reichian-Marcusan nonsense that human fulfillment is really only possible through sexual activity.  As such it is a sad commentary on the state of society.  It also contains a number of indications that, for all that the modern world has tried to make sex just a recreation, it remains stubbornly attached at its deepest and most satisfying level to real human relationships.  Thus the report speaks of how those who use escorts and massage parlors frequently want to know something about the life and background of those they pay for sex.  They want to pretend to be in a relationship even though they know they are asking somebody to ‘fake it’  for money.  That is surely fascinating.  It is an acknowledgment that the act on its own, as mere function of human physiology and with no relationship between partners, is unsatisfying.  Thus, just as prostitutes have to fake sincerity so the makers of sex robots are attempting to make their creations do the same, giving them a personal history.  Bladerunner, anyone? 


The obvious moral questions arising from these observations, i.e., “Can sex be meaningful outside of a real relationship, and, if not, how do we need to revise our contemporary orthodoxies concerning sexual activity?” are, of course, ignored in favor of the typically pragmatic, “How do we develop a technology to fake authenticity?”  We live in an age where all questions, even those touching on the deepest aspects of human existence, are considered to be susceptible to merely technical solutions. 


But the real value of the report lies not so much in its tacit acknowledgment that real sex involves real persons.  Rather it is found in its unintentional expose of the incoherence which underlies modern sexual ethics and the law: Should sex with a robot child be illegal? And is it possible to rape a robot?


Given the West’s abandonment of traditional sexual mores, the criminal status of pedophilia is built on increasingly shaky ground.  That a child cannot give consent under the law is not the unassailable argument many think it to be, for adults routinely make children do things, from brushing their teeth to attending school, for which they do not give consent.   The report ignores this complexity but does speculate as to what ‘robot consent’ might look like.  Yet notions of consent as currently understood raise questions of personal moral and intellectual competence; and robotics is a long way from producing a machine with anything approximating to such a capacity.


That sexual activity is physically or emotionally damaging to children might provide stronger grounds for pedophilia’s status as a crime, but neither apply in the case of robots.  And the notion that allowing adults to have sex with child robots might encourage them to do the same with real children would seem to rest on a logic which would then require for example the banning of violent video games in case they encourage real shootings.  


To be fair, the report tries to offer some rationale for outlawing robot pedophilia and robot rape.  It cites Kant’s argument that certain acts intrinsically dehumanize the agent, regardless of the status of the victim.  In having sex with a robot child, the perpetrator hurts no-one yet still degrades himself.  But (and here I need to insert a trigger warning: the following constitutes an act of deliberate, premeditated robophobia): Is sex with a robot, regardless of the ‘age’ of the machine, not dehumanizing in and of itself?  For pity’s sake, it’s a machine with which these people are doing the deed, not even a flesh-and-blood escort paid for sex, let alone a wife or husband to whom they are exclusively committed.   And if sexually using a robot programmed to refuse consent to sex somehow makes the agent guilty of the crime of rape, would the same principle not also make one guilty of murder for playing a violent video game or even using a target at a gun range made in the shape of a human being? 


The problem here is twofold.  We live in a world where science is raising ethical questions faster than we are able to answer them.  And, as far as sexual ethics goes, once sex is removed from its role as the seal of a lifelong monogamous commitment between a man and a woman, sexual ethics is doomed to descend into total chaos, built on the ever-shifting sands of cultural taste and selective and vague notions like ‘consent.’   The trap in which we now find ourselves was sprung long, long ago.  And, as usual, the response is not to acknowledge that we have built our sexual ethic on nonsense but to try to make technology solve the problems which it has itself first created. 


Still, when ‘robophobia’ joins the ever-increasing ranks of unforgivable hate crimes, do remember, folks, that you saw it committed here first.

Posted on Monday, September 18, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Lesbian feminists with a penchant for Nietzsche, Freud, and DeSade are not typically my type.  Nevertheless, I fell in love with one in 1993 and have never quite recovered. I was then (as now) a happily married man and nothing untoward actually happened.  But when I purchased a copy of Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of her journalism, I knew that this was to be more than a passing infatuation.  Here was my ideal woman: Tough, thoughtful, well-read, and clearly somebody who could handle herself in a bar-room brawl.  Feisty is surely too small a word.


