The Boys from Brazil
For many years now I have heard stories of how the Lord is doing great things in this huge country, how Pentecostalism is sweeping all before it. Indeed, I remember one colleague telling me that the Roman Catholic Church had offered the people Liberation Theology but the people had chosen Pentecostalism because it offered real power and freedom. In fact, my friends there offered a different perspective. It is Jakes-style prosperity doctrine and Benny Hinn-like hucksterism which seems to flavour the kind of Pentecostalism most in vogue. Recalling my colleague's comment, I was reminded of the fate of communism in the 1970s and 80s: austere Marxism offered the poor the (false) hope of political liberation but the poor ultimately preferred the (false) hope of liberation by lotteries, reality T.V., easy credit and toxic mortgages. In like manner, the Liberation Theologians offered the poor the false hope of freedom by revolution but the poor chose the false miracles and overblown hype of the prosperity hucksters. Same horse, different jockey, as the saying has it.
There are some very good groups growing there, however. I happened to be giving some lectures in Recife for The Puritan Project, a group dedicated to translating good Reformed literature into Portuguese and sponsoring lectures and conferences on related topics. The latest project is a translation of James Bannerman's masterful exposition of biblical ecclesiology, The Church of Christ. As some 'up north' are seemingly distancing themselves from the Puritans and classical Presbyterian polity, elsewhere down south the writings of those bygone pedantic servants of the precise God are galvanising local churches and inspiring biblical reform.
After Recife, I went to Brasilia which was the unexpected climax of the trip. For two nights in a row, I gave lectures on the basics of confessionalism and polity. The crowd was almost entirely made up of people under the age of forty; but they did not want pizazz or cool; all they wanted was the bread-and-butter of biblical ecclesiology. I said nothing of any originality and spoke only through a translator. Any who have ever done that will know how hard it can be either to become excited about one's own material or to judge the response of the audience. Yet on this occasion I was acutely aware of the quiet but growing tension in the room as I made my points. Strange to tell, bog-standard, unoriginal, confessional Presbyterianism still apparently has the power to grip the imaginations of some of the young, it seems, even when delivered in the faultering staccato of consecutive translation
Broad-tent evangelicalism is not dead but it is increasingly bland and pointless as a quasi-church movement. I have no doubt it will continue to fill stadiums and outgun my denomination and the groups I associate with in numbers, cash assets and media exposure; but it will also likely continue to pay a higher and higher doctrinal price in order to maintain the alliances necessary to fill those stadiums and to maintain that media profile. The last eighteen months are just the beginning as far as that trend is concerned. The resulting theological blandness might do the necessary PR work today but it will not be a safe medium for the transmission of the gospel to the next generation. And the people I met at these lectures know it. They know that the gospel needs to be set within a proper confessional and ecclesial context, that doctrinal atomism is inherently unstable and unsatisfying as a dominant philosophy of proclamation and discipleship. Only that can provide the foundation for really biblical church life at local level.
I did not have to tell them that. I left the lecture hall at about 1030 on the first night, after three hours of lectures and discussion at the end of what, for many there would have been an ordinary, tiring work day. Most of the audience stayed behind. It seemed that few of them had any desire to leave, and I was told that the conversations were all about the importance of proper, historic, elaborate confessions connected to appropriate ecclesiology.
The Boys from Brazil also have their own magazine and website, I Prodigo. The hardcopy is quite the most attractively produced theological journal I have ever seen. My only concern is that at least one of their number supports Chelsea F.C., a disturbing fact which seems to me to fly in the face of Paul's clear teaching regarding the need for office-bearers to be of good reputation. Be killing sin, brother, or it will be killing you.
As I was leaving the lecture hall on the second night, one of the Boys from Brazil said to me, 'You know, we nearly ended up as young, restless and reformed; but then we realised it is quite OK just to be ordinary, cranky Calvinists.' That, I reckon, is a result.
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