What the Lapsed Episcopalian Knew All Along

A recent post at OldLife got me thinking about this old post. To be sure, the larger point of the OldLife post is golden. But it entails this whole question about substance use and worldly amusement. I was raised by lapsed WASPs (and, distantly, Catholics). And, after reluctantly converting but happily marrying into pietistic evangelicalism, then into confessional Protestantism, I think I’ve had a good bit of experience to say the following. While all else has been the latter for years, I have come to understand my views on substance use and worldly amusement to be more WASP-y than Old School Presbyterian. Here’s why. The Old School Presbyterians seem to share something in common with the Pietists they rightly mean to counter (sorry, guys): use or non-use is a comment on one’s spirituality. For the Pietist, abstinence means spiritual, and for the Old School Presbyterian use means the same thing. But in the WASP-world, this assumption just isn’t shared. Use, don’t use, nobody really cares much. Of course, WASP-i-osity sides much more with Old School Presbyterianism to the extent that both are favorable to Christian liberty than pietist legality. Anyway, here is the re-run…

A rearing in secular unbelief, first converting into broad evangelicalism and then converting again into Reformed confessionalism is nothing if not packed with all sorts of interesting changes. In the first conversion, I met up with a rather clear if unstated expectation that certain social, political and cultural mores were to be quickly adopted. Not only was it obvious that one must get cozy with a certain narrow band of activist politics and cheer on fairly bleary-eyed rightist rants about a damnable media, one also had to understand that the consumption of certain substances was obviously not for the truly pious. World-flight not only meant that attempts at worldly involvement were about throwing rocks from inside the cave (read: “culture war”), but also that certain things ought never be touched. Having been reared by a pair that included the man in the picture (circa 1975), that was all a bit much for this newbie to swallow. But for various reasons, one of which was that I wanted to be truly pious, I did my level best to keep certain balloons under water. Being male, I’ve always been pretty good at silent desperation.

The second conversion to the Reformation did a lot to release a whole host of balloons. Fully affirming the material world, it was quite a relief to find out that the world in which I had always lived and enjoyed really wasn’t so fundamentally evil and retreat was actually more impious than pious. Yet, as I have gone on in certain circles that share with me the second conversion from broad legalistic-evangelicalism into Reformed libertarian-confessionalism, I keep finding that the capped man sitting by the pool has known a few things all along without missing a beat. He may not yet be aligned with me on many theological and confessional specifics, but he gets what I think many in both my conversions still don’t grasp very well. Contra my first conversion, he always knew the material world was “very good” and there was absolutely no reason to fear it and every reason to pursue it. Contra my second conversion, he knew there was absolutely no reason to have to prove any of that to anybody.

Weaving in and out of my conversions, I have found it crowded with more or less two types: ascetic legalists and sophomoric libertarians who used to be ascetic legalists. I find myself more and more pulling up a seat next to the bearded man as they both do silent battle. It’s a fun show. Here is what I observe:

The legalists are mostly the kinder and gentler variety anymore. Soft legalism is a good term, I think. The brute moralism of their forebears has morphed into user-friendly advice which still “cannot be refused.” Since ordinary is anathema to the therapeutic age, they seem to justify their austerity by appealing to the fashionable and extra-ordinary trinity of “happy, healthy and whole.” It is a sort of silent legalism, one a lot like silent theocracy. Just as some may talk a good game about “the separation of church and state” yet really believe that the gospel has a direct bearing on and obvious implication for the ordering of society, the unspoken rule in silent legalism is that true piety can indeed be measured by abstinence even as charity is feigned.

Then there is the liberty camp. Blowing smoke into the faces of their past, these find true piety to be measured by relative consumption. There seems always something to prove to some phantom somewhere in the individual or collective self, real or imagined. The way an adolescent speaks a bit higher on the phone so her parents know she is fraternizing with the neighborhood bad boy, certain libertarians want the details of their consumption known to their phantoms. It is sometimes to the point of absurdity: I recall reading an account of one Reformed pastor proud of the fact that his fourteen-year-old son had taken up smoking, making some lame anti-Prohibition argument. But for any who still care about the category of authority and the sovereignty of God in the left-hand kingdom and all that, such behavior is against the law. And for those with any common sense left, it is not a little asinine for a parent to actually encourage a child to smoke. Many Reformed seem to think legalism is only about substance use. Many seem unable to recognize that, since legalism is based upon general principles, it can come in various forms. But try advocating for public education or suggesting problems in the pro-life culture and one will get a crash course in the equal-opportunities of Reformed political correctness.

