Flesh in the Word: A Presbyterian Outlook for our time

“At some time after I came to this work I recalled a prayer that I made every night without fail when I was a teenager. I was not aware that every teenager has a deep passion to be liked by everybody and to have friends. But I prayed with deep earnestness, ‘O Lord, help me never to make an enemy and never to lose a friend.’ I finally realized that it was not a good prayer, that if I held deep commitments and witnessed to what is fair and just, some enemies might be made and some friends might be lost.”
– Aubrey Brown

Aubrey Brown. Editor of the Presbyterian Outlook. Making enemies. Losing friends. Or, at least willing to do so. When the cause was righteous, when the need was just, when the truth was required, when transformation was paramount. It was, in Aubrey Brown’s mind, the purpose of an independent church press to make truth visible, to use human words to reflect as much as possible the meaning of divine intent, to communicate through the vacillating flesh of human speech the immutable Spirit of God’s Word. I have only one minor critique of the revelation that came to Aubrey Brown in those days after he came to “this work” of editing the Presbyterian Outlook. I would say that in this day of puny prophets who prophesy only what the polling numbers tell them to, of lame leaders who commit only when and if they can cover their backsides, of noisy news organizations that are as enamored with investigating their profit margins and viewer totals as they are with examining the facts, it is not the case that holding deep commitments and witnessing to what is fair and just, might create enemies and lose friends. In the church and secular world in which we now find ourselves, a deep commitment to witness to what you believe is fair and just will create enemies. Such radical behavior will cost you friends.

It has always been so. Even for God.

God saw a world struggling in injustice, brokenness and oppression. God committed to changing the fortunes of this world and the people who inhabited it. God came to this world.

The Word of God became flesh and lived among us. Divinity incarnated itself into flesh. And we saw the glory, the glory of light breaking into darkness, so that all who encountered this light-infested flesh would see and know the truth of God’s intention for this world. God committed. God bundled the light of God’s hope and intent for humankind and creation into the flesh of a man and lit that flesh with the presence and power of God’s own Spirit so that man could save our world. By so acting, God created enemies. God lost friends. The author of the Gospel of John explained it this way: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Because he came with the purpose of bringing the light into a world that had become obsessed with darkness. That cost him. You might say, God’s obsession with flesh cost him.

Flesh is not the problem. What happened in the flesh — that was the problem. Perhaps, some might say, that is always the problem. What happens in the flesh. The moment the Word became flesh, the Word took a side. A human side. For there is nothing more human than flesh. God made a decision to stop being God and to become human flesh. And as anyone who has ever seen an HBO television series can attest, flesh is a problem. Flesh is carnal. Flesh is sinful.

Humans don’t know what to do with each other’s flesh. So we scrunch flesh up against other flesh, we turn flesh against other flesh, we twist flesh, we tear flesh, we rip flesh, we bullet riddle flesh, we regret flesh, we grieve flesh. We pray that one day our heavenly oriented spirits will separate from the flesh and rise above the flesh to live in immaterial eternity with God. Where flesh – and especially what happens in the flesh, in this case death – shall be no more.

Given the puzzling human self-hatred of the flesh that constitutes us, it is no wonder that we became angry enough at the God who took the form of flesh that we betrayed his flesh, beat his flesh, hung his flesh on a cross until it died. Humans, especially Christian humans, have harbored a historical loathing of the flesh. We want to be spiritual beings. We want to float above the vicissitudes and failings of this bodily world we inhabit. We want to be better than we are, but we are convinced we cannot be unless we become something different from what we are. Not flesh, but spirit. That is why God’s move confuses us, frightens us, angers us. We’re trying to get out of the flesh and into the spirit, all the while God abandons the Spirit and takes up with the flesh. Takes sides with the flesh.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Any fool can see why that is a problem. Became flesh? Lived among us? Gave up the high and mighty Spirit that rises above it all and got down in the dirt and muck where people are struggling against circumstance and even against each other and wallowed in all that filth as if he belonged there. The Greeks and Romans had the right idea about divinity. The gods and goddesses lived apart from humankind. Up there separate on Mount Olympus. What made them gods and goddesses is that they were not like us. Even if they interacted with us, involved themselves with our messy, fleshy human affairs, they never took on the stain and weakness and brokenness of flesh themselves. They might have consorted with us, but they were always better than us. They were always different from us. They were always separate from us, because they were not like us. They were above us. And so was God, our God, the one true God, until God took on flesh and became like us. Why wouldn’t you think less of a God who gave up the Spirit and took on the flesh? Diminished and demeaned himself by not separating himself from the messy affairs of sinful, broken, human living, but got down in the middle of the problems with us and took sides, said this way was right and that way was wrong, until even we who believed in him wondered why he wasn’t more diplomatic, why he wasn’t more spiritual, why he didn’t try more to rise above it all, but kept getting more deeply involved in it all.

