Solomon on Social Discourse

January 13th, 2015 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have spent a lot of time in Proverbs these past few months owing to the season of life I find myself in, and the desire to grow in wisdom through it. Of course, quite a lot has happened nationally and globally during that stretch of time, including Ferguson, the midterm elections, Charlie Hebdo, and at least 60 Jay Cutler interceptions. Because I have been so immersed in Proverbs while all this transpires, it has served as my filter for interpreting not so much the events themselves, but the often lamentable—and occasionally ridiculous—conversation that follows in the wake of each.sibling-clipart-fight

 

I’ve come to a simple conclusion: we could learn a lot from listening to the wisdom of Proverbs. Though writing a few millennia before Facebook and Twitter were the ubiquitous platform for social discourse, before the 24-hour “news” cycle, before the internet increased the amount of available information (factual or otherwise) exponentially while simultaneously reducing knowledge calamitously, Solomon got social discourse. And we would be fools to ignore him.

 

For the sake of brevity—appropriate in any conversation about Proverbs—I will confine myself to wisdom drawn from a single chapter, Proverbs 18. Here are six proverbs,
brimful and overflowing with wisdom that is convicting, humbling, and relentlessly apropos.

 

  1. “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (18:2). The contrast here is important, because the two halves of this proverb aren’t perfect opposites. One might expect, “Fools find no pleasure in keeping their mouths shut but delight in airing their own opinions,” or “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in their robust ignorance,” but that’s not what Solomon has to say. The issue, then, seems to be that fools skip past the understanding phase and jump directly to the soapbox phase. Not a wise choice—but clearly a common one, as a quick scan of the comments section of any political piece will quickly show. Solomon doesn’t tell us what the wise do, but we can assume he would counsel the opposite (as he does in 10:14): the wise would find pleasure in growing in understanding, knowledge, and discernment, all the while holding their tongues until they were sure of where they stand, and sure that it was solid ground! (And even then, one suspects many of the wise would still refrain from entering the fray, especially in certain social media contexts, where productive conversation is well-nigh impossible.)

(I’m not going to cover it, but some might benefit from reflection on Proverbs 18:6—“The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating”—at this point. Could be helpful!)

  1. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts” (18:8). We tend to limit this verse to hushed conversations between “frenemies” in high school hallways (or sharing “prayer requests” in small groups), but I think it has a lot to say about social discourse too. Gossip and slander do not only apply to those we know personally; we may just as easily spread malicious misinformation about celebrities, politicians, and those thrust by terrible circumstances into the global spotlight. Many spread gossip about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson (as they had about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman a few years prior) based on the flimsiest of sources. In part this is because we delight in airing our own opinions, so we rushed to print as much as any newspaper ever has, but in part this is because we really enjoy gossip, as Solomon points out. It is much more fun to judge someone else’s character (ignorantly, I might add), but far wiser to judge our own—and to seek God’s insight as we do (see 16:2).
  2. “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (18:13). This is an extremely short and damningly incisive proverb. Others may feel more conviction elsewhere, but for me—prone as I am to offer my opinion on any subject without solicitation—this is a spiritual punch in the gut. Having read through the comments section on various editorials (or editorials cleverly disguised as objective reporting) too many times for my own health, I know I should not be alone in feeling this way. To answer before ensuring I have true understanding of a subject is folly and shame, because people will expose me as an ignorant fraud (see 17:28 also), and will embarrass me for it. Indeed, I would hazard to guess that the greatest shame will be my own, knowing I have acted beneath my calling as a child of God, and have wounded others carelessly. A far better choice would be to follow the wisdom of the next proverb on our list.
  3. “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out” (18:15). In marked contrast to fools—who answer before listening, air their own opinions gleefully, and gorge themselves on gossip—are the discerning. These men and women intentionally pursue knowledge and understanding. (Note, by the way, that is says nothing about expressing that knowledge, once attained. See 12:23.) I find it especially interesting that Solomon says “the ears of the wise seek it out.” Whereas fools answer before listening, the discerning make a point of seeking out people to whom they should and will listen, in order to grow in understanding. How differently would many recent events have turned out if people had chosen to listen first, rather than pontificating (which is never wise)!
  4. “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (18:17). Though Solomon uses an illustration from the courtroom, the point he makes has broad implications. One of the challenges we face today is the increasing politicization of “knowledge,” so that one may happily consume information that is already filtered and interpreted according to one’s political/religious/philosophical bent (see MSNBC and Fox News especially, never mind The New Republic and National Review). This leads to entrenched positions based on half a story—never a good recipe for wisdom. I’ve written more on this elsewhere, so I’ll leave it to you to revisit it.
  5. Finally, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). This is a famous and sweeping statement, one that should influence every word we speak or write. (Its New Testament equivalent, Ephesians 4:29, is equally broad and polarized.) Our words have tremendous power, far more than any physical strength we may possess, and we must wield them with overwhelming sensitivity. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can absolutely and utterly eviscerate my being (see Proverbs 12:18). If this is true, one can only cry out with the psalmist, “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). And these days, we may add, “Set a guard over my keyboard, LORD; keep watch over the post button on my phone.” Amen and amen!


