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.



#FakeNews and #RealSin

January 25th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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#FakeNews. #AlternativeFacts. There seems to be a lot of buzz these days about the media we ingest and whether or not we can opt-out of reality. For Christians, that brings with it a tremendous opportunity, as I’ll try to explain in my next post. But it also carries with it a clear and present danger.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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



Because Science

January 17th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 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!



The Office of Preaching

February 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.

 

Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!

 

In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:

 

[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.

 

All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)

 

But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:

 

The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached.[1] By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.[2]

 

These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.

 

One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.



[1] A future series will detail the many ways we can misconstrue Scripture, and why interpretation and proclamation proves so necessary.

[2] Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 289-290. Emphasis is his throughout.



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.



Faith and Feelings

May 14th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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As evangelicals, we tend to promote “faith not feeling” as a necessary reminder that we do not live by our changing emotions (driven by changing circumstances) but by the unchanging rock of God’s Word and character. All this is right and good. But is there more to it than that?

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting on Spinoza, wrote, “Emotions are not expelled by reason, but only by stronger emotions.”[1] I suspect there is a good bit of truth in this. We are called to be joyful always (1 Thessalonians 5:16): shouldn’t this joy, rooted in the eternal work of God, overcome a host of lesser emotions, rooted in the vicissitudes of life? We have been created, called, redeemed, reconciled, adopted by God in Christ. We acknowledge this truth by faith—not feeling—but it produces within us the feeling that overwhelms all others.

 

The joy of eternity expels the sorrow, anger, fear of the moment.



[1] Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., trans. Reginald Fuller, Frank Clark, and John Bowden (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971): 375.