Tag Archives: Jon Stewart

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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Would John Wesley Watch Jon Stewart?

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Examining John Wesley for contemporary answers is a difficult task.  He was a highly-educated member of the upper crust of British society, who became known for preaching, teaching, and generally ministering to the dregs of society.  He defended the British empire to the hilt (citing 1 Peter 2:17’s admonition to “fear God, honor the emperor” when considering the question of the American revoltion; yet near the end of his life he supported the anti-slavery work of Wilberforce and his allies.  He was a moral elitist, expecting extreme piety from his followers, but wrote and preached of a God of grace and love.

This was not a one-dimensional man.  Much like Jesus, contemporary interpretations of Wesley tend to tell us more about the interpreters than the subject of study.

Wesley’s disciples are a diverse lot; if all you knew about Methodists’ political beliefs came from the General Board of Church and Society, you would think we were a left-of-center gang.  But Methodists and other Wesleyans run the gamut, from left to center to right, to those with Anabaptist sympathies (think followers of Hauerwas) who don’t give a damn about politics in the usual sense.  This political variance is also liturgical; walk into UMC or AME Church on a Sunday morning, and you could think you are in a Catholic, Southern Baptist, or charismatic church.  Because our Bishops and Discipline do not regulate our worship in any meaningful way (despite the presence of an excellent Book of Worship), you really never know what you are going to get going into any church in the Wesleyan tradition, and especially in the UMC.  But I digress.

Was Wesley a radical?  Many pastors and other theologians since the 1960’s (and with renewed vigor following the Bush/Obama turn) have tried to make Wesley into a champion for any host of social causes.  We love our “prophetic” religion so long as “prophetic” easily translates into the categories of contemporary politics; “speaking truth to power” is a phrase so vastly overused by puerile master’s students it should cause one’s bile to rise.  In fact, many seem to think that being “prophetic” just means being “against,” against what is established, against anything and everything – but especially politics and politicians. Many Methodists fall into this pseudo-theology quite happily.  But was Wesley much of a radical? Like my entire generation, would he go gaga for the reflections of Jon “I’m a comedian so I can say whatever I want and claim nobody should take me seriously even though half of young people get all their news from me” Stewart?

Researching last week’s sermon gave me pause.  Consider this reflection on Luke 13:32, in which Jesus calls the corrupt Herod a “fox”:

32. ‘And he said, Go and tell that fox’ – With great propriety so called, for his subtilty and cowardice. ….But let us carefully distinguish between those things wherein Christ is our pattern, and those which were peculiar to his office. His extraordinary office justified him in using that severity of language, when speaking of wicked princes, and corrupt teachers, to which we have no call; and by which we should only bring scandal on religion, and ruin on ourselves, while we irritated rather than convinced or reformed those whom we so indecently rebuked. (Emphasis added)

Thinking about the lack of decent discourse in American politics today, I found Wesley profoundly helpful.  As Christians, even at our most prophetic, our goal should be to “convince or reform” those with whom we disagree, not simply make them a mockery.  The hatemongering we saw for years in response to W’s presidency, and now with Obama, should be enough for anyone to see to need for Wesley’s approach to how we speak of and to our ‘princes’.  Was Wesley a radical? Look at the man’s portrait! (Translation: probably not.)  Would Wesley drool for the observations of Jon Stewart?  Doubtful.  But he should give us pause as pastors, theologians, and – dare I say! – bloggers.  Christ certainly had business rebuking, mocking, and talking down to rulers and authorities.  Is that our vocation?