Lepers and women and tax collectors and sinners and legalism and racism and politics and nationalism and on and on.

Why become flesh? Why get involved with flesh? Why not stay Spirit? Above it, over it, not going to get involved with it. Why give up not having to come down here and take sides and in the process make enemies? Why does God’s Spiritual Word assume the flesh of human wordiness and come take sides among us? Knowing that the moment you take a side, you gain enemies and you lose friends?

Flesh does that. Which is why we Christians too often want to avoid that. Fleshiness! We are people of the Spirit. Spiritual people. Rise-above-it people. Don’t-get-messed-up-in-it people. I-don’t-want-to-hear-any-more-about-it people. Our sanctuary worship space is our spiritual, don’t-bother-me-can’t-you-see-I’m-praying space. Our Sunday go-to-meeting clothes are our please-try-not-to-get-socially-and-politically-dirty spiritual attire. Our liturgy is our insider, only-the-people-who-come-to-church-every-Sunday-really-understand-what-we’re-doing, spiritual language. Our material offering is our surely-God-sees-me-giving-what-I-can spiritual currency. We are set apart. Having learned our correct creedal responses, having read our appropriate scriptural lessons, having gone to our rigorous Sunday schools, having paid attention to our well-crafted Sunday sermons, having repeated the story over and over again, we don’t make the mistake God made. We don’t come down from our spiritual high and get involved in the mess of human living. We are a people of the Word. We don’t take on the flesh. Politics is of the flesh. Gender relations is of the flesh. Race and racism is of the flesh.

Immigration and border talk is of the flesh. Sexual identity is of the flesh. Climate conversation is of the flesh. Gun control is of the flesh. Church politics is even of the flesh. The Amazon burns, shooters massacre with automatic weapons, refugees flee political oppression and financial Armageddon, and too many of us want the church to say nothing, do nothing about it all because we are spiritually above it all.

Yeah, the Word became flesh and lived among us. And we learned from the Word’s mistake. So, too often we surrender flesh to flesh while we do everything we can to stay high in the Spirit. To come down from the Spirit is to get messed up in the flesh where people take sides. Where people make enemies and lose friends. That should not be the experience of a church. Aubrey Brown seemed to understand that it was, however, exactly the experience of a church paper.

When the Word became flesh, it did so with a purpose. To bring light, the true light, into a very dark world. Not a flash light, but an enfleshed light, was what God sparked when God became incarnate in the man who would become our savior and who would die on a cross because he couldn’t save us without taking on flesh, without taking sides. And he couldn’t take sides with without taking a hit.

Being light seems like a good thing. Being light seems like the right thing. Until you meet up with the dark and the forces that want the dark to win. In a world addicted to darkness, the moment God chose to become light, God made enemies. God lost friends. That is how I understand the cross.

It is also how I understand God’s intent for us. I do not read the prologue to the Gospel of John as an indicative. I read it as an imperative. When John writes that the Word became flesh and lived among us and that this Word brought the enfleshed light, the true light into this dark world, I do not hear only a description of what God did, I also hear God’s prescription for what we must do. We are to climb down from our spiritual high places and become enfleshed lights wherever we know there is darkness in our world. We are to bring the light, in the flesh. Not avoid the flesh. Engage the flesh. And bring the light. That means taking sides. That means making enemies. That means losing friends. That is how I understand Aubrey Brown’s understanding of the role of the Presbyterian Outlook. It is also how I think he understood the role of the church.

