Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Three Kinds of Young Inquirers

In the past couple of years I have encountered several intelligent, approximately college-age people who want to talk about religion or the Bible. They have good questions, and they really appreciate and enjoy getting answers from someone who has thought their questions through. The conversations are vivacious and stimulating both to the inquirer and to the mentor, whether that is myself or someone I know. But I have learned that not all inquirers seek answers for the same purpose, and eventually that shapes where the conversations and even the relationship go.

There are at least three different kinds of religious inquirers in this stage of life.

One kind of person (I hope that this person exists) inquires because she really wants to know the truth. She is dissatisfied with what she has been told to date, and she is willing to pay a price to get the real stuff. Her stated interest in getting answers is also her actual interest.

A second kind of person already believes that she knows what is true. In fairness, she may be genuinely interested in learning more and getting confusing matters cleared up, but underlying those interests are certain core principles that she holds sincerely and is not seriously considering giving up. But she has a problem: if she expresses her settled beliefs boldly and lives accordingly, she will face criticism, tension, and even rejection from people that she loves. This might come from two sides at once from people who disagree with each other, one side taking issue with this belief and the other with that. Though she is asking questions as if to seek truth, what she is really seeking is an intellectual silver bullet that, when fired, will convince everyone in her life to affirm all her core beliefs and everything that she wants to do—and also, at least as important, to get along with each other.

A third kind of person also already believes that she knows what is true, but she is presently pretending to herself that she does not. She anxiously trying to flee what she believes to be true, because it causes her pain and/or because she is not living according to it. When she asks questions, she is only interested in answers that might quiet her own conscience, justify her departure from what she is afraid is true, or refute what she fears might be true of herself and her place in existence.

These types may not be exclusive; it is probable that a person may fit more than one description, perhaps going one way in one area and another way in another.

When these three kinds of inquirers approach me, at first they all look the same. I am an eager guy, so I naturally assume that they are all of the first kind. But if the person has the stuff of the second or third kind in them, that eventually becomes clear. We exhaust the extent of their interest in the truth for the truth's sake, and we hit a limit. Telltale signs include the same question over and over even though I've already answered it, endless debate that goes nowhere and serves no purpose, an incessant drift toward relationship problems and advice, and general staleness.

I am learning that I need to pick up on the signs earlier so that I may address the thing that the person actually wants from me even if he or she has not put it into words. This is for the inquirer's own good as well as preserving my time. I believe that for many seekers, the thing that they need first is not theological truth but to be honest with themselves about their true intentions and motives. A good deal less self-deception would go a long way. They might discover then that they are not really all that interested in what I have to say. But if they are truly interested, then what I have to reveal about God and his ways might actually do them some good.

Jesus had a knack for this. He did it with an outcast woman at a well, which went one way, and with a wealthy young community leader, which went another. Not surprisingly, he knew what he was doing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Zeal for Your House Will Consume Me

I read these words:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME” [John 2:13-17 NASB].
I closed my eyes to picture the scene. It was blurry and tentative, because I never went to the Passover in first-century Jerusalem. But I vaguely saw the back of Jesus walking amid the press of a crowd of black- and gray-headed, beige-clad pilgrims through the Beautiful Gate. I saw the vast and crowded plaza before the monumental facade of the temple. I saw Jesus with unobtrusive determination tying together a bunch of ropes to make a flail. I heard, like a huge flock of birds, the loud chatter of customers haggling with endless rows of livestock vendors and moneychangers.

Then I heard a big crash—a table fell over. A short, startled cry and a momentary, local hush. No, the table had been thrown over. The sound of a metallic shower of coins rippled through the air. Men hopped down fearfully to scoop the coins up, but they were suddenly flogged by Jesus on their buttocks, which scattered them. Another table fell and then another. I saw his hand grip the edges and throw them one by one. The crowd’s noise alternated between silence and uproar.

Then he reached the livestock. Clouds of pigeons burst into the air as their cages were smashed. Vendors fearfully clung to them before he could break them too, and his voice thundered, “Take them away—NOW.” He threw off the bolt fastening the sheep pen. With the snap of his whip, the sheep and goats were belched from their place; they rumbled by with manic bleating. Then Jesus reached the cattle pen. Uh-oh. With a rising, bellowing rumble a stampede surged forth as oxen, four abreast, lumbered through the courtyard, crushing under hoof anyone who failed to get out of the way.

No one knew what to do. Vendors wanted to scream at him, but apoplectic rage stopped in their throats. Panting, spear-brandishing guards wanted to seize him, but they were frozen where they stood. Twenty thousand eyes rested on Jesus, standing on top of a table, and twenty thousand ears heard him cry, “STOP MAKING MY FATHER’S HOUSE A PLACE OF BUSINESS!”

I opened my eyes. Then I closed them again.