I suppose it is all in a day’s experience within certain quarters of American religion. But when it comes to the rather negligible issue of substance use, I’d rather take my cue from the lapsed Episcopalian who has long since decided tobacco isn’t his cup of meat anymore and prefers only a nightly shot of Chardonnay, sometimes more on the weekends and holidays.

Cheers, Dad…or not…evidently it doesn’t really matter either way.

This entry was posted in Culture, Legalism, Liberty, Old Life, Reformed piety. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to What the Lapsed Episcopalian Knew All Along

  1. D. Philip Veitch says:

    I am not a lapsed Anglican, but share the overall perspective you suggest. Cheers.

  2. dgh says:

    Point well taken. But here’s one wrinkle in your theory. American Presbyterians went on a Prohibitionist bent and the early OPC split over alcohol. In which case, blowing smoke may not be directed against a fundamentalist past as much as it is taking on sacred cows of Presbyterians who should know better.

  3. Zrim says:

    All theories have wrinkles, I suppose.

    But I’ll see your point (and it’s a good one, of course) and raise another: when will contemporary Reformed get on the stick against (albeit soft) educational legalism and do something like edit the URC Article 14 of the church order (before it turns hard)? Reformed talk about education the way Baptists talk about booze. I wonder what the educational version of blowing smoke in the faces of those who should know better might be?

  4. Jed Paschall says:

    Zrim I hear you on the education bit. My wife works in special ed. in the public schools, there are not a few Reformed congregations that would really frown on this. I wish the TR community would take a more neutral stance on this one.

    Anyway, your post got me thinking about a current issue out here in CA. Possibly as soon as Nov. marijuana will be legal for recreational use. Now its been years since I have inhaled the hippie lettuce, and legal or no, I am disinclined to go back down that road. However, I can see this conversation resurfacing in a couple of decades when my boys argue, “but Dad, you drink beer and it’s legal…” As a libertarian I am not inclined to object to the law on several fronts, however in practice, this one could get a bit hairy.

  5. todd says:

    “Possibly as soon as Nov. marijuana will be legal for recreational use.”

    I feel led to plant a church in California

  6. dgh says:

    Jed, your wife works for the anti-Christ? You’re forever banned from commenting at Oldlife.

  7. Zrim says:

    Holy smokes. But have you seen this, Jed?

    My wife does, too. And my mother is a retired special ed. schoolteacher. From my experience, the Reformed here in Little Geneva don’t tend to frown upon actually working in the public schools. In fact, many do. It gets legalistic-y when it comes to where children attend. Which is weird. It’s a bit like a Baptist working for Jim Beam or Marlboro but making sure the kiddos understood that substances are for the less-than-pious.

  8. Jed Paschall says:

    I think her title, in addition to Speech-Language Therapist is Assistant to the Regional Antichrist (We have an office here in SoCal). Who knew that helping kids to talk right and read good was such sinister work?

    I figured outing my ties to the public school system would go over at least as well as announcing my collection of severed heads.

    Are you sure the ban (duly noted, and well deserved BTW) meets Dr. Ortlund’s insistence on brotherly niceness? I am pretty sure you have broken the 11th commandment (Included on the 2nd table for evangelicals): “Thou shalt be nice, and shun distinctives.” Fortunately, the OPC isn’t likely to bring RE’s under discipline for such blatant disregard of evangelical law.

  9. Jed Paschall says:

    I know the Pacific Northwest has a cussing pastor. I suppose we aren’t far off from having a pothead pastor (Rastafarian Reformed?). Probably a tough sell for most presbyteries. I can see it playing out in the PCA as young candidate explains his exceptions with the Standards alongside defending his affinity for cannibis.

  10. Jed Paschall says:

    Just read the article, it pretty well explains my reservations about prohibition. Our gang problem is so bad out here, why fuel the fire?

