Stories Like This One
Earlier this month, an evangelical kerfuffle exploded when the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a mainline denomination that isn’t even necessarily evangelical – elected not to include the recent hymn In Christ Alone in their upcoming hymnal. Since this is old news, I won’t recount the entire saga here, but please believe me that this uproar has exposed the most insipid, disingenuous, and moronic side of evangelicalism, mainly because of Timothy George and (for an entirely separate disgrace) an interdenominational group of Baptists. Because explaining the idiocy of the various parties can get somewhat complicated, permit me to break this down via pertinent questions:
1) Why would the PCUSA exclude such a popular hymn?
It all begins with the PCUSA bizarrely concluding that one of the most popular hymns of the past few years should be excluded because they felt that the line, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied,” was an explicit endorsement of Anselm’s ‘satisfaction theory’ of the atonement. Anselm taught that God was like a feudal lord who needed to avenge an infraction against his honor, and that’s why Jesus died. In many ways, essentially, Anselm’s view equates God with an Islamist father who restores the family honor by beheading his own promiscuous daughter. For some reason, the PCUSA felt that it was within their prerogative to omit a hymn which can be (mis)interpreted thusly from their hymnal while neither condemning the song nor forbidding individual presbyteries/congregations from singing it.
1A) Why is this embarrassing?
For one thing, unless you’ve studied theology at the advanced undergraduate or graduate level, you haven’t heard of Anselm, so I’m pretty comfortable saying that the PCUSA hymn committee (um, not their formal title, so we’re clear) are among the first 100 humans to make that philosophical leap. Which would seem to make their rationale for omitting the hymn as ivory-tower elitist and out-of-touch as a rationale could possibly be. It would also seem to make their assumption that including the hymn would be endorsing Anselm more or less crazy. With the emphasis on the more side, which is embarrassing.
Additionally, it’s also worth at least a cursory mention that Anselm’s idea – as unsettling as Jesus receiving an honor killing may be – is not generally regarded as heretical. Commonly endorsed? Not really. Heretical? Nope. It fits with much of scripture, so while the PCUSA are surely within their rights to omit perfectly valid songs from their own hymnal, it’s not really clear what the problem with Anselm’s view would be, even if we assume that the authors of In Christ Alone were actively smuggling obscure medieval theology into their work. [And if you’re making that assumption, well, be embarrassed. Really.]
2) What does this have to do with Timothy George?
Nothing. Or at least it didn’t, until Dr. George used ESP to determine that the real problem was the PCUSA’s discomfort with God’s wrath, after which he wrote about it and started an internet riot of PCUSA-bashing amongst evangelicals. Google it yourself; a veritable host of apoplectic evangelical joined him in denouncing mainline cowardice on the matter of God’s wrath, which they further assume is an implicit rejection of substitutionary atonement (to be clear, this is not an argument George himself makes. He sticks to wrath). Which means that to the extent that this is a kerfuffle at all, it’s George’s baby. Which means it now has everything to do with Timothy George.
2A) Why is Timothy George such an embarrassment?
That’s not a very nice question! Shame on you!
2B) What’s embarrassing about Timothy George’s (and other evangelicals’) role in this instance?
Well, there are a few problems with Timothy George’s take on the PCUSA. For one thing, the hymnal – as the PCUSA has since pointed out – will have myriad songs involving or even centering on God’s wrath. So they’re not hiding from God’s wrath, and to the extent that they are rejecting a theory of the atonement, the evangelical take is totally wrong: the PCUSA is not implicitly rejecting substitutionary atonement; they’re explicitly rejecting satisfaction atonement. George’s ESP appears to have failed him, and it’s always embarrassing when that happens.
For another thing, George is the dean of a major evangelical seminary (Beeson), and he appears to have missed the obvious (to the PCUSA, I guess) connection to Anselm, and well, that has to be professionally embarrassing. Clearly, the PCUSA ivory tower is vastly more elite than Tim George and Beeson.
A third problem, of course, is that George & co. – filled as they are with the fruit of the spirit, such as love, peace, and forbearance(!), to name three – appear to want to be offended. Why else would they jump to conclusions about the PCUSA and wrath? Why else, when the PCUSA clarified that it was really all about Anselm, would their response be to assume – even with some open accusations – that the PCUSA is lying? The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that they must want to sow division amongst Christians, perhaps in the assumption that they’re doing someone a favor (I’m sure someone will suggest they’re “taking a stand on a vital matter!”). This dogged determination to think and see the worst in the PCUSA is an embarrassing disgrace.
3) How did the Baptists get involved in this one?
As the PCUSA actively sought ways to include In Christ Alone in their hymnal, they realized that the line to which they object had been rendered in a Baptist hymnal as, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified.” The PCUSA thought that was an admirable dodge of Anselm, and asked the song’s right-holders if they could do the same. Which is when it came to light that the Baptists never bothered to get permission for that change, and would not have received it if they tried. They apparently just ignored the copyright on the song, changed what they wanted to change, and started selling it everywhere they could. So much for intellectual property, I guess.
3A) Obviously, that’s embarrassing. Did they really do that?
Yes indeed. They altered the artists’ work to suit their own sensibilities. Which is definitely vandalism. Also, it’s a little bit like theft, since they’ve taken someone else’s work and altered it – they may have paid for the rights to use the song, but in changing the song, they stole the artists’ control over their vision, which in this case was a song to Jesus. So they stole two men’s gift to Jesus, changed it, and acted like they had permission to do so. Illegal, wrong, and ohmygoodness embarrassing for them, us, and bipeds everywhere.
4) Can you put those pieces back together for me?
Sure! To recap: the PCUSA is/was in the process of choosing what songs they want to pay their own money to publish in their own hymnal for use in their own churches, but Tim George and a bunch of evangelicals who have nothing to do with this process have decided to use the PCUSA’s autonomous choices as a reason to cast accusations and aspersions upon them. In the name of Christ. Without even considering that the PCUSA might be telling the truth, and might also be permitted to spend their own money however they see fit. They just assume the Presbyterians are heretics and liars, and go from there. Better yet, this divisive engagement is supposed to demonstrate the superiority of the faith of George et al., fruit of the spirit apparently notwithstanding.
Also, it turns out that the Baptists don’t respect intellectual property, which basically makes them thieves, vandals, or both. The good news, however, is that they appear to be better at medieval theology than Tim George.
5) Anything else to add?
Yup. Since this is my blog and my angry screed, permit me to add what should be relatively clear at this point. Incidents like this one make me embarrassed to be identified with the label ‘evangelical.’ The PCUSA should be free to omit whatever they choose to omit, without needing to justify it to the evangelical peanut gallery (and even if their justifications are odd and involve medieval theology). Evangelicals – particularly leaders who have the influence and platform Timothy George does – should try to manifest at least some of the fruit of the spirit in their public ministry, and actively looking for affronts against the kingdom is childish, churlish, and arguably disqualifying for church office, even when they’re not flagrantly misrepresenting the viewpoints of others (which they are here). The entire conflict should never have happened, and it only goes to reinforce the common notion that evangelicals are insufferable hypocrites when a story like this ends up in the Washington Post, USA Today, or the Huffington Post (and this one ended up in all three). So we all end up looking like idiots, even before it emerges that the Baptists defile intellectual property. Yet another reason why evangelicalism makes me uncomfortable.