I was in the cavernous, tinted-glass-enclosed atrium of a suburban megachurch during a break between sessions of a conference. Sunlight glowed off the neutral walls, softened by the gray carpet. I saw two parallel, almost endless rows of booths from one end of the enormous room to the other. Some of them belonged to Christian colleges; they bore facades with academic crests and photos of healthy blonde kids (with one black kid), and they were fronted by healthy, blazer-wearing admissions people. Some tables were for missions organizations; these were worked by homelier folks in logo-embroidered golf shirts and worn khakis (because donors are suspicious of missionaries who look too worldly). But most tables belonged to publishers and booksellers. These were covered with books, and the books were covered with pictures, many of them pictures of the people speaking in the eager auditorium at one end of the hall. A buzzing mass of humanity swarmed among the tables. Goods, bags, and folders were in everyone’s hand. Credit cards whipped through iPads in every direction.

I walked to the first table on the left. I said to the guy there, “You should move.” He looked at me funny, not knowing how to take it. I grabbed the back of his display and threw it over, just missing him. The light fixture on top sharply popped as the bulbs shattered. A surprised gasp burst from the clientele. I strode behind the table. With a heavy shove I tipped it and with a succession of loud thuds the books hit the floor. A cry of shock.

I went from table to table, wrecking all of them, sparing none. No one knew what to do. Anger, fear, alarm, or awe were on every face. People cleared out ahead of me. Security guards ran up; I ignored them, and for some reason they did not approach me. On every side ten phones recorded my every move. Some vendors stood in my way until I shoved them aside with their own falling displays. I could not hear any speech—was it because it was silent or because the furor was deafening?

I threw the merchandise off the last table and climbed onto it. “IT IS WRITTEN,” I cried to the crowd, “MY HOUSE WILL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER! BUT YOU HAVE MADE IT A DEN OF THIEVES!” I hopped down, punched the crash bar on the door at the end of the row and walked into the sunny afternoon.

I opened my eyes again. Lord, I said in awe, how did you do that? Weren’t you scared? Weren’t you afraid of being misunderstood? Wouldn’t they think that you were an insane crank or an enemy of the state? Wouldn’t you be arrested? Wouldn’t you lose all your audience, your friends distancing themselves from you, your family embarrassed by you? What message are people getting from what you did? The Passover requires a load of animals—God said so. They have to be supplied somehow, right? What did the vendor you beat have to do with it? He’s a regular Joe just trying to feed his family; he didn’t make the system. You knew his needs better than anyone else. Didn’t it matter to you what he thought of you?

The answer to all these questions was simple and obvious. Zeal for your house will consume me.

Lord, I said with a sob, I want that zeal. I want to be so obsessed with the purity of your house, your church, that I have no fear left. I want to be utterly unconcerned about being misunderstood, mislabeled, rejected. I am so afraid—I can’t picture myself doing that . . . except that I just did picture myself doing it. I don’t want to be arrested or sued. Even more, I don’t want to be hated. But if you tell me to destroy other people’s property for the sake of your house . . . (I’m so scared) . . . then I will.

St. Francis of Assisi publicly stripped off his clothes and disowned his father and then lived as a homeless beggar. John and Charles Wesley preached outdoors while mobs threw stones when churches refused them their pulpits. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched down a street and was cuffed and hauled away by police with dogs.

We revere these men; countless churches, schools, and even streets bear their names. We are the Pharisees: we build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous even though we are the children of their persecutors (Matt. 23:29-33).

We remember these men because they performed bold, infuriating, prophetic acts ready-made for misunderstanding and rebuke, even for arrest or being torn to pieces. They did these things for Jesus Christ, because he did these things.

It is hard to picture anyone doing anything like that today. We live in a skeptical age in which no one—at least no religious person—can make any moral statement without adding the caveat that “I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.” In this environment, every righteous utterance is assumed to be self-righteous, so prophetic authority is rare.

But once in a great while, God requires someone to do a righteous, bold, prophetic act like this—something that saves people but destroys life as people know it—something physical that people experience and interpret as violence, even if no one gets physically hurt . . . except for the person who does it.

I have not been ordered to do something like that . . . not yet. But I have not ruled out the possibility.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Was the Civil War Just?

This question is put to the test by Harry S. Stout in Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Penguin, 2006). The book was a game-changer for me; I do not know how a person can read it and not be affected.

Stout's intention is to provide the material that allows the reader to analyze the Civil War according to just war theory. He therefore retells the story of the Civil War in a way that brings to special prominence those events, decisions, policies, and (very importantly) administration and homefront rhetoric and rationale that are most relevant to that analysis. Stout spends fairly few pages propounding his own analysis, however, though the words he uses in the chronicle at times (like "bloodthirsty") give pretty strong hints about what he thinks. Nevertheless, the book is written in a way that allows the reader a good deal of latitude to draw their own conclusions from the story told.

This story is a gripping one, and I suspect that there are few people, including people quite knowledgable about the Civil War, who would not be surprised by it. I read of events I had never heard of before and encountered a large volume of homefront commentary, especially from clergy, that was entirely unfamiliar. Even events and decisions that were familiar to me took on a different light in Stout's portrayal.

