As a change of pace, for this post I’ve collected a few thoughts and topics I have been thinking about. Random notes. If they coalesce at all, it’s around the thought that we live in a time of opportunity for the faith—opportunity to speak to the culture and to the church in new and compelling words. Much of what has happened in the church lately has exposed an unholy synthesis between the Jesus faith and white western imperialism (see my notes on Julian Barnes below). But the call of the Galilean remains: “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Not least, this dominical saying calls us to surrender our complacent theologies for the high adventure of following Jesus into the uncertainty of life and death for the sake of that which lies beyond.

Julian Barnes

I’ve been reading Julian Barnes for a long time. He first came to my attention—and to the attention of the literary world—with his 1984 novel, Flaubert’s Parrot. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes adopts an approach to writing a novel that he has used to good effect ever since. He  creates a fictional narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite in this case, who pursues the truth about a historical figure, Gustav Flaubert, allowing Barnes to move back and forth between the past and the present and to consider the ways the past continues to live in the present.  

If you are thinking to read a little of Barnes, I would recommend two books written close in time, his Man Booker Prize-winning, A Sense of an Ending (2011), and with it, his memoir of grief, written on occasion the death of his wife, Levels of Life (2013). Or, for that matter, almost any other Barnes book (I did find Arthur and George, about Arthur Conan Doyle, a bit tedious in places), all of which have that characteristic Barnes style and tone. But I did not come to write this note in order to recommend Barnes so much as to address something he raises in almost all of his books, which is religion and death—including the way that so much Christian religion seems to this British intellectual, well, gloomy. Even hopeless.  

Barnes is not a religious man, and yet religion keeps popping up in his novels. His latest novel, Elizabeth Finch, is a case in point. The story is about the title character (and, perhaps, about Barnes’s long-time friend and fellow novelist, the late Anita Brookner). Finch teaches a course in “Culture and Civilization” for adults. She is severe, sure of herself, contrary in many of her opinions.  

The narrator in the novel—we know him only as “Neil”—is quite besotted with Finch, who takes a what-might-have-been approach to the history of the Western world. She seizes on a couple of lines from a poem by Swinburne (“Hymn to Proserpine”):

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of Death.  

In the poem, the voice is that of Julian the Apostate, who ruled Rome briefly from 361-363. Dying in Persia on the battlefield, Julian in the Swinburne poem speaks to Jesus, admitting that he has lost the battle and that Christianity will triumph in the Roman world. The lines are wholly made up, but not the sentiment. Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome. He attempted in his brief time to push back on the work of his uncle, Constantine, who decriminalized Christianity, and to elevate paganism to its former status as the religion of Rome.  

That’s the Cliffs Notes version of Julian the Apostate. The reality is much more complicated, as indeed Neil discovers in the novel. But to Swinburne and many others, including Barnes’s fictional Elizabeth Finch, Julian the Apostate came to represent the road not taken. If only Julian and not the “pale Galilean” had triumphed, we would now live in a very different world—to their way of thinking a more tolerant, happier, and progressive world. This sentiment about the church is not confined to a long-ago Roman emperor and a few European intellectuals. It’s common currency in my neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest, where many people, perhaps most people, regard Christianity as a bother, a force for intolerance, a glum presence that dampens the culture and stamps out whatever fun might be around.  

What is it that makes people think that perhaps Christianity represents a wrong turn in history? In Swinburne’s lines, as a result of the triumph of Christianity, “the world has grown grey.” We have “fed on the fulness of death.” Gloomy stuff, that. It’s not, certainly, the fault of the Galilean. He came, famously, “eating and drinking.” He was an attender of parties at which all the wrong sort of people showed up. He showed an affinity for good wine. He was not “pale” in any sense. But somehow into the faith something sullen has slipped in.  

