Bitterness, crackpots, and Joe Sobran...

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This post was a private e-mail sent to me by a friend who thinks Joe Sobran went sour as his age advanced. My friend was responding to a couple recent posts (first and second) and comments made under those posts. I thought the e-mail worth posting on the blog given the movement of many young Reformed into libertarianism of a toxic sort (although I myself believe libertarianism is intrinsically toxic)

It's true that Joe's libertarianism went toxic, tending towards anarchism. A friend who serves as a civil magistrate remonstrated with Joe about this, personally, but seemingly to no avail. Joe remains our hero, but listen to these good warnings from a wise young man.

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I'll take this opportunity to identify myself as the "young man" with whom Tim corresponded. I agree with about 90% of what he's written about Joe Sobran—maybe more. Joe Sobran’s essays in defense of the faith were rare gems. "Is Darwin Holy?", one he wrote toward the end, is another one that stands out in my mind.

I started reading Sobran on the recommendation of a high school teacher when I was about 16. Reading him disabused me of the notion that a young man could make a good living writing truth. It's one of the reasons I decided to become an engineer, instead. Call me cynical if you wish, but I wanted to be able to support a wife and children...

and avoid excessive college debt, and made choices to that end.

He had an incredible influence on my thinking, and enough time has passed (10-12 years) for me to think back on the good and bad of Sobran's influence. By the time I started reading him (2004), Joe had gone to some dark places in his mind, and it was evident as you read his pieces. By this time he was a self-described “reluctant anarchist,” denying the place of the civil magistrate to be God's instrument for punishing the evildoer and rewarding the good. I wish I would have been exposed to his earlier work, because I think it would have balanced out better, but as it was, I only had access to his online stuff.

Joe Sobran, along with G.K. Chesterton, was a fantastic apologist for his Roman Catholic faith. Reading him caused me to seriously consider joining Rome. That's the first reason I would be cautious about encouraging young men to read him. Maybe my case was exceptional, but it did happen. Joe's worldview was of a piece with his Catholicism, and it was the same with Chesterton and even still with E. Michael Jones. If you're attracted to the worldview, it's reasonable to expect you would eventually be attracted to the Roman Catholicism, even more so if you lack guidance, which I did lack.

At the time I was reading Sobran I was an editor at a dispensationalist school publication. Partly under his influence, I penned one notable anti-Israel editorial for the school paper which caused a great deal of consternation among school donors, administrators and teachers. I had to explain myself to the relevant authorities.

I say that to establish my bona fides. The controversy was a small one, and it's true I haven't fought the same battles as some have. But I have fought. I'm not a Buckley shill. I do know something about what happens when you start talking about the Jews.

I allowed the controversy and division to make me bitter. Looking back, I think Joe Sobran allowed the controversies he was involved in to embitter him as well. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it grows over time. Before you know it, you’re making excuses for various kinds of hair-brained anti-Jewish conspiracy theories peddled by crackpots. You take a dimmer and dimmer view of the American military, the government, and the evangelical church who defended and celebrated both.

Sobran never openly embraced things like Holocaust denial or 9/11 conspiracy theories or the vague notion that THE JOOOS run it all. Sobran was too smart for that. What Sobran did do was flirt with that sort of stuff, and lend it some credibility it didn't deserve. He did this by recommending certain books, authors, and intellectuals, and speaking at their conferences. He did this because, especially toward the end of his life, he had become very alienated from the people and causes he had once trusted, because of the real evil he had suffered at their hands.

That feeling of alienation can be dangerous for a young man. If you're a young man, and you need to start a family and pursue a vocation, to an extent you need to be forward thinking. You need to be confident in the future and in the knowledge that you can "go get em." If you think that everything is terrible, corrupt and going to pot, it's hard to keep your head up. If you think everybody's against you, and everything's rigged, and "they" are to get you, it damages your ambition, your will to do what you gotta do. It also causes you to lose confidence in the Providence of God.

Alienation takes different forms. Joe became [something close to] an anarchist. I went conspiracist, stopped going to church regularly, and almost went Roman Catholic. They're both forms of alienation. Needless to say, alienation isn't helpful for your sanctification.

Since evangelicalism (especially ten years ago) was so pro-Israel, it’s very easy to identify the evangelical church and evangelical theology as "part of the problem," especially if evangelicalism is what you were raised in.

The thinking goes like this: 1) Evangelicalism had gotten some things about the Jews and about the wars America has fought really wrong. 2) Therefore, evangelicalism must be wrong, must be part of the problem, and one must rebel against it, do something totally different.

Let’s abruptly switch gears and talk about the sort of men I’ve encountered in Federal Vision (FV) circles. There are a lot of "alternative" types of guys in the FV world.  They love Joe Sobran. They believe in conspiracy theories. They're contrarian. Whatever they did yesterday, they gotta do the opposite today. They're polemical. They're oppositional. Many FV men came out of the Reconstructionist movement, which, going all the way back to Rushdoony and North, has been populated with similar “types” of folks.

Now let’s contrast. You go into some of the Reformed Baptist or SBC churches and what do you find? Well, they can be contrarian, sure, but they tend to be more mainstream. They read National Review. They support Israel and the Republican Party (but not Trump). They're more pious, they love the outsider, and they believe in singing music that people can actually sing. Are you seeing where I'm going with this?

The FV guys' contrarian, oppositional nature damages their discernment. If you think that Jews are secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes, dousing us with chemtrails and stealing our precious bodily fluids, when somebody comes along and says "Let's do paedocommunion! The Bible demands it!" or "Death is Good!" or "in her conflict with King David, Michal was right!" your mind doesn't have the braking mechanism that makes you say, "I'm not sure about this, are you sure this isn't wrong???" An alienated mind is inclined to dump what it's been given and replace it with something totally different. An alienated mind is an unstable mind. An alienated mind is more obsessed with controversy and getting everything exactly right, as opposed to thinking of reaching the lost and loving the everyman. 

Meanwhile, the SBC guys may be misinformed in some areas, but because their world is pretty stable, they're more inclined to love what they've been given with the Reformed and evangelical faith. The SBC guys aren't alienated. They trust their community, their country, their military, their church. They love the lost and the everyman.

Bottom line? I think there are real advantages to being more like the SBC guys. I think there are real liabilities in being like the FV men. Maybe I’m over-reacting, but I’m only doing it because of the convicting things I’ve read on Bayly Blog in the past.

I don't have a problem with honoring the prophets and wise men of our time, nor I am opposed to recommending that young men read them. We need to do this with care. We need to be on guard against alienation and despair. We need to defend evangelical theology and practice. We need to guard against bitterness. We need to be able to face the shortcomings and sins of our prophets while still honoring them where they deserve honor. We need to do all of this while still keeping our wits about us, at least a little bit.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!