A Holiday Rant

December 1st, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I’m not in the habit of ranting—at least not this early in the morning—and the holidays don’t bother me much, but there has been something brewing in me for several years now, and I feel it is time to let it out. As I say that, the wisdom of Proverbs assails me, imploring me to hold my tongue: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives,” I hear, “but those who speak rashly will come to ruin” (13:3); “a fool’s heart blurts out folly” (12:23), they tell me, but still I speak.

 

Here it goes.

 

There has been a growing frustration among evangelicals about the phrase “Happy Holidays,” which is now excoriated almost universally among my brethren as “offensive”HappyHolidaysGiftChristmasTree2012_freecomputerdesktopwallpaper_2560 and “politically correct” (an odd combination of critiques). It represents, so they tell me, the slow degeneration of the once great American society—a Christian society, you will remember—into the godless postmodern slough we now inhabit. Christmas is about Jesus (as it surely is), and December is about Christmas—that’s why your kids have a break, after all—so let’s all just acknowledge this fact and wish everybody a merry Christmas, and expect everyone to wish us the same, even if they’re Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist. It would be offensive for them not to, that’s what I says.

 

I confess I find this logic (a generous term) bewildering. Debates about just how Christian a nation America ever was notwithstanding (the evidence is a pretty mixed bag though—just ask the esteemed Mr. Jefferson), I still can’t understand why we make such a fuss about this. America is not now a Christian nation. Given the history of Christendom, I think we can all thank God for that; I would much rather we be yeast in the dough, rather than decreeing that all the dough has been successfully leavened by government fiat (see: Theodosius, Edict of Thessalonica). Many who inhabit this great nation believe in other gods, or believe in none at all. That is part of what makes our nation great, and is a tremendous spur to winsome, loving evangelism in one of the largest mission fields in the world.

 

And there’s the rub: how can our winsome, loving evangelism and our petulant, trenchant demands that everyone wish us a merry Christmas coexist? In the community of believers, it is a reasonable expectation. Outside, I’m not so sure. Do we imagine ourselves to be contending for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints by insisting everyone celebrate our holiday on our terms? Do we think we honor the name of Christ by demanding that our Hindu or Sikh or agnostic neighbor speak our language or face our wrath (and, worse still, our clever memes on social media)? Why would we expect someone who does not believe in the incarnation of Christ to pretend that matters to them? Would we even want them to?

 

In acting thus, many of us have defamed the name of Christ, and have given offense where none is needed. We imagine our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, have stumbled over the Cornerstone, when in fact we have simply tripped them (1 Peter 2:7-8). This is not the offense of the cross. This is a scandal of our own making. Rather than becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some, we have demanded all people come to us on our terms. Those terms are two: “merry” and “Christmas.”

 

If we would rather be the aroma of life this Christmas season, let us revere Christ as Lord in our hearts and in our Advent practices, being ready to give an answer to anyone who inquires as to our holiday plans or our seasonal worship customs (1 Peter 3:15-16). We have had a number of people ask about various family worship practices during Advent, leading to some rich conversations. Evangelism is a process, and we have the opportunity to encourage a step in that blessed process—or to stall it before it begins. As for me and my house, would to God it be the former.

 

Enough, already. Happy holidays, everyone.



The Ministry Revolution

November 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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8399885739_b54424da81_z“Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least. While they may succeed at radially reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert mind and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyrannies within the soul.”

 

So writes David Bentley Hart in his witty, provocative, and insightful Atheist Delusions.[1] He then points to Christianity as the most striking example of a “real” revolution, slowly but thoroughly overturning the old Western world order, permeating the whole of Roman pagan culture like yeast through dough. So thoroughly did the Christian vision shape the minds, hearts, and wills of its converts, that not even so zealous a pagan reformer as Julian the Apostate could stop the inexorable tide—and indeed, his understanding of the old pagan religion was itself subtly and overwhelmingly Christianized. That is a true revolution.

 

Today many of us continue to seek revolutions of various sorts. Many would love to see a cultural revolution undue the destructive influence of modernity’s unshakable narcissism, to redefine freedom within a resolutely biblical ethics, for example. Those who seek this—and I certainly number myself in that group—would do well to reflect on Hart’s insight: our revolution will not come about because of a Supreme Court decision or something equally sudden and legally cataclysmic. Democratic government reflects and adopts cultural trends; only rarely does it determine them. Instead, we need to seek a genuine revolution that converts minds, wills, and hearts through the patient proclamation of the gospel in redemptive relationships, transformative discipleship, and a winsomely prophetic voice through the pulpit and the paintbrush.

 

But my aim today is not to address a culture-wide revolution; rather, I would like to consider the practical implications of Hart’s historical insight on today’s church. How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?

 

Many churches today stand in dire need of renewal. Research indicates that as little as 5% of evangelical churches are experiencing conversion growth. Some 80-85% are in decline, while the remaining 10-15% are increasing numerically through transfer growth alone. There are too few fruitful churches left for us to celebrate and defend the status quo. Revolution is in order.

