On Vetting Hymns

May 16th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , ,

As I continue in this short series on worship, spurred in large part by two excellent posts by Tim Challies, I’d like to interact with one particular comment he made in “What We Lost When We Lost the Hymnal.” Challies helpfully points out that, when we lost the hymnal, we lost an established body of songs. Hymnals were updated only every decade or so, which means songs were chosen carefully and introduced slowly. He writes that “songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time.”

 

Now, I have no wish to argue the point. I do think one of the great challenges facing contemporary music is balancing “newness” (Psalm 40:3?) and familiarity. We’ve seen a renewed emphasis on congregational singing, which I applaud, and the congregation doesn’t sing—and certainly doesn’t sing with gusto—when they don’t know the song. In addition, when churches introduce new songs quickly, they often shortcut the vetting process (especially if the pastors/elders are uninvolved in song selection), which has resulted in some truly awful songs entering into much wider circulation. In other words, Challies’ point is well taken.

 

However, I think it is important for us to note that even many of the great hymns of old have questionable moments in them. While often much richer theologically than their contemporary counterparts, the theology isn’t always spot on. I imagine there are a variety of reasons for this, which might include later scholarly developments, historical movements and traditions that weren’t as theologically robust (we seem to imagine ours is the first period in history when the average songwriter didn’t have Luther’s depth of theological knowledge), or even just simple imprecision (possibly owing to the same emotionalism that can steer lyricists awry today). I’m sure there are other reasons, but let me at least given an example of each of these.

 

  1. Later Scholarly Developments: I’ll give two examples here, actually, in part just because I don’t want to pick on Wesley’s wonderful hymn “And Can It Be” too much. In one stanza, Wesley writes that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love / And bled for Adam’s helpless race.” The troubling bit is the first half, which seems to affirm a kenotic Christology (a heresy). Kenotic derives from the Greek word kenoô, used of Christ in Philippians 2:7, and which means “to empty.” However, it is also used in a metaphorical sense—“to make of no effect; to make nothing”—which is its more common usage in the New Testament. To argue that Christ “emptied himself” of the attributes of divinity has no basis in the text, and is more than a little theologically dodgy.[1] Some hymnals have emended the text to read, “emptied himself and came in love,” which suggests the metaphorical reading. A much better choice, I think. The other example comes from Featherston’s “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” In the final stanza, we read, “In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.” The trouble here is that “mansions” follows the KJV, which follows the Latin Vulgate, which doesn’t really translate the Greek of John 14:2 well. The word used signifies “dwelling place,” and given that we’re talking about the Father’s house, it’s hard to see how the house could have many mansions. Probably better to translate “rooms,” as many English versions now do. Not a huge theological crisis, for sure, but one likes to have an accurate picture of Glory. In both cases one doesn’t really fault the writer, because these were mistakes common to their era, and fortunately addressed by later scholarly research.

 

  1. Theologically Suspect Traditions: Many of the revivalist hymns struggle theologically, which makes sense, considering how much the revivalists struggled theologically (I’m looking at you, Charles Finney). So, for example, the beloved and simply wonderful “How Great Thou Art.” In the English translation, the final stanza declares, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, / And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” The trouble here is that when Christ comes, he is coming to establish his forever kingdom here on earth. This is the glorious moment when heaven and earth at last become one in the New Jerusalem. So, if that’s what he’s coming to do, how precisely is he going to “take me home”? If I’m around for that (and I don’t expect to be), I’ll already be home, although my home would be blessedly remade. The lyrics, as they stand, seem to imply that we’ll be taken home to an otherworldly heaven, which doesn’t jive with the teaching of Scripture. N.T. Wright suggests a better wording: “When Christ shall come. . . / And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart.”[2] Our view of eternity—specifically, God’s remaking the world we currently inhabit—certainly shapes our present, and so it would be good to sing accurately about it. (I should add, the original Swedish lyrics do not fall into this error, so translational issues are at work here too!)

 

  1. Simple Imprecision: Here one would simply quibble with a bit of phrasing. For example, consider Wesley’s “And Can It Be” again, specifically the chorus: “Amazing love! How can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” I don’t think anyone would hesitate to sing these words, because the intent of the line is understood easily enough. But one could easily imagine a young believer (or even skeptic) singing along, wondering how precisely the immortal God can die. Strictly speaking, Scripture never speaks of God dying, but only of God in Christ[3] A subtle imprecision, but imprecision nonetheless.

 

Now, what do we do about this? I would be the last to recommend we abandon these great songs of old (although there are many revivalist hymns that I would gladly abandon because of their insipid sentimentality). In some cases, a simple emendation might do. In other cases, sing away—but hope that the teaching from the pulpit is clear and compelling, so that truth and precision displace beloved lyrics that have taken deep root in our minds. And, above all, continue to vet songs carefully, especially the new ones. But keep in mind, a song with a moment of imprecision might still be worth singing—even centuries later!—if the substance and pathos of the bulk outweigh the slight misstep.

 

[1] See Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991): 216-223.

[2] Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 22.

[3] See John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996): 153ff. for a fuller discussion.



