Philosophical Kitsch

September 19th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As a wee lad in high school, I remember being struck by one particular quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” The she to which Vonnegut refers is Billy Pilgrim’s mother, and the thing that she purchased in the gift shop to give her life meaning was a crucifix, which hung above Billy’s bed as a child.

 

I suspect the quote struck me at the time because I took dual offense at it: as an American, I didn’t particularly like the suggestion that I was dependent on kitsch for my life’s meaning; and as a Christian, I really didn’t like the suggestion that a crucifix could be reduced to mere gift-shop knick-knacks. I’d like to think it suggests a deeper meaning, and the most stable foundation upon which to build a life, but more on that later.

 

In retrospect, however, I think Vonnegut might have been on to something, though not at all in the way in he thought. In fact, in a great bit of irony, his quote is nearer the truth now than ever before, but precisely because people first believed as Vonnegut wished they would—that is, because they stopped looking to the religious for ultimate meaning.

 

The idea first suggested itself when we stopped as a family at a particularly American restaurant right in the heart of America (Nebraska, if I recall) while returning from summer vacation. Among the more dated décor—Americana, primarily—hung the exquisitely fashionable: a feigned rustic, pallet-wood sign. On it, stamped in whites and golds, one could read, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

Enter Vonnegut. Here we have an item, purchased at something like a gift shop, attempting to imbue life with meaning. But as in décor, so in philosophy: kitsch abounds (and one might do well enough without it).

 

To explain, let’s tease out this particular instance of gift-shop philosophy a bit. If we reject the religious as ultimate (and assuming deepest meaning would have been found in religion, such as our satisfaction in Christ in Christianity), we now have a vacuum of meaning in our lives. Because no Ultimate exists—no universals, nothing beyond the confines of this life—meaning will have to reduce to self. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel raises this point in his book What Does It All Mean? Since we’re all destined for the grave (and the grave is the end of life, since no immortal soul exists), perhaps we should simply take life as it comes and try to enjoy it as much as we can. In short, perhaps you should just, “Do one thing every day that makes you happy.”

 

The trouble, though, is this assumes a certain set of circumstances, i.e., that you have the power to do something each day that makes you happy. While many in the world have that option, not all do, and few have it each and every day of their lives. Imagine a refugee mother, displaced by genocidal atrocities, forced to choose which of her children she can keep from starvation. As she walks away from the younger of her two children, whom she is leaving to die, should she drink in the sunrise sparkling over the desert and find brief happiness in it? It would be a callused heart indeed who could suggest such a thing.

 

The trouble with our philosophical kitsch, then, is that it belongs to a certain segment of a certain society only—the segment that can afford kitsch, if I could put it bluntly. It is the special frivolity of post-religious affluence that can dream up such slogans and then dare to live by them (or at least attempt to).

 

For if we attempt to create meaning for our lives on the basis of circumstance-dependent slogans, we will always be at the mercy of our circumstances. When life’s vicissitudes gust mightily, the whole structure threatens to collapse. It is a house built on sand.

 

And that’s just the point. Philosophical kitsch, like decorative kitsch, is for adorning the walls of a well-founded structure—not for providing the foundation itself. When you use knick-knacks as load-bearing walls, safe to say those walls will come tumbling down faster than you can say, “Jericho.” First lay a solid foundation—choose a governing philosophy that provides meaning despite circumstances—and then (perhaps) throw some decorations up.

 

So, for example, if you’re particularly wedded to our illustrative slogan—you fully intend to do something each day that makes you happy—that’s well and good. Just make sure that’s not the base of your life’s meaning. Added in, as a conscious effort to drink deeply from the common grace offered us in the created world, it might spruce up the place a bit. Even then, I might choose a more robust version of the sentiment, as in George Mueller’s famous comment, “Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord.” The unchanging God, in whom all joy is found, is the only sure foundation, so why not seek your daily happiness in him first?

 

In sum, I suppose I could say this: if you (like most Americans?) are going to seek life’s meaning in a gift shop, let it be a religious shop at least. You could do far worse than a crucifix.



Lincoln’s Insight for Today

June 20th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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In his book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, Andrew Delbanco shares what he considers “one of the most remarkable” of Abraham Lincoln’s writing, a short reflection only, perhaps intended as the beginnings of a speech. Lincoln writes:

 

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A., is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker?

Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it is his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

 

In this brief, inchoate musing (idiosyncratic comma usage and all), Lincoln not only anticipates the modern notion of race as “socially constructed,” but also demonstrates the tenuousness of dealing in moral non-absolutes. As Delbanco comments, “Lincoln knew it was fatally dangerous to oneself to deny to others the rights one claims as one’s own”—a point fraught with relevance for people on both sides of political aisles and religious spectra.

 

The issue of religious liberty springs to mind immediately. On one side, for political conservatives and some pious Christians, we have the danger of denying religious liberty to others (read: Muslims) that we would shudder to see denied ourselves. If one may ban Muslims from entry into a country purely on the basis of their religious beliefs, what is to prevent another from banning Christians for the same reason? As Lincoln might say it, “Take care. By this rule, you are to be banned by the first person you meet with any cause—just or unjust, founded or not—who fears you.” (It is worth noting that this is precisely what happened when Senator Sanders questioned a candidate for public office two weeks ago, as I discussed in my last post.) This is why Christians in America (notably the Baptists and Free churches) have always advocated for the separation of church and state: because they did not want government to meddle in the free exercise of their religion, they knew they could not promote or accept the meddling of government in anyone else’s religion either.

 

But I suspect Lincoln’s musing poses a greater corrective to the other side (what we might call liberal secularism), those who would lump all orthodox believers in any religion together under the pejorative “fundamentalist.” The reason Lincoln’s words prove so incisive here is because they bring out the notion of “social construct.” If race is not an absolute category, but merely a social construct (as is surely the case), then the boundaries might shift, and you might find yourself enslaved rather than enslaving.

 

How does this apply to the modern liberal secularism?

 

Simple. At this point in time, most everything is assumed to be a social construct, notably truth and virtue. If one denies mathematics or physics as racially or sexually oppressive, or denies science when it conflicts with our vision of progress (as in the case of transgenderism), what is to keep someone else from denying your truth in the name of progress or equality? If virtue is malleable to culture, and either the zeitgeist or the majority vote become sole arbiters thereof, what happens when evil becomes accepted virtue culture-wide? (See: Nazi Germany.) I’ve sawed off the very branch I’m sitting on right at the trunk.

 

Given globalization, this bother becomes even more troublesome quite quickly. If my virtue is mere social construct, and I encounter someone from another society, who thus possesses a different social construct, who is to arbitrate between us? If I regard the brutal subjugation of women as evil (as I do), but I encounter someone who sees it as the natural order, what can I say? I’m a victim of my own open-mindedness (especially if I’m a woman). If I continue to insist that truth and virtue are relative concepts, I can make no argument against whatever I perceive as evil anywhere I see it. If, instead, I insist that my (or the prevailing culture’s) view of truth and virtue is absolute, I’ve made myself (or my culture) god, which is breathtaking hubris—and unlikely to convince any who don’t share my apotheosizing religious convictions.

 

The way forward—in truth, the only sensible way—is to accept the presence of absolutes, not only social constructs. This was the implicit ground of Lincoln’s whole argument. As Delbanco comments, “In the last analysis, Lincoln regarded the hope of building one’s dignity on another man’s degradation not merely as an error but as sin” (emphasis added). What is wrong is wrong because it is wrong—not just because my culture thinks it is, or because it is in my interest to believe it is. Of course, this demands an accepted standard of truth (justice, sin, virtue, etc.), and here we find ourselves among the deepest, most important questions humanity can ask.

 

Space precluding longer argument, I would only submit that truth, if it is to be timeless, supracultural, must spring from a Being who is eternal, and who is Truth itself (cf. John 14:6).



Bernie’s Blunder

June 15th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Although I’m a tad late to the party (I only blog once a week), I think I should offer some words of response to the comments Senator Bernie Sanders made last week at the confirmation hearing of Russell Vought, an evangelical Christian. I think some response is in order because the views Sanders espouses have broad cultural appeal, even though they betray misunderstanding, illogic, and hypocrisy. It is very likely most evangelical Christians will have to respond to a similar line of argument, and should be prepared to answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Here is a transcript of the exchange, per David French:

 

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

 

Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .

