I recently reviewed Carl R. Trueman‘s Minority Report: Unpopular Thoughts on Everything from Ancient Christianity to Zen-Calvinism (Scotland: Mentor, 2008). (You may read the front front matter and introduction here.) This second volume of his collected essays follows in the train of his first: Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Scotland: Mentor, 2004). It’s typical Trueman: provocative, humorous, wry, clever, witty, engaging, thought-provoking, delightful, entertaining.
I didn’t have space in my review to share pithy quotes from Trueman’s twenty short essays in the volume, so I’ll share some here:
1. “Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light”
- “As a historian, of course, I am never impressed by claims about epochal events and paradigm shifts” (p. 15).
- “Critical thinking and scholarly engagement necessarily require polemic; and such polemic is ultimately a positive, a healthy, and a vital exercise” (p. 39).
2. “Uneasy Consciences and Critical Minds: What the Followers of Carl Henry Can Learn from Edward Said”
- “Organs such as CT [Christianity Today] do not simply reflect the evangelical world; they create it” (pp. 53-54).
- “Specialization which assumes to itself an invulnerability to criticism from outside is specialization which has made itself, and the power it wields, unaccountable [should this say “accountable”?] to no one but those it chooses” (p. 65).
3. “The Banality of Evil: From Eichmann to the iPod Generation”
- “Evil is fascinating” and “generally conceived of by us as being sophisticated and exceptional,” but in reality, “Evil is banal. It is commonplace. It is humdrum and everyday” (pp. 70-71, 86).
- “Technological pragmatism is dangerous precisely because, as with clichés, it allows us to abdicate our moral responsibilities” (p. 80).
- “The terrifying thing” about Eichmann and those extreme examples like him “is the nagging suspicion that these people, these vile people, were in significant ways no different to ourselves” (p. 86).
4. “It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sings”
- “A very cynical and perhaps uncharitable Protestant response to [the argument that most evangelicals do not hold the Protestant doctrine of justification] might be to conclude that Catholics and Evangelicals can therefore agree on justification simply because Catholics understand Catholicism while Evangelicals either do not understand Protestantism or do not care about it” (p. 94).
5. “The Age of Apathy”
- “If there is a vice or characteristic that is often regarded as typical of the modern Western world, it is apathy, that lazy, couldn’t-care-less indifference which marks out the couch-potato MTV world in which we live from previous generations” (p. 103).
- “If I am apathetic, what I am really saying is that God’s truth and God’s morality are matters of indifference, they are of only relative or local importance, and that God is therefore not sovereign and I am not dependent upon him for everything” (p. 108).
6. “Breeding Ferrets on Watership Down”
- “Evangelicals in our anti-historical mode seem prone to one of the two tendencies noted above: an idolatry of the new and the novel, with the concomitant disrespect for anything traditional; or a nostalgia for the past which is little more than an idolatry of the old and the traditional. Both are disempowering: the first leaves the church as a free-floating anarchic entity which is doomed to reinvent Christianity anew every Sunday, and prone to being subverted and taken over by any charismatic (in the non-theological sense!) leader or group which cares to flex its muscle; the second leaves the church bound to the past as its leaders care to write that past and thus unable to engage critically with her own tradition. Humble and critical engagement with history is thus imperative for the Christian” (pp. 116-17).
7. “A Good Creed Seldom Goes Unpunished”
- “I have a sneaking suspicion that the cry of ‘No creed but the Bible!’ has often meant rather, ‘I have my creed, but I’m not going to tell you what it is so that you can’t know what it is and thus cannot criticize me for holding it'” (p. 119).
8. “Is the Devil Really in the Details?”
- “Belief in divine sovereignty that is not susceptible to elaboration in terms of other issues (providence, predestination, grace, etc) becomes less a declaration about who God is in relation to his creation and more the objectification of that warm, fuzzy, and ultimately nebulous, feeling that somehow, in some way, God is in control and everything will be OK in the end—though one cannot then put any flesh on the bones by probing what ‘in control’ might actually mean. And a declaration of belief in the supreme authority of Scripture becomes little more than a psychological commitment to the idea that Scripture is really rather more important than any other writing, though exactly how and why this should be the case cannot be stated with any clarity” (p. 129).
9. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
- “I’m a historian and get paid to explain the past, not predict the future” (p. 132).
- “Christians have, on the whole, been pretty sharp at spotting the evils of pornography, simply considered. After all, porn is morally lethal in the way that having one’s brains beaten out with a baseball bat is physically lethal: both the medium and its effects are crude, obvious, and actually relatively easy to avoid if you see the bat coming at your head and manage to duck in time. But sitcoms and prime-time network entertainment are deadly in a different way. As carbon monoxide creeps through a house and is undetectable until the effects are irreversible and necessarily lethal, so the drip-drip-drip of prime time slowly but surely dulls the moral brain cells of those who uncritically absorb its messages and its projected lifestyle with no awareness of how they are being transformed, even manipulated, by the propagandistic virtual reality to which they are exposed” (p. 133).
10. “Beyond the Limitations of Chick Lit”
- “Thomas Aquinas . . . is without a doubt the single most important intellectual source for pre-Vatican II Catholicism” (p. 140).
- “Natural theology is a vexed issue in Protestantism, partly because of Karl Barth’s belligerent ‘NO!’ to Emil Brunner in the 1930s, and partly because of the persistent misreading of the Reformers and the Reformed Orthodox on these issues through the popular historiography of the issue at the hands of writers as diverse as Francis Schaeffer, Cornelius Van Til, and Stanley Grenz and their various disciples” (p. 145).
11. “Where Is Authenticity to Be Found?”