One paragraph from this six-hundred-plus-page book sums up much of what struck me in it:
In a perverse jumble of conflicting agendas, the nation was convulsed by a war between a white, slaveholding Confederacy and a Northern Republican administration promoting emancipation to justify total war. For the administration, total war was the regrettable end and emancipation the means, while Democrats promoted conciliation with slavery and white supremacy as the end and peace the means. In a profound sense, white America was getting what it deserved [343].
Another theme that Stout persuasively lays out is his thesis that American civil religion was founded in the blood sacrifice of the Civil War. Although I am not convinced that there was no track laid to this destination through the blood sacrifice of the Revolution, I do believe that he basically proves his case. Paying attention to this tale Stout tells, one cannot escape a dawning realization of how un-Christian the national civil religion actually is, which makes it all the more pernicious since for many Americans there is no grasp that civil religion and Christianity are two different things, much less opposed to each other.

I do have a couple criticisms of Stout's book. One is that while he does a masterful job of providing the evidence by which one would judge whether there was jus in bello (justice in how the war was conducted), he shrugs off handling jus ad bellum (just cause), arguing that "secession is a moral issue with no moral criterion for a sure answer" (532). That seems to be a way of saying that we are not going to look at it because it is really tricky to figure out. But as Stout abundantly demonstrates, belief in the justice of the cause is the very thing that propelled both sides to commit all kinds of injustices. The matter cannot be blown off.

Secondly, Stout entirely ignores—does not even mention—the moral overtones of diverse approaches to Reconstruction 1863-65. This is a shame, because Reconstruction began while the war was still being fought, and crucial decisions pertaining to it were made by commanders in and around their campaigns. It also pertains to some of the very issues that Stout considers. One example of this consists of the moral and legal claims of enemy civilian property-holders versus the claim of a government to finance and supply its war effort versus the long-term social and material needs of freed slaves. Another example is whether it is moral (not to mention feasible) to annihilate a culture deliberately as a war aim when that culture is intimately bound to a socioeconomic immorality at the root of the origin of the war. I am not saying that these are easy questions; I am just saying that they are profoundly relevant.

These criticisms aside, however, this work is a triumph, especially if success is measured by how well it unsettles the reader. Last year on this blog I talked about the different ways and times that my posture has changed toward the Civil War. Reading Stout provoked the latest change on the list. Another paragraph by Stout neatly sums up why:
. . . in the process of writing this book it has become irrefutably clear to me that some moral judgments need to be made, judgments that most Americans have been reluctant to make. We have preferred a violent but glamorized and romantic Civil War. Military histories have focused on strategies and tactics and the sheer drama of battles in action. Political histories have focused—especially in the present—on slavery and emancipation, accounting the evil so complete and pervasive as to justify even murder. In this sense, Lincoln's war strategy was and remains genius. That does not make it right [535].
It is an awesome achievement that through the Civil War and its immediate aftermath slavery was abolished and African-Americans became acknowledged as Americans. But I can no longer consider the war to be just on either side nor ignore or sentimentalize the incinerated landscapes and streams of blood.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Reflections on a Boring Scandal; or, Death by Image and the Good News

[Note: This post was written in conversation with Ted Kluck. Ted's post on this subject is part one; this post by me is part two.]

As my friend Ted's post explained, apparently pastor/author/personality Mark Driscoll hired a marketing firm to buy a load of copies of his book in order to launch it onto multiple bestseller lists. That's about all I'm going to say about it, because there are many nutritious things all of us could be thinking about, and this is not one of them, so the less attention it gets the better. I feel icky even mentioning it.

I must mention it, however, in the course of reflecting on a blog post written by a pastor/author/non-personality (personality-in-the-making?) named Jared C. Wilson. I want to point out that I feel almost as icky doing that. The idea that it is worth your attention what one guy writes about what another guy wrote about what a third guy did—this is tied to the very mess I'm writing about today. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I agree with everything Wilson wrote in his post without exception. The heart of his rebuke of Driscoll's action (without mentioning Driscoll by name) is that it is dishonest, and Wilson incontestably demonstrates exactly how it is dishonest. Further, he gives prudent advice to the person who might be tempted to do this about how it can only hurt them and hamper their stated objective (namely, to "reach people with the gospel").

Wilson also demonstrates how this behavior is unfair to others. The need-to-read part of Wilson's post is at the end when he incisively goes after "the preacher[s] [who] got envious of the writer[s]." Some of these preachers "cannibalize the writer class" by employing ghostwriters to elevate their own platform at the expense of "real artists who are getting crowded out of the marketplace" (like Ted, I might add). This keeps these writers from making a living at their art, and it reinforces evangelical readers' taste for middling-fare-to-schlock.

Like I said, all these criticisms are on target, and Wilson helpfully notes that "at least" this many things are wrong with buying one's own book to inflate its prominence. That's a good admission to make, because the most important thing wrong with the behavior Wilson totally ignores.

Wilson writes as if to engage in this behavior for the sake of the gospel hinders the gospel. Hardly—in reality, this behavior voids the gospel. It is the antigospel. It is the bad news that stands diametrically opposed to the good news. It is not merely that someone tried to do the right thing in the wrong way. It is not merely that the method rendered itself ineffective. Rather, it is a manifestation of antichrist. It is Satanic.