It is difficult, I know, to risk what a person like Aubrey Brown often risked in his role as editor of the Presbyterian Outlook. This is why it is important to celebrate the history of a paper like the Outlook and the people behind it. So, we know that it is possible today to do what they did in their day, to bring the light even when people prefer the darkness, to engage the flesh even when people prefer to be spiritual. People do it, you know. The Aubrey Browns of the world are not as unique as you might think. The Presbyterian Outlook of those 200 years is not as unique as you might think. In a context where it makes more sense to just be quiet and accept what the world around you tells you to accept so that you don’t get into trouble, make enemies and lose friends, there are those who take sides, who get involved, who take on the flesh, who bring the light.

You know Thomas Jefferson. He did not bring the light. He opted to remain in the recluse of his Olympus, Monticello. When a voice cried out in the wilderness seeking Jefferson’s light, Jefferson refused to let his word “that all men are created equal” take on real flesh. Bring real light. If one person could do it, Jefferson could have done it. Jefferson did not want to do it. Because, at least where slavery was concerned, Jefferson did not want to make enemies. He did not want to lose friends.

The man who did endeavor to bring a sliver of light into the darkness of human slavery, and looks to have jeopardized his friendship with Jefferson because of it, was named Edward Coles. Perhaps you know of Mr. Coles. I did not. Until I took the Sally Hemings tour of Jefferson’s Monticello home and the tour guide introduced me to him. Edward Coles was a private secretary to James Madison. Edward Coles was also an abolitionist. He grew up in Albemarle County in Virginia. His father, Col. John Coles, was a slaveholder and a friend of prominent Virginians like Thomas Jefferson. After being taught by private tutors, Edward Coles attended Hampden-Sydney College and later the College of William and Mary. Mr. Coles so despised the darkness of slavery that he determined to move away from Virginia. He decided he would sell the land his father left him and move to Edwardsville, Illinois. On his way to Illinois he took the side of emancipation. He freed his slaves and he helped them settle in a new state. He was later elected the second governor of Illinois and led the anti-slavery lobby during a state constitutional convention vote that guaranteed that Illinois would remain a free state. Mr. Coles brought the light.

In the process, he attempted to shine the light on Mr. Jefferson. I have read two letters that Mr. Coles wrote to Mr. Jefferson on this matter of the enslavement of human flesh. In a letter dated July 31, 1814, he writes: “I never took up my pen with more hesitation or felt more embarrassment than I now do in addressing you on the subject of this letter. The fear of appearing presumptuous distresses me, and would deter me from venturing thus to call your attention to a subject of such magnitude, and so beset with difficulties, as that of a general emancipation of the Slaves of Virginia.” It sounds to me as if Mr. Coles was concerned about making an enemy, losing a friend. And yet he went on in the letter to implore Mr. Jefferson to live into “the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life … as well by being foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man.” Mr. Coles wanted Mr. Jefferson, in the days of his retirement, when Mr. Jefferson presumably had less to worry about political gains and losses, “to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the immortal author.” To put it succinctly, Mr. Coles was asking Mr. Jefferson to make an example by speaking and acting on behalf of the emancipation of enslaved human beings. “Permit me then, my dear Sir, again to intreat you to exert your great powers of mind and influence, and to employ some of your present leisure, in devising a mode to liberate one half of our Fellowbeings from an ignominious bondage to the other.”

Mr. Jefferson responded to Mr. Coles on August 25, 1814. He opens the letter by acknowledging that human enslavement is wrong. On what Jefferson called “the subject of the slavery of negroes,” he wrote that “the love of justice & the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a mortal reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay I fear not much serious willingness to relieve them & ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation.” And yet, knowing it wrong, he concludes for several reasons that he cannot and will not get involved. He speaks of a Col. Bland, a respected member of the Virginia legislature, who sought what he called “moderate extensions of the protection of the laws to these people,” and was denounced for it. Made enemies and lost friends because of it. Mr. Jefferson did not want to endure Col. Bland’s consequence. Secondly, Mr. Jefferson speaks to the inferior nature of the enslaved people: “incapable as children of taking care of themselves”; “pests in society by their idleness”; “their amalgamation with the other colour [in other words, interracial relationships and resulting interracial children] produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.” Thirdly, Mr. Jefferson, claiming old age and sufficient societal contribution, decides that it is best to let somebody else make the necessary change. “This enterprise is for the young,” he writes. “For those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers.” His PRAYERS?! In this end, where this grave matter of the flesh, emancipation of enslaved human beings, is concerned, Mr. Jefferson devotes his own energies to the spirituality of prayer. On this matter, therefore, Mr. Jefferson, late in life, apparently made no enemies. Lost no friends. He aimed to rise above it all. In prayer.

