Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Culture Is Shaped by the Shape of Its Stories

When we think of what is or is not an appropriate story for a book or film—whether from the perspective of age-appropriacy or of political correctness or of whatever—we naturally focus on the content of the story: is there sex or violence or bad language or sexism or racism, and so on. And that's well and good.

But we tend not to focus on the shape of the story, and that is a mistake. In the end the shape may be considerably more important than the content, because a culture is shaped by the shape of its stories.

Most of a culture's stories—certainly the most memorable and influential ones—tend to reflect the macrostory that people in that culture believe about their culture or the whole human race.

David Bebbington provides a helpful introduction to these macrostories in his book Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought. According to Bebbington, in the ancient world—regardless of which civilization you are looking at—if that civilization thought at all about history it described it as a circular pattern. In other words, a cycle recurs over and over again, whether from the reign of one monarch to another or a cycle spanning many thousands of years. The only variation to be found is the semi-circular pattern, which describes a past golden age from which we are steadily and inexorably descending, never again to return to the good times.

But contrary to any natural explanation or expectation, one tiny, mostly unimpressive ancient people began using a story shape that had never been seen before, and it would change the world. That people was Israel, and the story shape looks like a checkmark—a "V" with the right prong higher than the left.


The Israelite people described the overarching story of humanity as begun in goodness, fallen into wretchedness, and ultimately redeemed to a greater goodness than before. This was not a cycle that was bound to repeat but a line with a beginning, middle, and end.

Every story the Israelites told and remembered and retold followed this pattern. Some stories just described the way down, others just the way up, but many described the whole checkmark.

The pattern is repeated large and small. On the large scale, for example, was the family of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the patriarchs guided by God in the land of Canaan—then miserably enslaved in Egypt—then redeemed to possess the land promised to their ancestors. On the small scale, on the other hand, was Ruth, a happily married young wife—then bereaved, impoverished, and a stranger in a strange land—then married to an eminent, kind, and good husband as the great-grandmother of a great king. It happens over and over and over again.

Then some Jews saw the story play out before their eyes yet again. Jesus, the previously unknown Son of God, left heaven to be born as a man, to suffer to the extreme of death on a cross, and to rise again in a glorious body, exalted over every name and power. They recognized Jesus' story as the linchpin of the macrostory of the human race and the only means by which people can attain to the happy ending.

One part of the enormous historical importance of Christianity is that by it the Jewish story-shape was delivered to the rest of the world to which it was entirely foreign. Paul the Apostle presented this novel teaching to the city council of Athens in Acts 17, and "when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff" (v. 32). Some of their mockery may have stemmed from beliefs about the body and its value (or lack thereof), but some of their disdain had to do with story-shape. The Stoics believed in a circular story of the universe, the Epicureans a semicircular one, but here Paul described a checkmark, which was "foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23). But some on the council believed.

Raphael, Paul Preaching at the Areopagus (1515)

In fact, many in the ancient world believed: they were consumed by it as straw by flame despite the alienness of the story-shape. This goes to show that nothing is impossible for God, because a culture's story-shape is extremely resilient.

You already know this, because you recognize the shape I've described, don't you, whether you are religious or not? The checkmark shape is the shape of almost every resonant mass-culture story of our civilization.

A century ago critic William Dean Howells reportedly quipped that "what the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." Americans did not invent that story-shape, and it did not affect us first—we inherited it from Europe. But it has been infused in us more deeply than perhaps in any other culture in the world. I chalk that up to the peerless influence that biblical Christianity has had in shaping the culture of this nation from its settlement and perhaps also that our birth narrative—the Revolution—can be told according to the checkmark shape fairly comfortably (and has been countless times).

Yet there has often been—especially over the last century—great dissatisfaction with the checkmark shape among the intelligentsia, and they have offered various substitutes for it. Sometimes Progress—a half-checkmark, redemption without a fall—has held the most appeal. Other times it's been a return to the circle or the semicircle. Still others have proposed a discordant starburst or tangle of conflicting lines going in multiple directions at once, or perhaps most radically a flat line with no shape at all.

In any case, to the literati the checkmark shape automatically smells of sentimentality (which I happen to think misunderstands what sentimentality is). If you want to be taken seriously, you had better not tell a story with that shape.

A case in point is Dara Horn's scintillating novel, A Guide for the Perplexed. Horn ingeniously retells the biblical story of Joseph, setting it in modern times. She also masterfully weaves into the backstory an episode from the life of eleventh-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and the nineteenth-century recovery of a vast trove of ancient and medieval Jewish documents called the Cairo Geniza.


Horn's tale brilliantly combines pulse-pounding suspense, grippingly rich characters, philosophical depth, and delicious historical detail. It also completely screws up the Joseph story in the last few pages.

First, the ending is not higher than the beginning, in my opinion—the would-be checkmark resembles a "V." But that is forgivable.

What is not forgivable is that on the very last page of the book Horn indicates that the trials of her "Joseph" and "Judah" figures are about to be recapitulated in "Joseph's" two children. The story is not over; peace has not been made; the next generation is destined to repeat the previous generation's sins.

Horn replaced the checkmark of the Joseph story with a circle. In the end, hers is a thoroughly un-Jewish—or at least unbiblical—telling of a biblical story despite all else that it has going for it. But it makes her work eligible to be regarded as Serious Fiction in our culture.

If the Devil could get his way, every checkmark-shaped story would be banished from our culture, because every time we hear and enjoy a checkmark-shaped story, it trains us to find the Christian gospel credible.

Once again, the Holy Spirit is plenty powerful enough to convince people of the gospel whatever their culture's predominant story-shape is. He did it in the first few centuries of this era, and he's doing it around the world right now. Yet I still believe that wherever the checkmark shape is reflected, no matter the substance of the story, there is a deep witness to and preparation for the gospel of the cross and the kingdom. It subtly disposes people to believe.

For this reason, any artfully-told checkmark-shaped story in a book, graphic novel, film, or video game is worthy of appreciation, and the making of such is worthy of support.

( . . . pivoting to advertisement . . . )

Here's an opportunity to support just such an artistic project. Silverdome is a film about a former USFL quarterback battling depression who squats in the ruins of his old stadium, the Pontiac Silverdome, where with the help of his wife he seeks redemption and hope.

It is going to be a beautiful picture, but it needs funding to push it across the finish line. So go to the Kickstarter page (where there's some awesome memorabilia available, by the way), make a contribution, and share it with your friends—especially with former athletes you know who miss playing the game they love.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "The Bible Endorses Evil Things"


"The Bible says that polygamy is okay, but you say it's wrong. The Bible says that slavery is good—do you think we should enslave people? The Bible commands genocide too. No one—not even you—agrees with everything that the Bible says is right, so how can you insist on what it says is wrong?"

Does the Bible have no credibility because of evil behavior that it endorses?

I believe that very few people who think it through would answer "yes" to that question, because the people who are the most critical of what the Bible says draw their critiques from other stuff that the Bible says.

For example, some people blast away at the Bible for being misogynistic and enshrining the patriarchy (fancy ways of saying, "It hates women"). But the basis of that critique is the premise that people in power ought to yield power willingly to those who do not have it on the basis of a common humanity. Whence comes that principle? The Bible, of course. (It is not for nothing that feminism emerged out of once-Christianized places; in other civilizations it grows as a transplant.)

So the Bible has at least some credibility, because it promotes some things we think are good. On some issues, in fact, it contains the only ancient material that promotes what we think is good. Nevertheless, there remains this terrible discomfort over bad stuff that the Bible (apparently) tells people to do. That inclines people to believe that it is up to us wise moderns to sort out what is legit and not legit in the Bible's teaching.

But there is a problem here: people who make that claim often don't know what the Bible says themselves—they haven't actually read it but are just going on what other people have told them about it. And even those who have seen for themselves what the Bible says are often careless about what exactly it says, what it does not say, how it says what it says, and why.

Here are two principles to operate by when you find what looks like an endorsement of bad behavior in the Bible.

Principle #1 – Commands matter more than allowances 


Very often, when people say, "The Bible says we should do _____________," the Bible is merely describing a practice, not commending it. And sometimes when the Bible does contain some law about a bad practice, it is still not commending it. Rather, it is providing guidelines and limitations to ameliorate the bad thing going on in a society for the time being.