 

Unfortunately, evangelical churches incline towards slow adaptation. There is a legitimate conservationist tendency built into the historic faith: we are to guard the good deposit, to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14; Jude 3), which means we will forever cling to an unchanging theological foundation. There is also, however, an illegitimate expression of the same tendency, wherein we reckon our ministry practices to have been once for all entrusted to us at the same time we were given the theological foundation. Such is manifestly not the case: our preaching, our music (whether traditional or contemporary), our buildings, etc., would all appear completely foreign to the early church. They have changed because the culture has changed, and we need to communicate an unchanging message to a changing audience. This is all as it should be. The trouble comes when we decide they have changed enough, and then zealously defend a tradition that should be discarded as an old wine skin.

 

Granting the need for change, we now need to return to our initial question: How do we bring about that change? How should we pursue a ministry revolution within a local gathering of believers?

 

A wise leader or group of leaders—or even a wise congregant eager to exert godly influence on the leaders God has placed over the church—will pursue slow change through the conversion of minds, hearts, and wills. Structures, titles, logos, and programs may need to change—probably need to change, in fact—but we deceive ourselves if we think these will bring about a true revolution. They will simply paint a revolutionary veneer on an otherwise unchanged and intransigent edifice. Frankly, most of us have seen this happen—we have heard the name changes (are they small groups or life groups or fight clubs?), had the latest faddish program inflicted on us, and sorted through a bewildering array of org charts—and yet still haven’t seen a true ministry revolution. We need a different approach.

 

So, rather than decree change from the top down, let us stoke revolution from the bottom up. Let us convert minds through patient, dialogical teaching—including instruction in the difference between unchanging theological foundations and contextualized ministry practices; let us convert hearts through sustained prayer for gospel renewal and faithful application of the Word of God within the community of believers; and let us convert wills through redemptive relationships, slowly and lovingly cultivated in joyful fulfillment of the Great Commission.

 

Vive la revolution!

[1] Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009): 183.



Until Another Comes Forward

November 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Using an analogy drawn from the legal arena, Solomon writes, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17, NIV). I suspect he does not intend to limit the application of his point to the courtroom, however. Whenever someone puts forth an argument, the audience will likely sway in their direction. Hearing one side of any debate will surely produce a single outcome. The first to speak almost always seems right.

 

Until another comes forward, that is.

 

Once someone else presents the opposing viewpoint, the waters muddy. What seemed so clear just moments earlier suddenly appears complex and confusing—or may even prove completely untenable. Even those continuing to hold the original view will likely hold it with greater nuance and humility.

 

Of course, this is why jurisprudence demands both prosecutor and defense present their arguments. We could easily prove anyone guilty or innocent so long as we were allowed to present only one side of the case. The foolishness of that sort of strategy is self-evident, I believe—though you’re welcome to come forward and present the opposing side, if you’d like!

 

The trouble, as I see it, is that what makes perfectly reasonable sense in the court of law has been utterly rejected in most other arenas. In the realms of philosophy, metaphysics, religion, education, politics and even occasionally science, we habitually abandon this common-sense notion in favor of knee-jerk ideology. Political discourse in this country, for example, has largely degenerated into rhetorical flourishes and informal logical fallacies, devoid of any rigorous argumentation.

 

Rather than lamenting the larger cultural trends, though, I would commend personal reflection. (It is more fun to bemoan the state of discourse in this country as a whole, to be sure, but more helpful to take stock of our own thinking habits.) Here are a few (very few) suggestions on how to cultivate the habit of cross-examination, regardless of the venue or topic.

 

  1. Reserve judgment until you have heard both sides. This is a difficult attitude to develop, but it is worth the effort. We routinely accept or reject a viewpoint because of our presuppositions—the turtles on which we build our thinking. This is why people typically end up on opposite sides of every debate (one thinks of the divide between liberals and conservatives, for example). As a result, once someone makes an argument that resonates with our core beliefs, we will usually embrace it with little additional thought; contrarily, if someone makes an argument that shakes our core beliefs, we will usually reject it out of hand. In so doing, though, we preclude fine-tuning, correction, or modification of our thinking even when we desperately need it!
  2. Read widely on both sides of the issue. I find—and perhaps you have noticed this too—that I like to read people with whom I already agree. This makes me more doctrinaire and inflexible, when I would rather become increasingly nuanced and careful in my thinking. Worse, I suspect my tendency to read on my side of the issue stems from fear—fear that I might be proved wrong! But if my viewpoint can’t withstand close scrutiny, should I hold it? I would think not. The added benefit of this strategy is that we can ensure that we have heard both sides of every issue.
  3. Refuse to disagree until you can mount a cogent argument. I am pretty sure I came across this bit of wisdom in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, but I can’t find the original citation so I’ll pass it on as my own. This is a challenging but necessary maxim to hold: we do not have the epistemic or intellectual right to disagree with a thoughtful argument until we can explain why we disagree. That is, we cannot simply say, “I think you’re wrong,” to someone who has presented a compelling argument in favor of her views. If she has provided reasons for thinking as she does, we cannot dismiss her summarily; we owe it to her—and to our own intellectual development!—to mount equally compelling reasons for rejecting her viewpoint and continuing in our own. If nothing else, this suggestion will help us slow down our evaluation, which breeds humility, and interact more thoroughly, which breeds precision.