Here's why. The bad news for the human race—one of multiple ways to describe it—is that we whom God created in his image stopped finding our glory in his image in us. Following the lead of the devil, who stopped finding his glory in God's image in him, we sought to craft our own images and assert them in God's image's place.

Ever since, we have vainly continued to try to craft our images and by persuasion or violence compel the world to acknowledge them. To the extent that we have held power over others we have endeavored to engrave on others the images we think ought to belong to them as well. In families, schools, workplaces, churches, and communities, we are locked in combat to secure the image of self, resisting others' image-impositions as we use words to impose on them their images as we see them. We kill and are killed by image, all the while killing ourselves.

Paul sums up this entire race-wide, age-old melee with the words "according to the flesh." Life according to the flesh is self-measurement and others-measurement by any and all observables other than sheer virtue. I look at your observables—including your reputed bestseller—and I know what and how much and how high you are, and what and how much and how high I am by comparison.

We have engraved images on our own flesh. Yet "all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass; the grass withers and the flower falls off" (1 Pet. 1:24). God brooks no rival from graven images and will soon destroy us with his incinerating breath.

This is the bad news to which the gospel is good news. The good news for the human race is that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God—he eternally is the image that we were created in. By Christ's incarnation the Father restamped his image on human flesh. By Christ's resurrection that stamp was made permanent and incorruptible.

Our salvation is that we may take our eyes off our flesh and the flesh of others, off the images of false gods—this is repentance—and by faith fix them on Christ, the Image of God. When we do, "we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18). Christ becomes our image. We get our glory back, which is not ours, but God's. And "[w]e know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is" (1 John 3:2). This is gospel.

But receiving this image requires that "from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh" (2 Cor. 5:16 NKJV)—including ourselves. Instead, we must now regard everyone according to the Spirit and ignore the flesh.

The reason that buying prominence is antigospel goes far beyond its mere dishonesty and lack of fair play. Yes, those features of the behavior show that it crosses an ethical line, as Wilson competently demonstrates. But though Wilson makes passing reference to "the celebrity culture pervading evangelicalism," he doesn't go to its root. This, right here, is the titanic problem—namely, that behavior like Driscoll's communes in a wicked system that revolves around the self-creation and self-projection of image, the iconography of the flesh. And in this respect it differs not in kind from the rest of the "Christian-industrial complex" but merely in degree. (Though many were scandalized by what Driscoll did, was anybody truly surprised?) From this point of view, how much difference is there really between "earning" attention to one's projected image and "buying" it?

Though this sin is as old as Adam and Eve, it used to be that only a few had the wherewithal to play the game beyond their parochial circle of acquaintances. But late-modern capitalism and technology put the power to make ourselves celebrities into the hands of everyone with a Facebook account (in theory). What Driscoll did is antigospel because no matter what is written on the pages of his book, the marketing impulse around it exalts the very bondage from which the gospel of Christ delivers us—poor, deluded, run-of-the-mill, voyeuristic self-pornographers that we are.

Nevertheless, one irony of how God chose to make salvation work is that the good news is passed from one person to another, one image-bearer to another. You're reading this on my blog with my face or on Ted's blog with Ted's face. Paul's letters were written by Paul, not by Anonymous. As long as we are who we are, we all project our flesh constantly for others to fix on or ignore as they choose, whether or not we've tried to impress or attract with it. And as long as we are in the body we cannot turn this off, including while we tell the good news.

But God provided a right way to do this that is bound up in Christ, his Image. "[W]e do not proclaim ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). If you have to see my flesh, at least you can see it serving you as your slave. At least you can see it weak, plain, boring, ugly, suffering, despicable, or—perhaps most appalling of all—unsuccessful. At least you can see it as onlookers saw Jesus' form on the cross. And then, hopefully, though all you see is me, all you will see is him.

Even as I write this, I hear a bloodthirsty monster rattling its cage inside me, yearning for me to let it out. It growls to me fantasies that this post will go viral, that hundreds of thousands will bow down to it, that Ted and I will get offered a book deal, get invited to speak at conferences, maybe even get a welcome-to-the-big-time e-mail from John Piper or Andy Stanley. I can't escape the toxic atmosphere of idolatry, because it is my flesh's native habitat. I breathe it in so constantly and so naturally in our image-choked age that I only get hints of what life is like without it.

Those hints come when I stop staring at my image, stop shaping it, stop regarding others' images, stop making comparisons, stop trying to measure up, stop trying to win, and instead fix my eyes on Jesus Christ, the Image of God—my image, my life, my salvation. "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:24-25).

Don't Get Famous (Seriously, Don't)

[This is a guest post by my friend Ted Kluck. Ted's post is part one of a pair that we wrote in conversation with each other. My post, part two, is here.]

Everybody I know has a book deal.  In fact, when I meet someone who doesn’t have a book deal I now find them quirky and intriguing. That’s how pervasive the fame-grab has become.

I had that thought this morning as I was doing some obligatory research into the Emergent Church (rest its soul) because I stupidly agreed to do a radio interview about it, even though I haven’t really thought about it since I co-authored a book about it several years ago.