 

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

 

Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College:

 

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

 

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

 

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

 

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

 

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

 

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

 

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

 

There are substantial, significant constitutional issues with what Sanders had to say. Those wondering why Christians fear the loss of religious freedom in America need look no further than this exchange. However, I am not a constitutional scholar, nor do I care much to meddle in politics (especially at this point in history), so I will restrict my comments to the logical and theological issues in Sanders’s views. There are three in particular that bear mentioning:

 

  1. The Theological Issue. Here we might give Sanders the most grace, as one wouldn’t assume he would know the central teachings of a faith not his own. His ignorance can be excused, although his audacity in decrying orthodox Christianity in his ignorance probably should not be. For the view that Vought attempts to express at several points in the interview includes, as he says, the centrality of Jesus for salvation. At my church we’re in a series on the five “solas” of the Reformation right now, and among them is solus Christus—only Jesus. This is not a peculiar understanding of Christianity, held only by a few radicals; this is the express teaching of Jesus himself, who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The idea that salvation is found in Jesus alone—that there is no other name under heaven whereby all must be saved (Acts 4:12)—is central to the entire story of redemption as revealed in Scripture. Hardly a jot or tittle anywhere in the whole of the Bible would make sense apart from it. It is true that some who profess to be Christians—such as Senator Van Hollen, who joined the questioning—deny the exclusivity of Christ. But as J. Gresham Machen demonstrated almost a century ago in his monumental Christianity and Liberalism, that view is something altogether different from Christianity, and ought to go by a different name. That religion teaches, in the famous words of H. Richard Niebhur, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” One may certainly adhere to that religion, but one cannot deny that it is different from the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone found throughout the holy scriptures—and on the lips of Jesus himself!
  2. The Pluralist Issue. In many ways this is the most troubling part of the exchange. It seems that Sanders displays not only ignorance of Christianity, but also of Islam, Judaism, and really every major religion, for all teach exclusivity of salvation. If it is offensive to millions of Muslims in America that Christianity teaches salvation in Christ alone, is it also offensive to the tens of millions of Christians in America that Islam teaches salvation through Islam alone? The first of the five pillars of Islam is shahada (faith), and requires that every convert utter and believe the phrase, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In other words, a non-Muslim cannot be saved. When orthodox Muslims are candidates for public office, will Sanders ask them if all Christians stand condemned in their view? If they reply in the affirmative, will he accuse them of being Christophobic? Will he ask the same of orthodox Jews? Hindus? Buddhists? It seems, given Sanders’s comments, that the only people fit for public office are those who hold to a heterodox, secularized, pluralist understanding of any religion. And given the illogic inherent in the pluralist position—different religious teachings are mutually exclusive, so they cannot all be true—this seems to be a doubly foolhardy view.
  3. The Hypocrisy Issue. That last point—that only secularized views of religion are acceptable—brings out the hypocrisy of Sanders’s views. Though not in the name of any religion, Sanders’s comments imply a wide variety of religious beliefs, such as pluralism and tolerance. But even though this is a “secular” perspective, it is still theological at its core. Sanders is making claims about ultimate reality—about God—whether he intends to or not. He is declaring orthodox Christianity suspect, and with it—given the pluralism issue—every major religion. In its place he is extolling the virtue of secular humanism, with its views about deity, humanity, morality, etc. He is, in effect, claiming that his view is exclusively true. This is shocking hypocrisy, because he is making this implicit claim while denouncing the exclusivity of another! Sanders thinks he is right. Vought thinks he is right. The beauty of a democratic republic—one that at least claims to value religious liberty and treasure it as a right—is that both men are entitled to their opinions, and to bring them into the public sphere. The government cannot endorse one or the other, but can welcome men of both faiths into office. Sadly, Sanders, in his hypocrisy, is trying to shut the door to every faith but his own—in essence, asking government to enshrine secular, humanistic pluralism as the official state religion.

 

How should Christians respond? In the words of 1 Peter once more, “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” We need to address the arrogant, illogical, and hypocritical teaching of Sanders with love, humility, and winsome persuasion. Some will have the opportunity to do so on the national scale, and I am grateful for men like Russell Moore who are seeking to do just that. But most of us will have to do it one-on-one, with our family and friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have imbibed the spirit of the age without recognizing the dangers inherent therein. We can ask loving, insightful questions, drawing them out until they begin to see the concerns I’ve expressed today.

 

And above all, we can keep pointing them back to Jesus, because he is the only way—no matter how unpopular that teaching (and it was equally unpopular in the state-sanctioned pluralism of first-century Rome!). Contra the spurious Christianity Niebuhr described, we have sinfully rebelled against a perfect and holy God, and he is justly angry with us. We deserve the condemnation we stand under. But he has made a way. Our punishment fell on Jesus, that we might seek shelter from the storm of God’s wrath through trust in him. Remember, all—Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, secularist and mystic—“have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)—and Christ Jesus alone.



On Vetting Hymns

May 16th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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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.