Child Sacrifice in the Twenty-First Century

November 6th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Last month in India Rajkumar Chaurasia axed his nine-month-old son to death as a sacrifice to the Hindu goddess Durga (Kali). Kali is famously the goddess of destruction, so Chaurasia committed the horrific crime to please her. He thought that the sacrifice would bring happiness to childless couples, according to police.

 

As enlightened Westerners, we rightly recoil at such barbaric acts. If religion leads us to destroy, rather than to build up/inspire/encourage, then religion is wrong. That any god could take pleasure in child sacrifice is a testament to the destructive power of irrational belief—more proof that “religion poisons everything.” Thank goodness we’ve turned to more rational ideals and away from cruel superstition.

 

What would drive people to sacrifice their children? The purpose is to gain the favor of the god to whom the child is sacrificed, precisely what Chaurasia purposed. It is a wretchedly cruel instance of quid pro quo: “I will sacrifice something of great value to me, but then you have to do what I want.” If I burn my child on the altar, you have to provide a good harvest next year; if I throw her off the cliff, you will keep my enemies from overtaking me; if I axe him to death, you must make many wombs fertile in response.

 

In other words, people have sacrificed their children throughout the ages because they wanted something more than their children. It is the most severe form of pagan idolatry. Whatever idol I seek—whatever it is I want most in this world, whether that be security, riches, health, or even something as innocuous as self-fulfillment—I am willing to give up that which I should love most unconditionally to receive it. It is selfishness to the core.[1]

 

Once child sacrifice is reframed in these terms, however, our “enlightened” Western culture has cause to shift uncomfortably in its seat. In the United States, at least, we have been practicing state-sanctioned child sacrifice since 1973. In fact, we have killed more than 50 million babies in the pursuit of our idols. I am referring to abortion.

 

What would drive us to sacrifice our children? What are the gods whose favor we seek? They are not false gods like the days of yore—Molech, Ba’al, even Kali—but modern gods of our own making. We sacrifice children to the idol career, to self-actualization, to selfish visions of the perfect life (and there is no room for a child with Down’s syndrome in those visions, it seems). If a child would hinder my plans for happiness, I will happily sacrifice him or her on that altar.

 

So, before we judge the religious practice of child sacrifice too harshly, perhaps we should examine our own secularized, humanist, enlightened version of it first. It is no less cruel, no less barbaric, no less selfish than Rajkumar Chaurasia’s appalling act. If the latter shocks and horrifies us, so should the former.

 

A final word, for the evangelicals who constitute the overwhelming bulk of my limited readership: Before we slip into our own version of smug judgmentalism (not that we’d ever fall into that!), it may be worth noting our own version of child sacrifice. While we rightly oppose abortion vocally and vehemently, we may still fall into the trap of sacrificing our children spiritually for the sake of counterfeit gods. The idols of education, advancement, success, achievement, fun, athletics and extracurricular activities all clamor for our devotion. Will we keep our children from spiritual life for any of these? For what will we allow or force them to skip fellowship with believers? What gets in the way of our family worship times—opening the Word and praying together as a family? You get the idea. We are just as wont to place our desires above our children’s most important needs.



[1] Small wonder, then, that the God of the Bible detests child sacrifice so intensely (cf. Jeremiah 32:35 and the harsh response to Manasseh’s sin of child sacrifice in 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33): God expects us to live self-sacrificial—not egocentric, self-serving—lives.



American Idols

May 28th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Some time ago I noted the importance of “cultural discernment,” the willingness to judge the culture in which we reside and minister lovingly and incisively. Paul did so with Crete especially (cf. Titus 1:12-13). This is simply a tangible acknowledgment of the doctrine of total depravity, that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, that there is no one righteous, not even one. If this is true—and it seems to be empirically verifiable—then there are no righteous cultures either. This means that, if we are to be effective ministers in this present cultural darkness, we need to recognize the sinful tendencies of the culture and address them graciously by the gospel of Christ.

 

As I am living now in the United States, and as the bulk of my very limited readership is likewise, I propose to consider some of our peculiar, pervasive sins. For the sake of levity in the midst of much gravity, we’ll call them our “American Idols.” I will mention four, though I suspect this is not an exhaustive list.

 

Egalitarianism:

One would not normally think of equality as a sin or idol, but so it has become in most of the Western world, springing from our uncritical acceptance of democracy. At its root, this is the belief that every opinion has equal value and should therefore be given equal weight. It is at its worst when we applaud and accept every reading of a passage of Scripture in our small groups and education classes, no matter how ill-informed, anachronistic, or inane. Not only is this an unfortunate capitulation to the excesses of postmodernism, but it carries with it an implicit denial of the hierarchy God himself established.