Mr. Coles did not give up. Determined to test friendship, he responded to Mr. Jefferson on September 26, 1814. In a not-too-subtle way, he reminded Mr. Jefferson that a people of faith must not be allowed to take spiritual holiday from the oppressive world of the flesh. He writes: “Your prayers I trust will not only be heard with indulgence in Heaven, but with influence on earth.” Mr. Coles seems to understand why the Word became flesh: to bring light into the world. He tells Mr. Jefferson that this matter of human emancipation is not just a matter for the young but for everyone, especially the ones of us who have garnered the respect of their entire generation. Being old would not stop Mr. Jefferson from being effective. And to prove the point, Mr. Coles pointed to a person whom Jefferson would have known well, Benjamin Franklin. “Doctor Franklin,” Coles writes, “to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had passed your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.”

In the end, neither argument nor example were persuasive for Mr. Jefferson. He apparently never again replied to Mr. Coles. Mr. Coles, if he didn’t make an enemy in this matter, apparently did lose a friend. Because he brought the light. Mr. Coles represents for me in his writing what the best of Word-taken-on-flesh writing, like the writing that occupies the pages of the Presbyterian Outlook, should be. Writing that, even knowing the potential consequences, takes up and takes on matters of the flesh by bringing the light.

More than a century later, in another part of Virginia, with the consequence of enemy-making and friend-losing fervently in play, professor E.T. Thompson made conscious decision after conscious decision to take up matters of the flesh by bringing the light. And he incorporated this despicable and disgraceful descent into the flesh into his engagement with what would ultimately become the Presbyterian Outlook. In his hands, this church paper refused to look away; it manifested instead a lookout for ways to insert the discourse of light wherever darkness was discovered. E.T. fleshed out the light.

Many of you know the history of the creation of the Presbyterian Outlook better than I do. In his article “The Presbyterian Outlook: For 200 years herald of hope,” Louis Weeks traces the roots of the paper to the 1819 publication, The Missionary. According to Weeks, by the 1930s, papers like The Missionary were “absorbed” by the paper, The Presbyterian of the South. “Most of them espoused ‘The Spirituality of the Church,’ a cardinal doctrine among Southern Presbyterians for a whole century. Political matters, such as slavery and oppression of African Americans in its aftermath, voting rights for women and people of color, and political elections, were matters for individual Christians, not for consideration by churches, which should deal with matters of the soul, world mission, and salvation.” The Word could not become flesh because the Word did not associate with the flesh. That was the cover story. The real story? These spiritual Presbyterians refused to bring the light because they and their way of life profited from the dark.

Weeks speaks of exceptions. The Presbyterian Standard published a variety of perspectives, and moderates later writing for The Presbyterian of the South pled for a more “inclusive Reformed Christianity.” A more radical shift occurred in the 1920s when E.T. Thompson began to write expositions of his International Sunday School lessons.

In his Outlook article, “Ernest Trice Thompson: Gentle Presbyterian prophet,” Dean Thompson writes about the influence that Walter Rauschenbusch, the great social gospeller of the early 1900s, had upon Thompson. Even more direct, was the influence of Walter Lee Lingle, one of Thompson’s professors at Union Seminary. Lingle, who would go on to become president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and later Davidson College, “fed Thompson’s enthusiasm with a course on the social teachings of Jesus which pointed to Rauschenbusch and said that Christians justified by grace through faith were empowered to do justly.”