Psalms, Hymns, and Songs from the Spirit

May 2nd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

As I mentioned in my last post, I’d like to offer a series of short reflections on worship, spurred in part by two interesting posts by Tim Challies (1 2). I don’t intend this to be a polemical series, but do want to offer some thoughts on the ongoing “worship wars.” Thankfully these have stilled for the most part, but I’m not always sure why the ceasefire. In many cases, I don’t think it has come from a sustained theological reflection, but rather simple exhaustion and a (wholly appropriate) desire for unity. But theological reflection is a good thing, so that’s some of what I’m aiming for today, as I zero in on one of the benefits Challies sees in switching from a hymnal to projected lyrics: variety.

 

Now, I love hymns, and believe strongly that we should be singing them regularly. I even argued in my last post that these are the songs I am absolutely sure I want my children to learn by heart, whereas my current favorite Crowder tune will only make it into the car CD player for a few weeks or so. However, there is a danger with our beloved hymns, that we will mistake style for value. What makes the great hymns great is their robust theology, deep pathos, and (in most cases, but not all) enchanting melody. Those are essential qualities. But if we’re not careful, we might begin to assume that some incidental qualities—instrumentation, presence of rhyme, song structure—belong in the essential category as well. We can see this tendency in our phrase “modern hymnody,” which seems to be applied to songs that employ rhyming and follow a set structure (no bridge being the key piece here, as far as I can tell). I’m not sure why this sets apart a song as a hymn, when other songs (that don’t rhyme, have bridges, etc.) have equally robust theology, deep pathos, and enchanting melody.

 

And here’s where variety comes in. When we make the incidental essential, we limit the acceptable variety among our songs. Only those that bear the incidental marks pass through the gates. Paul encourages us to speak to one another in “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the precise meaning of each term (though “psalms” seems pretty obvious). Whatever the difference between “hymns” (which in Greek simply means “song of praise”) and “songs” (assuming, as many scholars do, that “from the Spirit” modifies all three terms), what is clear is the presence of variety. There is something different about the three, whatever it may be. When we begin to limit variety, especially for incidental reasons, we neglect Paul’s instruction here. Our God is a God of endless creativity—as his wondrous creation proves—and we honor him when we put that same creative spirit on display in our worship.

 

Of course, it is just possible that “variety” should encompass songs of varied theological depth. (Gasp! Heresy!) Give me just one moment before you hurl the stones. I’m taking my cue here from the presence of that tiny word “psalms” in Ephesians 5:19. I know of no one who would seriously argue that we shouldn’t use Psalms in our worship, and many would argue (rightly, I think) that we should use Psalms as our blueprint for worship. If you’ve read Psalms, you know how wondrously diverse they are. Some are richly theological, and others are, well, a bit sentimental. Some trace redemptive history carefully (foreshadowing the cross time and again), and others focus on a single moment or issue. Is it possible that our worship today should do likewise? Isn’t there time for repetition (as in Psalm 136)—so that we can really meditate on a single profound idea, like God’s steadfast love—just as surely as there is time for rapid theological reflection (as in Psalm 107)? Isn’t there time for raw emotion (as in Psalm 126), just as surely as there is time for heady instruction (as in Psalm 78)? And, of course, the Psalms invite us not just to praise and thank, but also to confess and lament, which in itself will add much-needed variety to our Sunday mornings.

 

As we “sing and make music from [our] heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:20), let’s do so with a body of songs as richly diverse as the human experience and as wondrously creative as the Being they exalt, to the glory of our triune God, who is worthy of all praise. Soli Deo gloria.



The Family Hymnal

April 18th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , ,

Recently Tim Challies put out two excellent blog posts on “What We Lost When We Lost Our Hymnals” and “What

We Gained When We Lost Our Hymnals.” The posts are balanced (as the titles suggest) and thoughtful. I think he is correct when he suggests that it would be unwise to return to the hymnal on the one hand, and equally unwise not to think through the implications of losing the hymnal on the other. These two posts sparked me to consider our worship practices, so I plan to use my next few posts to offer some scattered reflections on worship, using Challies’ thoughts as a springboard.

 

Challies ends his list of what we lost when we lost our hymnals with the “ability to have the songs in our homes.” Most families of yore would purchase a hymnal to bring home with them (we have at least two old hymnals in our home, for example) so they could sing the same songs at home that they were singing at church. The words were there, the melody was there, and—if you had somebody who could play piano—even the music was there. Families could gather around the piano (or just around the coffee table) and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” during their times of family worship. Now no one gets to see the music (few of our musicians even read music anymore), much less take it home with them, which means we’re left with singing the melody (as we remember it) a cappella or putting on a CD Spotify or a YouTube clip. That is something lost, indeed.

 

Of course, the issue runs a bit deeper than this. It’s not just that we don’t have music in front of us anymore. After all, very few can read music, so what good would it be? (In fact, Challies argues that when we lost our hymnals, we lost the ability to harmonize. I’d quibble with him here, as I think we’d have lost our ability to harmonize regardless, because our culture no longer values Fine Arts owing to its narrow-minded focus on STEM education. But that’s a soap box, so I’ll step off and just rant in my own head.) No, the deeper issue is that we don’t really have songs to sing during family worship anymore. Most contemporary songs (and I’m an unapologetic defender of contemporary music, mind you) are difficult and boring when sung a cappella; they require instrumentation. In addition, like culture’s Top 40 chart, the songs rotate incessantly (more on that in another post). Just as soon as the whole family knows one, we’re onto the next.