The clearest example of this phenomenon is divorce:
Then some Pharisees came [to Jesus], and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her" [Deut. 24:1]. But Jesus said to them, "He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. But from the beginning of creation [God] made them male and female [Gen. 1:27]. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will become one flesh [Gen. 2:24]. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate" [Mark 10:2-9].
Jesus and the Pharisees are debating what is right and wrong behavior according to the Law, as observant Jews have been doing for two and a half millennia. Jesus asserts that the "commandment" God gave through Moses about divorce was only to manage the destructiveness of an undesirable, sinful situation ("your hard hearts"). In other words, divorce was allowed but was not truly commanded. The true command—the original intention of God, to be adhered to by all who would please him—is not to divorce at all, except possibly in cases of sexual infidelity.

Polygamy is a similar example. God's intention for humans at creation excludes polygamy for the same reason that it excludes divorce. Yet God allowed that situation to exist for a while without prohibiting it. Nevertheless, every polygamous family described in the Bible is wracked with strife, the natural result of departing from God's desire.

Slavery, though a more complex issue, follows a similar pattern. Only in rare and specific historical circumstances (which we will examine below) did God command people in the Bible to enslave other people. Otherwise, God (through Moses and the apostles) regulated slavery as a given in the societies and economies that his people lived in. In Israel he laid down law that gave considerable rights and protections for most slaves, especially in comparison with neighboring nations. In the church scattered in the Roman Empire he gave instructions about masters' treatment of and attitude toward their slaves. In both cases, God's commands, though not abolishing slavery, went a long way toward humanizing it if they were obeyed.


This "humanizing" is a very important point, because slavery is undergirded by the idea that a slave is something like a domesticated animal, occupying a place between a full human and an inanimate tool. Any requirement that the slave be treated as a fellow human being attacks the institution at its foundation. When Paul instructed Philemon to treat his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a "brother" because both were in Christ, he may as well have abolished slavery itself. If Philemon as a Christian desired the salvation of all people, including his slaves, and if he were to treat those slaves as full-blooded family members, then the accouterments of slavery, followed by its obligations and then its very structure, would wither away in his household and in all Christian households who lived according to the same principles.

This is in accordance with God's desire to see slavery abolished, a theme that runs through the Bible. The foundational narrative of Israel was the story of God setting a slave people free, redeeming them to be his own servants. This remained the hope spoken by the prophets while Israel was stuck in a sort of national slavery to foreign powers as tributaries and as captives. In the New Testament, Jesus reaffirmed this hope for Israel, and he and the apostles added a layer of meaning to liberation: namely, salvation is pictured as liberation from slavery to one's own guilt, one's propensity to sin, and the death stemming from both.

So it is important to distinguish between what the Bible commands and what it allows and regulates, and looking at God's overarching intentions expressed in creation and new creation (redemption) helps us to distinguish between commands and allowances. That sets up the second principle . . .

Principle #2 – Reasons matter more than commands


When viewing an endorsement of any behavior in the Bible, good or (apparently) bad, it is important to understand as well as possible why that command is there. This has been an implicit theme throughout this series of posts, but it is especially important when looking at commands that appear to us to be immoral.

Sometimes the reasons God issues a command reveal that the command is specific to one situation, which must be considered on its own terms. The prime example of this is genocide.

For starters, let's get clear exactly what we're talking about. Some people have the impression that ancient Israelites committed genocide willy-nilly and that, according to the Bible, God commanded all of it. This is not so. Israel fought many wars over eight hundred years, but God only commanded genocide in situations that pertained to Israel's travel to and possession of the land God promised to Israel's ancestor Abraham. Moreover, even in those situations the massacre was not always total. In a few cases, everyone died. Other times girls, or all women and children, were left alive, and these were enslaved.

Incidentally, massacre and enslavement were standard procedure when a resistant city fell to a besieger in the ancient world. Nevertheless, this is a terrible, dreadful thing, and I do not mean to minimize it. Yet it is important that we look at the reasons. Why did God command the extermination of certain peoples root and branch?

The first reason is that they deserved it. Before you tune this out, hear me out. People who lived in Canaan (modern Israel/Palestine) were well known for their atrocious customs, including burning babies alive as sacrifices to their gods. These were not gentle, harmless people.

Nevertheless, you and I deserve the same fate. The just punishment for any sin of any sort is death. God does not owe us a single moment of life; to the contrary, every breath he allows us is pure mercy as he patiently gives us time to turn from our wicked ways. The real mystery isn't why God decreed the extermination of the Canaanites but why he hasn't yet executed the same judgment on us all.

The second reason for the genocide God commanded is that he knew what would happen to Israel if the Israelites did not eliminate those cultures. He repeatedly warned that if they lived peaceably among the Canaanites together in the same land they would adopt reprehensible Canaanite practices, especially worshiping something other than him—which, to repeat, is the big sin that all of us commit one way or another. In fact, Israel did not completely annihilate the Canaanites, and what God warned is exactly what happened with horrific consequences for Israel.

Third, God's command to Israel is a critical admonition to us, although, as I wrote previously about the Law of Moses in general, we apply these directions to the inward parts of our lives, not to our physical circumstances. Israel was God's physical kingdom, but believers in Christ are citizens of an invisible (for now) and spiritual kingdom. Israel had physical adversaries, but believers in Christ have spiritual adversaries—namely, the devil and the evil embedded in our corrupt selves. But just as Israelites were to take no prisoners of the enemies that could lead them astray, so we are to take no prisoners and make no peace with the influences toward evil in our selves, our surroundings that we can control, and Satan. As John Owen wrote three and a half centuries ago, "Be killing sin, or it will be killing you."

It is noteworthy that God did not command Israel to annihilate its other pagan neighbors even when they fought with Israel. Instead, Israel was to be rigorously pure in its own space in order to lead its wayward neighbors to the truth for their own good. Likewise, our ruthless battle is against impurity within our own selves so that the people around us, even if they hate us, might be led to truth and life.

Therefore, even though God commanded genocide only in a narrowly specific situation, his reasons for that command are universally applicable.

Sometimes, however, with other issues, reasons given in the Bible reveal that a command is for all places and times.


Let's take what Paul the Apostle says about homosexual behavior, for example. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul argues that God repaid humans' universal inclination toward idolatry of one kind or another—despite evidence from nature that he is the Creator—by "giving them over" to foolish thinking, which they consider wise, and wicked behavior, which they justify to themselves. Paul cites homosexuality as the prime example of this degradation.

Some people today want to maintain respect for the Bible as God's Word and at the same time go with society's beliefs about homosexuality. They point out that male homosexual affairs in ancient Greece and Rome were usually what we would call pedophilia—an adult man with an adolescent boy. This, they claim, is a very different thing than two loving, committed male adults today.

Setting aside the issue of how many male homosexual liaisons today happen between two loving, committed, exclusive, lifelong partners (it is a minority), Paul and other biblical authors never condemn homosexual behavior for being pedophilia or for being promiscuous. Paul condemns it because it comes from a flat denial of the God who created human beings in his image, male and female. He condemns it because human beings flipped the script and made their god-concepts in human image, and that inversion is reflected in their perversion. Reasons matter more than commands, and these reasons apply no matter how, where, or when homosexuality is practiced. Besides, ancient lesbianism was not pedophilia, but Paul denounces it too.

In response, some readers note all the bad behaviors Paul attributes to these homosexual idolaters: "every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice . . . envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility," and so forth (v. 29). They say, "Hey, if I knew a gay person who was like that, I'd call him an evil person too! But the Bible isn't judging a gay person who is good; it's only judging a gay person (or any person) like those people."

To this I say, quite right: the Bible is only judging people like that, gay and straight alike. But all people are like that, so all deserve to be judged. Paul continues, "Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things" (2:1). "There is no one righteous, not even one. . . . All have turned away, together they have become worthless. . . . There is no fear of God before their eyes. . . . No one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law" (3:10, 12, 18, 20).

Exemption from judgment only comes by receiving the merciful grace of God offered in Jesus Christ, a grace that "trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. . . . He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good" (Tit. 2:12, 14).