Not everywhere. Not certainly in the likes of George MacDonald, whose books radiate joy. Or in the music of Bach. Or in much of contemporary worship. But consider our gloomy theology. We are all sinners, having grievously offended God and thus worthy to fry forever in God’s furnace. To buy God off, someone has to die. That someone is Jesus, God’s own son.  

What’s interesting about the latest Barnes book is that in the end paganism as represented by Julian the Apostate (lots of Julians in the Barnes book) does not have the answers either. This grasping for joy in the midst of the tragic belongs not only to the likes of Julian (whether Barnes or Apostate) but to Jesus and to all who truly follow him. “Rejoice always,” says the Apostle Paul in the face of his own execution (Philippians 4:4).  

What we the church have too often failed to do is to name the tragic correctly—the human condition—and to name the joy correctly. We should be about doing just that.  

The New York Times

Speaking of religion, it’s worth noting that a conversation about faith has broken out in The New York Times. It was not all that long ago that religion had almost disappeared from the pages of the Times. And not only the Times. Over the past decades, newspapers everywhere dropped their religion sections and no longer much mention religion in the news. But now there has been a resurgence of conversation about religion, specifically the Christian faith, in of all places the opinion section of The Times.  

The list of columnists and regular op-ed writers who write frequently about Christianity include the conservative Catholic writer, Ross Douthat, evangelicals and former evangelicals David French, Tish Harrison Warren, and Peter Wehner. Esau McCaulley writes pieces for the high holy days, Christmas and Easter. There was even a one-off piece by Tim Keller late last year. Ruth Graham covers religion more broadly, and for the rise of Christian Nationalism, The Times has often turned to Katherine Stewart. I’m sure that there are others I am missing in this short summary.  

Of particular interest to the readers of this blog may be the latest piece from Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Does God Keep Making Poets” (NYT, July 16, 2023; Why Does God Keep Making Poets?). In the piece, Warren interviews Calvin graduate Abram Van Engen, who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and co-hosts the podcast Poetry for All (Poetry for All). Van Engen reflects on the prominence that poetry has in the scriptures and for faith in general. (Isn’t it interesting that God’s Word has an affinity for puns and other forms of word play?)  

Perhaps this new interest of The Times in religion is because religion in our time has been so unruly. Although sometimes in distressing ways, religion has refused to stay within the boundaries of polite discourse. This is as it should be. If faith deals with ultimate questions, those questions and the various answers to them should find a place in our cultural conversation.  


If you watched Synod 2023 of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) online, as I did this year, with captioning turned on, you will have noticed that the system often doesn’t always get it right. In one instance, a delegate said to his fellow synoders that we should “give ourselves some grace.” The captioning system had this as “give ourselves some grease.” I like “grease” better, as in “slide by.” Biblical “grace” (charis) has in it the idea of gift, especially the gift of God. Giving ourselves some grace has more the idea of sliding by. Which the church is often content to do.  


For some time now young people disenchanted with evangelical theology have been talking about “deconstructing” the faith. These “exvangelical” (another term of art) are suggesting that in the face of racism, sexism, and homophobia, we may need to fundamentally rethink and restate the faith. Too much of what passes for Christianity are the leftovers of western imperialism. We have too often stamped white male nationalism on the face of Jesus.  

The term, “deconstruction,” has been controversial. At least according to one person among those deconstructing the faith, the term was consciously borrowed from Jacque Derrida and French philosophy, but there is little evidence that exvangelicals are engaged with Derrida or any other such philosophy. Which is just as well. (Although a case could be made that what Derrida was trying to do for the broader western culture, these young evangelicals are trying to do for the faith: rid it of an inherently oppressive metaphysics.)  

The leading evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, seems to have trouble taking “Deconstruction” and deconstructers seriously—see the headline for a cover story on the movement by Kristin Sanders, “Wait, You’re Not Deconstructing?” (February 14, 2022), but lately The Christian Century, on the progressive side of things, published an appreciative piece by Peter Choi (“Deconstructed, reimagined faith: Five ways I see a new generation reorienting its Christianity,” June, 2023:40-3).  