 

And, of course, this means we vet songs much less carefully, so we always run the risk of teaching our kids a song that really isn’t worth singing. There have been some truly awful songs sung widely since the CCM movement began in earnest. It’s not that there weren’t some truly awful songs written in the 1800s too; it’s just that they were winnowed over time, thank God.

 

So what do we do? If family worship is an absolutely indispensable—though neglected—grace, and singing is an indispensable part of it, how should we proceed?

 

I think the answer is pretty simple, really. Get a hymnal, and use it at home. In other words, let’s not let this be one of the things we lost when we lost our hymnals. Despite being a big fan of the “latest and greatest,” I want my kids to learn the hymns of old at home. Why? I can think of at least three reasons.

 

  1. They aren’t learning them enough at church. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I’m certainly not wanting to stir up trouble—“Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own” (Proverbs 26:17)—but it’s true. I want my kids to have deep roots in the faith, roots that run deeper than their or my generation. I want them to feel a connection to Christians throughout the centuries—Francis, Luther, Wesley, Watts—and singing the songs of bygone generations is one of the best ways to do it. (Reading is an even better way, but that’s another soap box.) If I have any concern that they’re not going to learn the words well at church—well enough to draw on them in moments of praise, wonder, doubt, grief—then I’ll ensure they get them at home.
  2. I want them to learn vetted songs only. I’m fairly theologically astute, and I’m sure I could separate the wheat from the chaff easily enough, but I am also a product of my time and culture. I have blindspots that I’m unaware of—that’s what makes them blindspots—so I need the benefit of multicultural, multigenerational input. If I’m going to ensure my kids memorize certain songs, I want them to be the very best songs. I don’t want them to waste any time or brain space on transient lyrics.
  3. I want them to have a shared vocabulary with many other Christians. The songs we sing in church are so important because it is one of the primary ways we learn theology. Ask me about the incarnation, and I will immediately blurt out, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” Get me thinking about the wonder of the crucifixion, and I will tremble in awed whispers, “Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?” Throw me in the fiery furnace, and I will shout triumphantly, “When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, my grace all-sufficient shall be your supply.” And the Christians around me will, in each case, nod understandingly, or perhaps even start to hum along. I want my kids to have that same experience (much more so than I did, in truth!), to be able to draw from the same well. That won’t happen with the flavor of the month song that happens to be playing on K-Love right now (not belittling K-Love or those songs, mind you).

 

In sum, this could be something we’d lose now that we’ve lost our hymnals, except we can’t afford to lose it. Get a good hymnal. Learn the songs if you don’t know them already. And—most importantly by far—sing them together as a family when you gather daily (or as near to it as you can muster) for prayer, study, and worship.

 

“Oh, that with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall! We’ll join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!”



A Virtual Gospel

March 28th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday, Ezra Klein of Vox interviewed Yuval Hariri, the Israeli author of Sapiens and his latest, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In Homo Deus Harari envisions humanity’s future (including its likely end) with specific focus on technology and artificial intelligence. Near the end of the interview, Harari makes this claim about religion generally, and Christianity in particular:

 

You can think about religion simply as a virtual reality game. You invent rules that don’t really exist, but you believe these rules, and for your entire life you try to follow the rules. If you’re Christian, then if you do this, you get points. If you sin, you lose points. If by the time you finish the game when you’re dead, you gained enough points, you get up to the next level. You go to heaven.

 

Now, I’m hardly qualified to comment on AI or other cutting-edge technological developments, but Christianity I know decently well. And this description bears no resemblance to the Christianity I profess, nor the Christianity of Jesus’ followers throughout the past two millennia.

 

The root issue, of course, is the notion of merit. Do Christians do anything whatsoever to merit their own salvation? That is, do Christians really “earn” or “lose” points by our good and bad deeds, respectively, hoping somehow to attain a high enough score to pass through those famed pearly gates? Harari certainly thinks so, but the Bible teaches otherwise.

 

Paul, for example, says quite clearly, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our salvation is by grace (unmerited favor) alone, not by our deeds; no works involved, so no boasting allowed. Now, if you’ve ever played video games, you know much boasting succeeds a new high score, so Harari’s view of Christianity and Paul’s seem to be at odds.

 

So, as I read the interview, I was deeply troubled as I considered my own culture, and what misperceptions those around me might have about Christianity. I have had conversations with many people throughout the years that have echoed Harari’s sentiments about religion. Most do not understand grace, which means they do not understand the gospel, and can have no good understanding of why Jesus came to live among us before dying in place of us and rising again. In other words, we are surrounded by people who have rejected (or are at the least unpersuaded by) a version of Christianity completely foreign to the teaching of Jesus and his Apostles. They have rejected not the gospel, but their own misperceptions about the gospel.

 

Many who profess to be Christians reviewed the Vox interview, or gave it brief treatment on Twitter and elsewhere. In general, the tenor of the response was, “We can’t believe how dumb you are to misunderstand Christianity so badly.” I have to confess, I found this response wanting. I’d much rather our response had been, “How badly we have failed our culture, if we haven’t made clear what the gospel really teaches!” (I’d have liked to have seen some Christians engage Vox and Harari with what the gospel really says, to see if the seed might not just fall on good soil.)