The Bible does not call homosexual behavior a bad thing because it is associated with other behaviors any more than it calls stealing wrong because it is associated with lying or murder wrong because it is associated with pride. Reasons matter more than commands, and the reason the Bible gives is that homosexual behavior denies and defaces God's image in humanity, male and female. His grace does not bid us to get clean in all parts of our lives except our sexuality but rather to act holiness out in all aspects of our being.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "Science, Yo"


Some people believe that we have to treat the Bible skeptically on certain matters because the people who wrote it knew less about the world than we do. They did not have modern science, so in many cases they did not know what they were making pronouncements about. This (people assume) includes scientific understandings of gender and sexuality, for example. So unless we want to return to the level of science and technology of the Iron Age, we should dismiss what the Bible teaches on such topics.

Unfortunately, this assumption not only misunderstands the Bible, it also misunderstands science.

It is true that some of biblical authors' understanding of the world was inaccurate. For example, they sometimes called lightning "fire from heaven," not knowing that fire is composed of gas in a process of combustion whereas lightning is composed of plasma in an electrostatic discharge.

Yet their inaccuracies about nature appear mostly in poetry, and to this day we continue to put scientific inaccuracies in poetry for the sake of artistry. Moreover, what the biblical authors assumed about the physical world is not the same as what they taught in their writings (more on this distinction in the next post). The Bible teaches little to nothing either scientifically correct or incorrect. By and large, what the Bible teaches is not in the realm of science (as we commonly use the term) at all.

Science tells us "what," not "so what"


In science, why? means how? In other words, the answer to why? is an explanation of the physical influences, mechanisms, and processes that produced the thing we are looking at.

In science, why? does not mean for what purpose? The answer to why? does not involve a goal or standard or ideal that a phenomenon is intended to conform to. Or if it does—as in the science of animal behavior—it is not an ultimate explanation. For example, the explanation for a squirrel gathering acorns may be that the squirrel intends to amass a food supply to survive the winter, but the ultimate explanation is that natural selection has produced an animal with an instinct to do so.

Science is good at telling us what is (and sometimes what was) in the physical realm but tells us nothing about what ought to be. It can tell us what, but it cannot tell us so what. Our stubborn ideas that reality should be a certain way come from another source than science.

Let's return to the examples of gender and sexuality. Great effort has been exerted to find a scientific explanation for gender dysphoria and fluidity and for homosexuality. To date, little has been found, and what has been found tends to be overstated by partisans. But even if it were found to be scientifically unassailable that gender dysphoric, genderfluid, and homosexual people were biologically determined to think and desire as they do, it would prove exactly nothing about how they ought to be.

To the contrary, it would actually prove the Bible's point. The Bible maintains that all people are fundamentally flawed; in our very nature we do not fit what moral beings ought to be, what humans once were, and what humans will be again.

One might retort that a moral standard that a person is incapable of ever reaching is unreasonable and unfair. But that assertion is not grounded in science either. Any claim about the way things ought to be, including what the ought ought to be, is beyond science.

So if science, no matter how far it advances, can never tell us what ought to be, how can we know it? How can we know whose ought is right?

The ought must be outside this world, because it is the standard that we are comparing this world to. If only we had some way of breaking out of the world to get it, or for the standard to break into this world to show itself to us.

Christians assert that this is exactly what has happened. This is, in part, what the Bible is—the verbal breaking of the ought into the is, into the human world that no longer conforms to the ought but retains a persistent memory of how it once did and might again.

Whether Christians are right or wrong about the Bible, dismissing what it or anyone else says about what ought to be because of what science says is is a logical error. If you have a problem with the Bible's ought, it's because it contradicts some other ought—your own, not science's.

So where does your ought come from? How do you know it is closer to the real ought than is the ought expressed in the parts of the Bible you don't like? Why should anyone believe your ought? Why should you believe it yourself?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "That Was a Different Culture"

 
"Of course I believe the Bible. I agree that it's inspired by God. But it was written to people in a totally different culture. They didn't have to deal with all the things we have to deal with in our culture. God was speaking to them according to what they could understand and according to what their needs were in their place and day. And truthfully, elements of their culture that were no good leaked into the Bible too. We need to apply the Bible to our culture today, and that means ignoring the parts of it that are outmoded and inappropriate to our world."

I've heard variations of this before, and I bet you have too, or you've said it yourself. It is a common rebuttal to a Christian who asserts that the Bible says that something is right or wrong.

There is real truth to this statement, but it contains muddled thinking too. The key is the word culture. What is culture, and what is the nature of cultural differences? How does God's communication to one culture have any meaning or significance for a different culture? How do we figure out what crosses the cultural divide and how?

The basic principle is . . .

Cultures change; people don't


What is culture?

Animals have a strong attachment to a natural habitat, often with great specificity, and a robust array of instincts that direct their behavior to thrive in that habitat. Humans, on the other hand, have very little attachment to a specific natural habitat and a weak set of instincts for us to survive anywhere.

We compensate with our great intelligence—and our thumbs—which allows us to convert the natural world into habitats where we can flourish. However, our intelligence also increases what we require to flourish above what animals require; we need, for example, "meaning," which an ant colony does not require for its well-being.

A human group's construction of a world to inhabit inside the natural world is what we call culture. Culture exists in physical artifacts and shelters, social organization, laws of possession, beliefs, ways of doing things, and ways of communicating within the group, including language and other symbols.

Cultures define meaning for the humans in them. Also, cultures vary from place to place, people to people, and generation to generation. Therefore, certain acts or symbols in one culture convey no meaning or a very different meaning—even an opposite meaning—in another culture. (Consider, for example, how greeting someone with a kiss means something different in different cultures.)

This has a considerable impact on moral teaching. A given moral standard in a culture, which people in that culture may assume to be universal, is sometimes actually the outworking of a universal moral principle in the "language" of that culture. Take, for example, "women must not wear X" because it communicates Y, or "men must not X" because it exhibits Y—Y is the universal; X is how it may be violated in that culture.

It is to be assumed (for reasons I will not supply here) that moral standards in the Bible exemplify universal moral principles that the Creator intends to tell us. But for a given biblical standard, we must examine what that standard communicated in that culture and then consider whether it would communicate the same thing in our culture or not, and if not, to translate it to ours.


Fortunately, the Bible gives us much help, because it was not written in one culture but in several. There are significant differences among the cultures of the patriarchs, of Israel in the wilderness, of Israel during the monarchy/-ies, of exiled Jews, of Jews rebuilding in Palestine, of Palestinian Jews under the Roman imperium, of diaspora Jews in the Roman Empire, and of ordinary Greek-speakers in the empire's cosmopolitan cities.

So the Bible itself is a multicultural collection of books. A careful comparison of book with book, culture with culture, generation with generation often reveals important clues about which biblical standards of conduct vary by culture and which do not.

Many do not vary at all, because, though cultures vary, people don't. I am not talking about comparing one individual with another, of course, but considering humans as humans. When one studies the Bible carefully, aware of the cultural gap between people described in the text and ourselves, one isn't struck by how different they were from us but how astonishingly similar.

Take Genesis, for example, most of which is written about a family of wealthy nomadic herders in the Middle East in the early second millennium B.C. The customs, inheritance patterns, family structures, economy, political environment, technology, taboos, and religion depicted in that book are alien to us in the twenty-first-century West. But with a little understanding of those differences, the reader is shocked by how vividly realistic its depiction of a dysfunctional family is. It is disturbingly familiar. One gets the sense that human beings really haven't changed in four thousand years.

And one would be right. Human beings haven't changed in the core of our humanity. Our makeup of desires, needs, sensitivities, immoralities, and indignations are virtually the same at all times and all places. Of course they vary somewhat from person to person, place to place, and time to time; some are more or less emphasized or intensified in one place than in others. But these differences are slight compared to the remarkable sameness.

So how do we apply the principle "cultures change, but people don't" when we seek to apply the Bible's teaching to our situation? Here are some examples.

When we read Paul's instruction about head-coverings in Christian worship, we have reasonable confidence that whatever he is talking about—for the passage contains numerous puzzles—it has to do with what certain clothing communicated within that culture, in part because there is no real analog to that teaching anywhere else in Scripture.

Similarly, when we read instructions about the inheritance rights of the firstborn in Moses' law, we can be confident that it meant something within the social and economic structure of that culture, because God commanded Abraham to handle inheritance in a different way earlier, and the apostles did not impose that law in the urban Greco-Roman cultural and economic system later.