In the years since I have learned much from the delectable Ms. P.  She modeled for me both a scholarship and a journalism which engaged high culture and pop culture, moving seamlessly from Aeschylus and Freud to the Rolling Stones and Madonna.   She showed me that learning and writing could be fun and iconoclastic and constructive all at the same time.  Her rejection of the histrionics of victim-feminism, her refusal to follow the orthodoxy on date rape, and her demand that individuals take responsibility for themselves forced me to think.  Her contempt for the tone police, those self-righteous enforcers of the status quo, was evident on every page.


Of all her writings, though, the one I love the most – and the one I return to most frequently -- is the essay ‘The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,’ originally published in The New Republic but reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture.   The article does not, as I had hoped when I first glimpsed the title, offer some technical tips for romantically inept Calvinists; Rather it is a devastating critique of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.’s 1991 report on human sexuality. Nothing I have read since has ever done such a successful job of demolishing the pious pabulum which vitiates so much Christian discourse on sex and which has (as Paglia predicted) eviscerated the faith of its distinctive vitality. If ever there was an essay which cut through sentimental bombast that surrounds liberal Christian pieties and cuts straight to the real heart of the matter, it is this.   And in an era marked by a tedious and increasingly intense combination of political correctness and squeamishness about clear communication, it is still a breath of fresh air.


The key paragraph – vintage Paglia -- is this: 


The [PCUSA’s} committee’s prescription for an enlightened Christianity is “learning from the marginalized.” This new liberal cliché is repeated so often that I began to misread it as “margarinized.” We are told that “those of us with varying degrees of social power and status must now move away from the center, so that other, more marginalized voices . . . may be heard.” But the report picks and chooses its marginalized outcasts as snobbishly as Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes. We can move tender, safe, clean, hand-holding gays and lesbians to the center—but not, of course, pederasts, prostitutes, strippers, pornographers, or sadomasochists. And if we’re e going to learn from the marginalized, what about drug dealers   moonshiners, Elvis impersonators, string  collectors, Mafiosi  foot fetishists serial murderers, cannibals, Satanists, and the Ku Klu Klan?  I’m sure they’ll all have a lot to say. The committee gets real prudish real fast when it has to deal with sexuality outside its feminist frame of reference: “Incest is abhorrent and abhorred,” it flatly declares. I wrote in the margin, “No lobbyists, I guess!”


This is admittedly a little dated, at least in its lists of the marginalized.  Sadomasochism, pornography, and prostitution are being mainstreamed, and it seems quite possible that pederasty and incest will not be far behind.   String collectors, foot fetishists, Elvis impersonators, and Imperial Wizards may perhaps have to wait a little longer.  But even so Paglia’s basic point stands and liberal Christians will no doubt join the sadomasochism and pederasty bandwagons if ever they become part of the Mainstream Margarinized.  Why would they not?  Their ethics are merely the tastes of the world around in the imperative voice.  And that means their moral standards are ultimately formed not by the Bible or Christian tradition but by powerful interest groups in the popular media, by clichéd post-structuralist pieties, and by legislators on Capitol Hill whose political culture is little more than a function of the public relations industry


Yet there is another aspect to the essay, and that is Paglia’s barely concealed contempt for the attempts of liberal Christianity and of the gay lobby itself to make homosexuality respectable. For Paglia, sex is powerful and deviant sex reflects that power precisely because it is transgressive, because it breaks the rules.  For her, sex is an erotic, Dionysian force that threatens to shatter civilization as we know it.  Drawing on the later Freud, with distinct tones of Nietzsche, she understands the destructive power of sex and rejoices in it.  To tame it, to domesticate it, to make it respectable, to turn it into merely one more form of pleasurable recreation is to destroy both its substance and significance.