So taught at Union Seminary, Thompson brought the light of this perspective into the church and his writings in the church papers that preceded and then became the Presbyterian Outlook. While too many church leaders were pressing the Spirituality of the Church doctrine in their sermons, publications and ecclesial engagements, pressing the separation of the church from social and political matters like race and gender equality, Thompson risked the gain of enemies and the loss of friends by purposely infecting the darkness with light. Dean Thompson notes that a presbytery committee headed by E.T. in 1927 expressed E.T.’s “belief that Southern Presbyterianism needed to reclaim the Reformed emphasis upon social responsibility.” In 1932, E.T. successfully led East Hanover Presbytery to form a committee on moral and social welfare. “It was the first group in the history of the Southern Presbyterian Church with official authority to study and to recommend actions to be taken on moral and social issues.” Thompson continued: “The report said that the church must uncover its light, partly hidden under the bushel of traditionalism and self-indifference, in order to foster the coming kingdom of God, international peace and racial equality.” It was time, in other words, for the church to flesh out the light. No matter the enemy-making, friend-losing consequence.

E.T. himself experienced this consequence. A consequence that, according to Peter Hobbie, “led directly to his editorship of the Presbyterian of the South, the forerunner of the Presbyterian Outlook.” Hobbie points to critics who challenged Thompson’s attack on the Spirituality of the Church doctrine as well as Thompson’s ecumenical support for reunion between the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches. Denunciation came from leaders like the editor of the Presbyterian Standard who raised questions about Thompson’s orthodoxy and ultimately charged him with heresy. Here is where the making enemies response to bringing the light stands out. Thompson had been anticipating that he would be named the editor of the prestigious Union Seminary Review. Despite President Benjamin Rice Lacy’s fervent support of and advocacy for Professor Thompson, the controversy “destroyed the appointment.” This was 1932. The same year that, according to Hobbie, E.T. Thompson, refusing to despair, along with friends, approached the editor of the Presbyterian of the South with the intent of securing this paper and editing it. In 1933, Thomspon announced to his readers a new design and a search for contributors who would contribute to “a full, free, frank and fresh discussion of real problems now before the Church.” Sounds to me as if Dr. E.T. had not yet learned his light-bringing lesson about making enemies and losing friends.

In 1943, having assumed control of the Presbyterian of the South, Thompson invited Aubrey Brown to become managing editor. Why Brown would want to get involved in this flesh-infested, trouble-magnet of a publishing enterprise with a prophet turned journalist fresh off a heresy trial is beyond me. But he did. Together, they changed the name to the Presbyterian Outlook, and pressed forward with an inclusive, prophetic agenda that included themes such as: reunion with other Presbyterian denominations, embracing the equality of women and men in church leadership and integration of people of color.

Thompson provided fresh injections of light-bringing with his Sunday school lessons published in the Outlook. Using today’s terminology, these lessons were his “blogs” on the connection between faith and flesh, and his prescription that we emulate as much as possible God’s incarnation of the Word into flesh by shining God’s transformational light wherever we found darkness.

October 1944. A Bible study titled “The Christian and the race problem.” Never mind 1944, naming your Sunday morning Bible study “The Christian and the race problem” is a sure recipe for making a few enemies and losing a few friends in 2019. And yet, in 1944, on the matter of racial segregation, he dared to ask: “Can we justify our superior or patronizing attitude by the principles of Christ? And what about the church? Are we to continue to have segregation in our church courts, in our Sunday worship, even at the communion table, in our Christian fellowship?” In 1944!

August 1958. A Bible study titled “Justice to minorities.” He declares: “In every age and land there are minorities of one sort or another. The civilization of a nation and the character of its inhabitants are revealed by the justice or injustice which such minorities receive.” Oooh, this is an enfleshed light we ought to be shining in 2019.

September 1958. A Bible study titled “Justice for people in need.” He writes: “As Christians, it seems that we are committed to justice for all people who are without justice. And there are many such in our own day.” In our day, too!

Words like these are not only the measure of the history of the Presbyterian Outlook, they are the template for its present and future work. It is a heritage of emulating the incarnational work of God as expressed in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, of enfleshing the Word of God through the wordiness of us human agents into the situations and circumstances of human life and creation. It is a heritage of fleshing out the light.

Aubrey Brown certainly seemed to think so. In his reflection, “Aubrey Brown Remembers: The Purpose of an Independent Church Press,” Brown indicates his sense of direction for a church paper that has the transformational intent of fleshing out the light. By bringing information. The church is often content to keep the status quo, even an unjust, damaging status quo. Lack of information perpetuates this inaction. So Brown writes: “But our cautious leadership at that time was well content in our insular southern Zion, they wanted no updated theological statements, no question of the sacred doctrine of the spirituality of the church, no disturbing concerns with the social application of the gospel, no contact or work with the major Christian bodies, no thought of a possible Presbyterian reunion, and they certainly didn’t want any upstarts challenging the comfortable status quo.”