But when we read what the Bible teaches about sexuality, we are dealing with something entirely different. We are dealing with something in the core of human nature that persists with remarkable similarity across cultures and ages. Humans flourish sexually (or at least prevent damage) according to the same recipe wherever and whenever they live. Conversely, there is no unfaithfulness, excess, or perversion happening in our time that has not appeared here and there—in some cases everywhere—for thousands of years. And that is why it is unsurprising that the bulk of sexual teaching in the Bible appears, or else is assumed, in writings set in various cultures throughout the corpus.

The notion that the basics of human sexuality have remained the same might seem incredible. After all, even in the lifetimes of many people living today there has been an immense shift in how our own culture views sexuality.

I am not saying that cultures do not have widely varying views about what constitutes healthy and moral sexuality. I am saying that healthy and moral sexuality itself does not change. In other words, cultures can get it wrong, some in different ways than others, some more than others.


This is a critical piece of the "times have changed because cultures change" argument that is usually overlooked: the assumption that any given culture is immune from criticism. We have trouble being consistent with this assumption, of course—wife-beating was (is?) part of the culture in Afghanistan under the Taliban, apartheid was part of the culture of South Africa, watching men kill each other for entertainment was part of the culture of ancient Rome, and we condemn them all. But we naively assume that our own culture and most others (which we don't know very well) are by nature exempt from rebuke.

For a reader of the Bible, this assumption just does not do, because the Bible criticizes cultures on every page. It criticizes what they believe, do, make, love, and despise. No biblical book affirms any culture absolutely, including the culture in which it was written, and scarcely any does so implicitly.

Cultures, like the individuals that compose them, are incorrigibly corrupted by sin. So to say that the Bible's prohibitions of a behavior are irrelevant to us today simply because we live in a different culture is totally missing the point. The Bible judges every culture that contradicts God's law—that is, every culture, period—including the cultures in which it was written, and including our own.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "Times Have Changed"


Why do Christians rudely declare that other people's behavior is wrong because the Bible says so when Christians don't obey it themselves? For example, many Christians say that it is wrong for a man to have sex with a man or a woman with a woman because the Bible says so. But those same Christians eat pork and wear cotton-polyester blend shirts; they trim their beards and don't have tassels dangling from the hem of their coats.

It sure looks like Christians pick and choose from the Bible what is wrong and what is not. And on what basis? It must be hatred, many think: "This behavior is wrong" must mean, "I hate you who are disposed to do it."

Some Christians take this criticism to heart. They look at rules in the Bible that Christians don't follow and wonder why.

It must be, they think, because times have changed.

The Bible may be inspired by God, they think, but it was written to a different culture. Maybe whenever we see something in the Bible that contradicts what makes sense to us today, it doesn't apply to us because it was just for their culture, not ours.

Or maybe the Bible has a lot of outmoded human ideas of right and wrong intermingled with God's truth. Maybe the Bible is not totally reliable, so we have to use our reason to purify it by ignoring the bad ideas and elevating the good ones. (See previous post.) After all, it goes without saying that we know better than people who lived long ago; I mean, come on—we have electric cars and smartphones and cat memes and stuff.

So if times have changed, they reason, maybe that applies to hot-button issues like sexuality and gender too. People in the past didn't see the contradiction between their godly principles of love and justice and their harsh rules. We can see their hypocrisy clearly, so we should avoid moral guidelines based on ignorance and hate. If what the Bible says keeps up with the times, we obey it, and if not, we don't.


I say that Christians who claim that times have changed are exactly right. That is precisely why we strictly obey some biblical commands but not others (or so it appears).

The problem is that they badly misidentify what exactly has changed over time, which makes all the difference in the world.

In this post and the two that follow are three principles about what has changed, what hasn't, and why it matters.

Jesus Christ is the big change


Two thousand years ago, when the Son of God became human, was crucified, was raised to life, sat down at the right side of the God the Father, and sent the Holy Spirit to those who claimed that he is Lord, the times changed. I mean this in the most radical sense: a new time, a new era, the age of the royal government of God on this planet, began at that point. Ever since, the old age has been fighting a desperate, losing battle to hang on. We live in the overlap between the new age's beginning and the old age's end.

The significance of this cannot possibly be overstated. This is far and away the biggest reason that Christians handle the Bible as they do.

To summarize what I've explained elsewhere, Jesus' teaching radically relocated ethics from the outward, visible realm of the body's actions to the inward, invisible realm of the mind's thoughts, which go public in the mouth's words.

That shift hugely intensified some moral rules—for example, with sexuality. Now it's not enough not to have sex with someone's wife; now you mustn't even imagine it. This powerfully reinforces the old rule against adultery, because if you refuse even to think about it, you certainly aren't going to do it.

The shift made other rules irrelevant for physical behavior—for example, with food. What does it mean not to ingest unclean matter in the mind? It means to drive out unclean thoughts. If that is what true cleanness is, then what you ingest in the body is irrelevant. Rather, all food is clean because all was created by God.

Israel's laws constituted a centuries-long training in how holy God is, what it means to be a holy (set-apart) people belonging to him, and how humans are hopelessly unfaithful to that standard no matter how much help they get. But now the reality, which all the training was meant to set up, is here.

Jesus' death made Jesus' teaching real, because it replaced the stipulations of God's old covenant with his people with a new one. Jesus' ascension made Jesus' teaching livable, because it allowed him to put his Holy Spirit in and on people to make them holy on the inside, which no food, clothes, or circumcision had been able to reach.

This is the big change. This is why, only a few years after Jesus' ascension, his apostles, who were born-and-bred observant Jews, began ignoring food laws and eating with non-Jewish Jesus-followers. It wasn't because the Bible's food laws were old-fashioned—just about every Jew in the world was keeping kosher at that time; it was totally current. It was because the times had changed in Jesus, the Messiah.

Devout Christians don't actually ignore what the Bible says about food and clothing and such; rather, we apply those standards of holiness to our hearts and minds. We don't apply them to our bodies only because of Jesus Christ, not because we happen to live in the twenty-first century. If it were not for what Jesus did, we would live as ultra-Orthodox Jews today.

But surely something else has changed, right? What about how different our culture is from the culture of the people in the Bible? What about their outmoded, pre-scientific understanding of the world?

We'll tackle those issues in the next two posts.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Objections to Bible-thumpers: "I Have a Different Interpretation"


ME: This Bible passage says ______________. That means we should(n't) _______________.

HIM/HER: That's one interpretation. I have a different interpretation.

ME: What's your interpretation?

HIM/HER: [Something completely contrary to what the passage says; OR . . . ] I don't know; I just know that I have a different interpretation.

ME: ???

There's a good bit of innocent confusion out there over what "interpretation" is. Some of the confusion is not so innocent: many people with a Christian self-concept wave it as a magic wand over a part of the Bible they don't like so that its meaning might disappear.

Here are four principles about interpreting the Bible that might clear up confusion and prevent you from being embarrassed when you use the term "interpretation."

1. The Bible is language, not art.


The principal function of language is communication—sending a meaningful message from a sender to a recipient. Art—whether employing language, visual forms, sound, or some combination—also functioned as a form of communication often in early times and even into modernity. (For example, an artist makes a statue of a king in a city. A viewer says, "This city is ruled by that king.")

But in the nineteenth century and later, art became more and more detached from communication—that is, the message became independent of both the sender and the recipient. Instead, in the eyes of many artists and audiences, "art for art's sake" took on an existence of its own. The artist did not intend to send a message, and the viewer did not try to parse out what the artist was "saying." Rather, both the maker and the viewer reacted to the artwork as if it were a found object with no context. That included artworks whose material was language—plays, novels, and the like.

Thus, "what it means to me" became one and the same with "what it means." By this principle, there are as many valid interpretations as there are interpreters, and no one—including the artist—can claim that theirs is closer to the "right" one than anyone else's. Though that interpretive principle is extremely radical, it persists widely in a softer, popular form that shows some interest in what the artist was trying to express but still makes the viewer's response to it the determinative interpretation.

I am out of my depth evaluating whether that is a good principle of interpreting art. But I can claim confidently that the Bible is not art in that sense.

For one thing, the Bible was written centuries before the concept of art for art's sake—in fact, it was probably written before the concept of art itself. The Bible was not written to be art. It is not art whose substance is language. The Bible is language whose construction is artful.

This makes all the difference in the world. If the Bible is language, then its function is to communicate. In any given book of the Bible, there is a sender (or senders) and a recipient (or recipients), and the text is the message (or messages) that goes from the one to the other.