While doing my half-hearted research, I stumbled upon this week’s Online Argument of the Year, which was about the fact that superstar pastor Mark Driscoll apparently bought his way onto the New York Times bestseller list. Most bothersome (to me) was the fact that I was neither surprised nor especially bothered by it.

One of my buddies said, “I’m not defending Driscy, because he needs to try to spend at least 5-10 minutes per day NOT branding himself.” I laughed. He continued, saying, “I know there are certain things you do in the industry to get where you need to go. Most people don’t realize that all radio time for pop stars is purchased. That’s just the reality, so I don’t care. But the emphasis of a pastor may need to be a little more tempered. More guarded.”

I agree, primarily because the Bible is mum on the conduct of pop stars, but has a lot to say about pastors/teachers of the Word.

A little more halfhearted research revealed that the post-Emergent-social-media-sphere (which consists of Rachel Held-Evans and like three other guys) was predictably cranked up and indignant about Driscy.

When you’re Rachel Held-Evans, being cranked up about something and then Tweeting about it is a large part of what you do. It’s yielded her a certain low-level Christian fame. To be fair, being cranked up about the Emergent Church and writing about it yielded me a low-level Christian fame that I sometimes regret and have probably squandered.

“I’ve never heard of Rachel Held-Evans,” said another pastor friend, Cory Hartman. “It feels good to be somewhat out of touch.” To which I replied, “I would recommend staying out of touch. You’re not missing anything.”

Finally, somebody on Gospel Coalition wrote a post about 5 or 6 reasons why it was wrong to do what Driscy did. It was a great article in nearly every way, full of spot-on insights into our industry, but its subtext might have been, “By all means get famous, just make sure you’re doing it with integrity.”

What nobody is saying is this: Consider not getting famous at all.

Don’t get famous, because it will assault your character and dirty your motives in ways you can’t imagine. Ways that go beyond just being smug and self-satisfied and annoying on Twitter. Your friends won’t tell you how smug and annoying you’re being because they might be using you to get their own thing going. Such is the nature of fame.

Also, consider not getting famous because Jesus actually said a lot about this.

I recently submitted the following for (ironically) a book I’m doing:
We see this tension between worldly ambition and godly ambition in our publishing pursuits, but we also see it in Matthew 20 where there is some pretty serious family-related fame-maneuvering taking place. In verse 21, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and asks, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Her sons, no doubt, implored her to make this request, which was aimed at elevating their fame above that of the other ten. As parents we can relate to this all too well—a desire for our own fame, and a desire to be known through the achievements of our children. On one hand (positive), they had a rock-solid belief that Jesus would be ushering in the kingdom. They had no doubt on that point. On the other hand (negative), they wanted to be co-Vice Presidents in the new venture.
Jesus puts her request into context, saying, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They replied in the affirmative, and they would both, indeed, suffer in their own lives, as James was the first of the twelve to die for his Lord, beheaded by Herod Agrippa I, and John was the last . . . suffering exile to the Island of Patmos. Their stories suggest that suffering and true identification with Jesus are inextricably linked. It may be impossible to have one without the other.

Jesus then explains that the privilege of sitting at his right and left “is not for me to grant.” And not surprisingly, when the other ten heard of this request, the text says that “they were indignant with the two brothers.” When fame is reached for—and even at some level attained—jealousy and strife often follows. I’ve seen this in my own life and career.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say that we shouldn’t be great. He doesn’t implore James and John to just shoot for mediocrity. Rather, Jesus closes the issue with a meditation on the true nature of greatness in verses 25-28, saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be the first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I also wrote this: “Publishing has been a great blessing to me . . . and also something of a curse at times. It’s launched some friendships and wrecked others. Go into it with your eyes open and your heart guarded. It probably won’t be what you want it to be, and if it is, that might actually be worse.”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why Did Phil Robertson Say That?

[Note: Since posting the following I've realized that because of the media haze around Phil Robertson and what he is purported to think about homosexuality and because of the high passions on the subject, it is exceptionally easy to conclude that I stand by whatever you have heard about the man, true or false. I don't know what all you have heard, but I probably don't. I strongly recommend that you read the GQ article linked to below as the background for my comments.]

I've never watched more than five minutes of Duck Dynasty, because I don't like "reality" TV voyeurism regardless of who is doing it. I don't identify with the Robertson family and so get no buzz from their successes and no downer from their stumbles. But a few weeks after Philgate broke via a GQ article that led to the patriarch's deep freeze by the A&E Network, I found myself going to that article to see what the fuss was about. (Incidentally, the article is excellent and humane, and I highly recommend it to those who won't be terribly turned off by the author's very crude language.)

As an ABC News story pointed out, Phil Robertson's comments about homosexuality were far from the only hair-raisers in the interview. I got to thinking about the ingredients that go into Robertson's bold pronouncements. I came up with four.

1. Personality. I've been told that I don't beat around the bush—I uproot the bush and beat you in the face with it. If that's so, then Phil Robertson uproots redwoods and smacks any target he can find as long as he's conscious. That's who he is. As the article makes plain—and as fans of the show probably know—he's a unique individual, and the other members of the family have different personalities too. Don't we all.