What this movement signals more than anything else is the bankruptcy of much of conventional evangelical theology and practice. People in and outside of the church are yearning for renewal.  

Beware the Backlash

When New York Times (sorry about two Times references in a single post) asked several of their columnists to name one piece of American culture that best captures the country, Michelle Goldberg turned to Susan Faludi’s 1991 book: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Goldberg notes that “One of Faludi’s central insights was that backlashes rear up not when women have achieved equality but when they seem to be on the brink of achieving it.” Quoting Faludi, she adds, “It’s a ‘pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line.’”  

Something like this seems to be happening in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Over the past several years, the denomination has been slammed with reports about how sexual abuse has been covered up and abusers protected by denominational leadership. One might suppose that in the face of this the denomination would address patriarchy as contributing to abuse, but instead they decided to throw out churches with women clergy, including Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Backlash. When attacked, double down.  

We’ve seen this game in action closer to home. And it applies not only to women but to sexual policy in general. Do not be surprised if future CRC synods begin to roll back the 1995 decision to permit women to serve as elders and pastors. Patriarchy is not dead.  

Shiny Happy People

Speaking of which—patriarchy, that is—Amazon Prime is streaming a devastating four-part documentary on the Duggar family of “19 Kids and Counting” fame. The documentary includes commentary from Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University and author of the bestselling Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020).  

The Duggars were the stars of the Quiverfull movement—a movement that encouraged Christians families to have as many children as possible in order to win the culture wars by sheer numbers if by nothing else. Their “reality show,” “19 Kids and Counting,” aired on the TLC network from 2008 to 2015. It presented the family as, well, “shiny” and “happy.”  

The truth was far more complicated. It included the fact that the oldest Duggar son, Josh, abused children, including his own sisters. The parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, covered up this abuse.

The Duggars were devotees of the teachings of Bill Gothard, whose reach extended to many conservative Christian churches, including CRC churches. Gothard taught a strongly patriarchal, authoritarian system in which one owed obedience to those above oneself. It was a laboratory for abuse. Gothard himself has been accused of multiple counts of grooming and abusing young women.  

Gothard never married. In the documentary he comes across as awkward. Well, more than awkward, weird. But conservative evangelical Christianity is a sucker for just that kind of weirdness: a guy who never married, who seems ill at ease with women, dispensing like a divine oracle “basic life principles” for marriage and child-rearing. Who would believe any of this?  

Except that people did. Still do. The principles taught by Gothard are not dead. Not in the SBC. Not in the CRC. Not in your local megachurch. They infect our theology, our view of God, our view of human life. I am tempted to paraphrase Swinburne, “Thou hast triumphed, O pale patriarchy,” except it hasn’t. Not yet. Not ever. Not so long as there are people who follow the Galilean—not the pale Galilean of too much theology but the one whose spirit still animates the pages of the gospels.  


6 responses to “NOTES HERE AND THERE”

  1. Clay,
    I enjoy your blog so much! So many timely topics and great ideas for further discussions. Keep it coming!

  2. Thanks for this interesting smorgasbord of challenging information. Grace to grease was certainly not the only “slide by” during Synod. Some even made me grin.

  3. Thanks for calling our attention to the Tish Warren Harrison piece in the NYT. I had missed it. I like Abram Van Engen’s point that a poem is not so much “about” some subject as it is about the experience of reading it. That ought to change the way we read some biblical poetry.

    Speaking of poetry, my wife’s brother, the late Rev. Ron Spoelman, once wrote a poem about his auto mechanic dad that played on the grace/grease semihomophony. He spun it a bit more positively: “Grace too is a lubricant/ to squeeze proud flesh through gates/ we’d otherwise be blocked out of.”

  4. Your blog is so very informative and provocative for musing on Christianity. I have created a folder dubbed “Christian Teaching” for each email from Peripatetic Pastor.

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