Her basic thesis is that liberal Christianity cannot cope with sex as it really is.  Instead it has to make into something anodyne and inoffensive as defined by the aesthetics of the wider world.   Cultural tastes trump biblical teaching and historic Christian ethics.  This is the problem of liberal Christianity in microcosm.  Make Christian doctrine merely an expression of religious psychology and, as sophisticated as that might seem, it leads in only one direction: the assimilation of Christianity to the world.   


Ironically, Paglia here is more Christian than the liberal Protestants she lambasts so mercilessly.  Traditional Christianity, with it various sexual taboos, its physical discipline of celibacy for those who are not married, its view of marriage as lifelong and sexually monogamous, and its refusal to make sexuality and sexual behavior a matter of bland personal preference, acknowledges sex as precisely the dangerous, atavistic force that she too sees it to be.   Paglia and orthodox Christianity are two sides of the same sexual coin.


But here is where Paglia differs with the sexual attitudes of the permissive society.  When (almost) everything is permitted and when all social and legal prohibitions and restraints on sexual behavior have been stripped away, society has made sex safe. Too safe. In enfranchising the deviant, it eliminates deviation.  And when nothing is forbidden, sex actually loses its meaning and becomes just one more bland form of entertainment, pleasant but of no social significance, rather like consuming a vanilla ice cream. 


So why do Christians capitulate to such nonsense so easily?   Here Paglia and I are on the same page: Because the Christian church is too often not satisfied with being the Christian church, with all of its austere dogma and demands, but prefers to be merely an insipid and derivative mouthpiece for modern emotivism.  Liberal churches do what they always do: In an effort to remain credible they dutifully turn up to baptize whatever sentimental mush the world wants to promote on the trendy topic of the moment.  Of course, it always does this a day or two late, but that’s what happens when your ethics are simply a response to norms which the world has already embraced.   No longer is it ‘Thus saith the Lord!’ so much as ‘Now, now, poor dear, you just do what feels right for you.  Oh, and please, whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about it.’


Given her polemic against the therapeutic drivel and middle class mores of modern sexual liberalism, could it be that Camille Paglia has a better grasp of Christian teaching than the pope? Even as it has sought to make sex the central component of human identity, sexual liberalism has evacuated it of any real significance through its ruthless destruction of taboos.  In Paglia-speak, liberals, secular and religious, have turned Eros and Dionysius from volcanic deities into quiet suburbanites with a mini-van, a mortgage, and a bottle of hand sanitizer on every surface.   In traditional Christian language, they have turned sex from the mysterious, powerful, terrifying and procreative source of life into just one more pleasurable hobby, like stamp collecting but with more orgasms.


Liberal Christians seem to have a compulsive need to overthrow the traditional teachings of Christianity, and sexuality and human identity now provide the present battleground for this Oedipal struggle. Tendencies that Paglia observed in 1991 are much, much worse today, but such continue to perplex those of us – believers and atheists -- who have no problem with historic Christianity being historic Christianity.  As Paglia declares towards the end of the essay:


As a lapsed Catholic of wavering sexual orientation, I have never understood the pressure for ordination of gay clergy or even the creation of gay Catholic groups. They seem to me to indicate a need for parental approval, an inability to take personal responsibility for one’s own identity. The institutional religions, Catholic and Protestant, carry with them the majesty of history. Their theology is impressive and coherent. Efforts to revise or dilute that theology for present convenience seem to me misguided.


It is a shame that more Christians do not think that way.   We do not need to listen to the panjandrums of the wider world.  We need that Paglian attitude: Christian sex should be transgressive and thumb its nose at respectable pieties.  You know – exclusively heterosexual, within the bonds of marriage, with single people remaining celibate.  That breaks all the modern taboos and threatens the comfy orthodoxies that now dominate sexual mores.  Sex is simply too important to leave it to the lobby groups of sexual liberation. Plus, as Paglia knows, breaking the rules makes it more fun too.


And, as I write this and reflect upon the delectable Ms. P, I think that I might be falling in love all over again.

Posted on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

My inbox has been full of positive reactions to the PBS docudrama which aired last night.  It is now available online here.