2. Life experience. Phil's individual life story, centrally featuring his Christian conversion, makes him who he is. So also does his experience of growing up in the rural Deep South in the generation that he did.

3. Culture. Not only the content of what Phil Robertson says but the way he issues the content has a natural fit and logic within a culture (and in a particular stratum within that culture) that is glaringly out of place, bizarre, and incomprehensible in a different culture. Like it or not, cultural sensitivity is required to interpret his cultural insensitivity—unless you want to fight fire with fire by being a cultural imperialist yourself.

4. The Bible. Robertson really believes it. And some of the most controversial and offensive things that he says—namely, most of his remarks about homosexuality—are almost verbatim quotes from it. Robertson didn't invent stuff that is propounded today by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

I don't identify with Phil Robertson or support him without qualification or agree with a lot of what he says. The reason is simple: I have a different personality and different life experience and am from a different culture. So even though I share Phil's taste that "a vagina—as a man—[is] more desirable than a man’s anus," I don't think that that's particularly relevant. And even though I concur with Robertson that 20th-century anti-Christian regimes were monstrously murderous—I mean, who doesn't?—it looks like conveniently selective history to me. And even though I don't outright deny the factuality of his personal experience of racial harmony in pre-Civil Rights Louisiana, I couldn't disagree more with the conclusion that he draws from it.

But the one thing I do have in common with Phil Robertson—perhaps the only thing—is that we both believe that the Bible is worth believing, and that it describes a Savior, Jesus Christ, who is making all the wrongs right for those who trust him. As Phil put it to the GQ writer,
If you simply put your faith in Jesus coming down in flesh, through a human being, God becoming flesh living on the earth, dying on the cross for the sins of the world, being buried, and being raised from the dead—yours and mine and everybody else's problems will be solved. And the next time we see you, we will say: "You are now a brother. Our brother." So then we look at you totally different then. See what I’m saying?
I see it, Phil, and despite how different you are from me, I look at you as my brother. That's the united diversity that Christ makes possible.

I don't know if Phil Robertson deserves to be back on TV. (I mean, really, does anybody deserve to be on TV?) But I'm going public with this: if our society draws a line and puts Phil Robertson on one side of that line, I stand with him on that side of the line too.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Being Small

[Cross-posted from the Gordon-Conwell blog.]

Two astounding, must-read books from my D.Min. program have newly illuminated how small I am.

The first is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter adroitly demonstrates how quantity and even quality of cultural output does not shape a culture, nor does the size of the consumer base. Rather, the culture is shaped by the few institutions, locations, and social circles that all, including those who resent them, tacitly agree are more prestigious than the rest.

I am small and far from these high points. I am not close to the center of my denomination’s culture. I am unimportant to the evangelical subculture—you won’t see my mug on conference junk mail anytime soon. I live in an ignored part of the country. Almost no one in any of my subcultures has the regard of elites in Hollywood, Harvard Yard, and Midtown Manhattan.

I am small in another direction too, as revealed by Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. As Christianity drains out of Europe, it is exploding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, partly because of the fecund demographics of those regions but also through a burgeoning wave of conversions. Christianity in the United States is holding steady because of help from immigration from those continents as the faith resumes its ancient position as one of the great Eastern religions. The awakening and the miraculous seem to be going on almost everywhere but here, and I can’t read Jenkins’ statistics about ten million of this and a hundred million of that for long before feeling very small again.

I don’t call myself small out of self-pity—well, I hope I don’t—but from a healthy dose of reality for the sake of humility. I need that. But this is not the whole story.

No matter whom I am small by comparison to, I am big to someone else. My town, a modestly affluent county seat, gets more undeserved attention than any other in my region. I’m an evangelical nobody, but unlike many I actually know a few somebodies, and they know even better-known somebodies. And wherever I live in the United States, to the Mexican believer peering around our southern wall I’m at the center of it all.

More importantly, no matter how small I am in my profession because I see only fifty people on a Sunday, I am huge to those fifty people. My significance is enormous to the sick for whom I pray, the weary to whom I speak the gospel of hope, and the children who call me pastor. And to my own children and to my wife, I’m colossal—to them, whether or not I exist is the whole world.

Finally, and most importantly, I am staggeringly valuable to the infinitely large God. As David observed, his thoughts about me are beyond comprehension—not only their number and their content but his desire to think about me at all.

At the beginning of Matthew 2, men come from a foreign power to find the king of the Jews, whose birth alarms Jerusalem’s elite and triggers a state crisis. At the end of the chapter he is called a Nazarene, a no-name denizen of a backwater town.

The paradox of Jesus’ incarnation is not only metaphysical—the union of complete and unadulterated deity and humanity in one person. It is a cultural paradox too: the one who is the center of all things lives simultaneously at the extreme margin; he really bears the name above every name while he really is a no-name. This both-and image is the one that God is conforming me to—I shrink while I expand, plunging lower, rising higher.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Science, Religion, and Defining Terms

One sexy, thinky debate/discussion topic that arises regularly is the relationship between science and religion. ("Are science and religion compatible?" "Has science defeated religion (or vice versa)?" And so on.) For this topic to generate as much light as heat, two clarifications must be made before debate begins—and they pretty much never are.