Brown accepted Thompson’s invitation to become managing editor of the Presbyterian Outlook because he wanted to take on this incarnational challenge of engaging the flesh with the Word, of bringing the light in a church all too often too obsessed with huddling in the dark. This cause was so important to him that he left his previous call and he wrote, “here I was taking over a nondescript paper with about 1,200 paid subscribers at $3 each, $2 for ministers, and absolutely no appeal to advertisers.”

So, I asked, why do it? Why take on this guaranteed enemies-making, friends-losing, non-profitable enterprise. His response: “I always felt that for the truth to prevail, you must have a full and free exchange of ideas.” We, as did Brown and Thompson, live in an era where we desperately need truth to prevail. But truth is drowning in a sea of divisive, explosive, uninformed opinion and alternative fact. Papers like the Outlook are a lifeline thrown over the side so those who are drowning in this churning sea of prevarication, misrepresentation and falsehood have at least a hope of catching onto the truth and realizing secure ground.

Brown wanted a paper that would have people exchanging ideas truthfully, even though he recognized that doing such was a dangerous proposition. Of one church leader and his supporters, he wrote: “And I printed what he said. That was proof to them that I was a dangerous person.” Why take such an enemies-making, friends-losing risk? Because if someone does not incarnate the truth, then non-truth wins. Because if someone does not flesh out the light, then darkness wins. Like nature, human community abhors a vacuum. When truth abdicates, non-truth floods in. When light leaves, darkness dominates. The Outlook, at its best, has provided a place for truth, provided flesh for light, in honest exchange of different perspectives, in appeal to the best possible information at hand, to make a stand. That is why I celebrate it. Why I read it.

I particularly celebrate the way the Outlook, at a time when many Christians either sat silent or stood in opposition, pressed for justice and equality where matters of gender and race were concerned. Consider Brown’s reflection on the matter of the ordination of women: “Here was one issue where it would have been thought that the church might well have been out in front on something instead of lagging behind what was happening in larger contexts, but it was not there.” In fact, Brown expressed alarm not only at the rationalizations for maintaining sexist boundaries, but at the strenuous effort to declare that God actually desired the boundaries. The Word of God had been proselytized as a word of gender injustice. “In 1899 the Synod of Virginia produced a statement – a warning – which had a wide influence, saying that women were to be loved and cherished but the women’s movement was described as ignoring or denying the subordination of women by divine appointment. In other words, they were fighting against God.” Amazingly, women still are. Fighting. Against those who use God as a weapon against women.

“There was also Dr. Dabney,” Brown remembers, “the renowned and influential professor of theology of Union Seminary, later at Austin Seminary, who had been Stonewall Jackson’s chief-of-staff, who for that reason and others had a lot of clout. He feared that ministers were being inclined to favor the public preaching of women. This ought to be nipped in the bud, he said, and the Synods of North Carolina and Texas and the General Assembly itself agreed with him.”

I don’t share these recollections to belittle folk from the past whom many would suggest were creatures of their context and could not see better. I share them as examples of people who had sufficient intellect, no matter what context, to have been able to see better. They did not want to see better and they wanted to use all their prodigious abilities to convince others to see what they saw. This is why a resource like the Outlook was then, and is now, so necessary, so vital. Edward Coles is remarkable to me because he labored in the same context as Thomas Jefferson, had nowhere near the intellectual capacity and political influence of Thomas Jefferson, and yet he could proclaim and promote a truth Jefferson willfully avoided and even denied.

While Dabney and other Christians like him pressed a biblical truth about women that they wished the church to emulate, the Outlook provided a forum for those who saw more justly to bring challenge and envision change. That was the gift of the Outlook then; that is the gift of the Outlook now.