Biblical interpretation, then, is for C to identify what A said to B. Interpretation—sound interpretation—is not about what C thinks or feels or anything about C's life. Interpretation is about taking ourselves as far off center stage as we can—hard for postmodern humans, but try it for a change—and looking at the message as a dynamic, relational bridge from one person to another, neither of whom is you. Therefore . . .

2. The Bible was written for us, not to us.


Interpretation requires knowing as much as you can about the author, the audience, the relationship between the two, and where and when they lived. Much of that can be gleaned from the message (the text) itself, while the rest can be gleaned from other texts, archaeology, and so on.

Once again, it is critical that before you read the Bible as a message to you, you read it as a message to someone else, because in fact it was not written to you but to them. It's not about you!

However, even though the Bible was not written to us living in the twenty-first century, it was written for us—and that "for" is a big deal.

First, the Bible contains the gospel, the "good news," which is the thread of God's activity through time to save for himself a people "from every tribe, language, people, and nation" (Rev. 5:9). The Bible reveals the gospel and gives critical examples of how this gospel was communicated to various specific hearers, but its purpose is to show all individuals at all times that this gospel is for them: we too can opt in to the people of God by committing ourselves to the gospel as truth.

The classic statement of this is the part in the Gospel of John, an account of the life of Jesus, that reads, "Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are recorded that you [the reader] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).

Second, if you have become part of God's people by faith in the gospel, then the Bible, which tells the story of that people, is now your family heritage. It tells you who your spiritual ancestors are. It tells you the identity, standards, values, code of conduct, and mission of the family you now belong to—what it means to be a genuine part of that family.

Third, the Bible has an author behind its authors, namely the Holy Spirit. In a uniquely comprehensive and fully saturated way, the Bible is the word of God. If you have committed yourself to the gospel, then the Spirit of God who guided the authors of the Bible letter by letter—sometimes openly, sometimes silently—is the same Spirit in you.

The Holy Spirit, therefore, is the living, personal bridge between the Bible and yourself. Sometimes he turns the message that was written to someone else into a message directly to you. When he does it, you know it. But he never does so in a way that contradicts what he said in the Scriptures to the original recipients.

So if we know that the Bible wasn't written to us, but it is written for us, how do we read what it said to other people so that it has any bearing on our lives?

3. The Bible is to be interpreted first, applied second.


These are two distinct steps. It is critical that we take both, and it is critical that we do interpretation before we do application.

When the average person says, "I have a different interpretation," they usually mean, "The change required in my life or viewpoint implied by this Scripture is not reasonable or palatable to me." They merge interpretation and application into one step and thereby screw up both.

Once again, interpretation means identifying what the author(s) were communicating to the recipient(s). Neither of them is yourself, so leave yourself out of it.

For example, let's interpret Jesus' teaching, "It was said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.' But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt. 5:31-32).

A full-bore, robust interpretation requires us to read the source of what Jesus quoted ("Whoever divorces his wife . . . "). We need to get whatever information we can about how the quoted source served as a basis for action by Palestinian Jews in Jesus' time. We need to investigate the significance of Jesus saying, "It was said . . . but I say to you." We need to uncover what Jesus' society understood to count as "immorality." We need to explore why Jesus speaks about a husband divorcing his wife or marrying a divorced woman and not vice versa. We need to compare what Jesus says here to other remarks Jesus makes about divorce to get a fuller picture of his thoughts. Finally, we need to explore the whole book to discern as well as we can why the writer, who had lots of material to choose from, thought this was worth including in his account of Jesus' life.

At the end of all this investigation, we can sum it up starting like this: "Matthew recorded that Jesus instructed a large group of first-century Palestinian Jews, including a smaller group of his disciples not to _______________ because _______________." That is an interpretation.

The average person does not have the resources or training to produce an interpretation this thorough, but that doesn't mean you can't do legitimate interpretation yourself. As long as you take care to set yourself aside, observe the text, take into account as much of its context as you know, and phrase your findings in terms of what the original author(s) were attempting to communicate to the original recipient(s), you are doing genuine interpretation. Every reader—even you!—can do this and must do this.

Application is comparing our life and viewpoint with the interpreted text to discern what in ourselves must change for us to fit in with the people of God. The details of this are infinitely complex, but the basics are very simple:
  • If the interpreted text asserts a truth, believe it.
  • If the interpreted text gives an instruction, obey it.
  • If the interpreted text models a good example, imitate it.
That's application. You'll note that it all rests on a sound interpretation of the text—you need to know exactly what truth is being asserted (and what is not) or what instruction is being given (and what is not) or what good example is being modeled (and what is not).

Also, there is one critical exception to the rule: do not believe or obey or imitate it—at least not in a straightforward way—if there has been a radical change in conditions between the time of the text and yourself. I will define "radical change" in the next post. (Expect to be surprised.) But I will talk about one particular change now.

4. Interpretation doesn't correct the Bible; it corrects you.


There is no denying that certain beliefs and practices of Christians have changed over time despite that Christians have based their thinking and behavior on the same Bible and used the Bible to justify them.

Examples that jump quickest to mind compare Christians in the nineteenth century with those in the twenty-first. A popular one is slavery (which I'll talk more about in the post after next). Another example we could bring up is Sabbath-keeping; American Christians today do a vast array of activities on Sundays, almost all of which were considered sinful by Christians in an earlier time when done on the Lord's Day. Appropriate women's dress (both in cut and in material) is yet another example.

People quickly assume that changes like these stem from different interpretations of Scripture. This may be true, yet it may not be: these may be changes in application while the interpretations remain the same. Once again, people are prone to confuse the two.

But people make other questionable assumptions as well. They assume that a change in interpretation constitutes progress. But it may just as well constitute regress. How can you be confident that the prevailing interpretation of the Bible today is better than the interpretation two hundred years ago? What if it is worse?

Progress assumes an objective standard of truth, goodness, or beauty that an imperfect thing gets closer to over time. Without a standard there is no progress, only change. So what is the objective standard that a new interpretation of Scripture is closer to or farther from?

It can't be collective opinion (i.e., "Everybody knows that . . . "), because collective opinion changes—it is a moving target, not an objective standard. If collective opinion were the standard there would be no progress, because every generation's interpretation is equally close to that generation's collective opinion.

Some people, sensing the problem, make another assumption—that changes in people's interpretations of the Bible are the Bible's fault, not people's fault. The Bible itself is flawed and self-contradictory, or at best it is a mirror of the thoughts and feelings of both the writers and the readers, not a message from a transcendent source. Or if it is from a transcendent source somehow, people's propensity to take what they want from it according to their own point of view is stronger than whatever the source may have wanted to communicate.

None of these assumptions are proven; they are merely asserted or kept hidden. In general, they are attempts to flee from the ultimate source of the Scriptures, God.

God's Word is the objective standard of its own interpretation. It is perfect, because God is perfect. Humans are not perfect, a truth that we tend to admit when it excuses us and deny the rest of the time.

A change in interpretation only constitutes progress when it drives us deeper into what the Bible says, in total and in detail, not away from it. Most so-called "progressive" interpretations of the Bible today are actually regressive—they take us further from light and truth by downgrading the validity of portions of the Bible that offend the spirit of the age.

I have hope that the interpretations and applications of the true church, the invisible fellowship of those newly born of God, are on the whole progressing in accuracy over time. But even for that group it is probably a roller coaster—sometimes better, sometimes worse, or better on this topic but worse on that one.

An interpretation of the Bible that claims that the Bible itself has the problem—that its well-meaning but mistaken writers did the best they could but said some inaccurate things about God and people—is a misinterpretation. It is not an interpretation but a correction, and it is correcting the wrong thing. We are the ones with the problem; we are the ones who need correcting by it, not the other way around.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Who ISN'T an Evangelical?

 
I recently saw a petition denouncing Donald Trump that was written by a group of evangelical leaders. The motivation of the quasi-big-shots who signed was to distinguish themselves from an undifferentiated mass of evangelical leaders that (they claim) the media portrays as Trump supporters.

I agreed with every word of their criticism of Trump's candidacy, and I didn't sign the declaration only because in this polarized environment it is likely to be construed as support for Clinton. (I've come out against both.)

But one problem I had with the petition was the signers themselves. A number of them are much too—ahem—generous to themselves when they claim to be evangelicals.