 

God has made it clear that he has given some to be leaders in the local assembly of universal church (cf. Ephesians 4:11), and that they are responsible for the doctrinal purity of the congregation (as even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles would show). I have already written on the damaging effects of this “flip principle” on the church, especially the office of preaching, so I won’t belabor the point.

 

It is worth noting that some of the democratic egalitarianism of the church comes from a faulty application of the priesthood of all believers. While no one would wish to deny the importance of the whole body of Christ in ministering the gospel to each other and the world (cf. Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Peter 2:9), it is an unwarranted leap then to the abolition of the leader-congregant distinction. What the Bible maintains, as in Ephesians 4, I would not wish to deny.

 

Individualism:

America has long prided herself for her doctrine of “rugged individualism.” We have developed asinine proverbs like “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our self-reliance (to use Emerson’s description of this vice he regarded as virtue). We worship the self-made person and seek to emulate those who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.” The fact that this is a physical impossibility should have been our first clue that something is amiss.

 

The church has not been immune to this cancer. We have imported this mentality and so diminished the importance of regular fellowship—as well as radically distorting the nature of that fellowship. Consider the habits of the early church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

At one time, the church gathered daily, sharing regular meals together and holding everything in common (including their schedules, it would seem). In marked contrast, many Christians today have a hard time attending church regularly, comfortably skipping if another event conflicts with their regular time of worship. Beyond that, many more find it difficult to fellowship regularly outside of scheduled church activities. Given our current culture of loneliness and isolation in the suburbs especially, it seems people simply cannot make time for Christian community, friendships, and engagement.

 

Unfortunately, this affects more than church attendance statistics. The trouble with this unholy brand of Christian individualism is that sanctification is a community project. Quite simply, we do not normally grow in isolation from other Christians; we need the ministry of the assembly (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; Hebrews 10:24-25; Galatians 6:1-2 and a host of other similar passages). Without the ministry of fellow pilgrims, we will delude ourselves into thinking we have achieved greater holiness than is true; we need loving reminders—living mirrors—of how far short we fall of the standard of God’s Word (James 1:22-24).

 

Remember, God is calling a people for his name, and a people is more than a collection of individuals (1 Peter 2:9). And that people will grow to become the mature body of Christ as a people, not as individuals (Ephesians 4:15-16). John Stott sums it up nicely, with all the necessary holy boldness: “We are not only Christian people; we are also church people.  We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ.  At least I hope so.  I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an un-churched Christian.  The New Testament knows nothing of such a person.”[1]

 

Consumerism:

Americans are driven by a consumer mindset. Inundated by an unceasing deluge of advertising—on the road, on the web, on TV, in the paper—really, anywhere they can put it—we have believed the lie. We do deserve it. We should have the latest and greatest. Our lives would be incomplete without those. And the adversary snickers. For we have exchanged shadows for substance, trinkets for the Trinity, things for the King of kings. We have “amused ourselves to death,” to use Neil Postman’s phrase—and the death has been spiritual, not physical.

 

Worse still, we have allowed consumerism to vitiate our experience of worship. At one time, not that long ago, people came to church expecting to meet the living God, to hear a heart-piercing truth from his Word, and to glorify him corporately in song and service. Now, should we even make it to church (see above: indvidualism)—that is, if it is the best program available in that timeslot—we expect to be pleased, appeased, to have our burdens eased. In short, we expect the church to provide for us what we think they should provide for us (see above: egalitarianism)—after all, every other segment of society functions in this way—and if they do not, we will find someone who will. We will vote with our checkbook, so to speak, by taking our tithes and offerings to the competitor, by which we mean another local congregation, where we will restart the cycle.[2]

 

And, even more sadly, many churches have accepted this as the ineluctable status quo, and so reward the fickle and disregard the faithful. It seems more and more churches today are willing to enter into the advertising business, to woo and coddle customers to a spurious gospel of self. To our shame.

 

Litigationism:

Sometimes a neologism is needed. Litigationism is a specific form of egotism in which we consider our rights more important than our duties. When we feel someone has trampled on our rights, we take to the courts with alacrity. I would be hard pressed to think of a more fitting epithet for our culture than “litigious.”

 

The notion of human rights springs from a Christian worldview. God has made us—all of us—in his image, and he has thus endowed us with worth and dignity. No less ardent an anti-Christian than Thomas Jefferson could acknowledge this much.[3] However, the Christian view of rights is actually framed in terms of duties. God does not command us to be loved by others, even our enemies, but to love them; he prohibits murder, for example, not so that we can preserve our lives, but so that we will not take another’s. Our focus, if we are truly Christian, will always be outward (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Such was the example Christ provided for us—an example he expected us to follow (cf. John 13:15, 34-35).

 

It was instructive to me that, next to our dietary habits, this was the aspect of American culture most amusing to my friends from other cultures. When large swaths of humanity find our approach to rights inscrutable, it may be because we are wrong. I have written on the subject already, so, again, I will not belabor the point.

 

It should come as no surprise that pride—the love of self—undergirds all of these sins. C.S. Lewis famously referred to pride as the chief sin, endemic to humanity, the “complete anti-God state of mind” that leads to every other vice.[4] Above all else, Americans love themselves. We are all, in the most painful sense of a familiar phrase, “proud to be an American.”