 

This is the challenge I see for the church going forward: to communicate the gospel clearly and persuasively to a culture that doesn’t want to hear what they don’t understand. I believe that will take a few critical steps (repeated ad infinitum until glory):

 

  1. We need to present the bad news of humanity’s plight before the good news of the gospel will make sense. People today believe they are pretty good, and therefore probably could “score enough points” to earn their way into heaven. This is in marked contrast to Paul’s description of humanity apart from Christ (cf. Romans 3:10-18).
  2. We need to bear the name of Christ with much more humility and expressed repentance than we normally do. My question here is have we given the impression that we earned our salvation? Listening to Christians speak—especially when it comes to social or political issues—one might very well draw that conclusion. The church has been notoriously guilty of adopting a holier-than-thou mentality, leading to the same self-righteousness and hypocritical judgment that Jesus stridently condemned in the Pharisees of his day.
  3. We need to make very clear the distinction between Christianity and the other world religions. We live in a tolerant, pluralistic society. One will often hear that all religions are basically the same, in that they all teach the same basic moral requirements. Now, if Christianity is just one more set of rules to follow so that you can earn enough points to get to heaven, then truly it is the same as the other religions. I’d be hard pressed to argue that Jesus is the only way. But if, as the Bible teaches, Christianity is not a set of rules to be followed, but rather a grand story of God’s unfolding plan of redemption accomplished through the sacrificial death of his Son, then Jesus is, as he himself said, “the way, the truth, and the life”—and no one can come to God apart from him (John 14:6).
  4. We need to do a better job explaining why Jesus came and why Jesus died. In many ways, this is just restating the last point in different words. What is the heart of Christianity? Not that sinners try to claw their way back into God’s good graces by dint of their effort, but rather this: “While we were still sinners [trying to claw or not], Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus came to live the perfect life we were called to live but unable to live because of our sin nature. Then he took our place—bore our punishment in his body, absorbed the full force of God’s fierce anger at our sin on the cross—that we might take his place, welcomed as beloved, righteous children of God by faith: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). I am loved by God because of Jesus, not because of anything I have done.

 

I was reminded as I read the interview, that this is not a video game, and certainly is not an alternative reality. In a video game, when you die, you start over and try again. There are no consequences for making the wrong decision other than wasting even more of your life in front of a flickering screen. But this is no game. Eternity is at stake. Will the church answer the call and proclaim the good news of the gospel clearly and persuasively, or will we whine about how misunderstood we are while the world around us perishes?



Living Post-Haste

February 22nd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , ,

We have a baby just learning to walk. Like all children who are taking their first steps, when she moves too fast, she stumbles. She is at her best when she is slow and deliberate, for now at least.

 

I think the same could be said of all of us. Move too fast, and you’re liable to stumble. Slow down, think carefully, choose deliberately, and you’re likely to fare much better. Now, this isn’t a blanket statement for every human endeavor—James tells us we should be quick to listen, for example (1:19)—so where might it apply specifically?

 

Solomon, in all his wisdom, counsels, “Desire without knowledge is not good—how much more will hasty feet miss the way!” (Proverbs 19:2). When we feel desire—emotion, zeal, passion—we have to be wary. Do our feelings correspond with knowledge, or are we responding too hastily to an impartial or obstructed view? It is not wrong to be passionate about an issue, but to be passionate before you know what you’re talking about is terribly dangerous.

 

This is an important word for us. Of the many ways our culture tempts us to sin, haste must be among the most powerful. We live in a lightning-quick world, and one getting quicker by the moment thanks to technology. With the advent of social media, for example, we can all respond in real time to unfolding events. And we do. We tweet and like and comment and share as we watch the story develop, especially if we feel strong emotion about what we’re seeing.

 

Desire, yes. We have that in abundance. But does it come with knowledge?

 

Certainly we see how dangerous this can be when it comes to social or political moments. Once a story breaks, we are all expected to respond—but likely before the facts are in. True and extensive knowledge is impossible. A police shooting takes place. Was it racially motivated? Was the suspect unarmed and compliant? Did the officer have a history of violence? Do the witnesses agree on what they saw? These are questions we are unlikely to have answered for a period of days or weeks. Have we expressed our passion, emotion, desire prior to knowledge? We could multiply examples easily, especially in a climate of shoddy reporting, click-bait journalism, and fact-checkers who have stopped bothering to check facts.

 

But the application goes far beyond social media and our divisive political atmosphere. How often are we tempted to respond heatedly to those around us before we fully understand the situation? I can remember from my years as a teacher laying into a student for some poor choices, only to discover I had completely misread the situation on the basis of very false assumptions. I had zeal without knowledge. Hasty feet misstep—and the resulting tumble is ever so painful.

 

Elsewhere Solomon advises, “The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps” (Proverbs 14:15). The prudent give thought to their steps because they don’t want the painful tumble. Once when hiking, I watched a friend tumble down a rocky incline for about 200 feet before he slammed against a tree trunk. Thankfully he was only (badly) bruised, but it was a harrowing experience. I thought he was dead at first. What caused the fall? He put all his weight down on a spot that couldn’t support it. He stepped where he shouldn’t.

 

That’s what we do when we believe anything too hastily, before we’ve really thought through the issue. Have you put all your weight down on the latest best-selling “Christian” book before you’ve considered if it’s really biblical? Scanning the titles of many of the recent best-sellers leads me to believe we’re not an overly thoughtful audience.

 

Peter offers us another fine example of overhasty stepping. When he heard about the persecution his brothers and sisters were suffering in Jerusalem, he stopped dining with Gentiles. No big deal, right? He was just looking out for his friends back home. But, as Paul pointed out, he’d stepped without thinking, and in so doing compromised the gospel itself (Galatians 2:11-16). His desire—the passion he felt to spare his friends some sorrow—didn’t accord with knowledge.