First, what is "religion"? To frame the polarity as between "science" on the one side and "religion" on the other is to bias the discussion from the start. That's because those who prefer "science" to "religion" are almost the only people who lump all religions into one category called "religion." Few actual religious people do this.

For example, I read part of a book by one partisan of science who lumped together Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Notice the word order here: to this author, the ideological Other is a thing called "fundamentalism." It happens to have a Christian species and an Islamic species, but fundamentalism is the genus. But very few Christians and Muslims think of it this way. To them there is no Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Rather there is fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist (Wahhabist) Islam. They are two different religions, two different genera. They each have a species that is similar to its counterpart in some way, but those are really quite different animals, like a blue jay and a blue whale. In fact, fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims are the least likely in their respective religions to see themselves as proponents of "religion" in general or to see each other as fellow "fundamentalists."

It does no good to talk about the relationship between "science" and "religion" because different religions have different postures toward science. Different tribes and traditions within a particular religion have different postures toward it. For that matter, even the same tribe or tradition may have different postures toward science in different places or at different eras of its existence.

Let's take as an example the popular whipping boy, evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christianity earned its antiscience reputation in its fundamentalist phase in the early 20th century when Darwinian evolution was the flashpoint. But few people know that in America before the Civil War, evangelical Christianity wasn't just pro-science, it drove science; antebellum developers of "natural history," as it was known then, were motivated by religious belief. Today the posture of evangelical Christianity toward science is muddled and mixed. There is still much fear, suspicion, and disinterest. There are also many evangelicals quietly working in the sciences along with a few luminaries like Francis Collins, who headed up the Human Genome Project and currently directs the National Institutes of Health, and Stamatis Vokos, who is a pioneer in physics education.

The point is that it only confuses matters to talk about the relationship between science and "religion" in general. To do any good you must get much more specific as to what religion you're talking about.

The second clarification needed is, do we mean science or Science?

Lowercase-"s" science is composed of two things: a method and a body of knowledge acquired through that method. Uppercase-"s" Science is also two things: a philosophy and a culture that reflects, reinforces, and passes on that philosophy, which combine to orient their adherents to ultimate things. In other words, Science is a religion. Admittedly, it's a rather unusual religion; it's hard to think of many religions that deny the existence of the supernatural, either ontologically or merely functionally, as a major tenet, or who make rejection of faith an article of faith. (They call it "reason," because most of them have not studied epistemology.) However, it does have points of contact with certain strains of Buddhism, and perhaps Science is another tribe or tradition of the secular religion I wrote about previously. Uppercase-"s" Science's appeal is not as broad today as it was during Isaac Asimov's and Carl Sagan's careers, but it is still very much alive.

I don't know enough about Science to sketch its contours accurately, but I can give you an example of what I mean. There is a marvelous series of electronica songs and videos called Symphony of Science that use "auto-tuned" statements by popular scientific thinkers. My favorite, "We Are Star Dust," features supercool astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson "singing," "We are part of this universe; we are in this universe . . . the universe itself exists within us. . . . We are part of the heavens. . . . We are star dust in the highest, exalted way, called by the universe, reaching out to the universe with these methods and tools of science."

Tyson (and the others in the song) are talking about how all heavier elements were "cooked" and built inside stars that later exploded and sent their "enriched guts" flying through the galaxy. These elements gravitated toward each other and collected into planets and the things on those planets, including people. So all the atoms in our bodies were once part of a star—we are star dust.

But note how Tyson expresses this scientific conclusion. "We are part of the heavens," a carefully chosen, old-fashioned term from an age when the sky was more than a physical location but also a spiritual one in people's outlook. "We are star dust in the highest, exalted way." Very complex star dust, certainly; living star dust, indeed. But highest and exalted are statements of ontological value, honor, and significance, categories that do not exist in science. "Called by the universe"—really? The universe as a sentient, deliberate, communicative entity summons humans to "reach out" to it and establish a communicative link—this universe that "exists within us"?

I don't know how far to press these out-of-context comments by Tyson; I don't know how literal and accurate he means them to be. Perhaps he just has a natural gift for poetry that can't help but find an outlet. Maybe he is so driven to interest people in the science that he loves that he uses provocative, figurative speech to seize their attention. Or maybe there is something primal within him that longs for contact with a transcendent being that he doesn't believe in that shapes his language. In any case, the statement about where our atoms came from is science. But how Tyson states it is Science.

One listener commented, "Now, this is art. All songs make you think about future and universe. Science's 'Gospel'." It is Science's praise-and-worship music—actually, I listen to it to worship too.

Naturally, you arrive at quite a different answer if you ask about science and religion versus Science and religion. Answering the question about science and religion means observing religious individuals' comfort employing the scientific method and interest in its results. But answering the question about Science and religion is really about Science and other religions—it's a question of comparative religion.