Some signers used to be evangelicals once but now are post-evangelicals or crypto-liberals. Some others may never have been evangelicals at all.

Of course, this begs the question, "What is an evangelical?"

Historian David Bebbington developed an influential four-trait model to answer the question. Other historians have put forth their own lists of characteristics, convictions, or values.

But a complementary way of defining something, in addition to saying what it is, is to say what it isn't. From the beginning, like any movement that makes waves, evangelicals were as remarkable for what they were against as for what they were for. What evangelicals in Germany, Britain, Ireland, and British North America rejected in their first hundred years or so (ca. 1730-1860) still helps us to sort out who is and who isn't an evangelical today.


1. Early evangelicals were anti-scholastic.

I don't mean anti-school or against education—far from it. I'm talking about a fine-grained and inflexible dogmatic theology as the standard of orthodoxy. Such standards were propagated by the University of Wittenberg (Lutheran) at the beginning of the period and Princeton Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) at the end.

Evangelicals were not necessarily anti-confessional or anti-creedal, but they challenged the tacit assumption that assenting to a detailed, orthodox confession was evidence of saving faith. Rather, saving faith was the disposition of the heart toward total reliance on Jesus Christ and his cross to be made right with God, evidenced by an "inner witness of the Spirit" and a holy life of benevolent love.

In general, evangelicals held firmly to the doctrinal distinctives of their disparate traditions. But they insisted that those differences did not justify a lack of cooperation among regenerate believers with different convictions.

Many extreme evangelicals—especially later, among the lower class, and on the American frontier—rejected doctrinal formulas of any sort. But all believed that they were insufficient as evidence of true faith and had to be subordinate to the religion of the heart.

2. Early evangelicals were anti-revisionist.

It is misleading to say they were anti-liberal, anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment, anti-intellectual, or anti-scientific. Many deftly integrated liberal ideals, modern philosophy, and scientific methodology into their belief systems.

But evangelicals stood against the eagerness in the Enlightenment (and in Romanticism after it) to simplify religion by removing or delegitimizing whatever offended the spirit of the age (which was presumptuously dubbed “reason” or “common sense”).

Evangelicals were inclined (often unconsciously) to use modern methods to find truth in Scripture they had not noticed before, but they refused to declare Scriptural phenomena and teachings fabulous, ingenuine, backward, or irrelevant in the name of reason.

Many extreme evangelicals rejected ivory-tower critical methodology, but all believed that it was insufficient to lead to truth and must be subordinate to the Bible as received.

3. Early evangelicals were anti-formalist.

They were not necessarily anti-liturgical, and they were even less likely to be anti-sacramentalist; indeed, revivalistic campmeetings started out as holy communion festivals.

However, a Protestant counterrevolution against both evangelicals and theological liberals in the nineteenth century—especially among Anglicans/Episcopalians but also among Lutherans and Reformed—identified sacraments and traditional liturgical forms as the means of saving grace.

By contrast, evangelicals expected God to work conversion through the individual's engagement with the Bible or in the new liturgical forms of the rural campmeeting and urban "protracted meeting." They demanded that a person testify to receiving grace through one of those channels before admitting them to sacraments. Likewise, evangelicals in traditions that baptized infants considered baptism a hopeful promise, not a saving power.

Many extreme evangelicals rejected anything that smacked of liturgical tradition, but all believed that liturgical, sacramental, and devotional forms were insufficient to bring life and were subordinate to the free movement of the Holy Spirit.

Who isn't an evangelical?

I am not like one of the aforementioned "extreme evangelicals." I often like to explore the area close to the line of confessionalism, modernism, and sacramentalism. Even when I don't get near the line, I find kinship with those who do.

But there is a line, and to be on the other side of that line is not to be an evangelical.

So let me break it down for you:

If you contend that ecclesiastically correct or aesthetically rich worship, devotion, or sacrament—ancient or postmodern—is what connects a person to God, you are not an evangelical.

If you contend that biblical teaching that offends modern sensibilities about sexuality, inclusivity, or the nature of truth needs to be overhauled, relativized, or explained away, you are not an evangelical.

And finally, if you contend that adherence to a thorough, precise, orthodox doctrinal confession is what makes an evangelical, you are not an evangelical.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Christian Case for Neither: Three Reasons Not to Vote for Clinton or Trump


Unless something very surprising changes my mind, I will cast a protest vote for President of the United States. I mean a vote intended not to elect anyone but instead to send a message, with others, that active participants in our democracy are hungry for something better than today's options. (At present I am leaning toward writing someone in.)

I came to this conclusion because I imagined that if I cast a vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and woke up Wednesday morning to find that the person I voted for won, I would feel sick. I can't bear the thought of contributing to either of them becoming President.

I am sympathetic to the "lesser of two evils" argument, but I don't see a lesser evil outcome in this choice—or if there is a lesser evil, the evil is still too high.

Here are three reasons to vote for neither candidate, addressed especially, but not exclusively, to my fellow evangelical Christians. Two are reasons that voting for Clinton or Trump is a bad thing; one is a reason that voting for neither is a good thing.

Reason #1 – Clinton and Trump are excessively immoral.


"Excessively immoral" implies that there is a certain acceptable level of immorality. When it comes to electing someone to office, there is. All humans are sinners; all are immoral; all are, apart from the mercy offered in Jesus Christ, subject to God's stern, inflexible condemnation of evil. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). If we were only to elect officials without immorality, there would be no one to elect.

For this very reason, let me say at the outset that I feel sincere pity for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If you watched the Frontline episode "The Choice 2016," I hope you feel pity for them also. (It's being re-aired over the next week or so if you missed it.) Our new President, whoever he or she will be, is a sad, empty, bitter person.

Moreover, if I didn't have the relative moral advantages of my upbringing, not to mention the grace of God in Christ, I don't for a moment believe that I would be any better a human being than Clinton or Trump. I do not wish to judge them, because I too deserve judgment.

That said, the essence of choosing a president is to make a judgment, an evaluation. And both candidates fail.

The big, overriding reason is that, I am convinced, there is literally no lie Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will not tell in order to save their own skin. They have no compunction about deceit whatsoever. I'm not sure they know anymore when they're committing it.

Lying is a common sin and should not automatically disqualify someone from office. "For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect individual" (Jas. 3:2). However, though I don't know exactly where the fine line falls between lying and chronic, habitual, compulsive, pathological lying, I believe strongly that Trump and Clinton are on the wrong side of that line.

For Trump it's about looking out for Number One, and it's about saying whatever needs to be said at any moment to maximize the attention he draws to himself. For Clinton it's about the ends justifying the means—that is, in order for us all to reach utopia, she must have power; therefore, whatever gains or maintains power is a price worth paying. She does not have the utterly accidental relationship to the truth that Trump has, but she compensates by surrounding herself with people who instinctively deceive on her behalf to keep her machine running.

Both have been practicing deceit for decades, as has been well chronicled. If you're wondering whether this is worth overlooking, remember that Jesus said that whenever the devil "lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44 NIV). If you vote for Clinton or Trump, you are voting for a president who speaks fluent Satanese.

Beyond lying, Trump flaunts his immorality in almost every way imaginable, from his brutal sexual trophy-winning to his brazen greed to his titanic narcissism. "God opposes the proud" (Jas. 4:6)  is relentlessly repeated and demonstrated in Scripture (see, e.g., Dan. 4). Do we really want God to oppose our president and thus our nation? Do we think we can win that tilt?

When Clinton's husband was in power, we evangelicals insisted that character was essential to holding elective office and that Bill Clinton was not morally qualified to be president. We were absolutely right. Shame, shame on any one of us who changes their tune now.

Reason #2 – Clinton and Trump are committed to unconscionable policies.


Almost every political candidate supports a few policies that we think are bad, maybe even immoral. Yet we vote for them anyway, reasoning that this person supports fewer bad policies than their opponent.

Nevertheless, certain issue positions are dealbreakers: they are so unjust that even one of them is enough to make the candidate unacceptable. I maintain that both Clinton and Trump are fatally contaminated by their policy commitments.


Hillary Clinton's poison pill is abortion. Abortion is not a secondary issue for Clinton; it's not as though she maintains a pro-choice position because that's what the rest of her tribe is doing. Clinton is a dyed-in-the-wool acolyte of '60s/'70s-era feminism, which maintained that one essential feature of women's equality with men is for women to be able to have sex without consequences as men do. This is diametrically opposed to the Christian position that equality of the sexes means that men as well as women must be held responsible for the baby they make and that, whether a baby is conceived or not, there is no such thing as sex without consequences.