 

We are hasty people. James wouldn’t have to tell us to be quick to listen, but slow to speak and respond (by becoming angry), if he didn’t know we were going to struggle mightily with it. We’re a “shoot first, ask questions later” species. We are hasty people, and we live in a hasty world. Let me encourage you to live post-haste—the world that could be after our current hasty culture. Leave haste behind. Think carefully, deliberate slowly, speak reluctantly.

 

Because desire without knowledge is not good.



Evil Unmasked

February 14th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , ,

In the short essay “After Ten Years,” which serves as prologue now to Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an astute observation:

 

It is one of the most surprising experiences, but at the same time one of the most incontrovertible, that evil—often in a surprisingly short time—proves its own folly and defeats its own object. That does not mean that punishment follows hard on the heels of every action; but it does mean that deliberate transgression of the divine law in the supposed interests of worldly self-preservation has exactly the opposite effect. (10)

 

When we choose to disobey God, to transgress the moral law written on our hearts, it invariably goes poorly for us—and, as Bonhoeffer points out, often in a short time. Evil unmasks itself as folly. That is, sin is not only wrong, but positively foolish, for it never obtains the object it seeks. In fact, often it obtains precisely the opposite of what it seeks.

 

Part of this involves what some have referred to as the “boomerang” nature of sin. Sinful actions against other people frequently return, like a boomerang, to cause harm against the evildoer. The psalmists recognize this “incontrovertible” truth, and frequently cling to it when being assailed by wicked people. Take, for example, Psalm 7:14-16:

 

Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment;

Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.

The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.

 

Or Psalm 9:15-16:

 

The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.

The LORD is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.

 

I especially like that last couplet, because it combines the notion of God’s justice with the boomerang nature of sin. In God’s justice, you reap what you sow.

 

It isn’t difficult to see how this works today. When we foolishly choose to sin against others, we experience the consequences of our folly. We maliciously slander our competition in order to make ourselves look better, only to discover that people now think worse of us because we’ve been exposed as petty, self-serving, untrustworthy. We erupt in anger, take justice into our own vengeful hands, and, rather than turn the metaphorical cheek, strike him on his literal cheek. Now we discover we have justice coming our way in the form of an assault charge. Our “deliberate transgression” has produced “exactly the opposite effect” from what we intended and desired. Evil unmasks itself as folly.

 

But this isn’t only true with these “boomerang” scenarios, where harm we envisioned for another comes back on us. No, it proves equally true with any deliberate transgression of the divine law in service of self. When we seek satisfaction apart from and in rebellion against God, we will find ultimate disappointment. But, as Bonhoeffer points out, this isn’t true in an ultimate (i.e., eternal) sense only; it often proves true in a “surprisingly short time.”

 

Take the pursuit of false intimacy through illicit sexual relationships. Many pursue intimacy (seek true love) by hopping into bed before a covenantal commitment is in place. Statistics (never mind a brief perusal of social media) consistently demonstrate how foolish this is. Not only does this lead to less sexual satisfaction, it hardens the heart to true intimacy should the opportunity ever arise. Because we settle for the cheap imitation, we can no longer enjoy the genuine article. Cohabitation, an ever-growing trend, seems like a stepping stone to marriage. Let’s try this out for a bit, see if we’re compatible, and then make an informed decision. One would expect this might lead to a decrease in divorce rates, but the opposite is markedly true. Couples who cohabit before marriage are far more likely to divorce (undoubtedly because they bring a consumerist/contractual, not a covenantal, mentality to the marriage). Evil unmasks itself as folly.

 

We could multiply examples. Harboring bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at you like a cancer, frequently affecting other relationships too, while leaving the object of your bitterness untouched. Arrogance makes people less likely to listen to your opinion, and makes them rejoice all the more when you are wrong (which you will be). Complaining steals joy, breeds discontent, whereas gratitude increases joy and contentment even in the midst of adversity.

 

The conclusion seems easy enough to draw. When is sin ever a good idea? Never mind the offense it gives a holy God (reason enough to pause and reconsider!)—it simply won’t accomplish what you want. It will produce the opposite effect.

 

So the next time you’re tempted to sin, consider that the evil desire is not only wrong, but downright foolish!



The Great Gospel Opportunity

February 1st, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

As I mentioned last week, we are currently living in a culture of division and hostility. Our desire to vilify our political opponents has led many to accept and promote #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts. We are more wedded to our ideology than to reality, in other words; more committed to our narrative than to truth.

 

This all feels fairly depressing, I admit. But the current backlash against #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts also presents us with a tremendous gospel opportunity. I’m not sure Paul’s words to the Ephesians have ever felt so apropos: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (5:15-16). So, then, what is the gospel opportunity before us, and how can we make the most of it?

 

Put simply, the opportunity before us is that truth is starting to become fashionable again. We live in a post-truth culture—it was OED’s word of the year in 2016—which is highly suspicious of absolute truth claims. But we are fast reaching the limits of philosophical relativism. Christians have long been saying truth cannot be relative, and if we live as if it is, well, we’ll end up in the mess we’re in. Our culture is waking to this reality. One cannot plant one’s feet in mid-air, as Beckwith and Koukl might put it. #FakeNews isn’t to be believed just because we like it; #AlternativeFacts aren’t facts at all because they don’t square with reality. If truth is real, and not a product of our wishing only, we get to ask the all-important questions: Which truth? How can we distinguish truth from error?