Now, I expect that many adherents of Science believe that you aren't really committed to science if you don't believe in Science and probably even reject the distinction between science and Science. I think they're wrong on both counts.

In sum, as with every question, answering it starts with defining terms. "What's the relationship between science and religion?" That depends: what do you mean by "religion"? What do you mean by "science"?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Loving Enemies and the Selfhood of Jesus

Luke 6:27-38 is one of those really tough passages of the Bible. It starts with, "But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies . . . ," and it just continues from there.

Verses 27-30 are about choosing to be taken advantage of by people who are stronger than you, people who hate you, curse you, mistreat you, hit you, take from you. You're supposed to let them do it, give them more besides, and try to help them by action and prayer.

Verses 31-36 are about choosing to be taken advantage of by people who are weaker than you, people who need help and money. You're supposed to help them even if though they won't thank you and lend to them even though they won't pay you back.

Verses 37-38 sum up the preceding. Don't judge or condemn the people who molest you or mooch off you. Instead forgive them—that's the only way you'll be forgiven too. Give to them—in due proportion you will get far more back, or you won't if you don't.

There are several reasons that I strongly resent Jesus' commands here. I resent losing my stuff. More, I resent losing my pride. I resent still more losing the boundary between me and someone else. The fact of invasion is more abhorrent than the result of invasion. Worst of all, I think, if I don't defend my boundary, who will? And why would anyone defend my boundary if I don't?

But it occurs to me that Jesus himself was never invaded. Losing stuff to those weaker didn't violate his boundary. Losing his life to the strong didn't either. In fact, no matter how severe the demand or the drain, it never made him less than he was, nor does he ever betray a suggestion that he felt that it did.

The reason is that Jesus' selfhood was extremely tightly constricted around one thing, which he mentions in v. 20: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you." Jesus' self was 100% secured in God's soon-to-come government. Therefore, no loss was really loss. Nothing begged of him, demanded of him, or taken from him was actually him. It was all flimsy, disposable, temporary stuff that would soon be replaced by the real thing, where he really was. Even the life in his mortal body was easily given, as it was temporary too. Jesus' essential Jesus-ness, the stuff of him that he could not yield without losing some of himself, was in heaven with the Father beyond the touch of anyone who might invade it. It could not be touched, was eternal and imperishable, and would very soon be revealed to replace whatever people might think they were taking from him now.

Jesus knew this. If I knew it that well, if 100% of my treasure was in heaven and speedily on its way to earth and that fact was beyond doubt or question to me, then Jesus' commands about loving my enemies would suddenly become much more achievable. Because even though it might look to all the world like I'm being taken advantage of, I would not experience it that way. There is nothing anybody could take from me that was part of me. No possession would be part of me; not even my mortal body would be part of me, really. My life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Nothing taken from me would be a violation, because none of it is mine, or me. From that vantage point, the worst that any enemy could take from me seems really pitifully small and easily forgiven.

On the other hand, even though from one point of view Jesus' selfhood was tightly constricted in heaven, from another vantage point it was expansive enough to encompass all of creation. He is, after all, the Word of God through whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together (John 1:1; Col. 1:16-17). Because his selfhood includes everything, again, nothing could be taken from him and his boundary could never be violated. No one could ever invade him, because there is no outside of him from whence to invade.

It's funny: we tend to think that as human Jesus suffered but as God he didn't. As to injury, this is certainly true. The man Jesus of Nazareth in degradable flesh could be deformed, crushed, and minimized, while the Son of God (who Jesus is) could not be any the less God than he is, no matter what one might pretend to do to him.

But as to the experience of pain, I rather think that the reverse is closer to the truth. It was as human that Jesus' selfhood was perfectly committed to the security of heaven, just as he commands ours to be. But it was as God that Jesus' selfhood extends across the cosmos, encompassing everything. And therefore every disorder, injustice, wrong, and sin Jesus feels acutely, like an internal disease. Though he is not compromised by it, if he centers his attention on anything narrower than the perfect beginning-to-the-end totality of it all, he must be incomprehensibly pained by the least evil.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

6 Big Questions about Your Purpose in Life

God made each individual in a unique fashion, and when he redeems someone it is for specific purposes. God calls us to various missions and tasks through our lives that together compose the unique reason he chose us. Though those calls often come as a surprise, in many cases God has already offered us knowledge about ourselves that may fuel our prayers and prepare us for his next call.

Discerning this knowledge takes a good deal of thought, prayer, and usually conversation with trusted mentors and advisors. Though this is large and serious quest, I offer six simple questions to get you started. I have found these half-dozen questions to be among the most profound, useful, and revealing.

(Let me also give credit where credit is due. I didn't come up with these. 1 and 3 are from Lee Spitzer; 2, 4, and 5 are from Will Mancini.)

1. What are the 4 to 6 most important milestones in your life?

2. What accomplishments have meant the most to you, even if others wouldn’t be impressed by them?

3. Who is your favorite Bible character and why?

4. What bothers you the most about the world that you would change if you could?

5. What one thing would you do for God if you knew you couldn’t fail?

6. What do your answers to questions 1 through 5 have in common?