The baseline of individual freedom indeed includes the right to manage one's own body without interference, and this belongs inalienably to women as well as to men. But we routinely give the state power to interfere when what one person does to her body affects the welfare of someone else's body. We have the right to poison our bodies with alcohol if we choose, but we do not have the right to drive a car while we're doing it, no matter how good a driver we believe we are or how empty we believe the roads to be.

An unborn baby, even a one-celled embryo, is a distinct human life by any biological standard, carrying a unique, human genetic code. She is dependent on another human for basic survival, but so is a newborn. She is unable to reason and choose, but so is a late-stage Alzheimer's patient—in fact, the fetus is a more serious situation, because her days of reasoning and choosing on this earth are still ahead of her.

Pro-choice advocates often shoot back with the ad hominem accusation that pro-lifers only care about babies in the womb and don't care about the wretched conditions they are born into. I haven't found that to be true, but even if every pro-lifer is an obnoxious hypocrite it does nothing to blunt the pro-life logic. Imagine if the Nazis had justified their killing of Jews by accusing the British and the Americans of mistreating Jews who were alive. Would that defense hold? Your criticism of my hypocrisy does not excuse you—it's possible that we're both complicit in evil.

Speaking of ad hominems, you can find many millions of intelligent, well-adjusted, independent-thinking women who make the same case, so don't use my maleness as an excuse to ignore it. You might also look into the many men (doctors, etc.) who profit from abortions, not to mention the millions more who demand it of their wives, girlfriends, and daughters and domineer them into aborting their children—precisely the opposite of the liberation of women that abortion is supposed to facilitate.

Despite that many abortions are requested by women who can raise a child, the specter of the awful situations into which some children are born becomes ammunition for keeping abortion "safe [for one person] and legal." The assumption is that one of us has the authority to determine whether it is "worth it" if someone else lives or not. It is comfortable to think we can handle that authority responsibly as long as there is no human with lethal power over us looking at our lives and mulling over the same thing.

I am not categorically opposed to voting for a pro-choice candidate under any circumstances (though the stupendously disproportionate power of the President on this issue makes it difficult to ignore for that particular office). A groundswell of pro-life popular opinion could change the office-holder's mind. This is not so far-fetched—consider how rapidly Barack Obama "changed his mind" on same-sex marriage—and the further we get from the 1970s, the more the cultural momentum is swinging to the pro-life side.

But Hillary Clinton will never change her mind on abortion, even though she is liable to change her mind on literally every other issue if that's what it takes to stay in power. Unless a supernatural miracle occurs, she will insist on the free extermination of the unborn forever.


When I consider the policies of Donald Trump, things get fuzzier, because he has very little in the way of "policies" in a conventional sense. Instead, he has gut impulses and blunt statements. Yet those alone are morally inexcusable.

Trump wants to cut the tax rate for corporations and for the highest earners from 35 percent to 15 percent. I am willing to entertain the argument that corporate income is unfairly taxed twice—once when earned by the corporation itself and then again when it is distributed to its shareholders. But that's not the argument Trump makes. He boldly asserts that allowing extraordinarily wealthy people to get extraordinarily wealthier will create so many good-paying jobs that all of the rest of us will do much better and abound with gratitude.

This is ludicrous. Even more ludicrous is the notion that the nation will grow so wealthy that tax revenues will easily pay for government expenditures, which Trump has no interest in cutting, because that would make him unpopular. Things get even more absurd when you consider that Trump would spend lavishly to make the military even more "the best" and "the greatest." The result can only be financial cataclysm (which we're already steaming into without Trump) that will rock the global economy that America undergirds and result in unimagined suffering and chaos.

This will probably come to pass after Trump is dead and won't have to deal with it personally. Meanwhile, it is hard not to conclude that his main goal is simply to get as personally rich as he possibly can, regardless of the irrecoverable hits taken by the little people who supported him when it all crashes—which, by the way, has been his stance toward all of his investors for his entire career.

Secondly, Trump's attitude toward immigrants is morally indefensible. It's also wildly disconnected from the facts about immigrants—why they're here, what they do, what they're like, even how many are here and whether they're coming or going. In any case, as I've written previously, the attitude toward immigrants that Trump embodies is immoral and unbiblical and would set our nation up even higher for God's judgment.

Thirdly, Trump has a thin-skinned, personally combative nature that our nation hasn't had in the White House since Andrew Jackson. Jackson was not the president of a global superpower, and he did not have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire Earth. His rivals didn't either.

Richard Nixon is the only other president to compare to Jackson or Trump, but fortunately Nixon listened to Henry Kissinger. Trump listens to no one.

I do not know what exactly Trump would do other than "be tough" as President. "Being tough" in his fights with banks or his ex-wives haven't resulted in much more than tabloid fodder. Yet his long-practiced habit of relentless, overboard vindictiveness could result in the deaths of millions as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.

I am not a pacifist, and I believe that a government's show or exercise of lethal force is sometimes necessary to deter or neutralize threats to people's lives in this sinful world. But even when necessary it entails immense costs that Trump cannot conceive of, because he has never really paid any cost in his life that he is willing to admit.

Not only does Trump "speak evil words [and] use deceptive speech"; he also does not "strive for peace and promote it" (Ps. 34:13-14).

Reason #3 – A protest vote liberates us from the lies we want to believe.



This election is a marvelous opportunity for American evangelicals, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime grace. We should thank God from the bottom of our hearts for his mercy. The 2016 election is God's gracious, loving discipline to set his children free from our worldly folly about power and our own importance.

Every election we say the right words about how God is in control and sets up and deposes authorities at his will. We profess that the world will deteriorate in sin and will only be overcome by the return of Christ. We then proceed to think, speak, and act as if exactly the opposite were true. This year is the perfect moment to start walking our talk.

Don't hear me saying that it doesn't matter what choices we make at the polls and that we shouldn't care. Instead hear me saying that this is the perfect chance to downgrade our power in our own eyes and exalt God's in order to recover the proper tension between our responsibility and his sovereignty.

For more than a generation we have been sold a steady diet of falsehoods about power, righteousness, and America, especially by our own leaders (somewhat less so today). This is too big a topic to cover adequately here (and I am not qualified to do so), but a few points can outline it.

We believe that a spiritual awakening of many ordinary people will result in social change. We are right to turn our attention down the social ladder, but we are wrong about the results we expect, because elites have much more sway over long-lasting change than the masses, even in a democracy.

Ironically, we also believe that people with much worldly power produce social change, so we hope some of us will become powerful. But real power, the power of influence and attraction, isn't seized; it is mysteriously bestowed by others—in fact, by the very people that God does not want us to impress, because he wants us to impress him instead.

We believe that social change is something that powerful people engineer. But while they have a lot to do with it, social change more often engineers them, and when they do engineer it, it usually has unexpected and unintended repercussions.

We believe that we born-again Christians can be trusted with power, including the power to elect, because we have been changed. But our renewal is far from complete, and in fact nobody can be trusted with the least power in the least thing. Nevertheless, all of us down to the crying baby have some power, and we do have to sort out who is less untrustworthy with more of it than the rest of us. Yet we are to do so with the assumption that the sinner we empower will disappoint us.

We believe that if the nation were made to conform to our ideal, everything would be great for everyone. But we have great difficulty distinguishing which parts of our ideal come from objective, universal goodness and which parts come from our time- and place-bound cultural, regional, and class assumptions. We hate it when other cultures, regions, and classes impose their ideals on us, and we tend to retaliate in kind by imposing ours on them.

We believe that if the other side succeeds in imposing their ideal on us, we have lost. We will indeed have lost some precious things, because culture is precious. But culture—not to mention wealth and earthly comfort—is much more short-lived than we immortals are. The more pressure they put on us to sacrifice what really is eternal, the more of it we gain just by withstanding the pressure.

We believe that any false move could plunge our country into God's judgment. But we limit the possible false moves to a few hobbyhorse sins and ignore the vast number of ways our nation can and does sin in thought, word, and deed. In fact, we are being propelled further toward judgment all the time, yet that is not all bad. To the extent judgment chastens us, it's good. And if judgment is the opening bars of the Last Judgment, it is our deliverance.