Living Post-Haste

February 22nd, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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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.



The Great Gospel Opportunity

February 1st, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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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.



Because Science

January 17th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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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!



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!


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.



One Size Fits All?

September 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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My kids are at that point in their lives when they have to buy uniforms—lots and lots of uniforms. Inevitably, a handful of these uniforms are “one size fits all.” I’m not sure who came up with this concept, because it is manifestly absurd. The children who need these uniforms are very different dimensions, and my peanut-sized children often swim ridiculously in clothes that fit other children quite nicely. I am not a fan of the one-size-fits-all approach—neither for children’s uniforms nor for gospel ministry.

 

8589130452787-kids-playing-at-school-wallpaper-hdThe gospel contains truths about the triune God—his character, his work, his purposes—that are fixed, timeless, and supracultural. With an unchanging message, one would suspect the method of communicating the message would be similarly fixed. We could adopt a one-size-fits-all approach here, even if it doesn’t work for children’s soccer teams. Unfortunately, such is not the case, for a simple reason: truths that are constant regardless of time or place or people must nevertheless be shared with a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. This requires contextualization.

 

Contextualization is, in Keller’s fine definition, “giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”[1] Let me make two quick points on contextualization before returning to the issue at hand.

 

  1. Contextualization is inevitable. As soon as gospel ambassadors choose a language in which to speak, they have contextualized the gospel, reaching a certain group (who speak the same language) while excluding others (who cannot speak the language). When we make decisions about our ministry practices—length of service, preacher’s clothes and preaching style, building and grounds, worship music style—we are contextualizing the gospel for our community. The fact that many of us do so unwittingly, and regard our ministry practices as fixed and supracultural like the gospel, may explain why the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States are in a state of decline.

 

  1. Contextualization is biblical. The book of Acts provides many examples of gospel ambassadors—notably Paul—contextualizing the gospel for the audience. Compare Paul’s speeches to God-fearers in Antioch (Acts 13:13-43), rural pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:6-16) and the philosophical intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and you will see how he contextualizes unchanging truths in a changing culture. In fact, in his letter to Corinth, Paul outlines his approach to and reason for contextualization explicitly: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).[2]

 

Now we see why a one-size-fits-all approach to gospel ministry is foolhardy: by assuming a consistent culture (or neglecting to think of culture at all), it adopts a consistent ministry. A quick glance at demographics across the country—never mind the globe—exposes the fatal weakness in this tactic. I’ve lived in three different suburbs in Chicago, and no one of the three bears more than a slight resemblance to the others demographically. And that was just within the suburbs of one city! Imagine how different the culture and sub-cultures would be moving from a suburban to an urban or a rural environment, or from Chicago to New York or L.A. or Portland or a city in the Bible belt, or from the United States to Colombia or Sri Lanka or Uganda.

 

All of this presents a very practical challenge for those of us who seek to minister the unchanging gospel compellingly to a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. Have we unconsciously adopted a one-size-fits-all mindset? Have we brought our ministry practices with us wherever we go—the preacher has to wear a tie (or has to wear jeans and flip-flops), the music should be lively (or reverent) and traditional (or contemporary), adult education should meet at this time and cover this material, small groups should follow this model, and don’t forget AWANA on Wednesday nights!—even though we might have gone to some very different places?

 

This lesson has come home to me recently. In the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my ministry practices. In my first ministry position, I served as a chaplain in a small Christian school in Bogotá, Colombia. After seven years, I left to become the discipleship pastor at a medium-sized church in suburban Chicago. Although I made some adjustments to my ministry practice owing to the switch from school to church, I thought very little about the difference between Bogotanos and Napervillans, and my ministry suffered accordingly. Little by little I made tiny alterations until the “uniform” fit, so to speak—or at least fit better.

 

What about you? Are you doing what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone? When you arrive somewhere new, do you immediately implement the same basic practices and procedures, even before you’ve done the hard work of learning your new community and contextualizing the gospel within it? By the grace of God, for the sake of the gospel, I hope we will all strive to become all things to all people—and to become this thing for this people—so that by all possible means we might save some.

 

In other words, one size does not fit all. It never does.

 

[1] Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 89 (emphasis his). For much more on contextualization which I couldn’t say here, see pp. 89-134.

[2] Interestingly, especially in light of the common charge that contextualization ineluctably distorts the gospel, Paul says he contextualizes “for the sake of the gospel” (v 23). Contextualization is in service of—not in opposition to—the gospel.