A Stirring Ode to Methodism: A Response to Mark Tooley

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Methodist DNA, courtesy of United Methodist Memes

Earlier this month, Mark Tooley of the always-cuddly IRD got a Chris Matthews-style “thrill” up his leg courtesy of John Piper’s poem “The Calvinist,” now set to a dreamlike video complete with cheesy musical score.  This surprisingly apparently moving poem stirred up all kinds of warm fuzzies about Calvinists for Tooley:

“These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama.”

This is in contrast, he says, to the Methodist world. We Methodists are a friendly bunch, with our pot lucks and warm smiles, but we are not particularly inspirational. “Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has,” he laments. Tooley even asks if we would have the moxie to produce something akin to Piper’s bold poem/video.

I’m afraid this confirms a long-held suspicion for me: the leaders of the denominational caucuses, left and right, are not lovers of the Methodist tradition. They look longingly to the progressive utopia of the UCC or Episcopal Church, or enviously to the famous pulpits and lockstep doctrinal enforcement of the Reformed and conservative evangelical communities, and everywhere see greener grass than that of their own ecclesial yard. Yes, they love that John Wesley was inclusive, or read the Bible a lot, but their interest in being United Methodist Christians pales in comparison to their desire to see their ideological agendas win out among competing factions. I am reminded of Solomon deciding the case between two women who both claimed to be an infant’s real mother (1 Kings 3:16-28); the difference here, of course, is that both “mothers” (read: ideological agendas) would sooner see the baby split in two than the other side “win.”

But on to my own Ode. I have no gift for rhyming; I’m no Jay-Z or Charles Wesley, but I do love my church family, warts and all. Yes, there is some truth to Jon Stewart’s charge that we can be the “University of Phoenix” of religions, and we’ve all felt the Methodist Blues. Wesley’s descendants are nice to a fault, which is probably why the LifeWay study showed we have the most positive name recognition of any denomination. We don’t have celebrity pastors like John Piper or Mark Driscoll (for which we thank the Almighty), but we do have some pretty awesome folks like Will Willimon and Adam Hamilton. If the 19th century was the Methodist century, and the 20th century was the Christian Century, then the 21st sometimes looks to be a dystopian spiritual landscape in which only the most shallow or extreme forms of Christianity can survive. What is left for the messy middle, or, more properly, the Extreme Center?

I believe the movement started by the Wesleys still has much to offer. We do not have great systematic theologies from our founders to pore over like the Calvinists do, but we do possess  some excellent sermons and correspondences, and hymnody so fantastic that even stoic Presbyterians can appreciate it. We may not be known for dogmatic rigidity, but we are doctrinal bridge-builders: Wesley’s eclectic approach to soteriology combined the juridical concerns of the Christian West and the therapeutic focus of the East in a unique manner that offers a potential grounds for détente between these two long-separate parts of the Body of Christ.

That is characteristic of Methodism, actually. As my teacher Randy Maddox (see link above) put it, Methodists hold together what other Christians often pull apart. We can boast a love for Scripture & tradition, works of mercy & works of piety, spiritual & intellectual formation, evangelism & sacramental life, grace & works, personal & social holiness.  In other words, we demand to have the cake and devour it, too.

Moreover, we may not have American theologians as renowned as Jonathan Edwards, but we have an impressive network of hospitals, camps, universities, and other mission agencies (in the US and abroad) doing God’s work in diverse ways. Our empire may not have the grandeur of Calvin’s Geneva, but we can boast an early emphasis on abolition and women’s ministry that Calvinism cannot.

Tooley sounds forlorn when stating that Methodism, while quaint, doesn’t “spark the electricity” that Calvinism does. But Jesus never describes the Kingdom like a bolt of lightning (that has a decidedly pagan ring to it). Instead, he says it is like a mustard seed: small, but growing into a giant tree. Or, the Kingdom is like leaven, working slowly and quietly, but with great impact. No, Methodism does not snap and crackle like Calvinism does, but if a little less wattage is the price we pay for not having the horrific imagery of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on our conscience, it is a happy trade in my book.

As for poetry, I’ll see Dr. Piper’s wager (as sexist as it is simple) and raise hymn (ha!) a Charles Wesley tune which, for my money, has more beauty in this single stanza than Piper’s entire poem:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In closing:

For me, being a part of a church is a bit like a marriage. We belong to the church in sickness and in health, for better and for worse. When other suitors begin to look more attractive than our own spouse, it’s not time to wax poetic (and adulterously) about someone who is betrothed to another. Rather, it is time to rekindle that old flame and remember the covenant. That might be my prescription for Tooley and for all in my tribe to who appear to be more about “Right” or “Left” than anything resembling the faith and practice of the Wesleyan movement (or about Jesus, for that matter!): take some time, look at the old photographs, pull out the love letters from the shoe box in the attic, and remember that no relationship grown cold has ever been reignited by singing the beauty of another.