 

Now we can see how to make the most of the opportunity before us. These questions lead to God, for God is the ultimate Reality. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Christians should never fear truth, because Christianity is true—and the facts point in that direction, as you’d expect. (One thinks of the evidence for creation, for example, and especially the evidence for the resurrection.) As I joked in my last post, the non-existence of God is the original #AlternativeFact.

 

So if you have a friend, colleague, neighbor decrying #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts, pleading with humanity (read: those on the other side of the political aisle) to wake up to the truth, you have a gospel opportunity before you. This person believes truth is real. This person has stated that facts matter. In impassioned tones, this person is proclaiming an objective morality. That’s a place to begin a gospel conversation. “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. I’m concerned for justice too, because I believe God is a God of justice. Would you mind my asking you a question? How do you know justice is good and right and true? How do you determine what justice looks like in this situation? What ethic undergirds your passion for justice?”

 

These are questions one cannot answer without revealing an ultimate foundation. And if that foundation is in mid-air—“I just know it to be true!”—we can gently, lovingly suggest what the foundation actually is. We want justice, feel the burden of morality, because God has written the moral law on our hearts. And unfortunately, it is a moral law we have broken: we have all acted selfishly (time and again) when we should have chosen sacrificial love. Now we have a crisis. If justice is real, and we have been unjust, what does that make us? Law-breakers. Or, as the Bible would put it, sinners in need of grace. Enter Christ.

 

Now, Paul follows up his charge to live wisely with this statement: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17). We have an opportunity before us, yes, but we have the opportunity to make fools of ourselves if we’re not sensitive to God’s will. In our cultural context, I think we can pinpoint the foolish opportunity pretty easily: to make the gospel secondary and our other political concerns primary. I hope and trust we can all agree that some political issues are more important than others. I hope and trust we can all agree that the Bible is not equally clear about where Christians should stand on all political issues. Sometimes the biblical principles are so clear, and the issue so black-and-white, that we can confidently state what the policy should be on the basis of those principles. More often, however, the principles are clear, yes, but there can be genuine disagreement over the best policy. For example, the Bible is undoubtedly clear that we as Christians should care for the poor, and that a concern of the state should be the welfare of its citizens. But well-meaning, loving Christians could certainly disagree about what government policies genuinely help the poor.

 

The foolish opportunity is to take a hard stand on debatable policy discussions rather than pursue the gospel conversation. If my social media feeds are any indication of how many Christians engage in these conversations, I think we can all agree we tend to be foolish, unwise, not understanding what the Lord’s will is. My advice is simple here. When it is an unimportant, secondary issue on which loving people may disagree (and that is most of the issues), yield the right to be right. It doesn’t matter. Pursue what matters most. Engage with the gospel. When we start the conversation with, “I hear your heart, how concerned you are for justice in this world. The problem is you’re an idiot and so is your whole party and if you all get your way we’ll all be dead in a week,” we’re unlikely to have many follow-up gospel opportunities.

 

Francis Schaeffer once said, “If we do not show love to one another, the world has a right to question whether or not Christianity is true.” In too many cases, Christians have not shown love—to each other or anyone—and in so doing we’ve forfeited one of the greatest gospel opportunities in recent times.

 

If you’re a greater evangelist for your political viewpoint than the gospel—if you pursue every political conversation, often unlovingly, but can’t manage to find time to live or speak the gospel—repent. Be very careful how you live. Don’t be foolish, but understand what God would have you do here. Make the most of the opportunity.



#FakeNews and #RealSin

January 25th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

#FakeNews. #AlternativeFacts. There seems to be a lot of buzz these days about the media we ingest and whether or not we can opt-out of reality. For Christians, that brings with it a tremendous opportunity, as I’ll try to explain in my next post. But it also carries with it a clear and present danger.

 

Now, I feel a bit like Jude in wading into this topic. Like him, “although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write” (Jude 3) on a subject that distracts from more important topics. But then, most of the New Testament letters are occasional in nature—that is, occasioned by some circumstance or other—and I suppose blogs should occasionally function the same way. I was surprised and pleased to see two excellent recent blogs by gifted, insightful Christian leaders—Trevin Wax and Ed Stetzer—that treat the same subject, so I guess the occasion is real.

 

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what is the danger we face as Christians living in a post-truth culture? What temptation lurks in an era of #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts? It is, quite simply, the temptation to gossip. After all, what is gossip? It is the willful spreading of misinformation for the purpose of tearing down an opponent (whether social, political, etc.). And isn’t that exactly what #FakeNews is?

 

Consider some recent examples from both sides of the political aisle. (Sin, you’ll remember, is bipartisan.) We’ve endured eight years of relentlessly false information about Obama’s birth certificate from those on the right who question his legitimacy. #NotMyPresident is #NotWithoutPrecedent. And then there was the #PizzaGate scandal, alleging a massive left-wing child sex scandal—thoroughly debunked, thoroughly untrue—which led to a shooting at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. On the other side, we’ve had a shamefully inaccurate hit piece on Rick Perry widely disseminated, as well as the MLK bust dust up after Trump’s inauguration.

