March 11, 2016

A New Round of Puritanism? I Wish!

Apparently we’ve entered a new round of Puritanism in our culture, or what’s being referred to as neo-Puritanism.  And truth be told, I wish we had! Now before you sign me up as a neo-Puritan about to launch a neo-Mayflower in search of a neo-Promised Land, let me explain.

When people think of the Puritans their first thought is usually of fun-police and wowsers.  Something like Blackadder’s Puritan aunt and uncle, who are pretty much against anything that smells like fun, especially sex.

Puritans weren’t against sex, just sex outside marriage (sound familiar?).  And funnily enough (and it is pretty funny and completely awesome at the same time), they were pretty much hot for sex inside marriage!

In fact one Puritan settlement in the early days in America banished a husband and sent him into exile because he refused to fulfil his, er, marital duties to his wife. (note to self: might be time to do a similar audit at church this year).


a little cross

The charge of Puritanism was always in the armoury of the Left as an ad hominem attack against the Right’s conservatism, especially in the Left’s outlier rebellious hey-days of the sixties and seventies.

But now, with the new morality in full force, and the Left more Target and less Abercrombie and Fitch, Puritanism/neo-Puritanism is increasingly used to describe the Left itself. And what, with its new outraged shibboleths and refusal to acknowledge its own perspectivalism, it is well suited to receive such opprobrium.

(For an insightful pop cultural take on this see Michael Jensen’s article on the ABC which equates Australia’s liberal TV comedians with televangelists).

Except it isn’t a new Puritanism we are seeing.  Not at all. It’s actually a new Pharisaism; or simply the same old Pharisaism that was around in Jesus’ time, except this time wearing skinny jeans and ethically produced ironically labelled tee-shirts, instead of flowing robes.

True, this Pharisaism may have lost its outwardly religious markings, and is in fact often outwardly anti-religious, but the same grimacing self-righteous skull lurks behind the withering ironic half-smile.

And here’s why.  Unlike Puritans, Pharisees are not so concerned with their own hearts and motives, as with yours. Pharisees are unsullied by personal doubts or the humility that comes with recognising one’s own self-betrayals. Be in no doubt, today’s ideologues are less Puritan and all Pharisee.

Not convinced? Well then you probably haven’t read any actual early Puritan writings.   For at the heart of the matter was the matter of the heart. The Puritans were about the heart, and most specifically one’s own heart.

The writings of the Puritans have a theological, and an almost proto-psychological, interest with the internal; the motivations, the deep heart longings, one’s ability to self-deceive, the need to examine why such and such an action would be taken.

The Puritan, unlike the Pharisee, distrusts his or her own motivations in and of themselves because of the presence of sin.  Oh the Pharisee still believes in sin, the sin of others is all too evident to them.  But the besetting, blinding sins of oneself?  Airily dismissed.

Those early Puritans enacted checks and balance audit of their own hearts, and that audit had to be carried out by the heart-penetrating Word of God. It alone stood above the self and was able to critique impassively, implacably and intrinsically.

Such convictions led to a certain hesitancy by the Puritans to go on a full frontal attack on anyone.  The true Puritan wants to check their own heart first. Not so the Pharisee.  Here’s the enduring line of the Pharisee, the one that sums it all up:  “I thank you Lord that I am not as other men…” (see Luke 18:9-14).

I thank you Lord that I am not as other men.  That’s it right there. That’s what Michael Jensen is talking about. There’s a sanctimonious blindness to that line, a refusal to self-reflection: An unguarded confidence that all is well with one’s soul, based not on  critical self-examination, but on a constant and implacable outrage at  the sins and perceived sins of others.

The neo-Pharisee flourishes in a social media age; taking the promotion of self-praise to a level undreamed of by the 1st century Pharisee, whose only stage was the simple marketplace.

And this is not confined to either Left or Right, or even the rapidly shrinking Centre, but to all of us. The Left’s Pharisaism is waxing at the moment simply due to its all-conquering sweep of our public institutions and media.

Facebook, Twitter, (and yes, ahem, blogs) would have been enough for the 1st century Pharisee.  For their later day progeny, however, these are merely steps towards the self-actualisation the neo-Pharisee so desperately craves, their view becoming the view.  The ability to look at the world, see oneself, and like what one sees, and in the process, silencing all dissent. A truly worshipful act indeed.

And over against all this? The Word of God, and the God of the Word, who states categorically in Jeremiah 17 that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

Well to be honest, neither the Puritan nor the Pharisee can know the heart, but only one of them will run to the One who, as the next verse of Jeremiah goes on to say, does know the heart: The LORD.

In an increasingly sanctimonious and self-righteous culture, we could probably do with a new round of Puritanism to be honest.

There’s a message for the church here too, in these increasingly angry times. As worshippers of that same heart penetrating Word now made flesh, we could demonstrate true Puritanism to the culture. A new round of biblical self-examination. A  commitment to less selfies and more selflessness. A new humility that hesitates to loudly thrust itself forward just because it can. A quiet confidence that doesn’t need to win the argument, because the ultimate argument has been won.

That might just take some of the heat out of the battle, give us a clearer voice to speak into our world, and quieten the cultural cacophony that threatens to deafen us all.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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