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     If you can’t say anything nice about your own church,
          at least don’t sing the praises of other churches.

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10 thoughts on “A Stirring Ode to Methodism: A Response to Mark Tooley”

  1. Any resemblance of the Wesleys to present day Methodists is purely accidental. Charles never became a Methodist and stopped hanging out with them after his brother ordained ministers for America, and John remained an Anglican priest until he died. John was like a man in a row boat who has his eyes fixed on the shore but with every stroke of the oars he moved further from his intended destination.

    1. Sarah, I wonder what you thought John’s intended destination was? You are right that, like Luther, he never intended to form another denomination. He did give his blessing to the US Methodists when, because of the revolution, it became necessary for them to become a separate body. I think you’ll find an organic, not accidental, connection to Wesley if you look at our polity vis-a-vis itinerant elders (a la circuit riders), an insistence on Connection via shared burdens and blessings financially and otherwise, an emphasis on ministry with the poor, education, and missions both local and international. I think Methodism at its best still loves Scripture, and makes us of tradition, reason, and experience to read and live it faithfully, just as Wesley did (though the Quadrilateral was not his formulation). I think if you look hard among Methodists you’ll still see warm hearts going on to perfection, growing in grace day by day just as Wesley encouraged.

      1. This was an interesting criticism, because the imagery of rowing against the tide is exactly what I love most about the UMC. Our church (unlike nearly all others), is able to maintain peace in the midst of extreme turbulence in culture and in times when many fires of faith are growing cold. The fact that we can have a CONVERSATION about the complexities facing churches these days, rather than an endless chain of church-splits and reorganizations is far better (in my opinion). And, the fact that we may not be in control of that “intended” destination, only means that in some ways we also accept that Calvin had some truth in his theology too.

  2. You know why I love being a Methodist? Because most Methodist Christians hold two wonderful, freeing convictions: 1. We love other traditions, and look for the best in other denominations. 2. As much as we love other expressions of faith, we don’t give much of a damn what others think of us. It’s a great combination.

    1. Bruce, I agree heartily with 1, but given all the discussion about public perceptions of the UMC in light of the clergy trials and such, I’m not so sure we aren’t PR conscious. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. The problem, I believe, lies in that positive name recognition. Everybody likes Methodists, Methodists want to be liked by everyone. Unfortunately the confused muddle may have to go as positions, truths and such will need to be defended or attacked or even defined. Although not a problem limited to the UMC, most Methodists don’t seem to know what the UMC is or stands for. Its nice to talk about “Wesley’s eclectic approach to soteriology” but most Methodists don’t have the faintest idea what that means. (Calvinist do and their blood pressue goes up; Progressives don’t seem to worry too much about soteriology) Can’t we all just get along will not last a as theology.

    I do love Charles’s hymns, especially when he goes all Reformed. No wonder Whitefield loved the songs.

    1. John, I agree with you, more or less. Methodists tend to appreciate not being like “those” other Christians, but can’t articulate what positively they are attracted to about the UMC. Methodists tend to be wrapped up more in political agendas than the theological concerns which vex Calvinists, even in the pew. This is unfortunate. Kenda Dean has helped me appreciate the need to articulate the Christian story more fully in the church, because what many Mainline Christians are picking up is not really Christian at all. Look up “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” for more. Thanks for your comments.

      1. Ah yes, MTD, does seem to sum up so much. As a “Calvinist” (I prefer Reformed) attending a UMC church (Wife is a Methodist, I attended as a kid, went into confimation class, left it when the teaching got the UMC’s belief in the “right to collective bargining” and I said what does this have to do with God and Church-at a time when family and neighbors were all in the UAW), I am not offended at what is said and done in the UMC since they say so little. How can you have a discussion with a leader who doesn’t know what a statement of faith is? An Elder who explains communion as “This is the way my father did it.” And you can guess the level in the pews.

        The converse is talking with a Calvinist who thinks TULIP is an accurate summantion of Reformed theology, will joyfully argue it to the last comma, and can’t give you the implications, applications and complications of it to life.

        So I have the UMC preoccupied with getting more people in the pews, to fund more programs, to get more people, all wrapped up in the present, cultural relevance and the world. Then there are the Frozen Choosen with their perfect theology sealed in a vacuum jar (or they are the ones sealed, it gets confusing) unaffected and ineffective.

        So, mixing for the best of the two, I attend a UMC with its interaction with the world while availing myself of the richness of teaching offered by the Reformed community through the internet.

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