    Kind of interesting that your wife can work for the antichrist (thanks Dr. Hart, my wife got a belly laugh out of that – but didn’t altogether disagree), but you can’t send your kids to his schools. I wouldn’t have guessed that. I guess Hank Hill was right when he told Bobby, “It’s called the double standard Bobby, don’t knock it.”

  11. todd says:

    “I suppose we aren’t far off from having a pothead pastor”

    Well, with my “radical” 2kness, kids in public school, me being a part-time substitute in the public schools, political libertarianism, possibly including pro-gay right to marry (still thinking that through), love of poker… I think most Reformed folk think I smoke pot regularly anyway; might as well fulfill the image completely.

  12. Jed Paschall says:

    Well, Radical is a complement where I come from.

  13. todd says:


    I read your blog for the first time today. It made my day to know there are guys like you out there. Encouraging and refreshing material. Thanks.

  14. Zrim says:


    Well, we may send our kids to PS, unless I become an officer in the PRCA–that’s when the hard, instituionalized educational legalism kicks in. (Note to self: don’t join the PRCA.) Until then, it’s just soft legalism.

  15. Paul says:

    Todd, let it be known that I never thought smoking pot explained your radical 2Kness, I thought it was LSD. 🙂

    Anyway, I would consider myself libertarian as well. I have a kid in PS too. And though I don’t love poker, blackjack works just fine. By the way, if you need some THC, I am sure you could scrape a few bowls worth from the resin left over in my brain (though it will probably be dusted with crystal meth and crack (and now you know the explanation for my wild theories!)).

  16. todd says:


    I think I like you better not debating you. Blackjack works for me also. I pretty much stuck to weed in my pre-conversion days.

  17. Paul says:

    Todd, now that I know your drug of choice, it sheds new light on your comment about a “church plant in SOCal.” 😉

  18. RubeRad says:

    I feel led to plant a church in California

    Plant something anyways…

  19. RubeRad says:

    Dangit, you beat me to the joke! (should have read to the end of the thread before commenting).

    Really though, it is a fair question. If pot is legal, what doth prohibit us? In 5 or 10 years, I might have to find (or invent) a euphemism for marijuana that rhymes with Hoagies & Stogies!

  20. Paul says:

    “Really though, it is a fair question. If pot is legal, what doth prohibit us? In 5 or 10 years, I might have to find (or invent) a euphemism for marijuana that rhymes with Hoagies & Stogies!”

    Nothing that I can see, minus the usual provisoes.

    It could be economically cool too, except the government will probably overregulate it.

  21. todd says:

    Looks like these nuns beat us to it.


  22. jedpaschall says:

    I am sure the whole “do not be drunk with wine” has some analogous applicability. This one should be a lot of fun for sessions to work out though? How high is sinful if getting high is legal?

  23. Mike K. says:

    If gay marriage is legal in a couple of decades, you can use it as an example of how something being legal and being desirable or prudent are different questions. “I tried it once and it wasn’t for me” is also a lot easier when discussing weed.

  24. John Yeazel says:

    You Calvinists are getting a bit out of control here- you guys never knew how to party like us Lutherans.

  25. todd says:


    How do Lutherans party? (Here’s hoping your answer doesn’t involve any mention of Lake Wobegon)

  26. John Yeazel says:

    We don’t party that often but when we do we know how to do it and celebrate with gusto and abandonment

  27. John Yeazel says:

    Most Lake Wobegoners are pietists and need to be a bit reformed, ie., some partying and mingling with their worldly neighbors would do them good.

  28. Zrim says:

    Oh, I don’t know, when it comes to certain parties I’ll take Wobegon over Edwardsville.

  29. John Yeazel says:

    I’m not sure if you misinterpreted what I was saying Zrim. I did not mean that Wobegon Lutherans need to become like the reformed, I meant to convey that they needed a greater dose of Luther and reformation theology. Their pietism had infected their reformation heritage- although they still were practicing some reformation theology as evidence in that particular Wobegon story.
    It seems to me, in the stories I heard from Lake Wobegon (I was an avid listener to his radio program when it was on), that pietism is what Keiler mostly confronted and talked about in his dialogs.

    I too would take Wobegon over Edwardsville and concur with that. Still, Luther and his friends knew how to knock em down- beers that is, better than those in Lake Wobegon.

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