 

Our pride leads us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, so we expect to have a vote in every proceeding (egalitarianism). Our pride demands we pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, so we neglect the community God provides for us (individualism). Our pride whispers that we have a right to whatever we want, so we expect to be coddled and comforted even in our churches (consumerism). And our pride insists on our rights, so that we will fight anyone who doesn’t do as we please (litigationism).

 

When a single disease produces such pernicious symptoms, we would do well to seek a cure. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

 



[1] The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007): 19.

[2] How do you know if you are a church consumer? Have you ever said something like, “I couldn’t worship today because . . . ,” as though our worship depended on the church’s programming abilities? Do you listen to the sermon critically, to see if the pastor was worth your time, or as if this were God’s Word for you today? What sorts of complaints are you likely to make about the church?

[3] An atheist, however, could not: there is no philosophical sleight of hand convincing enough to rescue dignity for the product of time, chance, and matter, despite the impressive efforts of “charitable” atheists like Luc Ferry.

[4] Mere Christianity, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1996): 110.



Poetry: “Sonnet”

April 24th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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God made us to enjoy beauty and to imitate his wondrous creativity as an expression of worship (cf. Exodus 31:1-11). Unfortunately, the church today too often neglects the arts as a serious Christian pursuit. To address this deficiency, I will post some poetry occasionally as a reminder and challenge to all of us (myself included) to embrace the artistic as a means of embracing the Artist. 

 

This is a poem I wrote in 2001 as a prayer of confession. It is my own personal Psalm 51, so to speak. The almost violent imagery is a tribute to John Donne’s masterful work “Batter My Heart.” I hope it will be an encouragement to others—perhaps even as a model prayer—in the same way that Donne’s poem has always been an encouragement to me.

 

“Sonnet”

Paroxysmal pleasure, meet sudden pain,

As white blood spills red blood of th’ unbent reed;

Transient, fleeting, the former can’t feed

Lust’s unassuageable maw.  Now are twain

Body, spirit, insatiate each: the one

For surfeit, the better for want of bread.

Raw meat arousèd hot, leftover feed

Cannot fill what can bread of God alone.

O Jesus! penetrate my maidenheart,

In doing so, unspoiling spoiled flesh.

Return to my lover me—virgin, fresh—

That I may lie from him no more apart.

Enter me that I may be satisfied,

Chastity to live now that death has died.



Why Do Christians Hate Gays?

April 16th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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It seems to be the question on everyone’s minds. How can those who proclaim a loving, forgiving God demonstrate such hatred and bigotry? Unfortunately, many self-proclaimed Christians have made this a legitimate question to ask, displaying undeniable cruelty to those God, in some sense at least, loves.

 

But if a handful of Christians have made the question necessary, some on the other side of the debate have asked it without challenging the presuppositions behind it. I would suggest that before we ask why Christians hate gays, we must first ask if Christians hate gays. After all, the Westboro Baptist sorts seem to be in the hate-mongering minority even among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. I belong to the latter category and I find the assumption that Christians hate gays to be intellectually (if not morally) offensive. So I will challenge it by first asking the related and seemingly never asked question.

 

Do Christians love gays?

 

I propose that they do—at least those of them humbly seeking to live faithful Christian lives by the grace of God.

 

Consider what it means to love someone. As far as definitions go, I have always preferred C.S. Lewis’: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it may be obtained.”[1] Love has little, if anything, to do with bare emotion, and rather more to do with spending ourselves wholly to see our beloved experiencing the very best. For this reason parents sacrifice time and energy to put their children through school so that they can follow their vocational dreams. For this reason patriots have given their very lives so that their families and loved ones back home can live lives free from terror and oppression. We may quibble whether these choices were wise; we may challenge whether the results were in fact the “ultimate good” the loved ones could experience. But we cannot challenge the loving intent of the actions.

 

Now, for Christians the definition of love remains the same, except that we would more narrowly define what anyone’s ultimate good is. Christians believe, as they always have, that God himself is the ultimate good, the very best that anyone can experience. It was for this reason, according to the Bible, that Jesus Christ came into the world and died his sacrificial death on the cross: that anyone who trusts in this work of Jesus might live the fullness of life, might experience perfect peace and complete joy through a relationship with God himself.

 

You may not agree that this is the ultimate good, but you cannot disagree that this is a central tenet of the Christian faith, and one to which Christians are entitled to cling.

 

According to this understanding of love, colored in distinctly Christian terms, do Christians love gays or not? Surely they do (or at least the bulk of them from my experiences in mainstream evangelicalism). If, as Christians believe, the ultimate good we could wish on anyone we love is God himself; and if, as the Bible states clearly throughout the Old and New Testaments, homosexuality—like all sexual activity outside of a heterosexual, monogamous marriage—is a sinful practice that separates the person from God; then the most loving action a Christian could take is to call the beloved homosexual out of life-destroying sin and into life-giving fellowship with God.