While forces were raging about the spiritual and material inferiority of women, the Outlook provided one Natalie Blanton a forum for providing an alternative perspective. In December 1948, she penned two Outlook articles. The wife of a physician long associated with Union and PSCE, daughter of a prominent minister who was pastor of First Richmond and interim president of PSCE, graduate of Bryn Mawr, she read Paul’s admonitions about the second class status of women with the recognition that Paul himself was culturally determined, before we had something called cultural hermeneutics. She was saying that Paul was determined more by cultural standards than God’s standards when Paul talked about women keeping silent in churches or church women having haberdashery standards different from church men. Of her writing, Brown commented, “But she said enough to shake the rafters.”

What she said in the Outlook was, “Today the administration of the church is the last barrier to women’s equal opportunity to serve the world.” What a damning statement. The church, called out as the last bastion of global gender injustice in the church’s own paper.

“Some persons,” she went on, “deplore the emergence of women into the world, believing it adds the last confusion to confused conditions, but there is no way to turn back the clock, and if there were, wise women would resist the effort.”

How did the Outlook respond? Brown wrote an editorial in support and sent copies of the articles to influential women across the church, even taking the radical step of sharing the material with Northern Presbyterian women. Replies were printed in the next several issues. The Outlook created a conversation and then stoked the conversation by eliciting articles from a host of scholars who could speak biblically and theologically to the situation of women in the church. In one such issue, in 1956, the opening words of the issue set the mood for the material to follow: “It would be strange and anomalous to deny to women equality in the church, which is the very fountain of the principle of equality.” And, “If there are women who, as elders, evangelists, or as ordained ministers can serve the church better than the men to whom otherwise the church would be confined, the church ought to be free to command their service. There will be such women. Probably there will not be as many as the church needs.” Since there remains much to do where the equality of women in church and society is concerned, the Presbyterian Outlook for their time must remain the Presbyterian Outlook for our time.

Given my own African American heritage, I was deeply appreciative of the Outlook’s courageous efforts on the matters of racial justice and inclusion, despite the specter of gaining enemies and losing friends such efforts inevitably risked. In his reflections on the purpose of an independent church press, Brown noted that even though “our people” constituted white Presbyterian people of the South, “our paper” was called to make incarnate something that needed to be made manifest in the flesh. Light.

“Beginning in the fall of ‘43 as editor of the Outlook, I had increasing opportunities to lay heavy or strategic emphasis on race relations, with the most explicit and challenging articles seen up to that time. The church papers going to our people wouldn’t have dared to touch them.” Later in 1945, an article titled “The white Christian and his conscience,” by Lillian Smith, was described by E.T. Thompson as “the first suggestion to appear in any of our church’s periodicals that segregation was a denial of the Christian gospel.” In the 1940s, the paper was taking on a topic of white supremacy that many Christians still refuse to confront or in many cases even acknowledge today. In so doing, the paper was making the expectation for equality incarnate, fleshing it out until it became a flash of enfleshed light in the midst of an unrelenting darkness. Listen carefully to what he said about what he was saying in the 1940s! “It is [the white Christian’s] job to dump into that chasm his need to hate, his need to feel superior to others, his need to worship his own image.” That is a torch light! Brown continued in his reflections, “you can imagine the kind of responses that came in.” I wrote in my notes, “Oh, yeah, I can imagine!”

The Outlook was making trouble. The Outlook was manifesting truth. Making truth incarnate. Bringing flesh to the light. Making God’s Word incarnate in the written word of a church magazine. That has been the power and continues to be the potential of the Presbyterian Outlook.

In reading Louis Weeks’ article, “Late we come: The Outlook and Southern Presbyterians on race,” I was saddened to learn that not only did Presbyterians come late to the struggle for civil rights, but that the Southern Presbyterian church was the only so-called mainline denomination to fail to endorse the March on Washington. One of the forces that was demonstrable in moving the denomination from one that supported segregation to one that fought against it was the presence and writing of the Presbyterian Outlook. Weeks writes: “But change had begun for the PCUS decades before. The Presbyterian Outlook, the witness of its publisher, its editor, and its contributors during the 1940s and 1950s were significant forces in fomenting the PCUS shift to a more progressive perspective.” Weeks pointed to some key examples. The reprinting of a 1954 editorial from the Atlanta Constitution that maintained, “The Christian today cannot help but wince at the full implications, and the jarring clash of the creed with discrimination against any person of color.” The Outlook hailed the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education that outlawed school segregation, and offered an editorial calling segregation “unjust, undemocratic, and un-Christian,” even imploring the church to be leading in civil rights rather than “just following along.” And, “when Atlanta Presbytery failed to pass a strongly worded demand that congregations receive worshippers without regard to race, the Outlook named opponents and told of their turning away African Americans who sought to worship there.” Leaven of light, it seems, infecting a loaf of darkness.