 

Why do fake news stories spread so quickly? It’s not difficult to analyze the human psyche here. We want to believe facts and stories that confirm our view of the world. As Solomon noted long ago, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8). In other words, #FakeNews tastes good, feels right. So if you’re a liberal, you want to believe stories that demonstrate the idiocy or malevolency of the right, and vice versa. It feels instinctively true, so considering the source and examining the (missing) evidence doesn’t even occur to us. Just click retweet. Share. Feel a smug sense of (false) superiority because you belong to the right side of history/morality/politics/science.

 

I’ve written and spoken before on the danger of imbibing a single stream of information, so I won’t repeat myself there. But I do want to point out that spreading misinformation—even if you think it might be true—and especially if it assassinates the character of a divine image-bearer (that would include Democrats and Republicans, members of all races and genders, etc.)—is sin. Unequivocally, Spirit-grievingly sin.

 

When Paul describes how it looks to suppress the truth of God’s existence (the original #AlternativeFact), when he describes the horrifying contours of humanity in rebellion against a good and gracious Creator, what habits does he mention? “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,  slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:29-30). One way we express hatred of God is by gossiping. That fact alone should be enough to make me think twice before sharing a questionable story. Gossip and slander routinely make Paul’s “sin lists”—lists of those activities that Christians should unquestionably avoid—as in 2 Corinthians 12:20; Ephesians 4:31; and Colossians 3:8.

 

A few practical considerations to close then—more wisdom from Solomon.

  1. First, many rightly lament the deep divisions and sad hostility plaguing our culture now. Is there anything we can do to quell the quarrel? Solomon says yes: “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down” (Proverbs 26:20). It is a small step, but in the right direction at least. Refuse absolutely to spread gossip. Don’t share #FakeNews or other hit pieces about the side you’ve vilified. Don’t put wood on the fire. Perhaps the quarrel will die down.
  2. Second, some publications have developed a reputation for partisan journalism (I’m actually struggling to think of any that haven’t), which now sadly includes spreading misinformation in service of “the narrative.” If we’re going to refuse to spread gossip, perhaps we should also consider refusing to hear gossip, which may include adjusting our news intake. As Solomon reminds us, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19). Perhaps we should contextualize this wisdom to include social media: avoid those media outlets—BuzzFeed and Breitbart, for an example from each side—that seem to relish dishing out choice morsels of sinful gossip. And maybe, just maybe, we need to avoid following certain people on social media who retweet and share and throw wood on the fire—who “talk” too much in a virtual world.

First, don’t be that person. Second, don’t listen to that person. No more #FakeNews. No more sinful gossip. That’s the commitment I want to make.

 

What other wisdom would you suggest for a culture of #AlternativeFacts and partisan reality?



Because Science

January 17th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

I saw a meme on some social media outlet or other this past week lamenting the state of our culture, specifically that 19483688Duck Dynasty aired for four seasons, whereas Cosmos aired for just one. The complaint, I gathered, was that our culture comprises more fundamentalist ignorami than scientific rationalists, which probably explains why we’re in the mess we’re in (and you’re welcome to define that mess as you like).

 

Now, before I press on, I should confess as the outset that I’ve never seen so much as a clip from Duck Dynasty, so I can’t and won’t (and have no desire to) comment on that show. But the meme still got me thinking about Cosmos, especially its famous opening (second only to Star Trek in terms of sheer power, I’m confident): “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”

 

The quote has a religious feel about it. In fact, it invites religious comparison by suggestively alluding to Revelation 4:8: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Carl Sagan, the show’s host and outspoken critic of religion, seems to make a bold religious assertion: that the universe is a closed system—all that ever was or will be—so it would be foolish, ignorant, unscientific to search for something beyond.

 

But here we come to one of the key distinctions in rational discourse, that between the scientific and the scientistic. (It’s not a misspelling: I’ve coined a new word. I expect the OED to pick it up shortly, such is my influence on Western civilization.) Scientific discourse involves actual science—things like observation, empiricism, hypothesis, data. Scientistic discourse, quite contrarily, involves none of this. It is naked assertion, often offered by a scientist (who really should know better); you will search in vain for the branch of science—physics? chemistry? biology?—that could even pretend to offer empirical verification of said assertion. It is an expression of scientism (hence scientistic), a philosophical view suggesting that true beliefs can only come from scientific study.

 

Bertrand Russell enunciated the scientistic worldview as quaintly as anyone: “What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” Asking even the most basic questions of this statement exposes its folly. For example, did science really discover that what science cannot discover we cannot know? One puzzles to imagine what sort of lab test might verify that conclusion—which means the statement, if true, is false, because science did not discover it. Statements that are false if false and false if true are usually statements not worth bothering about. And philosophies that ground themselves on statements that are false either way are surely philosophies not worth bothering about, no matter how much bluster might accompany them.

 

Which brings us back to Carl Sagan and his famous quote. While surely a fine statement of philosophical naturalism—the belief that nothing exists beyond the physical world—it is scientistic (not scientific) at its core. It assumes atheistic naturalism without acknowledging the burden of proof. It is as much a statement of religious belief as Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

 

This makes the (admittedly amusing) meme about Duck Dynasty and Cosmos deliciously ironic. Effectively, it expresses outrage that a bunch of religious fundamentalists got a show for four seasons when another bunch of religious fundamentalists only got a show for one. Unfair, I suppose, but hardly a scathing indictment of contemporary culture.