 

To the gay community, this approach is anathema. It is a violation of human rights, unjust discrimination, narrow-minded bigotry and hatred. Christians, we are told, should mind their own business, stay out of other people’s bedrooms, and quietly delude themselves with their pretended spirituality.

 

That may all be true. But note the sleight of hand that takes place in such a maneuver. The gay community and those who advocate it have asked us to adopt their standard of love, their definition of “ultimate good,” now given an individual, humanistic tinct. In addition, they have asked Christians to abandon outright the historic heart of Christianity—in essence, to cease to be Christian—by insisting that we no longer proclaim that message publicly.

 

In other words, the gay-rights movement has proven itself to be just as publicly vocal (evangelistic?), intolerant, and narrow-minded as the Christians they denounce. Both sides, in order to continue being what forms the core of their identity, must persist in trying to convert the other side: from homosexuality to celibate same-sex attraction on the one hand, and from evangelist to relativist on the other. But so far, only one group has acknowledged its proselytizing instinct.

 

Three conclusions follow. First, despite our entrenched positions, we need not give in to vituperative hatred, as the worst advocates on both sides have regrettably embraced. Second, this does not mean that Christians hate gays any more than it means gays hate Christians. Individuals on both sides may lapse into this lamentable stance, but the movements will necessarily forego them: Christians because they are called to love, and gays because they espouse individual freedom, including freedom of religious belief.

 

Third, and finally, the debate will continue. If love wins, it has to. For Christians will continue proclaiming their ultimate good, the fullness of life found only in Christ; and gay-rights advocates will continue proclaiming theirs, the autonomy of the individual to choose their own happiness.

 

I can only ask, as a Christian tired of being dismissed as a hate-filled homophobe because I believe in the authority of the Bible, that the debate continue honestly, not with the stunted reasoning of a meme-generation. Christians cannot preach love and then practice hate, as most of culture has vociferously reminded us; but neither can the gay-rights community preach individual freedom and practice cultural hegemony and vitriolic jeremiads against those who choose another way of life. To do so would be hypocrisy.



[1] “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 49.



Persecuted Freedom

December 11th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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A few of us were gathered recently to discuss the state of the church in the United States. One posed the question, “Would you rather be a missionary in a society that had freedom of religion or not?” It was an interesting query and caused a few moments of reflection.

 

A surprising consensus developed gradually, however. We all agreed that we would rather be missionaries in a society that had freedom of religion, but would rather be pastors in a society where the church faced regular persecution. It is far easier to scatter seed when you won’t be arrested or executed for doing so, meaning missionary work might prove more fruitful in an open society. Nevertheless, in open societies the church almost always grows complacent, compromising its integrity and mission. Persecution refines the church, however, so that those who remain show themselves to be committed disciples, as willing to suffer or die for the kingdom as the King himself was. Many of the problems facing the American church—cheap grace, sloth, consumerism, self-indulgence—would recede instantly if the cost of following Christ were made more immediately obvious through persecution.

 

What strikes me as interesting, though, is that the explosive growth of the church in the first century occurred in a society that was both open and hostile. The Romans had an official policy of pluralism, allowing Paul and the other apostles to proclaim whatever religion they might desire; however, the Romans also had an implicit policy against exclusivism, so that any religion that claimed pride of place faced reprisal. So Paul, Peter, and the others preached openly, and then were martyred gloriously.

 

Perhaps these are the ideal conditions for making genuine disciples: openness and hostility, a persecuted freedom. One may scatter seed freely—a necessary condition for explosive growth; but one may also expect persecution—formal or informal—ensuring that those who come into the fellowship of the saints have counted the cost of following a crucified Savior.

 

And perhaps more interesting for us in America today, these are the conditions we face in increasing measure day by day. We still have institutionalized freedom—and one suspects the Bill of Rights will not undergo many changes in the near future—but we also face increasing hostility from a cultural establishment that embraces pluralism and hates exclusivism.

 

Are the conditions ripe for explosive growth? Is our next revival on the horizon? Let us pray it be so! 



Postmodernism: Making Their Biggest Beef Our Greatest Asset

October 30th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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Note from Brandon: This is an exciting moment for Follow After Ministries, as today we welcome our very first guest blogger. Justin Burkholder, on the pastoral staff at Grace Pointe Ministries and soon-to-be missionary to Guatemala City, shares his thoughts on how to engage the elusive postmodernist lovingly and sensitively. In reading this, I am reminded of the old witticism, “How will they hear unless we listen?”

 

Before I say anything. I am neither condoning nor rebuking postmoderns. I am merely observing and explaining.

 

Now, I readily understand that postmoderns are very elusive. Frustratingly elusive. Illogically elusive. Irrationally elusive at times. And it is miserable to actually discuss matters of weight and depth with them. But, I think that the very fact that postmoderns can be categorized this way reveals a foundational postmodernist frustration in the way people approach them that they vehemently oppose.

 

It appears to postmoderns that the goal is not to listen to them or be with them, but only to categorize them. Once you can fully ascertain the system of thoughts by which an individual lives their life, you can ignore them, accept them, or even convince them of something else.  Though many would not agree that this is their actual goal, this—unfortunately—is the experience of many postmoderns.