I was often amazed when reading the archival material from the Outlook not only how far we have come but also how similar things have remained. It is in that similarity that the need remains for an Outlook that ever looks for ways to make God’s light flesh. To give flesh to God’s Spiritual Word.

To dramatize his point, Brown quoted a poem by Countee Cullen. The poem captures the circumstance the Outlook fought against and we must fight prophetically and perpetually today. The poem captures the circumstance in a way I know all too well. I cannot tell you how many times growing up I was the young boy in this Countee Cullen poem. Even as a young man, and now an older man, I have been that young boy. The last time I experienced the power and reality of this poem, I was in a place I was so excited to be: Luray, Virginia, with its wondrous caverns. I was at the time president of Union Seminary, walking on a little street, near the hotel where Sharon and I were staying, getting ready to start a run in that beautiful, idyllic spot, when the reality that Cullen shares and Brown reports, out of the sudden blue of a gorgeous day, became my shared reality with Cullen once again:

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small
And he was no bit bigger.

And so, I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue and called me “nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December.

Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

By printing the poem in the context in which Brown printed it, the Outlook, by acknowledging the darkness, gave flesh to a fledgling, flickering light.

The present task of the present Outlook is to give flesh to that light. In the church. For the church. In the world. For the world. If I have learned anything from my review of the Outlook’s last 200 years and what that knowledge means for the next 200 years, it is this: It is the purpose of an independent church press to flesh out the light, to use the words of humans to approximate as best we can the Word of God.

It doesn’t matter how the paper circulates: hard copy, online, mobile devices, desktops, town crier. What matters is THAT it circulates. THAT it conveys in the flesh of print what is felt in the presence and power of the Spirit. A window into the truth. What can a paper like the Outlook do in this endeavor of truth? Why is it so important to remember what a paper like the Outlook has done and to celebrate in hope what it can do? Because what such a paper does, has been and continues to be vitally important in helping envision and therefore establish glimpses of God’s inbreaking reign. Or, as Aubrey Brown put it: “In breaking down barriers credit must be given the government, some presidents, the military, pressures that produced legislation, and leaders in our common life who influenced public opinion. For these we should be grateful, but our own concern [through this church publication’s concern] for a just society and our [just] activity should not be diminished.” The paper can do what needs doing by publishing; we can do it by making sure this paper keeps publishing.

Two final quotes from the archives of the Outlook give emphasis to me on why the work of this publication is so critical to the ongoing mission of our church. The Outlook provides an inclusive voice on matters of the Spirit and matters of the flesh in the life of the church in ministry to and for God’s world.

From another editor of the Outlook, Robert H. Bullock, “In the midst of the Presbyterian family, we are attempting here at the Outlook to be a channel, to be a bridge, to be a means for Presbyterians of diverse views to come to know and to appreciate one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, who despite all their differences are drawn together in a common witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and who can stand joyfully around the table of our Lord.”

Or, in the words of Tom Currie: “We are called to confess our faith as the truth, the quite public truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. The implications of this truth for social and political questions will, we think, always be a matter of debate. But we are not called to turn away from that debate so much as we are called to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15), that is, to enter that debate precisely as a redemptive community, not as a special interest.”

We are called to flesh out the light. We are grateful that the Outlook has done so in the past, does do so in the present and, I hope, will continue to do so into the future. You can help. Read it, fund it, promote it, write for it. Make certain that the Outlook’s enfleshed light never goes out.

Brian K. Blount is president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

On October 5, 2019, friends of the Presbyterian Outlook gathered at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, to commemorate our 200th anniversary. Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, each offered their reflections on the role of the Presbyterian Outlook in shaping the Presbyterian Church historically and in the present. We have printed their lectures in full for this 200th anniversary commemorative issue with thanks for their energy, intelligence, imagination and love. We hope you find their insights as thoughtful and compelling as those of us gathered in October did. 

– Jill Duffield