- “Christianity needs always to seek to be authentic; and I am convinced that the Psalms should be a basic to such, not simply because of what they say but also because of the way they say it. . . . The tragic truth in a fallen world can be expressed in a variety of ways. We are all probably familiar with the neat summaries of such which appear on bumper stickers, variations on a statement like ‘Life sucks; then you die.’ Not particularly profound, for all of the truth it may contain. . . . [Trueman quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth] The meaning of the two, the bumper sticker and the Shakespearean soliloquy, is basically the same: life is nasty, meaningless, and short. Yet there is a sense in which the latter enriches the reader’s understanding in a way that the former does not. The language, the sounds of the words, the images, the alliteration, the metrical structure—all provide an elaborate and complex expression that draws the audience into a deeper, more frightening, more striking encounter with the absurdity of existence” (pp. 150-51).
- “The propositional truth content of Christian theology can be dramatically enriched by taking serious the literary form of the way the Bible teaches us” (p. 154).
- “The Bible writers clearly appreciated the need for complex literary forms to give full expression to complex theological ideas and to the complexity of life in covenant with God in a fallen world. Theological curricula, at home, at seminary, and at church, should surely take the forms of the Bible’s teaching with similar seriousness to that with which they take the basic content (to the extent that it is even possible to separate them). Only then can we avoid the reduction of biblical wisdom to bumper-sticker slogans; only then will our theology find authentic expression” (p. 156).
12. “American Idolatry”
- “American Idol is, in other words, a wonderful context for observing American idolatry, the idolatry of self” (p. 160).
- “So what can we learn from this? Two things: behold the darkness of the unredeemed human heart, even in the small things. And, if you really want to make money in America, invent a TV program which capitalizes on idolatry. Oh, and if you decide on the latter and want some nasty English type to play the hate figure, just give me a call” (p. 162).
13. “Thoughts on the Return to Rome of Professor Beckwith”
- “The key differences—impartation versus imputation, and the instrumentality of faith—are mutually exclusive” (p. 166).
- “I know of no more practically flexible and ultimately meaningless notion of authority than that which has historically been practiced by the papacy” (p. 168).
14. “The Theater of the Absurd”
- “Above all, ‘scholar’ is a title that one never, ever applies to oneself” (p. 175).
- “The danger of the web is this: where everyone has a right to speak, everyone ends up thinking they have a right to be heard; and when everyone in general thinks they have a right to be heard, then you end up with a situation where nobody in particular is listened to” (p. 175).
15. “Leadership, Holy Men, and Lessons from Augustine”
- “The key to understanding the sin of leaders lies in the quasi-godlike status of leaders themselves, a status which provides rich soil for the kind of self-deification which lies at the heart of sin” (p. 183).
- “It is not surprising to see leaders fall frequently and spectacularly. It is not simply that leaders have greater opportunities to sin; it is that the very nature of leadership will seduce all but the most careful into believing that they are little gods, that they make the rules, and that they can get away with anything. Surround these leaders with crowds of uncritically adoring supporters and you have the perfect storm: self-deception followed by self-destruction are, humanly speaking, almost unavoidable” (p. 185).
- “Accountability is thus crucial in leadership. Choice of advisors and confidantes is critical” (p. 188).
16. “Escaping Vanity Fair: A Word of Encouragement from Nietzsche”
- “The first question to ask about any historical action is this: who makes money out of the deal?” (p. 191)
- “Given the way in which evangelical culture in America is so deeply embedded in the systems, practices, and aspirations of American culture in general-from its colleges and seminaries to its publishing houses to its relentless vision of ‘big is best’ to its personality cults of celebrity theologians to its mega-ministries to its amazing ability to transform anyone[-]even the patrician Anglican C. S. Lewis and the radical tinker John Bunyan-into friendly evangelical allies, the outlook is not bright. To put it bluntly, we live in Vanity Fair, and we seem to be quite happy there” (p. 195).
17. “Death, the Final Boundary”
- “It is arguable that the last hundred years have witnessed an interesting reversal in Western society, where the great taboo of the Victorian era and the great obsession of the same period have dramatically switched places. . . . Sex the taboo; death the obsession. Today, the roles are somewhat reversed. Sex is everywhere. . . . Death is something most of us try to avoid” (pp. 197-98).
18. “A Dangerous Gift for My Wife”
- “In [consumerism’s] identification of youth as the significant market product, it has backed immaturity over age, foolishness over wisdom, know-it-all arrogance over humble acknowledgment of limitations and mortality. And those societies—be they economic states or even local churches—which choose to build themselves on consumerism need to realize sooner rather than later that the easy credit and self-centeredness which lie at the heart of their philosophical project can only manifest themselves in childishness” (p. 207).
19. “Zen-Calvinism and the Art of Motorvehicle Replacement”
- “In my experience, Christians can be horrible people; and, basically, they cannot be trusted to sell you chewing gum, let alone a used car” (p. 210).
- “I am a committed Zen-Calvinist . . . Like the Buddhist movement which shares the same name, Zen-Calvinism is a school of religious thought which allows its adherents to live at one with the world, untroubled in any ultimate sense by the slings and arrows which life throws their way. It is also counter-cultural and thus represents a deeply alternative lifestyle” (p. 210).
20. “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Book”
- “Yesterday’s old liberalism is today’s cutting-edge evangelicalism” (p. 219).
- “The game’s afoot, Watson. The gospel is in jeopardy and the most frightening aspect of this whole case is that it is in danger from the very people who have been charged to protect, defend and proclaim it. If we cannot persuade the next generation of evangelical thinkers that the missing gospel must be found, then it is all over for Christianity as we know it. This, my dear fellow, is a four pipe problem” (p. 221).
Does this whet your appetite for more? Read the book.
Related post: “The Wages of Spin” by Carl Trueman