Finally—though this is the least important point—we believe that without a party organ through which to speak, we have no influence on our nation. But white evangelicals' clinging to the Republican Party and black Christians' clinging to the Democratic Party have done nothing but make both groups of believers predictable, irrelevant, and exploited. This election is the perfect opportunity for evangelicals to declare our independence from the electoral process itself. If we demonstrate we don't need it, it will start needing us. We can make ourselves into a swing vote for 2020 and beyond, beholden to no one and not easily satisfied.

The political powers-that-be—including in our own tribe—have an interest in keeping us locked in these myths so that we continue to propel their ambitions. This election is the perfect chance to let go and be free. A "vote for neither" is a statement of our liberation from "this present evil age" as citizens of the age to come.

Friday, August 5, 2016

I'm Sorry: I've Invited You to Church for the Wrong Reasons


Dear people-I-have-wanted-to-come-to-my-church (and especially to those who actually come),[1 (see footnotes below)]

I am sorry. I have misrepresented to you the reasons for you to come to church. My only defense is that I didn't know what I was doing, because I misrepresented the reasons to myself too. I ask forgiveness for not representing the truth accurately, as some of you rely on me to do.

When I have invited you to church—and more often when I have encouraged a straggling, semi-regular attender to appear again—I have done so for your well-being. This is a major error.

It is a subtle error, to be sure. Because in fact, I have a good, God-honoring motive. Wanting another's well-being is of the essence of love, and God wants us to love each other.

It also happens to be true that coming to worship is good for your well-being. I have given you various reasons for this:
  • "In [God's] presence is fullness of joy; in [his] right hand there are pleasures forever" (Ps. 16:11 NASB).
  • It is a refuge and encouragement to faithful Christians who spend all week pressured and marginalized in an ungodly world.
  • Christian couples who frequently attend worship have lower divorce rates than those who don't.[2]
I have sincerely wanted you to reap all these benefits and many more.

My concern for you has become even more acute because of a shift that's happened nationwide during my nearly nine years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg: people who attend church are attending less often.

Even just a generation ago, "regular church attendance" meant about 46 or more weeks a year, and the off weeks were mostly due to sickness. Today, three or four appearances every two months is the baseline of "regular" in people's minds, even among people who think (and self-report) that they attend weekly.[3]

So I've been earnestly desiring your well-being while the frequency of your attendance (indiscriminately lumping you all together) has been dropping. And I remain certain that coming to worship every week is good for you. I've been appealing to you on that basis, not only if you are a non-attender and your welfare is our only common ground but also if you are a member of my church who claims Jesus Christ as Lord.

But I've been wrong. Your well-being is not the principal reason for you to come to church, even if it does help you—especially if you have already received God's forgiveness.

The reason to worship in church is because God wants it, and God deserves to get what he wants.

The principal reason to come to church is not your benefit, but his.


If you come, you will benefit, because God has so arranged the universe that what is best for him is best for everyone who loves him, in the end. He wants this for us more than we will ever know. But we only receive the benefit reliably when it isn't our main motive—when our goal is his benefit instead.

In the Book of Revelation, heaven is depicted as a continuous stream of praise by a gathered throng of all manner of spiritual beings, humans included. One of the words they say most is "worthy": "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power" (Rev. 4:11); "Worthy is the lamb who was killed [i.e., Jesus, the Son of God] to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and praise!" (5:12).

"Worthy" means, "you're worth it; you deserve it." And "you deserve it" means "we owe it to you." We owe the Triune God worship, praise, glory, and honor.

What's so special about God that we owe him worship? He "created all things"—including us—"and because of [his] will they existed and were created," and because Jesus was "killed, and at the cost of [his] own blood [he has] purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation" (5:9).

The reason to come to church is because God is more important than you, he wants you to worship him there, and you owe it to him because you owe him your life.

This may be difficult for you to accept.

For one thing, you may not believe that God cares whether multiple people sing and say congratulatory things to him in the same place at the same time. This is because your mind is shaped by the assumptions of your culture more than by God's perspective and wishes as revealed in the Bible. (Mine are too, by the way—this doesn't come naturally to any of us.)

You may think, "Why is God so vain that he needs people telling him how great he is all the time?" Answer: he doesn't need anything. He simply wants you to treat him the same way you treat everything else you value: you open your mouth and say how great it is, quivering with excitement, whether it's a sunset or a smartphone or a slapshot or a sister you are proud of.

You may think, "Why can't I do that by myself?" You should indeed do that by yourself—on your bed, in the wilderness, in the company of unbelievers, wherever. Good for you for doing it.

But that doesn't erase what the Bible says about doing it together. Go to lumina.bible.org and type "let us" book:Psalms in the search bar. Don't just scan the results; click on the verse references to read in context. Then read Revelation, especially these sections. Do you get the picture of what brings God glory?

It may also be hard for you to accept that you owe God worship in church because my approach has made it harder for you to believe it.


I have fallen into the trap of wanting you in church for your well-being because I've also wanted you in church for my well-being.

I feel a weighty responsibility to ensure the well-being of the institution that I serve. It is entrusted to me to shepherd it well, so I work hard to nurture its life and health and growth. I want you to be in church because I am too often afraid and embarrassed of failing.

Right or wrong, I find a great deal of my life's meaning and value in my work, which I can even more easily justify since it is "kingdom" work (i.e., work toward explicitly godly ends). I too often want you to be in church so that I know that I am worth something.

So, like the stereotypical car salesman, I think about what I need to do or say—or what I can persuade leaders, members, and other attenders to do or say—to get you and your family and your friends into church this Sunday.

I'm doing it for you, and I'm doing it for me. And I'm doing it for God in that I've always believed that God wants us to be there. But I have not been doing it because God deserves our best even though we don't deserve his.

So let's start over, you and I. Let's get on the right track. Let's repent. Let's confess our sin. Let's ask for forgiveness. Then let's "produce fruit that proves [our] repentance" (Luke 3:8).

Our obedience to God when we know what he wants is the measure of our love for God. It's that simple. And whoever's wishes you put ahead of God's is the person you love more than him.

Consider this when you look at your bedside clock on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning. Who are you disappointing—including yourself—if you get up and get dressed?

Consider this when you're making plans for Saturday night or for the whole weekend or for half the weekends of the year. Who are you disappointing if you say "no, I'm staying home"?

Consider this when you're registering your kids for activities. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "not that day" or "no more than once a month"?

Consider this when you're applying for a job. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "don't schedule me for then"?[4]

Whoever you don't want to disappoint is the person you love—or more likely, fear—more than God. Are they worth it?[5]


In my own repentance, I'm trying to make amends by telling you what I should have told you all along. But I was afraid of disappointing you. I was afraid that you would think I was a mean, judgmental Pharisee, and then you'd never come to my church. I loved, or rather feared, you more than God. And by loving you, I hurt you.

There's a song we like to sing whose chorus says, "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and . . . it's all about you, Jesus. I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it. . . ." The song is about confusing slick music with worship, so I often think it doesn't apply to me. But my misaligned motives bring me under its judgment.

Let's indeed come back to the heart of worship. It really is all about him.
Come, let us return to the LORD.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us;
He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
He will revive us after two days;
He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth. [Hos. 6:1-3 NASB]

[1] As this is an open letter to a broad set of recipients, I trust my readers have the discernment to recognize that not every single remark in it applies to every single reader.

[2] Whether one factor causes the other or whether another factor causes both is an open question.

[3] To my knowledge, evidence of this trend so far is anecdotal and hasn't been formally studied and precisely quantified, but the testimony is widespread enough that there seems to be something happening here. And it correlates with American Christians' beliefs about whether church attendance is "essential."

[4] I know that some people work on Sunday out of desperation to provide for their needs. I know that some people work a periodic Sunday rotation because they serve people who need care 24/7. Those are different matters entirely. I'm talking about choosing a regular Sunday job because you want to live on more rather than on less or because you like it or because you want to climb the ladder or because you want your boss's favor.

[5] If your question is, "What about the person who is too sick to come?" or "What about the person who is too disabled to leave their home?" or "What about the person who is the sole caregiver of a severely sick or disabled person?" I have two questions in reply. First, are you that person? Second, do you sincerely believe that I am referring to that sort of person in what I am saying?