 

Experience Is Everything

Postmoderns do place much weight on their own experiences. And no matter who you are, your experiences shape your truth. No matter how a magazine/website reviews a gourmet restaurant, if you had a bad experience, you will tell all of your friends and you won’t go back. 

 

Regardless of a postmodern’s religious history, almost all of them have story after story of belligerent leaders and authorities who disparaged and discouraged doubt, struggle, and anything else that rocked the theological/practical boat of their church/home/Sunday school class.

 

Take my background, for example. The problem for me was that the categories with which authorities and leaders arranged people didn’t ever actually fit the majority of my experiences. So, the authorities would talk about people who were “saved” and people who were not “saved.” These terms carried all sorts of moral baggage, establishing a pattern by which people lived their lives. “Saved” people had a standard of holiness. They didn’t do certain things (drink, smoke, dance—or go with girls who do). But the problem was that I was doing lots of things (pornography) that weren’t even talked about, which seemed to be a whole lot worse than the things that they did talk about. Was I “saved”? Was there room for someone like me?

 

Or take theology. The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election was very appealing to me. But I just couldn’t fully accept some of the teaching on the end times. I had met some charismatic friends and they seemed to love Jesus more than anyone at my church (including me), so I became open to the sign gifts. For a time I was categorized as a heretic of sorts, creating divisions and strife, when in reality I was just trying to make sense of things.

 

Regardless of what my issue was, it was a microcosm of the greater. This kind of categorization has taken place everywhere; and it is considered poison to postmoderns.

 

Poor people, black people, gay people, women, republicans, democrats, the wealthy, used car salesmen, people with long hair, black clothing, musical genres, Arabs, Christians…etc. It wasn’t just fundamental Baptists who had legalistic tendencies. There is legalism everywhere. If you don’t want to be __________, then you do __________.  All __________ do or don’t do __________.  

 

No matter where the postmodern turns, there seems to be this obsession by others from other worldviews to categorize people (enslave people to a law), and then make a judgment based upon that categorization. And much of it is done in the name of truth. This kind of categorization and assessment releases people from actually having to listen or understand. And, even worse, one presumes to understand entire populations of people without ever actually engaging them. The “judgment” cry is not empty; it is legitimate, reflective of a wound that almost every postmodern bears, many of them having been wrongly labeled themselves—as gay, emotional, distorted, disconnected to reality, idealistic, etc.

 

And so, no matter what you do or say, the postmodern will almost always be terrified of being labeled, categorized, or “figured out”—because once they are, they are certain that no one will ever actually hear them, or even attempt to understand them. Many of them are like abused puppies: in many conversations, at the first sign of an elevated newspaper (the Bible?), they run.

 

How Is This Your Greatest Asset? (Or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love the Postmodern)

 If you can understand this approach to postmoderns, you will be light years ahead of everyone. Your words will change, your tone of voice will change—your demeanor, appearance, perspective. It will put you in a much more gentle and generous light. You should approach them as if they are terrified puppies instead of philosophical combatants.

 

Postmoderns want to hear stories. Stories resonate with them. They are broken and wounded by scandalous amounts of divorce, abuse, sexual promiscuity, and a general incongruence that they have seen in all of the institutions of which they have been part. Their lives have been a far cry from perfect. And stories express the pain and hurt they have experienced. They want to know that you aren’t perfect, because they aren’t. And stories convey that with power.

 

They want to know that you were/are broken too. They want to know that this world is a broken place, and that it is okay to be broken. They want to hear that you have failed and that it is okay for them to fail again. They want to be able to explain how they have come to their conclusions without you labeling them or categorizing them. They don’t want you to philosophically wrestle with them, they just want you to talk with them. They want to know that you and your God love them in spite of their brokenness and confusion.

 

More than that, many of them would just like for you to sit with them, and listen to them, and love them. Eventually, they will let you in. And when they do let you in, they want to be sure that you don’t have everything figured out. Because, despite their arrogance and pretense, they will always admit to not having anything figured out. They want the tension. Everywhere that they have been where people “have it all figured out” they encounter the judgment, categorization, and bullying spoken of previously.

 

They know there are flaws to their perspectives. Tons of them. Which is why they don’t ever have enough confidence to share them or to convince someone else of them. As a matter of fact, that just might be the theme of postmodernism: “There are flaws in everyone’s perspectives.” (And yes, I know that perspective may be flawed as well.)

 

But what many of them do know and believe without a shadow of a doubt is this: If being convicted and convinced about what you believe means treating people as they have seen them treated, then they will happily live in ambiguity for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately few postmoderns have met people passionate about their beliefs, who won’t go to any length necessary to wrestle them into believing the same. And when the postmodern doesn’t agree, they fear that the name-calling will begin.

 

The challenges of postmodernism are not some idiotic ruse that a group of dumb kids created so that they don’t have to answer questions; for many they are a defense mechanism. You must understand this to engage them. If you don’t, you will always be fighting and arguing an imaginary enemy, while the puppy—this beloved creation of God—flees in terror.