 

I’m wondering if any of you have had run-ins with scientism. If you have, please share your story in the Comments section, including how you’ve equipped yourself to notice and respond. This is an area where we could all use training, I’m sure!



Fighting Idolatry

January 10th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Now that I’ve started to identify my idols, what next? How do I fight idolatry in my life? How do I learn to treasure Christ more, to value supremely only that which is supremely valuable?

 

On a handful of occasions I’ve tried to learn some form of artwork or other—drawing, painting—usually with 5229725173_493ea39a9f_zspectacular ineptitude. The most enjoyable part of the process, though, is reading the manuals that purport to teach you in four easy steps. Steps one to three usually involve drawing some very basic shapes, starting to get a sense of proportion, etc. Then step four shows the completed picture, colored and shaded, with detail and nuance throughout. I always feel like they’re missing a few steps in there.

 

So, in sketching out these four steps, I’m well aware that I’m missing a few steps in here too. The broad outlines are easy, but the nuances of working them out in your own heart are difficult and time-consuming. They will take a lifetime of gospel contemplation. Nevertheless, here they are, just to get us started.

 

  1. Confess and repent. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how often we skip this part. If you’ve done the hard work of identifying idols, make sure you then recognize the idolatry as sin, and repent of it. For example, if you’re in a dating relationship with a non-Christian because you’re worshiping the idol of human love, confess your idolatry—which will mean getting out of a sinful relationship. If your life of luxury and self-indulgence betrays an idol of comfort, repent of it—which will mean sacrificial giving and a simpler lifestyle. Listen to how Paul puts it in Colossians 3:5-8: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” These sins, he says, are expressions of idolatry—and the wrath of God is coming because of them. That means we need to act; we need to rid ourselves of all the sinful manifestations of our idolatry. Confess and repent.
  2. Work out the end game. Really, where will your idolatry lead? Will anything in this world ever be enough to satisfy the deep longing within you? If you get everything your idolatrous heart desires—which is unlikely anyway—will that be enough? One way to think this through is to look at people who have what you want: are they satisfied? From what I can tell by looking at the wealthy, money doesn’t bring any real satisfaction, so why would I devote my life to it? I’ve watched many climb the career ladder without ever achieving the feeling of significance they’d hoped for. Addicts are addicts precisely because their “drug”—sex, shopping, heroin—is never enough. C.S. Lewis hits the nail on the head: “Most people, if they really learn how to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or trips and so on; I am speaking of the best possible ones. There is always something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, that just fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse, the scenery has been excellent, it has turned out to be a good job, but ‘It’ has evaded us.” I suspect this is why people move so quickly from one fascination to the next: first a job, then marriage, then a new home, then a child; when the excitement wears off, we have to begin again—a new job, another child, a bigger house, a better spouse—only to find “It” still evading us. This is very much the point of Ecclesiastes, and its truth is felt intuitively by the great mass of humanity. Work out the end game. Your idolatry will leave you unsatisfied at the last.
  3. Treasure Christ. If your idolatry will lead you unsatisfied in the end, turn to that which alone can satisfy—God himself. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “Creature are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Some of our longings are met in this world—hunger and thirst, for example—but the deepest longings are not, so we must look beyond this world, to the invisible yet more substantial spiritual world. Asaph expresses it nicely: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). St. Augustine taught that what shapes us most fundamentally is not our beliefs or thoughts, but out loves. We are what we love—and we are most what we love I may say I love truth, but if I tell lies to protect my reputation, I prove I love my status more than I love honesty. Our deepest longings will be met only when we love most what is most deserving of our love, Jesus. As Augustine famously said in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You stimulate [us] to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” In other words, this is the positive side of working out the end game: look at what will actually satisfy in the end, and then order your loves so that you can experience the fullness of joy found in him.
  4. Apply the gospel. You’ve begun to treasure Christ, you understand your need to seek ultimate joy in him alone, but how do you go about it? Turn to the gospel again and again. God does not love us in the abstract, but in the true story of Christ’s coming to earth as a human to live the life we should have lived, then to die the death we deserved to die, before being raised to the newness of life which we can experience through faith in him. Paul describes it thus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the beautiful exchange wrought at Calvary: he takes my sin, which God punishes in him at the cross, so that I may take his perfection as my own—welcomed, then, as a dearly loved child of the Almighty Father. What will contemplation of a love like that do to me? First, it will soften my heart. It will humble me, because I recognize in this story the price of my rebellion against my good and gracious Creator. I am more sinful, more wretched, than I would ever have dared admit. But second, it will enflame my heart. It will captivate and enthrall me, because I apprehend, at last, the overwhelming, relentless, costly love of my Father. I am more loved, more cherished, than I would ever have dared dream. To the extent that I can grasp this truth, allow this love to seize and transform me, I will be freed of my idolatry, freed to order my loves rightly. Money is good because with it I can purchase what I need to survive, but it is as nothing before a love like this. Human love is excellent and often praiseworthy because we were made for fellowship and intimacy, but a finite being cannot offer me the infinite love for which I thirst. Achievement is fine because I am using my gifts to glorify God and serve my neighbors, but my significance is already given in God’s acceptance of me. Apply the wonder of the greatest, truest story ever told to your heart, and your idols will soon dim in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 

What other strategies have you found effective in overcoming idolatry through the gospel?